For Fast Rides and Great Art, Try Moscow's Metro

Under communism or capitalism, subway is a subterranean success

Where can you go for 29 cents? If you're in Moscow, almost anywhere. For example, you could travel the 27 miles from Medvedkovo to Bittsevskii Park and be pretty sure you'll get there in 55 minutes and 30 seconds - though you might want to set aside an hour just to be on the safe side.

Belying the widespread impression of contemporary Russia as simultaneously shackled by Soviet-style bureaucracy and preyed upon by untamed capitalism, the Moscow Metro, or subway, does its job with efficiency and elegance.

Famed for the majestic marble halls, stained glass, and intricate mosaics in many of its stations, the Metro evokes pride in Muscovites and awe in visitors. Yet far from being merely ornamental, it is a functioning system that shuttles 9 million passengers daily, with trains running as punctually under democracy as they did under totalitarianism.

"It's more reliable [than ground transport]," says Mikhail, a Muscovite and frequent Metro rider, as he waits for a train. "It stays on schedule. If you find yourself in the Metro, you know that you'll definitely leave and arrive [on time]."

At 89 seconds, the average wait between trains during rush hour is hardly noticeable. Because of its speed and dependability, most Muscovites prefer the Metro to the city's buses, trolleys, and streetcars.

In addition to providing reliable and rapid transportation, the older sections of the Metro - with their grandiose, cathedral-like halls and depictions of Soviet workers and war heroes - do double duty as subterranean showcases of Stalin's achievements. Unlike his other architectural projects, the Metro was virtually impervious to air raids during World War II; some of the stations even served as bomb shelters.

Fancy stations actually make good economic sense, says Metro head Dmitri Gayev. It's less expensive in the long run to build marble walls and granite floors than "asphalt floors and who-knows-what kind of walls" that quickly fall apart. "And if you use granite and marble, of course you must present it in an artistically adequate way," he says.

Unlike many of his counterparts in the public sector, Mr. Gayev can afford to think about the long term. The government has not cut off its Soviet-era subsidies to the Metro the way it has for most industries. The federal government provides all funds for Metro expansion, and the city makes up the difference between operation costs and the Metro's earnings.

The federal and city governments continue to support the Metro because it is vital to Moscow's transportation network.

While Moscow's poorly maintained streets are increasingly choked by traffic jams, the underground network of track, carrying 54 percent of public transport passengers, pumps life into the metropolis.

The Metro does its share as well: It earns back 77 percent of its operating costs, in contrast with the Paris and New York subways, which are only 40 and 58 percent self-sufficient, respectively.

"Everybody carries his own suitcase," says Gayev, referring to the cooperation among the federal government, the city government, and the Metro administration. "Though some parties don't always fulfill their responsibilities, the principle exists, works, and allows the Metro to develop."

While the widespread appreciation of the Metro's essential service has kept funds rolling in, the system has not been spared entirely from the budget-balancing knife. Recent legislation has effectively cut the level of federal investment for construction in mid-year, leading to protests by Metro construction workers.

Where it can, however, the Metro tries to be a generous employer. The metro gives most of its employees 36 paid vacation days per year and runs low-cost resorts and day-care centers for its workers. "We didn't give any of that up [after the fall of the Soviet Union]," Gayev says. "We want to be attractive to our employees."

What seems attractive to most workers is simply the stability that comes with a job at the Metro.

Victor Anosov, a seasoned train driver who supervises rookie drivers, says that increasingly, new drivers have higher education and come from managerial positions at factories that have closed down. "Everyone understands that the Metro isn't going to close," he explains.

The approximately $155 monthly salary that a Metro escalator guard earns is close to the average wage in this country. But, in contrast with many other Russian workers, the escalator guard can be sure of receiving the full sum each month.

Drivers do even better: Experienced ones like Sergei Grishin receive about $390 a month. Still, it's not a lot, considering that Mr. Grishin is alone responsible for the safety of the up to 2,000 passengers that crowd into his eight cars during rush hour.

Though new employees are steadily joining the Metro as it expands, the Metro itself and its work ethic have withstood the shocks of economic transition. Since the Metro has always functioned effectively, it didn't experience any major upheavals after the breakup of the Soviet Union. The Metro's management wisely stuck with what worked.

"I think that the Metro has managed to do its job only because practically nothing has changed," Mr. Anosov says. Though there have been personnel shifts, he says, they have been "for professional, not political reasons."

"Above-ground transport is literally standing still these days," says entrance guard Valentina Yuneyeva. "But we're going."

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