Urban rail adventures
- See Urban rail for general information about urban rail transport.
Many cities around the world have well developed, efficient and effective public transport systems. However in achieving that aim they also tend to be be rather boring, with clean platforms, modern trains and with little to interest on your journey going from A to B.
The list of systems below have been selected because they are an experience in themselves, regardless of where they take you. Entering the stations you may be treated to unusual architecture or sumptuous artwork. Perhaps the journey is in itself a way to experience the sight and sounds of the city as a resident does.
Living metro systems
The systems below are part of the living fabric of their cities, taking commuters from A to B, but also providing a fascinating insight into how life is lived.
San Francisco Cable Cars
The Wuppertal Schwebebahn (or "floating tram") in Germany is rather striking in its uniqueness. The cars hang under an elevated rail that take you around the town. Designed in the 19th century and intended for large metropoles such as Berlin, the concept never extended beyond this first example. Nevertheless it has been running (with some pauses) since its opening in 1901, and a fantastic way to get a birds eye view of city life running below you.
Not really a "system" as such but rather two lines built to connect the "higher ups" (literally and figuratively) on two hills to the way to the city center of Dresden, the Dresdner Bergbahnen (one Funicular aged 120 and one Wuppertal style suspension railway aged slightly over 110) still serve residents and visitors alike as if it were day one. Both the technology itself and the view from the hill are well worth the money you spend on the fare. Due to the age of the system it usually shuts down for a few days twice a year; check out the (German language) website for details. The upper station of the suspension railway includes a small museum (free admission) on the history of this style of transport and the close relationship between the Wuppertal and the Dresden lines.
Known as 'the world's longest art gallery', the Stockholm metro system has made over 90 of its 100 stations into veritable art galleries containing sculptures, mosaics, paintings and engravings by various artists.
Opening in 1863, the Alexandria tram network is Africa's oldest and one of the oldest in the world. The network is extensive and used by locals to get around. You can views all parts of the city very well (some trams are double decker) as well as all along the city's Mediterranean coast.
One of the world's largest networks in Moscow also has some spectacular showcases of Soviet art in a select number of stations which will give you a first hand taste of the 20th century history of Russia. Many of the stations built in the 60's and 70's were cheaply made and are not of particular interest, however a tour of a select few is a must. Ploshchad Revolutsii station has 76 bronze sculptures of socialist workers, all in the Socialist Realist theme of '‘art is no use unless it serves politics’. Mayakovskaya station is built in the art-deco style, and has many mosaics painted in its ceiling. The impressive artwork of Komsomolskaya station – a baroque ‘palace of the people’ is considered the prime example of Stalinist design. The murals of Kiyevskaya station celebrate Russian - Ukrainian unity. It is not all Soviet era, with Rimskaya station having been built after the collapse of the Soviet Union and grandly decorated with Italian art, and the recent Park Pobedy station being in the style of 'neo-stalinism' art.
To add some mystery to the system, Moscow is rumoured to have a second metro system which is deeper and more extensive than the main Metro system, which is exclusively for the use of top Kremlin officials to escape in the event of a war. Known as Metro-2, it is believed that Stalin built the system so that he could escape in the event that the US nuclear strike he feared would occur. While no official sources have confirmed its existence, it is believed that there are secret entrances to this network in some of the regular Metro stations.
India's only tramline is also one of the worlds oldest. The Kolkata tram has been serving the city since 1873, and you will not be too distant from that time considering many of the cars running today are from 1939.
Hong Kong Island tram
Affectionately known as 'ding dings', the best way to get a view of life on Hong Kong island is to take a tram from central and head East. It will take you past the ultra modern shopping malls of Central and Admiralty, through the youth shopping district of Causeway Bay and finally through the markets and older housing in the east.
It costs HKD $2.3 for a ride on one of these old vehicles, that do not have air conditioning but rather windows and fans.
Note that this is the cheapest way around Hong Kong Island, and as such they are literally packed with domestic helpers from the Philippines and Indonesia during their day off on Sundays. During this day it is impossible to sit down, stand up straight and almost impossible to get off!
On a hot night it can be very pleasant to ride a tram with the window open watching life roll by.
North Korea's only metro system in the capital Pyongyang is at 110 meters one of the world's deepest.
Similar to related Soviet systems, it has a dual utility as a bomb shelter, with thick steel blast doors at every entrance. Gaping hallways with massive chandeliers will greet you, as well as a multitude of socialist realist arts depicted in murals such as "The Great Leader Kim Il Sung Among Workers".
Adding to the mystery of the system are secret lines available only to the upper echelons of the government. As the ride on the Pyongyang metro most visitors to this "hermit republic" get used to be only between the same two stations, there even was a bizarre rumor that the whole system does not really exist, however more recently other parts of the metro have been shown to tourists, demonstrating that they are, in fact, real.
The Melbourne tram system is the world's largest, but of real interest is its integration into the fabric of this slightly offbeat city. Tram lines run everywhere, and a whole day spent viewing the city through the comfort of the tram is possible. See the Trams in Melbourne article for more detail.
Historic metro systems
The metro systems below are run primarily for tourists and only have a limited length of track. They still provide a great way to view parts of the city, even if the rest of the population has little use for them.
Rio de Janeiro Trams
The Rio de Janeiro Santa Teresa Tram opened in 1877 and was once integral for moving people around the city, although in its current form it only has 6km of track left. It is currently suspended but will open again in 2015 in anticipation of the Olympic Games.
The Hiroshima Electric Railway has recently reopened as part of the city's showcase of the atomic bomb attack at the end of World War II.