Journey to hell and back

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The Independent Online
hink that Londoners are alone in grumbling about their tube system? Wrong. They might call it the subway in New York, but residents of the Apple are just as likely to find fault with their underground trains. They are dirty, overcrowded, too infrequent, disrupted by renovation works. Good heavens, one morning last month commuters were even expected to share space with a dead man.

On 14 June a 36-year-old immigrant from Ecuador took an early-morning ride on the No 1 line on Manhattan's West Side and promptly died of a heart attack. It took five hours for anyone to notice that the body slumped in the corner seat was not sleeping but had expired.

When New Yorkers have something to say about the system - the first segments of which opened in 1904, four decades after the inauguration of the first stretches of the London Underground - they find voice in the highly organised Straphangers Campaign. Nothing changes on the subway without the powerful Straphangers getting its cent's-worth heard first.

No one could describe the New York system as sleek. Descend into stations such as Union Square and the experience is akin to a visit to Hades: searing temperatures, maze-like passages and a relentless clatter and roar. But mostly the subway works. All the time. Like the city, it operates 24 hours. And, relative to other big cities, it is cheap.

For $1.50 you can ride from one edge of New York to the other and then get a free transfer to the buses. And the more you pre-pay into the plastic Metrocards, the greater the discount on each ride. Thus the single $1.50 can actually be close to $1.00

And there are other US cities where the system can be described as sleek. Washingtonians have long enjoyed underground trains that whisper their way around the city, loading and unloading passengers into modern stations with vaulted concrete ceilings. Even Los Angeles is catching up. Two weeks ago a 4.6-mile extension of its Red Line opened, from downtown to Hollywood. Stations are peppered with art, one even decorated with discarded film- spool cases. True, the line has not come without controversy. Construction was delayed 25 years and the bill to the taxpayer will be $5bn.