Shanghai’s Subway Looks to New York, but Not for Everything

Workers and Machines

What really separates the Shanghai subway, and those of other Chinese cities, from many Western counterparts is the speed of construction.

The Metropolitan Transportation Authority has used six giant tunnel-boring machines in recent years across the subway network. Shanghai has 60 such devices working on just one of the many new lines it is building or extending.

“Our working progress is faster than in Western countries — maybe we only take one or two years to finish” a task, said Zhou Xisheng, a 49-year-old deputy chief engineer for Shanghai Metro. “However, in foreign countries, it may take five to ten years.”

Shanghai does not just have more equipment, it also has cheaper labor. Heavy equipment operators earn about $1,000 a month here, a small fraction of what comparable workers earn in New York.

The overall effect is striking: China has completed more miles of subways than the rest of the world in each of the last two years, according to the Brussels-based International Association of Public Transport.

To be fair, a simple count of tunnel-boring machines and laborers is not enough to compare the challenges each city faces in building subway lines.

For starters, not all of New York’s subway construction even uses tunnel-boring machines: Some of it is done by cutting a very deep trench in the ground, laying the new line and then covering it.

A bigger difference is that New York has to cut through solid rock to make new tunnels, while Shanghai is digging through relatively soft, solidified mud left by rivers winding across the Yangtze River delta for millions of years. (But that mud creates another hazard that is less of a worry in New York’s firm bedrock: making sure that the roofs of Shanghai’s subway tunnels do not sag or leak water.)


New York City subway map and Shanghai Metro map.


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