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Kyiv Metro vs the World: An Exploration
How can Kyiv Metro run 2-3 minutes peak hour frequency during wartime?
Note the red timers above the platforms…Credit: УНІАН
I have been hunting a white whale for more than a year.
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Nearly exactly one year ago, a tweet went viral for noting Kyiv Metro cut back its headways to a train every 2-3 minutes during peak hours and every 6-7 minutes off-peak due to the Russian invasion. Every 6-7 minutes during rush hours would be an unfathomable dream for U.S. and Canadian passenger rail systems. How was this possible, in Kyiv of all places?
Most people’s interactions with this factoid — whether on Twitter or Reddit — was a surface-level dunk contest, weaponizing the brutal fact to knock down a peg on whichever inferior train system operated in North America. I think the scorn is deserved; a base schedule of 10 or 15 minute frequencies is too far inferior a standard for any Metro system. But my desire was push far below the surface. I wanted to know definitively how in the world is Kyiv Metro running such admirable headways during wartime.
I have good news and bad news, dear readers. Bad news first: I do not have a definitive answer. It was not for lack of trying. To scale the language barrier from English to Ukrainian and then to scour through the Ukrainian internet has been pretty challenging. It may be that there are simply less documents or news articles in Ukraine on Kyiv Metro’s outstanding frequencies, or I amateurly missed them as I waded through a wholly unfamiliar terrain. As a former newspaper reporter, I like to think I have good instincts to scope out evidence, and I certainly have not had much luck.
But good news, which you may infer by the fact you are reading this post: there is something enough to warrant a Substack write-up. And perhaps it will be more stimulating for us to walk through this transit riddle together.
I posit what makes Kyiv Metro work so successfully is a blend of interesting infrastructural choices and organizational practices: the former being the line length, station typology, and train control systems, and the latter being a Soviet-era philosophy of maximum train throughput and heavy reliance on experienced, cheap labor. Much of these are not instantly replicable for existing Metros or regional rail systems in the United States and Canada. As the gruesome saying goes, there are different ways to skin a cat, and different ways to make a transit system world-class. This is an exploration on how a transit system can get to the summit with less resources and unfortunate circumstances than its peers.
The Soviet Way
There is a lot I do not know about the Kyiv Metro, and to bridge over these unknown knowns, I will be leaning on its big brother system, the Moscow Metro. Using the far more available literature on Moscow Metro, we are compelled to interchangeably graft on blind spots we have for its brethren system in Kyiv. It is an uncomfortable space to inhabit, well outside my usual editorial judgment zone. But I believe this leap can work due to the identical construction, infrastructural and operational practices displayed by both systems, once brethren Metros of the Soviet Union.
The Kyiv Metro’s formation and construction plans in the late 1940s and 1950s were heavily borrowed from lessons of Moscow Metro’s construction in the 1930s. Following the opening of Moscow Metro, the first Stalinist-era subway, the Soviet Union standardized subsequent Metros — including Kyiv’s — in Moscow’s image, from rolling stock, train control system, train operations, tunneling practices, and most notably, ornate station platforms. Kyiv Metro’s Zoloti Vorota, Universytet, and Khreshchatyk stations are famous for its ornate platform decorations, in the style of Moscow’s palatial stations. To drive home the verisimilitude, Kyiv Metro’s Vokzalna Station looks near-identical to Moscow Metro’s VDNKh Station, both with its simply white domed vault and large bronze medallions on the walls.
Both Kyiv and Moscow sport stations very deep underground. Kyiv’s Arsenalna Station is the second deepest station in the world at 105 meters underground; it takes 5 minutes via escalator from the entrance to platform.1 Both Kyiv and Moscow were tunneled deep underground with the dual purpose of stations serving as bomb shelters from a foreign enemy. Its builders could have never fathomed Arsenalna and other Kyiv Metro stations would be used to shelter residents from Russian bombs.
Deep stations are one of four characteristics outlined in transit researcher Alon Levy’s article “The Soviet Bloc Way of Building Rapid Transit”.2 The second characteristic is Soviets’ penchant for wide station spacing, at least a kilometer from each other, to avoid the clumped up Metro travel in the city center commonly seen in Paris and London. Moscow’s average interstation distance is roughly 1.7 km and Kyiv’s is 1.3 km.3 This means the Metro is filling in the Goldilocks travel zone of far enough that walking is unappetizing and close enough that driving an automobile is wasteful. (A 2016 World Bank report on Kyiv’s transport infrastructure interestingly noted that walking is the primary mode of mobility for Kyiv residents who would rather make the long walk to Metro stations due to poor service of buses and other means of public transport).
The Soviet way makes up for the relatively large spacing with faster trains; Moscow Metro runs on average 48 km/hr and Kyiv Metro at 42 km/hr, according to a 2013 chart comparing all former Soviet Metros. As a barometer, the Paris Metro trains average 20 km/hr and New York City Subway trains average 28 km/hr.4
The other two characteristics in Levy’s Soviet Bloc Way are little to no branching or interlining in its Metro lines and a radial network design called the “Soviet Triangle.”5 Another term coined by Levy, the Soviet Triangle is a network layout of three lines — all running without branching with each other— and meeting in a triangle at the city center. Three transfer points form in a Soviet Triangle, and in Kyiv’s case, two different transfer stations on each line are connected through underground corridors, staircases and escalators. The Soviet Triangle is not exclusive to the Eastern Bloc — Mexico City and Tehran are others with it — but this layout is replicated across several of its metropolises. Prague Metro, for example, has a Soviet Triangle three-line layout similar to that of Kyiv Metro.
For the Soviet Triangle Metro to succeed, frequency is even more critical than its radial or grid-pattern counterparts as there are strictly limited permutations for transfers. Going from one Metro line to another definitively means getting off at one station, every time, without any flexibility. Timed transfers do not work in the Soviet Triangle Metro as the platforms are at great distances from each other. This leaves really one palatable solution for Metros who was born of the Soviet way: run as many trains as possible.
One may argue Kyiv Metro should not be able to run as many trains as they do. Its rolling stock are composed of modern modifications of the Soviet-era 81/717-714 series built in the 1970s. Earlier this year, Kyiv city government agreed to accept up to 60 81/717 train cars from Warsaw, which also has operated the train cars which was once standard in the Eastern Bloc. Kyiv Metro’s train control system is also Soviet issue: ALS-ARS is a coded track circuit system with fixed blocks — commonly found in Metro systems older than 30-40 years in North America — with automated speed regulations built to prevent runaway Metro trains.
To the possible surprise of some railfans and urbanists in the West, the former Soviet Metros do not employ a timetable for its services. Where in Germany and Switzerland clock-based scheduling (where departure times remain consistent all seven days of the week) are gospel, Russian and Ukrainian Metros have no use for departure times. The latter’s focus, since its opening days of service, has been maximum throughput of trains, as frequent as every 90 seconds during rush hour in Moscow. In fact, the 90 seconds peak headways at Moscow is worse than it was in 1974, when it ran every 80 seconds during rush hour, per the New York Times.6
The Soviet-built Metro philosophy is most evident at the edge of the platform at a Metro station in Kyiv or Moscow. Atop the tunnel where the train departs to the next station, there is a timer counting how many minutes and seconds have elapsed since the last train departed. This is the substitute for a timetable, keeping train operators and dispatchers honest for every second elapsed. Kyiv Metro, like Moscow Metro, use the same system of station timers with big red fonts visible if waiting for the train on the edge of the platform. (You can see the timer reset in the video below)
Every second is accounted for in this philosophy. In the case of Moscow Metro, and at risk of extrapolation to Kyiv’s, their train operators are trained to wait no longer than 30 seconds at every station to reduce delay possibilities. When there are disruptions, dispatchers at operation centers order train operators to further reduce wait times at stations, or to skip stations entirely to ensure no train is out of sync. The cadence of time elapsed between each train in service is paramount — far more than the frustrations of stranded riders whose trains have passed them — as they are working with fine margins due to its intense headways.
Metros globally can operate this intense frequency thanks to its relative short length. For Kyiv Metro, in particular, the above-ground urban environment factors into its awesome frequency. Kyiv’s metropolitan area is hilly in the city center and around the metropolitan area, with the wide Dnipro River cutting the city in two. The natural environment of Kyiv helped restrict the city’s horizontal growth, and its Metro lines reflect the lack of urban sprawl found around the Ukrainian capital. Kyiv’s three Metro lines each measure at between 20 and 23 kilometers, with its longest line, Line 3, at 23.9 kilometers. As comparisons, Kyiv Metro’s longest line is shorter than all but one of London Underground’s lines (Victoria Line), and all but four of New York City Subway lines (J/Z, G, W, 7 lines)
Kyiv Metro’s short line lengths matter for frequency in two ways: first, with their timetable-less scheduling, the short duration of service allows trains to turn and re-enter circulation in the other direction quickly. Second, it allows tighter operations under vigilance. Kyiv Metro uses an archaic train control system and very old rolling stock, thus points of failure are greater than, say, a brand-new driverless line in Japan or France. More theoretically, every kilometer of track — with all its parts and exposure to whichever natural and man-made elements — is encoded with some level of entropy; everything that can go wrong will go wrong ultimately. Usually, the longer the travel distance, the impact of a train delay compounds. However, with a relatively small system, such impacts can be mitigated with the vigilance of its operations staff.
Kyiv Metro’s ability to run incredibly tight frequencies is a testament to an operations philosophy founded under the Soviet Union and upheld thirty years after its collapse. However, in face of aging infrastructure and limited public funds to rebuild and renew in post-Soviet Ukraine, Kyiv Metro’s resilience may come from another resource rather cheaply considered in the West.
Strength in Numbers
In my white whale hunt, the first thing which caught my eye was the sheer size of the workforces devoted to railways in Ukraine. Prior to the Russian invasion in March 2022, Kyiv Metro reported 8,000 employees; in the days after the attack, during which civilians used its stations as shelters, 3,000 reported to work.7 That is a massive workforce for a single Metro system with 52 stations. For comparisons, BART in the San Francisco Bay Area with 50 stations employ about 5,000 workers. MBTA in the Boston area — accounting for trains, buses and other modes — reported 6,700 employees in 2020.8 Madrid Metro in the Spanish capital with more than 300 stations reported more than 7,000 employees in 2019.9
The over-employment of railway workers extends to the national scale. Ukrainian Railways, the country’s national rail network, reportedly employs a whopping 230,000 people overseeing 19,787 kilometres of rail. Ukraine Railways, or Ukrzaliznytsia, is so encompassing in civil society it is like “a country within a country” with its own glass factory, among several other rail and steel factories, along with children’s railway schools, vocational schools, summer camps, sanitariums and hospitals, according to The New York Times.10
Understanding Ukraine Railways’ enormous employee count needs some comparisons. Deutsche Bahn, the world’s most profitable national railway with employee headcount in Australia, United Arab Emirates and the United Kingdom among others as well as its home base in Germany, tallies a total 324,000 employees.11 In contrast, Amtrak in the United States reported 19,000 employees total, less than a tenth of Ukraine Railways.12
Ukraine Railways’ dominant surplus of experienced manpower and a mirror industrial society of its own has been a key reason why the rail network was able to evacuate civilians out of cities en masse during the initial invasion, transport military and industrial goods around the country and even deliver U.S. President Joe Biden from the Polish border to Kyiv by train without any detection. Former Ukraine Railways CEO Oleksandr Kamyshin told CNN its rails have been struck by Russian missiles more than 12,000 times in 2022, and that crews rapidly fix the damage using spares they have. Kamyshin was lauded globally for his leadership in keeping passenger trains moving to evacuate more than 2.5 million civilians in the first month of the Russian invasion.13 In the months after, Kamyshin would boast how his Ukraine Railways kept a 99% on-time performance during wartime.14
Similar tales of success shared by Ukraine Railways is found in Kyiv Metro: a massive surplus of labor was able to be flexibly deployed in both wartime and peacetime to not only run a Metro but run at a frequency which competes with the best Metro systems in western Europe or East Asia. Its very low incomes — one of the lowest in Europe, at $2100 USD for annual household income per capita — likely makes recruitment and retention to work in the rail industry much more feasible for the agencies.15
Under the neoliberal era of the past 40 years, Metros and national rail agencies in the United States, Canada and western Europe continuously look for greater efficiencies from its labor while keeping steady or reducing its headcount. Unlike in Ukraine, technological and infrastructural investments have made the marginalization of labor possible without massive drop of service. Despite the advantages, when observed globally, many of these most recognizable rail agencies have faced massive labor shortages, unfilled key positions, labor strife or inability to maintain quality of service in the past three years. Its far higher wages and guaranteed employer benefits compared to Ukraine indeed does not provide the labor market flexibilities.
But it remains understated, in this current neoliberal-dominant age, that labor too can be an innovative engine of its own, making the most of what little is provided and being able to pivot from a peacetime national service to a wartime national necessity. Ukraine — and its capital, Kyiv — may be the best demonstration of that engine in the world of mass transport currently.
Since the invasion by Russia in February 2022, nearly 63,000 people have died, 17 million people have been displaced from their homes and 140,000 homes have been destroyed. It feels odd to be discussing the minutiae of how well the invaded country is running its trains when it and its people collectively has gone through a hellish 18 months. I hope this post reflects a genuine admiration and wonder at what the Ukrainian civilians have endured.
Kyiv Metro demonstrates world-class quality of service can be done without 21st century technology or infrastructure. Kyiv Metro’s founders in a bygone country in a bygone past deeply understood what a Metro needed to prioritize and how to construct a system to deliver nearly 80 years ago. In contrast, so many operational issues plaguing North American rail transit stems from poor decision-making from the start which, after the cake was fully baked, has become either impossible to re-do or prohibitively expensive to remake, such as poor placement of rail line extensions or interlining several lines into one set of tracks. During the Cold War, the Soviets kept its Metro operations simple and tight and frequent; indeed, even the New York Times article from 1974 notes “anyone familiar with both systems cannot help but notice how Moscow has either tried to avoid or has solved some of the pressing transit concerns that have beset New York.”16
Lastly, Kyiv Metro serves an antiquated reminder that labor of the old kind — the kind now shunned and often labeled as wasteful or inefficient — can deliver results unmatched by most of the world. During active wartime, after decades without billions of dollars of investment or ushering of new rolling stock or train control system, Kyiv Metro still outdoes the rest. To run a train service during wartime is a feat; to run it like Kyiv Metro is a miracle.
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