Back in August my colleague in New York, Dennis Green, visited London and found using the Tube — much to the dismay of many Londoners — a generally positive experience, especially compared to the subway back in New York.
Broadly speaking, I agreed with Dennis. For one, the New York Subway is in a dire state.
I visited the Big Apple in November and experienced delays, trains randomly stopping, and solid human waste on platforms (not a joke!).
I also agreed that the London Underground is a pretty awesome piece of infrastructure, especially considering its age.
But my perspective on the Underground changed after I visited Hong Kong. A four day holiday to the city-state has completely changed what I think a good mass transit system looks like.
Hong Kong’s subway system, the Mass Transit Railway (MTR), is without a doubt the smoothest, easiest, and pleasantest public transport experience I have ever used. It makes the London Underground look like a creaking, dirty, inefficient mess of a transit system.
I used the MTR frequently during my time in Hong Kong, both for short journeys in and around town and for longer trips out of the city. Here's what distinguished it from the Tube.
The first thing you notice? Just how clean everything is.
Sure, the Tube isn’t exactly a cesspit of filth, but it’s hardly gleaming either. Take an underground train during the day and you’ll likely be confronted with numerous discarded copies of the Metro and City AM. By night, you'll encounter empty chip packets and spilled cans of cheap lager.
By contrast, the MTR was absolutely spotless every time I used it. I rode the train early in the morning, during the day, at rush hour, and even after midnight on New Year’s Eve. Not once did I see any litter or dirt of any sort.
No need to worry about invisible germs on everything either.
The MTR even applies a special anti-bacterial coating to handrails and escalators to cut down on spreading germs. Hong Kong in general is super conscious of germs after a deadly outbreak of the respiratory disease SARS killed almost 200 people in the early 2000s.
Another plus for MTR: It's super cheap.
When it comes to prices, Hong Kong is a city of contrasts. You can easily grab a delicious, authentic dinner for the equivalent of about £5 in a local restaurant, then move to an expat bar and spend £10 on a single beer.
One thing that is very cheap, however, is the MTR. A single ticket between two stops in the centre of the city generally costs roughly HK$13, which is equivalent to about £1.30. By contrast, a single fare in Zone 1 on the Underground bought on the day is £4.90, while an Oyster fare is £2.40.
Hong Kong’s Octopus card, the equivalent of an Oyster card, is even cheaper, running at about HK$9 (£0.90). For such a clean, efficient service, that is incredibly good value.
When Dennis Green visited London, he was full of praise for the safety doors installed on the Jubilee line, which prevent people from falling or being pushed onto the tracks. The doors only feature on the Jubilee line, which was inaugurated in 1970s.
In Hong Kong, however, almost every one of the MTR’s 11 lines have safety doors on the platforms. The screen doors line up exactly where the doors of the train are and open simultaneously, not only increasing safety, but also eliminating the need ever to try and figure out where to get on the train.
Safety is a massive concern on the MTR, with signs absolutely everywhere warning commuters to be careful and courteous at all times. Sure, the Tube has its cutesy 'Thought for the Day' boards, but signage is often in short supply, and can be very confusing.
No more pushing and shoving to get onto the train.
The MTR is also fiendishly efficient when it comes to boarding and alighting. Instead of the mad free for all that ensues at busy stations on the Tube, there is a very clear system in place, with handy arrows on the platform to help out.
When it is busy, passengers leaving the train are encouraged to do so in the very middle of the doors, while passengers getting on are supposed to board simultaneously on either side, speeding up the entire process.
If TfL tried to institute a system like this in London, it’s almost certain that it would be utter chaos. Remember the experiment at Holborn station where commuters were encouraged to stand on both the left and right hand sides of escalators? It failed almost immediately.
The light up maps — simple, but genius.
One of my favourite features of the Hong Kong MTR is one of the most simple. Every train features an electronic map, helping passengers work out where they need to go, and how to get there.
Here the red lights symbolise the stations that the train you’re on is going to stop at, avoiding any confusion about which direction you’re travelling (who among us hasn’t accidentally got on a tube going the wrong way?)
When stopped at a station, the orange lights tell you where you can get to from that station.
Instead of having to frantically check the map to see which stop you need to change at, you can simply hop on the Bakerloo line going north, glance at the electronic map when you get to Piccadilly Circus and see that by changing to the Piccadilly Line, you can easily reach your final stop.
Basically, the lights make it impossible to get lost!
Navigation is a breeze.
Signage on the MTR in general is fantastic. Never once did I find myself going the wrong way, or getting lost, something that is helped by the MTR's modern, spacious stations.
It is admittedly more than 100 years newer than the Tube, but there are no warrens of tunnels, seemingly random spiral staircases, or secret exits like on the Underground, making navigation a breeze.
MTR is super disabled friendly.
I'm lucky enough to be able bodied and never have any issues getting into and out of London Underground stations, or on and off trains, but I'm aware of how much of a nightmare the tube can be for people with disabilities.
Only a handful of stations in London have so-called Step-Free Access — making navigating the network very difficult for people in wheelchairs and with other mobility issues. By contrast, every single station I visited on the MTR had a lift at platform level, and according to the MTR's website, more than 90 per cent of its stations are accessible from street to platform level without needing to use stairs.
All stations have at least one barrier free access point, removing another hurdle for those with disabilities.
Keeping a stable footing is a breeze.
A common problem with the London Underground is not having anything to hold onto on a busy train.
That is not an issue with the MTR, with handholds all over the place. This may seem like a small thing, but on a packed train, being able to keep a stable footing is vital. Not only do MTR trains have bars running their entire length, there are also numerous handles dotted around the place.
A friendly, clean, well-designed and punctual system.
I won't pretend that I know everything there is to know about the MTR, but I feel like in four days riding it, making at least two journeys a day, I got a pretty good understanding for what it’s all about.
What I found was a friendly, clean, well-designed, and punctual system of moving large numbers of people rapidly around their city with minimal fuss. I think it should be used as a benchmark for mass transit around the world.
The London Underground, while great, is over 100 years old, and sadly, you can tell. It is too complicated, often dirty, and in many ways, isn't really fit for the 21st century. Hopefully, new investment in the system, and the opening of the much-anticipated Crossrail, will solve some of the Tube's problems, but until then, I'd rather be on Hong Kong's MTR.
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