What is a Subway?

Mary McMahon

A subway is a train system that is located entirely underground. The first was the London Underground, which opened in 1863, and many cities followed suit when they realized how useful such a train system could be. Since subways are on a different grade than general traffic, they can operate entirely autonomously, free of traffic and other problems on surface streets. They use dedicated tracks, so they can also run rapidly and frequently, making them a valuable addition to a public transit network.

Subways typically run on electricity, which is provided through the "third rail."
Subways typically run on electricity, which is provided through the "third rail."

Typically, a subway runs on electricity, which is often provided through the so-called “third rail.” The trains run on two traditional tracks, just as above-ground trains do, and they power themselves through paddles attached to the third rail. This rail represents a substantial danger to people who are foolish enough to jump onto the tracks, since it carries a very high voltage and is exposed with no insulation. Because of concerns about the third rail, the tracks are usually submerged below the level of the station platform to discourage jumping, and passengers are reminded to stand clear of the platform edge unless they are boarding.

The London Underground, the first subway system, opened in 1863.
The London Underground, the first subway system, opened in 1863.

In some cases, a subway system may integrate above ground or elevated tracks in addition to an underground system. Commonly, the subway remains underground in the downtown section of the city, while elevated tracks branch out into less busy areas. These tracks may also network with other transit systems, such as commuter rail bringing people in from the suburbs, or a city bus system.

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Like other forms of public transit, most subways are heavily subsidized by the regions that they run in. These subsidies keep fares relatively inexpensive, encouraging commuters to choose the train over personal vehicles. When it is well run and networks with other transit, it can play a significant role in reducing general traffic, making a city more pleasant to live, work, and play in.

In many cities, a subway includes multiple track systems that spread out underneath a city for wide coverage. Frequent stations along the tracks ensure that people will be able to quickly reach their destinations. People are often charged by the length of their trip, although in some areas, passengers use transit passes that bill per trip, or by the amount of time spent on the subway system. The train company usually makes an effort to make the system easy to navigate and hospitable for visitors, so that they will not add to traffic congestion during their stay in the city.

Subway systems often have commuter rails that take people to and from a city's suburbs.
Subway systems often have commuter rails that take people to and from a city's suburbs.

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Discussion Comments


Has anyone ever heard of the secret tunnels that exist below many of the nation’s subways? Can you find these underground mazes through old subway maps? I think it would be interesting to see what treasures and horrors are locked away in the tombs that criss-cross some of the most iconic cities. Is there anywhere in New York that offers tours of the cities underground?


@comparables- I think that if society does not shoulder some of the burden for accessibility to public transit, then we will simply be paying more money elsewhere. Mass transit systems make it possible for many people to get to work. They also reduce congestion on the roads, thus saving people time. Subsidized transit also reduces the amount of pollutants thrown into the atmosphere. Finally, maintaining transit infrastructure is much less costly than maintaining roads and mitigating congestion.

More than 50% percent of the budget for the department of transportation goes to highway maintenance. This is all taxpayer revenue that subsidizes the roads that people drive on, even if they do not own a vehicle.


Is it really worthwhile to subsidize subway and other mass transit systems? I do not understand what the benefit is to the taxpayers who subsidize subways. I get why we need to push transit use, but is it the best idea for solving our transit issues? Is there a better way to deter people from using cars than subsidizing transit?

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