Track Record: The Biggest Metro in the World

For more than a century and a half, the world’s biggest metro, rapid transit and underground systems have played a pivotal role in shaping the urbanisation of modern cities. They’ve revolutionised the daily commute and changed the way people travel around the biggest cities, so where is the world’s biggest subway system?

Building Big Engineering
2 February 2024

The contenders for the biggest metro in the world are vital arteries of the urban body, catalysing social and economic vitality. These intricate networks of subterranean railways not only alleviate surface traffic congestion but also significantly reduce urban air pollution and carbon emissions. By offering a reliable, efficient, and eco-friendly mode of transportation, the biggest metro system in each of the world’s major cities have transformed urban travel, fostering a more connected and accessible cityscape.

This transformative impact extends beyond mere convenience, influencing urban planning, economic growth, and quality of life in densely populated areas. Here are the runners and riders for the world’s biggest subway system.

A Brief History of Subterranean Railways

Early underground steam trains (Credit: UniversalImagesGroup / Contributor via Getty Images)

The roots of the world’s biggest metro systems began to grow in the mid-nineteenth century. The world’s first rapid transit system, the London Underground, or the Tube, was inaugurated in 1863 and marked the beginning of a global urban transit revolution.

Initially powered by steam and later electrified, these early systems set the blueprint for modern metro networks around the world. As urban populations grew, the need for efficient mass transit solutions became vitally important. This evolution was characterised by technological advancements, increased route lengths, deeper tunnels, and more sophisticated train and station designs. These changes were not just a response to growing demand but also a reflection of the continued advancement of engineering and technology.

Today, there are over 200 metro systems in more than 60 countries, but which one is the world’s largest underground system?

Measuring the Biggest Metro in the World

Train arriving at New York subway station. (Credit: C T Aylward via Getty Images)

Determining the world’s biggest metro system, however, is not a straightforward task and there are several metrics which can be used. Each metric offers a different perspective on what may constitute the biggest metro system in the world. For instance, while one system may boast the longest routes, another might handle the highest number of daily or annual passengers. Additionally, the socio-economic impact of these systems, such as job creation and urban regeneration, also contributes to their ‘size’ in a broader sense.

The most commonly-used metrics include system length, number of stations, number of lines or annual ridership. For this article, the metric that has been used is route length, i.e. the length of track used for passengers, not including sidings, service tracks, and freight-only tracks.

Madrid Metro | Madrid, Spain

A train arrives at a subway station on the Madrid Metro. (Credit: Rudy Sulgan via Getty Images)

System Length: 293 km / 182 mi | Stations: 276 | Lines: 13

The Metro de Madrid, the third-biggest metro system in Europe, opened in October 1919. Around 571 million journeys were taken in 2022. After the first journey, taken by King Alfonso XIII and his family from Cuatrao Caminos to Sol, he praised the engineers for creating a miracle.

Interestingly, the trains on the Madrid Metro are left-hand running because Spain drove on the left-hand side of the road until 1924, five years after the rapid transit system opened.

Delhi Metro | Delhi, India

Aerial shot of lights of Delhi metro station. (Credit: Amlan Mathur via Getty Images)

System Length: 351 km / 218 mi | Stations: 231 | Lines: 10

One of the newest rapid transit systems in the world, the Delhi Metro began operating in December 2002 and is India’s busiest metro rail system, with an annual ridership of almost 1.8 billion people.

There are ten, colour-coded lines – red, yellow, blue, green, violet, orange (also known as the Airport Express Line), pink, magenta and grey – and as well as being one of the world’s largest underground system networks, it’s also one of the most eco-friendly, reducing annual carbon emission levels in Delhi by 630,000 tonnes.

New York City Subway | New York, USA

The Main Street station in Flushing, New York (Credit: Bruce Yuanyue Bi via Getty Images)

System Length: 399 km / 248 mi | Stations: 424 | Lines: 28

The world’s biggest metro system by number of stations, the New York Subway opened on October 27, 1904 between City Hall Station in Manhattan and 145th Street Station in Harlem. Over 150,000 people paid 5¢ to make the 9.1 mile trip on the opening day.

In 2022, almost 1.8 billion passengers used the subway, and on October 15, 2015, the system registered its highest ever daily ridership, with more than 6.2 million journeys.

London Underground | London, UK

Battersea Power Station on the Northern Line (Credit: coldsnowstorm via Getty Images)

System Length: 402 km / 250 mi | Stations: 272 | Lines: 11

The world’s first underground passenger railway opened on January 10, 1863. It carried 38,000 passengers on the opening day in gas-lit wooden carriages pulled by steam locomotives between Farringdon and Paddington.

One of the world’s largest underground system networks is in fact only 45% underground. The newest line, the Elizabeth Line named in honour of HM Queen Elizabeth II, opened in May 2022. As well as being the oldest metro system in the world, it’s also one of the busiest, with an annual ridership of over a billion.

Moscow Metro | Moscow, Russia

Mayakovskaya Metro station in Moscow (Credit: Lingxiao Xie via Getty Images)

System Length: 449 km / 279 mi | Stations: 263 | Lines: 15

Serving around 2.5 billion passengers a year, the Moscow Metro is the busiest metro system in Europe and the biggest subway system in the world outside China. Serving Moscow as well as the neighbouring cities of Reutov, Lyubertsy, Kotelniki and Krasnogorsk, it’s only the third metro system around the world with two ring lines (Beijing and Madrid being the other two).

The Moscow Metro opened in May 1935 with an eleven kilometre line serving thirteen stations. Indeed a number of the stations are tourist sites in their own right due to their stunningly ornate designs, including Ploshchad Revolyutsii, Novoslobodskaya, Frunzenskaya, and Park Pobedy.

Beijing Subway | Beijing, China

Rush hour at an underground train station of the Beijing Subway. (Credit: DuKai photographer via Getty Images)

System Length: 836 km / 519 mi | Stations: 490 | Lines: 27

The seven biggest metro system networks in the world can all be found in China, including Hangzhou (516 km / 321 mi), Shenzhen (555 km / 345 mi), Guangzhou (652 km / 405 mi), and Shanghai (802 km / 498 mi) but the biggest metro in the world is the Beijing Subway.

A relative newcomer to the list – it didn’t begin operating until January 1971 – it has an annual ridership of almost 3.9 billion. The 27 lines include 22 rapid transit lines, two airport links, two light rail lines and a maglev line.

As recently as 2002, the Beijing Subway had just two lines, and expansion plans currently underway are believed to take the system length close to 1,000 km (621 miles), with a capacity to serve almost nineteen million daily trips.

The Enduring Impact of the Underground

Subway metro underground tunnel with blurry rail tracks. (Credit: ViewApart via Getty Images)

The biggest subway system networks in the world are monumental achievements in urban development, effortlessly weaving through the heart of cities connecting millions of lives.

These systems embody the relentless pursuit of efficiency, sustainability, and connectivity in an ever-evolving urban landscape. They’re not just transit networks, but lifelines that sustain the economic, social, and environmental health of our cities. As the world’s biggest metro systems continue to expand and modernise, they remain pivotal in shaping the future of urban living.


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