Throughout human history, innovative solutions have been conjured up by smart thinkers to solve major transportation issues. From the wheel to the airplane to the still hypothetical Hyperloop, getting around gets easier when the right ideas are supported, developed, and implemented. Some of these solutions are long overdue — for example, the gangway-car subway system used by many major cities — none of which are in the United States.
Subway cars have come a long way. In New York City, they’ve evolved from the elevated “el” of the late 19th century, which left much of the city in shadows, to “million-dollar” train cars to today’s 50-year old stainless steel cars. But across the pond — and even in Canada — transportation has evolved a bit further. Decades ago, countries all over the world — China, Germany, India, Japan and France to name just a few — adopted open gangway cars, which now run in 3 out of 4 subway systems in the world.
Opening the gangways
What is an open gangway car? Essentially, they are trains in which cars are connected openly, allowing for greater capacity and circulation. Instead of multiple cars joined with doors and chains, the space between each is attached like an accordion — hence the nickname “accordion train.”
There was a time in New York City between elevated trains when certain trains operated this way. Called “articulated” cars, they ran on select lines from the late 1920s through the 1960s, when stainless steel cars took over. Such bold experiments with trains cars mostly ceased after this, as many of today’s trains are leftover from the 1970s or earlier.
The tides could be turning soon for the United States, however. Of all states, Hawaii may be the first to introduce open gangway cars in 2018 in Honolulu. Even more promising is New York City’s bid to introduce gangway cars: in January of 2016, the MTA announced a plan to spend $52 million prototyping just such cars while replacing 40-year-old trains on two lines. Their goal, allegedly, is to roll out 10 new open gangway cars by 2020.
Why now? And how can we be certain what’s worked for other cities will fit the US, where cities and public systems are admittedly different?
Advantages and disadvantages
As with anything, it’s important to look at the pros and cons of the solution. The positives are pretty clear: open gangway cars add 5 feet of room between cars, thus allowing for more people and the freedom to move between cars. Because they are lighter, they are also more energy efficient. They are also arguably safer, as passengers won’t be isolated in a single car in the face of a threat.
Gangway dissenters have their own reasons to question the shift. For example, the New York City subway has an efficient system for coming to the aid of sick passengers, who are isolated in specific cars. If the cars were open, this isolation would be impossible, and the passenger might be difficult to locate.
Another potential issue is that making trains easier for passengers to roam could enable beggars, self-proclaimed preachers and other unsavory types — unleashing them on the entire train rather than leaving them beholden to, at the very least, one car per stop. Though not necessarily a negative, this also changes the game for subway performers, a staple of NYC subways.
Lastly, others wonder whether this is an adequate use of funds rather than a frivolity. With delays and crowding at a high, though, that’s likely to only be the opinion of those that don’t rely on public transportation to begin with.
Whether or not the concept will catch on in the United States and other countries that have yet to adopt remains to be seen, and it could be a while before we find out for certain. The only way to make progress with issues like this, though, is to test and test again instead of allowing crowds to keep piling in rusty old cars.
Featured image: Dickson Phua via Flickr