Brian's Blogs

BJ’s Metro Improves in Leaps and Bounds

The expansion of Beijing’s subway system continues apace, with the opening at the end of December of yet another four sections of line – and already the benefits can be felt.

This is what we had up until a fortnight ago…

… and this is what the subway now looks like…

The best part is the opening of Line 6, which connects the east and west of the capital parallel to Line 1 and is finally giving some relief to that old and very overcrowded line. There’s also a massive extension to Line 10, which will form the capital's second loop line once it is finished; an extension to Line 8, which connects the city centre and the northern suburbs via the Olympic Park; and an extension to Line 9, finally joining it to the rest of the network.

For all its faults (and they are many!), the one thing you can say about BJ’s subway system is that it is extremely convenient and very cheap. RMB2 to anywhere in the city (except the airport) – that’s about 20p – and you rarely have to wait for more than 4 minutes for a train. Only trouble is you will rarely if ever get a seat as the carriages are at all times of the day and night (well, they close around 2230-2300, so not actually too late at night!) full to bursting.

The Beijing Subway now boasts a network of 15 lines, covering 11 districts, with 221 stations and 442 km of track and it’s now the busiest on the Chinese mainland in terms of passenger volumes, and the largest in terms of operational length. And now with these new extensions, it has become the largest in the world too. Until recently, it had to settle for 4th place, after London, Seoul and Shanghai.

By 2015, the number of Beijing subway lines will increase to 19, with a total length of track set to reach 561 km. By the end of 2020 you can expect to see 1,050 km with 30 lines and some 450 stations (think about it – that averages two new lines every year for the next seven years!). The city has invested RMB 260 billion ($42 billion) in building its subway system, and has earmarked a further RMB 100 billion ($16 billion). Where will it all end?

Line 8, which was hurriedly opened to take people to the 2008 Olympics, has now been extended, though there are still more stations to be finished. Eventually it will connect the northern suburbs as far south as the National Art Museum, though right now it takes people almost to the Drum and Bell Towers.

It used to be regarded as just a sub branch of Line 10, and even had Line 10 maps inside the trains with a little spur marked to represent Line 8.

But not any more. The new Line 8 now has its own green livery and is no longer the runt of Line 10.

Line 9, on the other hand, already had its own (light green) livery, but for many months it was totally disconnected to the rest of the subway network. As recently as a month ago I had to take Line 1 to the Military Museum, and then get out and walk for ten minutes to reach the nearest Line 9 station – Beijing West Railway Station.

But for a few weeks, work within the National Library station – the end of the line - has been continuing behind a set of railings, piquing everyone’s interest…

The only trouble is that at the moment the interchange at Military Museum hasn’t been finished in time. This is likely to be extremely heavily used – when it finally opens!

Line 6 is definitely the new pride and joy of the entire network. Only phase one is open so far – all 30.4 km of it with its 20 underground stations; while the second phase will cover another 12.4 km, with seven stations. Eventually it will be 52 km long and boast 32 stations, with the entire route becoming operational by the end of 2015. Trains can accommodate 1,960 passengers on a single trip, more than can be carried on a single trip on any of the capital's other subway lines.

It is also the fastest line on the system, with trains running at a maximum speed of 100 kph, compared to the current highest speed of 80 kph. Right now it takes 48 minutes to travel the whole line. One of the reasons for the speed is that stations are far apart, with the longest distance between two consecutive stations being four kms.

One of the innovative ideas that Line 6 has introduced is that, along with the little map icon which shows which side of the carriage the doors at the next station will open on…

…they have gone one stage further and now there is a blue strip light that can be seen by everyone. So what, I hear you asking. Well, if you have ever been in a BJ subway train in the rush hour (ie between the hours of 6am and 10pm!) and tried getting out when you are actually on the wrong side of the carriage, the chances are you will take until the next station down the line to actually make it to the correct doors. OK, so there are announcements to that effect before every station, but how often do you miss the announcement that is specific for you? I think it’s a great idea.

Of course, right now it’s still so new that you can even get a seat on Line 6, though I doubt this will be so for much longer. Already the overcrowding on Line 1 has been alleviated and as more people migrate to the newer line, it will soon once again be standing room only!

One thing on Line 6 that is bound to get foreign visitors to the capital reaching for their cameras is a sign stuck onto every platform door advising people to keep away "when the gate skids". Don’t you just love Chinglish!

Anyway, the “dog’s breakfast” of the past month’s new expansion must surely include the whole of the greatly extended Line 10. It has doubled in length and now nearly encloses the city in a second subway loop (there are still a handful of stations to open).

The problem is that there is only so much space within the confines of a map in which to write the names of the stations. It’s OK being able to fill a portrait-style map with the names…

… but try doing the same with a landscape orientation and you soon start getting into deep trouble. Here the subway planners have done the travelling public no favours when it comes to designing their maps, which are different depending on whether you are travelling clockwise or anti-clockwise.

With so many stations, it is bad enough having to locate your home station and chosen destination on the map, without then having to find them again in a different place on your return journey … not that either of these two maps bear any relation whatsoever to the third set of maps inside the trains which are practically impossible to read unless one is immediately underneath them. Didn’t the map designers think of talking to one another at all? I’d award 2/10 for effort – and even that is being generous!

And as if to rub salt in the wound, some bright spark in the drawing office never thought to get someone to check on his handiwork – with the result that at Sanyuanqiao station you were told that this was an interchange for the “Airpot Express”.

I say “was”, as a few days later a sticker saying "Airport Express" had then to be stuck over the offending mistake. Think about it - with some 45 stations, each with two platforms, each with some 20 maps all having to be corrected, such carelessness must have cost time, money and effort.

Not that everything is rotten on Line 10, you understand (it is my “local” line so I do have a soft spot for it!). For instance, four machines have been installed in two subway stations on the line to collect discarded bottles and the idea is that they will pay out credit towards travel passes that everyone uses here.

The ATM-like collectors, which have been placed at Jinsong and Shaoyaoju stations, will allow commuters to exchange plastic containers for between 0.1 yuan and 0.05 yuan based on the size of the bottle. The bottles themselves will be crunched to a third of their original size and stored in the machine before being transferred to local factories for further recycling. Under current subway costs, travellers will be able to enjoy a free ride for every 20 bottles they donate.

Now, the aforementioned Line 6 crosses line 5 at Dongsi station; and there the station extension has had a number of murals tastefully added.

Dongsi is the deepest station on the system – a full 34 metres underground. The reason I’m telling you this? Once again, the station wasn’t quite finished in time for the official opening, which means that for the past few weeks, passengers making the interchange have had to walk up, or down, 120 steps to get to the other line. Time, methinks, for another sweet little Chinglish notice to passengers:

But then, I guess, one of the charms of living in China is the touching faith that the Chinese have in using the likes of Google Translate when they create new signs, and the wonderful examples of Chinglish that are created as a result.

This blog would not be complete without mentioning yet another travel story that has been hitting the papers and the blogosphere over the past week. A Beijing Subway representative has warned that peeing in a station could lead to a death sentence. Well, that was one of the headlines I saw; though it was rather stretching the story somewhat.

A one-minute video of a man in his 40s, urinating on Line 1 has gone viral. (If you have finished your dinner and have a strong stomach, you could watch it on or on YouTube. )

No one approached him during the whole process and the man left after he finished. A subway representative told the press "We are not empowered to punish the man or fine him because we are not law enforcement officers," adding that although there are signs in the station banning urinating and defecation other than in the public toilets, "we never thought someone would actually do it.”

Obviously this representative never surfs the blogosphere since this public urination video was not the first to go viral this past year. The previous month, a video showed a young man urinating out of a public bus window in Xiamen, while in August, another video showed a man on a bus in Chongqing urinating twice before he got off. Neither the passengers nor the bus driver tried to stop him, according to Chongqing’s Economic Times.

And there was I a few months back blogging about how disgusting Beijingers are when they spit in the street all the time, as one is forced to meander one’s way over the pavements, trying to avoid the gobs. Yuk. Is China the only place where one would see things like this as a matter of course, I wonder?

The subway representative went on to warn that "It's dangerous to urinate to the tracks. One can get an electric shock and die, because 700 volts run through each of the three subway rails."

So maybe, to end with, I could make a suggestion? Perhaps the subway companies should put up notices saying if you have to pee, we would suggest aiming at the middle rail on the track. That might at least make a start, eliminating some of the low life who end up giving China such a bad name!

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