An Englishman Rode New York's Subway System For A Week - And Thinks It Was Shite

By James O Malley on at

It was the middle of summer, and I needed some content on a warm and rainy August afternoon.

Luckily, everyone on Twitter was sharing this Business Insider post by an American, seemingly amazed at how great the London Underground is.

It's an endearingly earnest read, showing awe at things that Londoners take for granted.

So I decided that perhaps we need the opposite perspective. Earlier this year, I went on holiday to New York for the first time, and being a bit of a railway geek (only a bit!), I was looking forward to taking the famous subway.

I think it's best summarised in the status update heard over the PA system every so often in the Subway: Incomprehensible. You don't hear that every day in London, because mercifully we have a local government that is willing to invest big bucks into keeping the whole thing working (even if they do occasionally piss away cash planning a stupid Garden Bridge).

Here's a sample journey I made.

After a few days in New York, having made some short trips on the subway, I decided to put it to the test by seeing if I could get from Union Street in Brooklyn, near where I was staying, to the Intrepid Sea, Air and Space Museum - a former Aircraft Carrier that is now docked by Hell's Kitchen. It's got an actual Space Shuttle on the deck - so of course I had to visit. This was a bit of a trip - about 8.7 miles by car and across Manhattan Island, which would take around 45 minutes by car.

nb: Photos are designed to be representative, as I didn't have the foresight to photograph every detail of the journey when I actually took it.

The Subway wasn't completely unfamiliar to this Londoner. The trains are thinner by taller, and commuters were just as grimaced as they are in London. The only difference was that it felt like there was a heightened risk of someone in the carriage having a gun, because I was in America after all.

Unlike the Tube, where only a handful of stations are fully underground, very few Subway stations had an above ground component. Curiously, this makes it more awkward to change to another platform in many stations, forcing you have to leave the station, go up to the street and cross the road in order to go down the steps to the other side. Unlike London, where stations are much deeper below ground, the Subway sits just below the surface.

At Union Street, this also meant that there wasn't much capacity if the station gets busy: The ticket machines are squeezed in by a ticket office staffed by a human (London has just eliminated its ticket offices), and the only thing separating you from the platform are metal bars and a turnstyle.

Let's talk about getting a ticket first of all: What a nightmare. The Subway uses paper tickets that have a magnetic stripe. After faffing about with the machine and hoping that it would accept my British debit card or accept the mangled dollar bills in my pocket, I got a ticket. I've no idea how much it cost because I was on holiday and using a currency with a fractional exchange rate - so my mind basically switches to treating it like Monopoly money. I know this is a terrible way to budget, but I reason it away by committing to worrying about it and staring in horror at my bank account when I get home.

I then approached the turnstiles. In London, I would simply approach the ticket gateline and present my debit card to the contactless reader (no need to have bought a ticket beforehand), and the gates would swing open, giving me a few seconds to make my way through. In New York, you have to swipe a ragged, flimsy piece of cardboard in the reader. I tried this. Nothing. I tried again. Nothing. I turned it around. Nothing. The turnstile wouldn't budge. In the end, I had to go to the ticket office (which conveniently, was right behind the turnstiles) and explain the situation to the customer service assistant. He examined my card, scanned it and confirmed that it was active - so was just as baffled as to why it wasn't working as I was. In the end, he pressed a button that simply let me through.

Then there were the turnstiles themselves. London has a chest-height gateline with doors that simply swing open, leaving plenty of room for manoeuvre. New York, by contrast, still has old-fashioned three-pronged turnstiles which rotate around. Which is more annoying to operate as you need to put your weight into them to move them, and also somewhat tighter if you're - ahem - a larger person. Having squeezed my portly frame through, it was hard to believe that I was really in the same country that has slices of pizza for sale on every corner, and a donut shop on every block.

Then it was a case of waiting for the train. I carefully walked along the narrow platform to find a spot, noting that unlike London, where most stations have wide platforms for maximum capacity, this was more like the platforms at Wapping station - which are uniquely small.

Eventually, the train arrived - at seemingly a much longer interval than you would typically expect on the London Underground. On our Victoria Line, there is literally a train every two minutes. On the "N" and "R" line that was I travelling on (they share tracks and go the same way - like the Metropolitan and Circle lines), it felt like a lot longer. Not good for 10am on a Tuesday.

Inside the train it was a pretty familiar experience. The plastic seats lacked arm rests, so demarcating your territory versus other passengers is much trickier. It's like one big Bakerloo Line.

As the train chugged towards Manhattan I began to appreciate one other thing that London gets right, that we probably don't even think about much: Station signage. As previously mentioned, the on-board tannoy was pathetic: Every so often it let out an incomprehensible squeal, seemingly giving no indication of where the train was. So looking out of the window at each station there were no brightly coloured roundels announcing the station's name. If you look carefully, there are smaller metal signs up with the station's name - though for some reason the Metropolitan Transit Authority has chosen to make these both small and camouflage them in black and white, to match each station's iron-bars and brown decor.

There was one cool thing New York had that we don't though: Light-up boards with light indicators showing where the train was. Though just as London's rolling stock is of varying age across lines, I only remember noticing a few trains that had them.

About an hour later (I think there was a delay), I reached the station I wanted to alight at: 49th Street. If I recall correctly, I stepped out of the train on to the island platform - a design which does exist in London but isn't particularly desired, as it means that when busy, there is a heightened risk of someone being pushed off either side.

I ascended the stairs and pushed through the turnstile. Mercifully, I didn't have to swipe my card again as you can just push your way out, but this does mean that no one is collecting data on my journey in order to plan for future capacity or improvements to the system.

Exiting the station I thought that surely I was almost there!

But then it struck me: The Intrepid was still a sodding 20 minute walk away. New York, for some inexplicable reason, doesn't like Subway lines that go sideways. Most of the lines going through Manhattan are north-south lines (or uptown/downtown to use local parlance).

So, already exhausted from several days of hardcore holidaying, I set off in the direction of the ship - taking the slightly dicey walk through Hell's Kitchen. I mean, it was probably absolutely fine, but it was unfamiliar and had a scary sounding name. In any case, the Marvel Netflix shows had pretty much conditioned me by this point for the whole area to be infested with gangster, crimelords and flawed superpowered people fighting morally complex villains.

Eventually though, I made it to the Intrepid. I paid my entrance fee and walked the gangplank up to the deck. After passing by various historic aircraft I walked towards the Shuttle hanger.

In a few short seconds I'd be experiencing a grand feat of engineering that once must have felt incredibly futuristic, even if today it is considered a bit shit. And then I realised: Perhaps I already had.