Saturday, August 30, 2008

Unconnected (Beijing's public transport system, that is)

I've seen many different projections of what Beijing's subway system is supposed to become over the next few years. 2 or 3 years ago, this is what they were saying the network was supposed to be like for the Olympics.

Er, we didn't quite get there. Lines 4 and 9 down in the south-west there are still at the planning stage. The fast link to Shunyi (the grey line running due north over on the east side) is, as far as I know, just a fantasy. The "L1" airport express and the new Line 10 (the one carrying the bulk of the Olympic traffic) were only rushed into service just a couple of weeks ahead of the Games.

Line 10, you might notice, takes a rather curious route. It follows the city's 3rd Ringroad (the city now extends up to, and somewhat beyond the 5th Ringroad [but there is, famously, no 1st Ringroad!]; so the 3rd Ringroad defines the limit of the 'city centre'); but it only goes half-way around. Well, perhaps there is some sense to that: the north and east sides of town are much more developed than the south and west, with the south-east 3rd Ring being the hub of the Central Business District. However, the main Olympic venues are all on the North 4th Ringroad.

Also, you'll notice that this Line 10 is almost entirely separate from the rest of the network. There are only two interchange stations, one with the hellishly overcrowded Line 1 in the far south-east, and one with the (rather nice, only open a year) Line 5 in the north.

To give access to the Olympic Green and other venues in the vicinity, a short additional line was built. How dumb is that?! I suppose they wanted to set up extra security checks for spectators at the entry to this line, the origin station of Beitucheng, rather than at its exits at the subsequent Olympic stops. But really, how difficult would it be to have these checks at the exits? Requiring visitors to get off one line and move on to another, through a ticket and security check, was a huge pain-in-the-arse.

And if they were going to insist on such an unnecessary changeover, could they not at least have run the 'Olympic line' into the nearby Huixinjie Nankou station, which serves both Line 10 and Line 5?

If I wanted to go to an Olympic venue by subway, I'd have to go 2 stops east to Yonghegong on Line 2, change to Line 5 and go 3 stops north to Huixinjie Nan, change to Line 10 and go 2 stops west to Beitucheng, and then go through all the hassle of getting on the 'Olympic line' and going another 1 or 2 stops north to the venues. Expect an average of at least 5 minutes for each interchange (more in the evenings, when the train frequency is much lower). I could walk it in just over an hour; it might be quicker. It's particularly frustrating for me, since I live almost due south of the Bird's Nest; but getting to the Olympic Green by subway is an almost equally convoluted process no matter where you're coming from in Beijing.

When I went to see a diving event at the Water Cube one evening, I was faced with the possibility of trying to follow this tortuous route in reverse to get back home. Ordinarily, the Beijing subway system (though the evening service is much better, and runs much later than it did when I first came here 6 years ago) winds down well before midnight, and for the last hour or two the trains come along only once every 15 or 20 minutes. After the evening rush hour is over, the train frequency usually falls to one about every 8 or 10 minutes. The service was probably enhanced during the Olympics, but I didn't see or hear any announcements to this effect. I calculated that it was almost certainly going to take me well over an hour to get home by subway and, if I was unlucky with the changes, perhaps nearer to two hours; there was an outside chance that I'd miss the last train home on Line 2 altogether and have to walk the last mile-and-a-half home; it was dangerously likely that I wouldn't be reaching Line 2 until its last hour of operation, and would thus probably be facing a long wait for my final train. I decided not to bother.

Of course, I ended up having to walk more than half way home before I was able to get a cab.....

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