On Wednesday I posted a set of pictures, and asked which ones were from a so-called ‘metro’ and which ones weren’t.

This is what they were:

1. A high end ‘light rail’ system, the Tyne and Wear Metro
2. High capacity electric ‘heavy’ railway, the Berlin U-Bahn
3. Lightweight diesel railcars (‘Pacers’) from the West Yorkshire Metro
4. High capacity electric ‘heavy’ railway, the original Paris Metro
5. High capacity electric ‘heavy’ railway, the District Line of the London Underground
6. A high end ‘light rail’ system with city centre tunnel, the Docklands Light Railway (also in London)
7. A bus from the Adelaide metro (which also features some diesel railcars on a rather run-down railway network)

The Berlin and the two London examples aren’t called ‘metro’. All the others are. Looks can be deceiving!

(My offer of a half-mark was for recognising that the District Line began its life as the Metropolitan District Railway! I have also noticed that the Berlin U-Bahn web page refers to it in English as “metro”. I don’t recall hearing the term used in Berlin myself)

Obviously I picked this list for a point, and not just because they are all systems I have ridden on. The dictionary definition that is simply ‘an underground railway like the one in Paris’ isn’t enough on its own: West Yorkshire and Adelaide don’t have underground parts to their ‘metro’, and in London it’s always ‘the Underground’ or more often ‘the Tube’, never ‘the Metro’.

As a professional transport planner, I have had to deal with various demands for a ‘metro’ for Brisbane. When I sat down with a rail engineer we discovered that we had very different ideas about what defined a metro. He immediately thought big and bulky like the London Underground; I thought fast and flexible like DLR or Tyne and Wear. It was just what we were used to. What we agreed on, though, were:

  • It’s a railway
  • It serves a city
  • It offers a frequent service
  • It is high capacity and probably has lots of standing room on board
  • It has closely spaced stations for maximum coverage
  • It is preferably designed with lots of doors for fast loading and unloading
  • It serves in part a distribution function (not just a home-work commute function)
  • It is a marketing term

(Brisbane Central) is this a metro?We agreed that it would probably be underground for at least part of its route because this was the only way it would serve the inner city area. We also agreed that the Brisbane Citytrain system already shows many characteristics of a metro, and with improved vehicle design (for faster loading and unloading) and more frequent services (especially in the off peak) it probably ought to be called one.

What we also agreed upon was that Brisbane doesn’t need a totally new independent underground rail line or loop of the London Underground or Paris Metro type: it simply doesn’t have the population numbers or city size and shape to make it worth while. Certainly, any attempt to curtail Citytrain’s operations at the city fringes and make people transfer to a metro for their final destination (‘like London’) is a very bad idea – and bad history to boot.

As the inner areas of Australia’s capital cities increase in population through densification and urban renewal, there will be a need for improved public transport. Except for Melbourne (where the trams still have much potential) this is going to mean new dedicated facilities. I personally feel that there is much benefit in exploring the ‘lightweight’ metro of the Tyne and Wear or DLR model as a complement to the existing suburban railways, rather than trying to copy London or Paris.