Elevated Rails to Skytrains

The Elevated Transit Rail system is not a new type of transit solution, but for many cities it is an “un-preferred” one. Specifically in many western cities, elevated mass transit rail systems were some of the first rail solutions for mass transit. The idea is a simple one; build railways elevated above the roads so that they will not interfere with road traffic below. Earlier on, these elevated railways were technically more feasible than underground railways, and were also cheaper to build.

No 1 Train on Elevated Subway Tracks, Inwood, New York City

Elevated Subway in NYC- Photo credit: Flickr user jag9889

CTA Elevated "L" Train System, Van Buren Street, Chicago, Illinois, USA

"L" Train in Chicago - Photo credit: Flickr user MD111

Difficulties came with these elevated railways after construction, when residents began to see them as blight within their community. Specifically the older railway systems such as the elevated subways in New York City or the “L” in Chicago are quite unappealing – at best. Not only are these tracks very loud, but they depress views from buildings along thier path and are much more vulnerable to the weather such as rain or snow.

NYC Subway being cleared of snow after a storm

With these observations in mind it is curious to note that there is a very successful and

Bangkok BTS or "Skytrain"

somewhat beloved elevated railway in the developing world, known as the Skytrain. The Skytrain or BTS is located in Bangkok, Thailand and consists of two lines and 25 stations. It was named the “Skytrian” by the press during the planning process and since its inception, construction and completion has become one of the preferred and well-loved modes of transportation in Bangkok.

An Earlier Version of the Skytrain Map

Skytrain Elevated Railways

As one can see the Bangkok Skytrain looks vastly different to earlier elevated railways and it is based on these differences that it has grown to be successful. With over 500,000 daily trips on the skytrain, the BTS is financially sound enough to cover daily expenses of operations. What makes the Skytrain an interesting success story is the acceptance and general public interest in the system. While elevated railways in other cities could be looked upon with frustration, the monorail design, quieter trains, sleeker construction and looks, connected elevated “skywalks” from the stations to neighboring buildings and relative cleanliness and efficiency of the rail line has led it to success.

View from one of the "Skywalks"

The Skytrains themselves are also very easy for tourists to use; they contain Thai and English signs and announcements, are relatively inexpensive (compared to Western systems – but are certainly expensive for lower income Thai workers) and have air-con and video screens playing music videos and commercials inside the trains.

Skytrain Signs and System Map

Many stations are connected to extensive “skywalks” connecting the Skytrain to malls, offices and residence buildings. There are many small kiosk-like shops and stairs and escalators at many of the stations to the street level.

Skytrain Entrance

The success with the Skytrain can also be noted for a few other important factors. In the 1990’s when the system was envisioned and constructed, Bangkok was world-renowned (and probably still is) for its extensive traffic and congestion. Any type of relief was greatly appreciated. Next the BTS is strategically located in an area of “New Bangkok” – a relatively recent development of the Bangkok Skyline. The newer office buildings and residences lacked the same community or sense of protective outcry that there would have been if the skytrain was built in the “Old Bangkok” area; near most of the city’s famous temples and monuments. The BTS lines also are connected to an Underground Subway Line (MRT), a Bus Rapid Transit line (BRT) and another elevated line running express to the International Airport (SRT) creating an integrated mass transit system to get around large sections of the city.

A Map of the Current Skytrain System with MRT (Underground), BRT (Rapid Bus) and SRT (Express Rail) run lines shown

Currently there are extensions under construction to lengthen both Skytrain lines and a second express elevated rail line (managed by a different organization – SRT) that will hook up with the Skytrain. The impact of these other mass transit systems and lines on the Skytrain’s use and functionality is beyond the scope of this post but it is interesting to see how some cities can not only use but can fully embrace elevated rails.


City Beautiful: Subway (sound)Tracks

When taking public transit most of us prefer  to block out the squeaks and dings, the gum smacker in the next seat, and the screeeeeches of tracks, tourists and babies – we tend to pipe our own soundtracks directly into our ear canal and watch the city go by in peace. But maybe we’re missing out on something, the little rhythms produced by hulking trains moving people around, the soundtrack created unintentionally by transit infrastructure itself?

New York Public Radio’s Remix the Rails contest chose a winner last Friday – they invited musicians to “transform ordinary subway sounds from the New York City subway into extraordinary music.” Below you can take a listen to the winning entry from Lucas Carpenter, called “This is the Train” (impressive if you can listen without a side-to-side head bob):

In a more conceptual project combining transit data and sound, Google designer Alexander Chen’s Conductor project took New York subway lines, animated them, and turned the moving “trains” into a pluckable  instrument:

Conductor turns the New York subway system into an interactive string instrument. Using the MTA’s actual subway schedule, the piece begins in realtime by spawning trains which departed in the last minute, then continues accelerating through a 24 hour loop.

See it in action here (give it a minute to get going):

The design is based on Massimo Vignelli’s elegantly abstract 1972 subway map, which some loved, some hated, but most agree that regardless of its utility for not getting lost it does look pretty cool.

Massimo Vignelli's 1972 Subway Map | Courtesy of Visual Complexity

Granted, New Yorkers spend a lot of time on the subway and it’s quite loud underground, but have musicians and designers in other big cities turned noise into anything ipod-worthy?