Urban rail

Urban rail is passenger transportation on rail within urban areas, including rapid transit as well as light rail, funiculars, monorail and other modes of transport. They differ from railways, which typically carry freight and passenger traffic across long distances. However, depending on the country, commuter rail, S-Bahn or RER can be virtual identical to normal trains while mostly fulfilling a urban rail role. Ticketing can be integrated with railways (e.g. in Germany) or separate (e.g. in the US).


Most urban rail systems are part of a government-subsidized public transport network and many carry large numbers of passengers, especially in larger cities; the Tokyo system averages over 8 million a day and Shanghai almost 7 million. These systems therefore almost always cost less than taxicabs and are often both faster than driving and cheaper than paying for parking. However, there are fairly often problems with overcrowding, especially at rush hours.

With oil prices generally on the rise, despite very recent trends to the contrary, and political concern for environmental protection and CO2 emissions becoming more and more important, almost all countries and cities that have rapid transit systems are in the process of upgrading, modernizing and expanding their networks sometimes very rapidly. Unfortunately, this can also mean construction sites that slow down traffic, and information about a public transit system can be outdated despite being only a few years or even months old.

The urban rail system is usually extended by buses, in some cases within the same ticket system. On the other hand most urban rail systems of more than token size serve the city's mainline train station(s) (often having a hub at one or several of them) and integrated tickets are becoming increasingly common. Sometimes a train ticket already includes one ride on the urban rail system of your departure and/or origin city to enable "door to door" travel.

Types of urban transit

There are many different kinds of urban transit:

Double-decker tram in Hong Kong
Wuppertal Suspension Railway

Each of these methods is used in some cities, and it is fairly common for a single city to combine several. For example, Shanghai's system mainly uses underground rail lines downtown and elevated lines in the suburbs, and it also includes an extensive bus network, a fast magnetic levitation rail line to Pudong Airport and a tram system in one suburban neighborhood.

Nearly all such systems offer convenient connections to other transport. For local travel, most metro stations have bus or tram stops nearby, some have a major terminus for buses or trams, and many have a taxi stand. For long distance travel, nearly all rapid transit systems offer convenient connections to railway stations and airports. In London, for example, all the railway terminals and Heathrow Airport are on the underground, and the other airports can be reached by trains which depart from underground stations.

Get in

There are various methods needed to get into urban rail systems in different cities. In many cases, some form of plastic card or paper ticket must be tapped, swiped, or inserted into a machine for riders to be able to physically — or at least legally — enter the platform. In other cases, it can be perfectly legal to access the platform without having first purchased a ticket, but riding the train without buying a ticket from a ticket machine on the platform and validating it by inserting it into another machine that stamps or perforates it could incur a heavy fine.

Get out

There are also different ways to leave the system. Some systems require riders to tap or insert a card or ticket into a machine before leaving the system, too, while others put no impediment whatsoever in the path of departing commuters or simply require them to walk through a door or turnstile.

What riders may carry

Sign on Singapore metro outlawing the very smelly durian fruit

There are all sorts of different regulations as to what you may or may not carry into a train and whether it does or does not incur an additional charge. Many subway systems allow riders to carry bicycles with them onto the train, at least outside of rush hours, but it is not always free for your bicycle to ride with you. In Berlin, for example, bicycles are welcome anytime but require a separate bicycle ticket, on penalty of a large fine.

Singapore's MRT is one of several South-East Asian transit systems that includes a sign showing a durian with a line through it, the quasi-international sign for "No durians allowed!" The fruit is quite tasty and is popular throughout the region, but it smells awful.

Public transport systems often have harsher rules of order than other public areas, usually banning alcoholic beverages, but this varies between different systems. Travelling with pets may be restricted: For example, some systems such as New York's require all pets to be brought in carriers, rather than merely leashed or hand-held, though small dogs that can fit in a handbag are OK as long as they stay there. In German cities such as Berlin, however, a single ticket is specifically noted to be good for one person and one dog (extra reduced-fare tickets are needed for additional dogs), and dogs need only be leashed. Regulations for service animals are quite often more liberal than regulations for pets, and form part of the national and/or local policy on the rights of disabled people.


See Urban rail adventures for urban rail systems beyond the usual.

The oldest large systems in the world (the London Underground, New York City Subway, Paris Metro, Berlin U-Bahn, Moscow Metro...) have many historical stations that are masterpieces of architecture and design in their own right. For example, Paris' famous Art Nouveau station entrances, London's Art Deco ticket halls and Moscow's cathedral-like platforms are seen as integral parts of their respective cities' heritage.

Some rapid transit systems, such as Moscow, Stockholm, and New York City have public art on permanent display, making them interesting destinations in their own right.

Some systems also display short poems or excerpts from longer poems and descriptive prose in train carriages, which was started by the London Tube as "Poems on the Underground", continued by the MTA as "Poetry in Motion" on New York's Subway and adopted by other mass transit systems around the world.

Riding on systems with elevated lines can be a cheap and cheerful way of seeing the sights of a city from a good vantage point instead of forking out for a costly open-top bus or river tour. Notable examples include much of Chicago's L system, lines 2 and 6 of the Paris Metro and the Docklands Light Railway in east London.



Musicians on the platform of the F subway train at Delancey Street station, New York

Some rapid transit systems are well known for buskers or more formally organized performances. Among the systems where you can hear some high-quality performances by buskers in corridors are the London Tube and the Paris Metro. New York City is one of the places where there is a formal system for selecting approved performers. Every year, there are auditions at Grand Central Terminal for Music Under New York, which gives artists a chance to perform on a regular schedule without hassles by the police, while they display the official logo of the program. The London Underground also has designated sites in prominent areas where licensed buskers can perform.

Stay safe

Pickpocketing is common in urban rail systems. Follow the usual principles: Try to avoid displaying yourself as an out-of-town traveller, don't carry more baggage than you can keep track of, keep valuables near your body, and never put anything you don't want to lose in your back pants pockets or jacket pockets, only your front pants pockets or a money belt.

Another hazard of some rapid transit systems, especially during rush hour when trains are crowded, is molestation. It's to be expected that in very crowded systems during rush hour, people will be mashed against each other, but that is no excuse for someone to deliberately touch a stranger's private parts. Some rapid-transit systems, such as in Tokyo and Dubai, have women-only areas. Others, like New York's, post and play announcements against molestation and advise victims not to remain silent. If you are being molested in a crowded metro car, speak up, and the rest of the passengers will generally support you.

An obvious danger is falling onto the tracks. These are often electrified, so touching them can be fatal. Additionally, being struck by a train is also likely considering the high frequency of services. If you accidentally drop anything onto the tracks, inform the station staff and make no attempt to retrieve the item yourself, no matter how valuable it is.

Many rapid transport systems have installed automatic doors between the platform and the tracks, such as in Seoul, Tokyo, Hong Kong and Singapore. This is done for general safety and also to prevent suicides. However, do not be surprised if some stations on a network lack such doors.

Generally speaking, if you get stuck in a train door owing to a crowded compartment, the train will not move and will open the door again. However, there have been cases, such as in Shanghai, when people have died after the train started to move whilst they were caught in the door.

Cities with rapid transit




Algiers Metro, Grand Poste station



Also, Alexandria has a tram system that opened in 1860.



South Africa

Cape Town





Beijing, Chengdu, Chongqing, Dalian, Foshan, Guangzhou, Harbin, Hangzhou, Kunming, Nanjing, Ningbo, Shanghai, Shenyang, Shenzhen, Suzhou, Tianjin, Wuhan, Xian, Zhengzhou

Xiamen has a system called BRT (Bus Rapid Transit) using buses on elevated bus-only roads.

China has made impressive strides in its transportation infrastructure. That is just as true in regard to rapid transit systems as any other sector. The Metro systems in Changsha, Chengdu, Foshan, Harbin, Hangzhou, Kunming, Ningbo, Shenyang, Suzhou, Xian, and Zhengzhou — over half the cities currently served — all opened since 2010, with more to come.

Hong Kong

Hong Kong


Bangalore, Chennai, Delhi, Gurgaon, Kolkata, Mumbai

India's rapid transit systems are all rather new. Kolkata's opened in 1984, but the rest have all opened since 2002, including the Metro in the new metropolis of Gurgaon, which opened in 2013, and Mumbai's system, which is new as of 2014.


Mashhad, Tehran


Haifa, Jerusalem

Jerusalem's system opened in 2011. Haifa's single-line Carmelit is considerably older, having originally opened in 1956. Sadly, the Jerusalem Light Rail system, which Jerusalem's government meant to symbolize the unity of the city, has been a focus of terrorism and violence between the city's Arab and Jewish communities recently, with several deadly incidents taking place at or near the stations.


Fukuoka, Hiroshima, Kagoshima, Kobe, Kyoto, Nagoya, Osaka, Sapporo, Sendai, Tokyo/Yokohama


Almaty - Almaty's rapid transit system opened in 2012.


Kuala Lumpur

North Korea

Pyongyang Metro Station




Saudi Arabia

Mecca - Mecca has the only mass transit system designed for the exclusive use of pilgrims (see Hajj).



South Korea

Subway station in Seoul

Busan, Daegu, Daejeon, Gwangju, Incheon, Seoul

The Seoul Metropolitan Railway system had the highest daily ridership in the world in 2012. If all the local train and metro lines are included, the total track length is almost 1,000 km, which would make it the largest system in the world.


Kaohsiung, Taipei



United Arab Emirates





Unique tile art in the U7 platform of the Jungfernheide U-Bahn station in Berlin






Vienna - in addition to one of the longest Straßenbahn (tram) systems in the world, the city also boasts an extensive U-Bahn (subway)







Czech Republic





Helsinki - Helsinki boasts the world's northernmost underground urban rail system and metro station.


Paris, Lille, Lyon, Marseille, Rennes, Toulouse

A train traverses the impressive Bercy Viaduct of the Paris Métro, Line 6




Berlin, Bremen, Dresden, Düsseldorf, Frankfurt, Hamburg (biggest German city without a Straßenbahn), Hannover, Heidelberg, Karlsruhe, Leipzig, Halle, Ludwigshafen, Mainz, Mannheim, Munich, Nuremberg (the only subway with driverless and driver operated trains on the same routes), Rostock, Stuttgart, Wiesbaden, Wuppertal

German cities have many types of urban rail, comprising full trains (S-Bahn), underground (U-Bahn) and trams. Rapid transit coverage is impressive, and in general, very efficient.

An relatively unique German concept is the Stadtbahn, often abbreviated "U" to suggest it being a U-Bahn (subway). In essence a Stadtbahn is a former Straßenbahn (tram) of which some routes have been relocated underground or onto elevated tracks. While the original concept (and the confusing "U" abbreviation) indicate an eventual conversion to full on subway, most systems have even given up the pretense of ever becoming subways.

The procedure at all types of railway systems in Germany is to purchase a ticket and then validate it before boarding. Metro systems typically have ticket machines on platforms. In Berlin's S-Bahn and U-Bahn systems, each ticket is good for one person and one dog; additional dogs require more tickets. Bicycles can be brought on board but require an additional, cheaper bicycle ticket.




Budapest — The Budapest underground, opened in 1896, was the first electric underground in the world.




Rome, Brescia, Genoa, Milan, Naples, Turin

Tracks of the Funicolare (funicular train) in Bergamo, Italy

In addition to Metro systems, Italy also has funicular railways, most famously in Naples but also in some smaller cities like Bergamo in the north.


Amsterdam, Rotterdam






A colourful scene in tiles in the Lisbon Metro

Lisbon, Porto




Moscow, Kazan, Nizhny Novgorod, Novosibirsk, Saint Petersburg, Samara, Yekaterinburg.

The Moscow Metro, opened in 1935, and the Saint Petersburg Metro, opened in 1955, are famous for the beauty and artistry of their stations. Due to the facts that the city sits on swampland and that the metro stations were explicitly designed as bomb shelters in time of war, the stations in the St. Petersburg system are often extremely deep with long escalators.


Madrid, Barcelona, Bilbao, Seville, Valencia






Adana, Ankara, Bursa, Istanbul, Izmir


Dnipropetrovsk, Kharkiv, Kiev

United Kingdom

Holborn station in London

London, Edinburgh, Glasgow, Liverpool, Manchester, Newcastle upon Tyne, Nottingham, Sheffield

London's venerable and still well-functioning mass transit system is officially known as the London Underground, but everyone calls it the Tube. There are numerous lines, but the maps are clear. Make sure to tap your card at the card reader machines on the way in and out of the system, in order to validate it.

North America


Montreal, Toronto, Vancouver

Ottawa has some light rail (the O Train) but most rapid transit uses buses on bus-only roads (the Transitway).

Dominican Republic

Santo Domingo - The Santo Domingo Metro opened in 2009.


Mural in Metro Insurgentes, Mexico City, depicting various Mexican muralists

Guadalajara, Mexico City, Monterrey


Panama City - The Panama City Metro opened in 2014.

Puerto Rico

San Juan

United States

Atlanta, Baltimore, Boston, Chicago, Cleveland, Denver, Los Angeles, New York City, Philadelphia, San Francisco, Washington, D.C., Seattle

Different names are used for the mass transit systems in different U.S. cities. For example, in New York, Philadelphia, and Los Angeles, they are called the subway; in Boston, the T; the system in Chicago, where a larger percentage of the tracks is elevated than in New York, is called the El (for Elevated). Washington, D.C. calls its system the Metro. San Francisco has the BART (Bay Area Rapid Transit, which is primarily a commuter rail, with only one trunk traversed by several lines within the city) and also MUNI.

New York's subway system is the only one in the world that functions 24 hours of every day, except when disasters force a shutdown, which is very rare. Unlike many other subway systems, while New York's system requires riders to swipe a plastic card — called a MetroCard — through a turnstile to enter, no action needs to be taken to leave the system other than walking through a turnstile or other form of egress.

Cable cars remain part of San Francisco's urban rail infrastructure, but are mostly used by tourists, nowadays. Taking their place as a practical form of trolley for residents is the MUNI system, which runs partly above ground in the middle of many streets and partly below ground

South America


Buenos Aires - Opened in 1913, the oldest metro system in Latin America, Southern Hemisphere and the Hispanosphere still operated wooden wagons on some lines until recently.


Belo Horizonte, Brasilia, Fortaleza, Porto Alegre, Recife, Rio de Janeiro, Salvador, São Paulo, Teresina

Salvador's system opened just in time for the 2014 World Cup.


Concepcion, Santiago, Valparaiso


Metro station in Medellin, Colombia





Caracas, Los Teques, Maracaibo, Valencia



Melbourne, Sydney, Perth, Brisbane, Adelaide

Melbourne has an effective and comprehensive inner city tram system. Sydney and Adelaide both have a basic tram system, although plans are to extend through the inner city. Melbourne, Sydney, Perth and Brisbane have rail services to the outer suburbs. In Sydney there is a small central underground system, in practice a continuation of suburban local trains past the Central station. As they are operated by the same large double-decker cars while the stations are not larger than regular "underground" stations, it can be a slightly surreal feeling to see the train arrive.

Articles on rapid transit systems

Museums covering urban rail

Hanover Tramway Museum, partial view.
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