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Uncharacteristic civility
I found myself telling people who have never been to Europe to just walk down to Tehran's subway stations

By Ben Bagheri
December 28, 2001
The Iranian

On a recent trip to Iran, I was introduced to Tehran's newest public transportation amenity. The metro is a decidedly higher level of urban experience. From a tourist's point of view, it is a great experience and I recommend it to anyone who travels to the capital.

For an average Tehrani, living in a large megapolis had meant lots of wasted time, smog inhalation and unpleasant social experiences in an outdated, faulty public transportation infrastructure. The new subway system I saw a few months ago, if expanded and maintained properly, is a much needed relief. See video clip

Seeing and riding the metro for the first time is quite pleasant. It has a European feel (as Iranians say "kheylee khaarejee-ye!"). The brightly-colored orange chairs, placed in groups of 3, 4 or 5 against station walls are perhaps one of the first impressions that make the metro experience feel so "foreign", in spite of an attempt to use Persian design themes and architecture throughout the subway system.

The bright chairs seem loud and out of character, compared to other public venues that have a much more conservative look with dark gray, black and brown colors that have marked the Islamic Republic era.

Other factors for the foreign feel are smells and sounds. I have ridden the subway systems in many European and American cities where that same slight smoky haze and distinct smell exists -- even in systems where cars are electric, which makes you wonder where the smoke comes from!

The squeaky, klanky noise made by the trains as they near the station, or depart, makes for another familiar and universal identifying factor.

So, I found myself telling people who have never been to Europe to just walk down to one of these subway stations. You can be sure that down there you're seeing and experiencing what a Londoner , Washingtonian or Moscovite experiences. Although yours truly believes the Tehran metro stations and trains are much cleaner and spacious than the London underground and maybe even better than the Paris metro.

Another impression is the cleanliness of it all. In stark contrast with the rest of Iran's dusty, unorganized, old and tired-looking capital, Tehran metro is still crisply clean and brand new. It runs on time, and apparently with very few technical glitches.

The stations are very well designed, spacious, well lit and well maintained. At 500 rials (less than 10 cents) the single-ride ticket is quite a bargain by any measure. See ticket

Each station is designed and decorated in a different theme suing generous amounts of expensive marble, with wall sized murals as main artistic feature of each station, seen from the transiting trains [Metro murals]. All stations, as well as all trains, are air-conditioned and quite comfortable, offering a refuge from the hot Tehran summer up on the street level.

The underground portion of the metro consists of two lines, Red and Blue. The Red Line stretches north-south, currently connecting the trendy Mirdamad Street in near north Tehran down to Ali Abad, which is a predominently low income suburb in far south of Tehran. This line will soon extend its southern reach beyond Aliabad, all the way to Ayatollah Khomeini's tomb, next to Behesht-e Zahra Cemetery.

The Blue line stretches east-west, connecting Imam Hossein Square (formerly Fawzieh) in east Tehran to Azadi Monument (formerly Shahyad).

These two subway lines cross at the main station meet at Imam Khomeini Square (formerly Toopkhaneh). The third stretch of new rail service works above ground and connects a station north of Azadi Monument to the city of Karaj, located some 60 miles west of Tehran.

The Karaj trains use double decker cars and cost more than inner city subway service to ride.

One deficiency I noticed was that very few stations have working escalators. Worst are stations where escalators are to be installed have been roped off, with future installation dates posted. So I would imagine that for now, the elderly and certainly the handicapped would have a hard time using the metro. All stations are due to have operating escalators by mid-2003.

One day I was waiting for a southbound train in the Haft-e Tir (25 Shahrivar) station when I noticed a man walking to one end of the platform. He picked up a piece of trash and walked back several steps to throw it in a trash can. This is quite out of character for a Tehrani to care so much about keeping a public place clean!

I was pleasantly surprised that people knew the metro system is something special, to be protected and preserved! Maybe it's just the squeaky-clean feel and the convenience of using the subway for the first few times. Or maybe, as suspected by the cynical Iranian in me, it's the realization of the price Iranians have paid for their first subway experience; but people seem to be using their first subway system with an uncharacteristic amount of civility and gentleness.

After all, before its final opening to anxious Tehranis, the Tehran Metro went through several decades of construction, deadly accidents, contract after contract with numerous foreign technology partners, as well as broken promises by politicians about opening dates. The 8-year Iran-Iraq war was a major factor in pushing the metro down in the government's priorities, resulting in a much-delayed debut in 2001!

There are also rumors of enormous financial corruption in metro appropriations over the decades. But however funded and built, the metro is an absolute necessity for Tehran. The government must put the future expansion of this system at the highest possible priority.

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By Ben Bagheri

Fatures index


Metro meets Tehran
A revolutionary moment in the urban history of Tehran
By Kamran Rastegar

Metro murals
Photo essay: Murals at Tehran metro stations
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