The London Underground v The Beijing Subway

A Beijing

A London

Sorry, London: but we’ve a longer tube system than you. Never mind — you’ve a few new exciting connections as well. The new extension on the Metropolitan line to Watford Junction. Oh and of course the new station buildings at Tottenham Court Road (of course, it’s sad that the Astoria theatres had to go; much like a fair bit of the old Beijing City Walls fell victim to Line 2 as well). Crossrail will be the ultimate killer, though, and to whomever’s set up shop around Farringdon, we can only say: You lucky (wotsit)…

If you ever grow tired of London’s system, though (much to the chagrin of Samuel Johnson), and do manage to escape via Speedbird to the much larger equivalent in Beijing, it’d be good if you were briefed a little in advance. Thankfully, the Beijing system is largely bilingual: but wouldn’t it be nice if you had a little extra info before you arrived at Terminal 5?

Advert: Learn Chinese at Hutong London
Advert: Learn Chinese at Hutong London

Here goes: 8 gaps to mind between London’s Tube and Beijing’s Subway

Some of the most awful gaps are on Beijing’s Subway Line 4, but they’re only slightly less scary than those you get at Finchley Road, when you cross on over to the Jubilee line from the Metropolitan line (provided they haven’t slammed the door in your face; timing at this station is often good but yours truly was nearly devoured by the doors lately!).

There is absolutely nothing quite like the scariest-of-‘em-all northbound Northern line platform gaps at Embankment, thankfully, in the Beijing system for you to worry about. In fact, gaps are only an issue if you’ve lots of bags to carry around — otherwise they’re hardly an issue, as most stations in Beijing are straight — as in on a curve.

In London we’re close to finishing 50% of the alphabet in terms of what names we give our lines. In Beijing we’re not even that close to finishing with all the numbers. However, in Beijing’s suburbs, we do also have lines that have proper names — such as the Airport Express or the Changping line — so there’s a little more to look out for. Chances are, though, that if your line has a number instead of a name, it’s a central Beijing line.

The closest thing to the Central line for Beijing, by the way, is Line 1, which runs right underneath the city’s main avenue, Chang’an Avenue. Right now we have Lines 1, 2, 4 through to 10, and 13, 14, and 15. By 2020 we’ll probably have the full set (except for Lines 11 and 12, and probably also Line 17 if it takes a little too long). Oh and by that we mean Lines 1–16, not Lines 1–99!

Much of Beijing’s stations now come with platform edge doors — the obvious reason here is because we’ve seen too many people jump onto the tracks at stations without these doors. Unlike the deep-level tube lines in London, there is no “suicide pit”, so if the train comes in when you’re on the track — (owch).

In London, you’re only so lucky to be in safe hands with platform edge doors if you’re travelling on the Jubilee line between Westminster and North Greenwich, although there are plans to bring them to more stations.

Beijing’s trains are more “harmonious” — if you’re stuck between the doors (but not between the platform edge doors and the train doors), the doors will automatically open again to let you in (or out). They also close slower. In London, that much-feared door alert is a WARNING to you — to FREEZE — that should be the more appropriate command here. On most deep-level tube lines, doors have teeth and are known to slam (read: fly) shut within about two seconds (the Beijing counterparts take about five seconds to fully close). No effort to hold these doors open will work — and you’d be lucky not to get bruised by ‘em!

Small potatoes, right? We all have rushed for the train: I can only tell you nearly missing one in Beijing is probably less painful than if the same happened to me in London…

Beijing: Mileage-Based Fares

London: Zone-Based Fares

In Beijing, we’re now done with the flat fare (on anything except for the Airport Express); fares go by how far you travel, and cheapest rates start at RMB 3.

In London, we’re much the same, but we measure your mileage in terms of how many zones you’ve travelled through.

This will probably mean a rider staying inside the 3rd Ring Road in Beijing (which is much of central urban Beijing) will pay different prices, but a traveller in London staying put in Zone 1 will pay much the same fare regardless if it’s a quick hop from Embankment to Charing Cross, or somewhere further afield — South Kensington to Tower Hill.

Beijing: Half Price for Frequent Travellers

London: Fare Capping and Peak / Off-Peak Fare

We’ve finally given up charging riders a flat fare of RMB 2 regardless of how far you travel — be it between the city gates of the imperial times or from one suburb to another. However, to make sure our subway system bankrupts as few riders as possible, those using the Beijing Yikatong card are given discounts: If you spend more than RMB 100 a month on the subway, you’re eligible for a 20% discount; this goes up to 50% off if you exceed RMB 250. (These discounts are for journeys reached after this “price point”; they’re not retroactive.)

This might mean something to those of us based in London: riders benefit from Day Capping when using an Oyster Card (much the same really if you use a Travelcard, although you pay probably a pound or two more than if you’re on the go with an Oyster).

The ultimate benefit comes if you travel off-peak — although alas, as of 02 January 2015, much of the off-peak caps, which were great when they were around, no longer “exist”.

Beijing: Island Platforms

London: Split Island Platforms

To many a maker of a city metro system, the island platform seems to be the design of choice. Some are narrow indeed (Clapham North and Clapham Common! I’m looking at you two); others are wide (Fengtai Railway Station! That’s a huge island platform in the Beijing system).

Probably because London’s system is more aged, the Tube makes use of what’s really a split-island solution. In other words: you can only cross over from one half of the platform to the other half at designated points, through mini-passageways. In Beijing you immediately feel as if the platform was about as wide as the southbound Northern line platform at Angel.

Beijing: One Card to Capital Airport

London: Many Cards to Heathrow Airport (if not by Tube)

If you have the Beijing Yikatong card, you’re all set: one smartcard will work across both city and airport lines. Never mind the trains to the airport run less frequent than city services (and are sometimes only half the length of a regular city subway train); at least (provided you’ve a fair bit of cash on the card) you won’t need to queue up again at the counters or in front of the machines, no matter how well you pull it (the queueing, that is) off…

This is one bit where London might want to take note: even though using a smartphone-ready ticket for the Heathrow Express is a brilliant, futuristic solution, the Oyster makes things a little easier at the end. Of course, those of us with more time can naturally opt for the Piccadilly line to Heathrow (and keep on using your Oyster), but you can’t really say the same thing for all the other airports in town!

(There is one glaring exception: London City Airport, although many of us will forget to “touch out”, especially if we’ve just arrived from Beijing! In the Chinese capital, ticket gates are seen everywhere; with the DLR, it’s only “a thing” at the humongous Bank-Monument subterranean complex.

Beijing: Wheelchair Friendly

Wheelchair Friendly (Let’s Hope)

Kudos to TfL for publishing a map which shows how wheelchair-friendly the system is in London. Special kudos to the Jubilee Line extension southeast of Green Park, and on the DLR.

However, here’s a bit of the Beijing system which might be even more music to the ears of riders who want a totally step-free experience: the entire Beijing system has been fitted to be wheelchair-friendly. Even where you don’t see support, there are stair lifts and stair climbers in use — and of course on all lines built after 2008, lifts from the platform and trains to street level have been built in.

The White City Factor

White City station on the Central line is the sole station in London (unless I’m wrong; but I think this is the case) where trains run on the non-UK side of the tracks. This is where eastbound trains run to the right of westbound trains (OK, if I’m making you confused, think of it as the way people drive in France as to how they drive in the UK).

For most of us, in the UK, island platforms (as in where two trains share a single central platform) means doors will open on the right. Elsewhere (such as in China), the island platforms mean trains will open doors on the left.

Most of us will simply get off trains without thinking which side to use — we default to the side where the doors open on their own. But this is probably the biggest difference between London and Beijing: trains travel in the “wrong” direction, and so you’ll have to get used to the “right” / “wrong” direction when in the respective cities.

This will affect just about everything — the long passageway that links the Jubilee line together with the Piccadilly and Victoria lines, which is at Green Park, forms just one of the very few exceptions where people keep right. Otherwise in London we all keep left. You’d be overwhelmed in Beijing if you stuck to tradition here in London; the crowds in the People’s Republic move on the right (however at interchanges and major stations they can seem to move anywhere.

Extra Gap: Where Your Train’s Headed For

For those of us from London headed to Beijing — this is the one bit we’re probably less used to. Just like we don’t really have train numbers on national railways in the UK, we also describe where trains are running in a different way.

The clearest of all examples are in the way we describe the direction of a train. In Beijing, trains head to their termini: you won’t see southbound or northbound services so much as you’ll see a Line 5 train to Tiantongyuan North (northernmost terminus) or Songjiazhuang (southernmost terminus).

The other gap to mind is in the apparent lack of platform numbers in Beijing — instead you’ll have to rely on which part of the station you’re in and which way the train runs. This can be confusing to those of us who remember to change from Platform 10 at Baker Street to a Metropolitan line train on Platform 3, but then again, Beijingers aren’t used to be told which number belongs to which platform — we often just have two.

Similarities between London and Beijing

X Subway copy

Finally, it’s time to close the gaps between what’s inside the M25 and what’s inside the G95 (that’s Beijing’s Capital Ring Expressway, by the way): a look at similarities in both systems.

(So that if you’re stranded on the tarmac at Heathrow, it won’t be all too boing.)

Clapham Common / Clapham North = Zhichunli

(narrowest station platforms)

Waterloo = Xizhimen

(busiest interchange with a national railways connection)

Victoria line = Line 9

(shortest-and-most-interchange-rich lines)

Leicester Square – Covent Garden = Nanlishilu – Fuxingmen

(two stations that are closest together)

Oxford Circus = Wangfujing

(stations in the most “commercial” parts of both cities)

Edgware Road = Guanzhuang

(two stations of the same name not linked directly together — although in Beijing, the distance between the two Guanzhuang stations are astronomical!)

Marylebone = Beijing South Railway Station

(stations which are located within 15 seconds from the railway station exit gates to the tube / subway station entry gates)

Stratford = Olympic Green

(stations that are “Olympic train hubs”)

About David Feng

By day, David Feng is supposed to be honing in his research skills as Lecturer of Media and English at the Communication University of China, as well as Visiting Academic at the University of Westminster. At any other time, David is also supposed to be honing in his more China-related skills, as blogger and speaker. In between these two modes, David gets from A to B on the Beijing Subway, or now that he’s in London, on the Tube. David goes green because he can’t be bothered to drive in Beijing’s ghastly jams (even if he tries), and a discovery that “Tube + Rail” works in China made him ready to explore the rest of the country (which he did by rail across over 20 Chinese provinces, across distances not unlike Stockholm – Rome). In addition to research focused on media and in particular social media in China, he also runs Street Level China, a network of China-centric sites in rail travel, tech, and media, with its member sites featured on world media. Born in Beijing, he grew up in Switzerland, and is now in a part of Harrow he considers “tube + rail nirvana”.

Follow David on Twitter: @DavidFeng

David Feng’s official site:

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