London Underground Vs Beijing Subway

By Londonist Last edited 10 months ago
London Underground Vs Beijing Subway

We've already been to Moscow, Tokyo and New York. The next stop on our world tour, pitting the London Underground against other subway systems, takes us to China, and the mighty Beijing Subway.

Photo by Oemaix


Both Beijing and London have multimodal transport cards where travellers can touch in and out. Beijing has the Yikatong (一卡通), while, of course, London has the ubiquitous Oyster card. That said, London is streets ahead if you happen to have left your travel card in your other chinos, with breezy alternatives such as contactless and Apple Pay.

Without a Yikatong in Beijing, you're either standing in a line 100-deep to buy a ticket from the kiosk, or trying to buy one from a machine. A machine that has no card payment option, only takes a minimum CNY 10 note for a CNY 3 fare (and therefore runs out of change pretty darn fast) or uses coins, in a city with less metallic currency usage than London. Meaning that you're either adding half an hour to your journey through queuing, or weighing yourself down with useless coinage ‘just in case’. No contest, London wins

Photo by Li Yong


Beijing has the world's second largest subway system, with 18 lines, 319 stations and at the time of writing, 527km of track. Ridership in 2014 was 3.14bn, and the network is likely to continue its rise with current plans to almost double the length of the existing network to 1,050km by 2020.

The tube doesn't even come close in terms of scale, being as it is currently the 11th largest subway system on the planet. Its 11 lines, 270 stations, 402km of railtrack and annual ridership of 1.265bn in 2014 are way behind its Chinese counterpart, and the gap is only going to widen, even taking Crossrail into account.

With such an almighty trouncing on the cards, what does London possibly have up its sleeve? Try convenience. Even with Beijing's network size, stations are positioned very far apart — usually a kilometre or more. The grid-type layout of the Beijing Subway also makes getting from A to B very difficult if it's not a simple N-S or E-W transit. Try to imagine the tube without the Piccadilly, Bakerloo and Victoria lines giving you easy access to cut across town in a diagonal fashion and you get the idea of the current Beijing Subway setup. Size does matter. But not always. Draw

Photo by Valentina Yachichurova


The new London Underground trains on the Circle, Hammersmith and City and Metropolitan lines are admittedly smart. They even have — wait for it — air conditioning. It's also nice to be able to get a brief wi-fi signal when at major stations to refresh your Twitter feed or ping out another Whatsapp. Now imagine if that sort of luxury was the norm — full air conditioning, stacks of standing room and an actual 3G connection, even in tunnels. Beijing has this and more — the carriages are disinfected daily (this is written on a panel to let you know) and it has plastic seats on all lines that you can actually consider sitting down. Unlike the Bakerloo line. We think we still have the bites from last time... Beijing wins

Information and navigation

At Londonist that we love an alternative Tube map, but we must admit that the official TfL tube map is one of the cleanest and clearest subway network maps we’ve ever seen; the fact there are only 15 lines represented, that it's monolingual, and remains an artistic marvel after over 150 years in business.

The Beijing Subway map (see above) is very helpfully bilingual and uses the same types of bold colours and clear lines the tube map does to make it easy to read — or as easy to read as it could be given the huge amount of information it conveys.

So with the maps it’s pretty even, but getting back above ground in the right place is where you see the major differences.

Imagine you’re new to London, or better yet, have decided to choose to ride the Central line. You get off at a station you’ve never been to before (say, Oxford Circus…) and you want to go to Selfridges. Which exit do you take? You know Selfridges is sort of out on to Oxford Street and turn left, but which of the eight exits will point you in the right direction? If you ask us, this is one of the main reasons tube stations get so darn busy — re-emerging into the sunlight can be a confusing experience.

Beijing does have the advantage of having been centrally planned and organised into a grid, unlike the organic ebb and flow of modern London. With the subway lines pretty much following the roads above ground, stations are positioned at crossroads with exits to the NW-NE-SE-SW, all labelled A-B-C-D. So when you’re coming out of Dongsishitiao station to head to the Sanlitun bar street that’s to the east, you take exits B or C depending on what side of the road you need to be on. This neat trick works pretty much everywhere; even when there’s no Exit C, Exit D will still be there on the southwest corner. Beijing wins

Photo by Yuqi Wang


Most of the Beijing Subway isn’t even old enough to own a Facebook account, but with literally billions upon billions of whatever currency you wish to count in washing around Chinese public infrastructure projects, you’d expect they'd have drawn on their rich cultural heritage to create some striking buildings and fascinating designs. You’d be wrong — most stations are the kind of drab, non-descript structures people build for functionality over form, while the closest it gets to ‘artistic’ are a few murals along Line 1 and Line 2 (which are, incidentally, the only lines on the Beijing Subway around while Mao Zedong was in a typically ‘cultural’ mood.)

Simply put, London is in a different league when it comes to subway beauty. We particularly love the modern airiness of Westminster and Canary Wharf stations, while Baker Street brings a touch of Sherlock Holmes-style class that shows you don’t need oodles of glass and sleek steel to be beautiful. There’s no competition in this beauty contest. London wins

Final Score

London 2, Beijing 2. Both subways have their own pros and cons and are equally loved and despised for different reasons. A bit like the Opening Ceremonies at their respective Olympics then. Disagree? Fuel the fire in the comments below.

By Gareth Richards

Last Updated 28 July 2017


Comparisons based on my experience this Easter....

Price!!! Short trips in Beijing are only about 30p.
Platforms.... generally much more space in Beijing. No "kettling" like I had in the ticket hall at Leicester Square on Saturday because platforms were full. Well, it's new, so this would be expected.
Queueing and access... Unlike London, Beijingers let people off the train first, before they all pile in, when it becomes survival of the fittest, but with no aggression. No queuing needed in the evenings when we were there, not even for tickets.
Necessity... One stop on the tube could take 40 minutes by road in the centre of Beijing. Traffic even worse than London.

I love tubes. (and London and Beijing) :-)


You start by looking at 'Size' making the point of Beijing's mammothness but suddenly you conclude that this category is actually about 'Convenience'? Why not have a separate category for that.

As other poster noted, price, hello, TfL have made it their thing to keep hiking up prices to regulate volume (and admittedly co-finance Europe's largest urban transport project).


For my experiences, price wins on the Beijing Metro. Other positive factors are that trains are punctual and frequent and are scrupulously clean. Announcements and signs are in English and Chinese, and the exit system as described above proved useful on so many occasions including a useful rendezvous point. 3G & WiFi is only accessible for those who have appropriate network access which for non-locals may be problematic, but nonetheless it can be useful. However, the Internet restriction in China can make things frustration for foreigners.

Both networks suffer from overcrowding and it can be a battle getting on or off crowded trains. Both London's Central Line or Beijing's Line 1 are notoriously crowded during rush hour. Whether it's improved, I cannot comment, but the last time I was in Beijing in 2013, I found that most commuter simply barged onto trains before letting passengers off the train first.

The biggest drawback with Beijin's subway network was that there were fewer stations beyond the third ring. Indeed while living less than 10 km south of Tiananmen Square in 2009-2010 I still had to get a bus to Qianmen a few stops north in order to get a subway train.

The other slight drawback is the Beijing subway symbol does not stand out as well as London's iconic roundel. So finding a station can be much easier for those unfamiliar with the area in London than in Beijing.

Overall I prefer Beijing's subway


Double points to Beijing for actually investing sufficiently in its transit network to expand capacity to meet the demands of the city. Since 2001, Beijing has built 16 lines... London? We've had a refurbishment of the (already-existing) East London Line, a one-stop extension to Heathrow T5, and a bit more DLR. Yes, London pays more attention to the needs and concerns of its residents when building lines - but the pace at which new lines are developed (e.g. Crossrail 2) is painful.

As for convenience - Beijing may have more widely spread stations, but it is a heck of a lot more convenient to get from one place in the suburbs to another in Beijing, as they have a several orbital routes. Try getting from High Barnet to Cockfosters in London...

Rex the runt

Our tube network is older, so bound to be complicated. 30p fares - now this IS putting the people/workers first!! However, when it comes to sitting on a cold, hard, plastic seat...I rest my case! Re-nationalise the "part-private" part of our transport system & charge 30p/better still make it FREE!

Mary Wickham

I've just returned from four years in China and now I'm on the London Underground five days a week. It's expensive, really noisy, always stopping because of signal problems, people rush and push all the time and only occasionally give up seats to pregnant women, the elderly and those with babies and young children. I could go on and on. How I miss my old commute on the Beijing subway - cheap, fast, clean and only rarely do you have to change more than once.

Dami Agunbiade

I have to say when i look at both the systems i have to say that they are both good and they do what they are suppose to which is to get people from A to B. But i have to represent London though here because they are just alot more convenient.

I mean how can you build stations which are more than 1km away. At least in London they actually put stations close by. Most journeys are only about 10 mins to an hour or even less. And also even though the train seats aren't always the cleanest they are alot better looking and more spacious than most of the Beijing train stock they seem to be using. I will always back London 100% over any country, London has it all.


This is not really comparing like with like. Beijing 'subway' includes Line 13, which is entirely above ground. China's equivalent of National Rail does not run any commuter services at all - even lines within the Beijing municipal limits might only get a dozen trains a day . All the city's commuter services are branded as 'Subway'. A better comparison would be Beijing Subway vs London Undergound+Overground+DLR+TfL Rail+large parts of Southeastern, Southern, and South West Trains. That would rather improve London's performance on several measures.

Captain Lallana

I went to Beijing with a tour in 1999. I still remembered when it was only a two-line system. It only became this big after 2013.