Thursday, November 09, 2006

The Prague (Praha) Subway:
One of the most enjoyable experiences in the city of Praha is the efficiency, safety and comfort of its subway system. Praha is a city of about 1.2 million people ie a little less than twice the size of Winnipeg, but its public transport is about 10 to 20 times better than that in this city. The Praha subway consists of three lines complemented by a number of trams to outlying areas. The stations themselves are mostly a single platform system serving both directions ie no making a wrong turn and finding yourself staring across the tracks to the train going the direction you want to go. During rush hour there are only two or three minute intervals between trains. Maps of the system are clearly posted in numerous locations, and one can easily locate which train to take in the station by further maps hung from the ceiling. During non-peak hours the trains run about every 5 to ten minutes. Waiting is never a pain.
One of the things that amazed me about the subway system was the quality of the announcement system. In airports and bus depots here in Canada the overhead announcements are usually incomprehensible in two official languages. In parts of Europe they may be garbled in up to 4 languages. The best you can do is listen for your own name and hope they don't garble it too much. Every last word and syllable on the Czech subway system was clear and distinct, every place and every time. I have no idea how this magic was achieved, but it sure was different.
The Praha subway also gives new meaning to the phrase "rapid" transit. It beats any car hands down, even excluding circling to find parking. I must admit that I am not a great connoisseur of subway systems, but from what I have seen Praha's system is definitely cleaner and safer than that of Montreal, Barcelona, Vienna and Athens. The later is especially significant as many upgrades were done in preparation for the Olympics. it must be admitted that the floods of August 2002, also led to a lot of new construction in Praha as many of the lines and stations were flooded out. But still...a much better job was done in the Czech Republic than in Greece.
The subway system in Praha, like that of Wien and the boat transit in Venezia (and I suspect a lot of Europe) operates on the "honour system". There are generally no ticket takers nor electronic gating systems in any of these three cities. I saw ticket checkers in operation on a few occasions at stations in Venezia, but they were rare, and the system operates efficiently ONLY because there is no such gating to hold it up. I believe that I have already mentioned the roving spot checks of "transit police", and how you don't want to get on their wrong side, but these people are hardly common.
I was quite astonished to find out that the construction of this ultra-modern and pleasant system actually began under the Communist dictatorship in 1967, and the first section was opened in 1974. Maybe it shouldn't be so astonishing if one stops to consider that Communism may never have been able to supply good toilet paper (nor most other consumer goods) in necessary quantities, but the buggers actually could build good bloody engines. The Moscow subway is apparently close to being one of the wonders of the modern world, both for its engineering and for its design. Even today one can find not just beautiful almost baroque art in its caverns but even historical relics of socialist realism. What can one expect from a country where 'Love Song to a Tractor' was #1 on the hit parade for 6 months in 1955 and made another comeback in 1966 (just joking).
The Praha subway was designed after the Moscow model, and it is one of the few valuable things that Communism left to the country. The Czechs, however, certainly contributed their own skills to its construction. After East Germany the Czech Republic was the most industrialized area of the Eastern Bloc, and there was a vast pool of skilled labour for construction. Unlike in the Soviet Union, only a small minority of the workforce would be falling down drunk on the job at any given time (see Czech Beer and the difficulty of getting drunk on same, and compare to the effects of vodka). The result is that, while the Moscow Metro may be more magnificent you are far safer riding the sub in Praha than in Moskva, even to this day.
Actually something like "industrial archaeology" might reveal that the former Communist rulers of the former Czechoslovakia were truly obsessed with the train. Perhaps it served the same iconic purpose as the tractor did under Stalin in the USSR. The beauty,cleanliness and efficiency of the rolling stock in the Praha subway contrasts with what we saw on the rail line from Praha to Wien. No doubt the Czechs could and do build locomotives of excellent design. But under Communism they OVERBUILT them. The line leading south seems to be a wilderness of crumbling smokestacks of factories no longer in production, abandoned railway stations and AN INCREDIBLE AMOUNT of dead rolling stock. I swear that there isn't as many dead locomotives and railway cars of all descriptions gathering rust in "railway graveyards" in the whole of Canada as there were visible along that one short line. Some of these mortuaries were huge beyond anything seen anywhere in this country. It's beyond my comprehension why these sad things aren't crushed up for scrap, but there they sit and probably will for another 30 years.
The abandoned railway stations are the saddest thing as they attest to a time when the train was the major form of transport, and they are much more numerous than the same things in Canada.
The pleasant experience of the Praha subway contrasts not just with the industrial decay in the south but also with the sad state of our own public transport here in Winnipeg. Waiting underground for 5 minutes for a train in Praha is a more than slightly more pleasant experience than waiting 20 minutes at 30 below in January for a bus in Winnipeg. For anyone interested there is a website detailing comparative urban rapid transit systems across the world at . Look through it and see that many cities that have smaller populations than Winnipeg have functioning rapid transit systems. It's an eye-opener. But it leaves me with the question of how an "honour system" could possibly operate in a city like Winnipeg. But that's may be a question for deep philosophers rather than little cats.

No comments: