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Metro systems in Europe: A large market for asset replacement [free access]

December 1, 2009

Rapid transit systems, popularly referred to as metros, are emerging as an essential mode of public transport in Europe, particularly in large metropolitan cities. Since the launch of the first such system in the world, the London Underground in 1863, the metro technology has spread rapidly to 175 cities in 49 countries across the world. Of these, over 75 systems, covering a track length of about 3,500 km, are located in Europe.


Understanding the metro phenomenon


The International Association of Urban Transport (UITP) defines a metro as “a tracked, electrically driven local means of transport, which has an integral, continuous track bed of its own.” Existing metro systems in Europe are rail-based passenger systems comprising both underground and elevated sections. These systems are usually served by electric multiple units (EMUs), although monorails and magnetic levitations are also used in some locations. 


Other variations of the standard metro system also function commonplace in Europe, including the small-scale light metro and commuter rail hybrid S-Bahn. Basically, a system is classified as rapid transit based on its configuration and implementation. Typically such a system caters to intra-city passenger movement in urban areas. It is faster and higher in capacity than trams or light-rail systems, but slower than heavy commuter rail, with more limited reach.




One of the key advantages of the metro as a mode of public transport is its ability to speedily move a large number of people over short distances, using minimal surface area (especially in the underground stretches). Moreover, from the point of view of planner or developers, metros are grade separated and operate on designated lines that are not restricted to following existing street alignments. This gives transportation planners the freedom to choose more generously dimensioned curve radii and section gradients, thereby allowing higher overall commercial speeds within existing city infrastructure. This is especially useful for poorly planned cities, as well as heritage cities, several of which exist in Europe. 


Planners can also choose vehicle width and length to allow high carrying capacities (above 30,000 passengers per hour per direction). For instance, calculations produced by Régie Autonome des Transports Parisiens (RATP), France, indicate that to transport 50,000 passengers per hour in any direction, a metro system needs a 9 metres wide right-of-way, while a bus would require 35 metres and a private car 175 metres.


Due to their high capacity, metros play a key role in reducing congestion in rapidly growing cities. They also have a structuring influence on cities by ensuring dense development instead of urban sprawl; something which is clearly evident in European cities with old metro systems such as Paris and Madrid. 


Metros can easily form the backbone of the transportation network in a city, integrated with and feeding into other forms of public transport through well-designed interchanges. Such integration is clearly evident in some well-developed metro systems such as the London Underground, which is not just physically integrated with other modes of transport, but also allows unified intermodal ticketing/smart cards and allied services. From the consumers’ viewpoint, this makes metros and associated public transportation modes reliable, affordable and comfortable options.


In terms of energy efficiency, metros fare much better than buses and cars. For instance, according to the IUTP, one kg equivalent petrol will be consumed in travelling 48 km by metro, 38 km by bus and just 19 km by car. Since metros primarily depend on electricity, using renewable sources of energy can further decarbonise metro systems. For instance, the UK Committee on Climate Change estimates that decarbonising electricity supply in the UK from the present 500 grams carbon dioxide per kilowatt-hour to about 300 grams carbon dioxide per kilowatt-hour would reduce the carbon footprint of the London Underground by about 70 per cent.




All these benefits do not come cheap, which is one of the primary reasons for the concentration of metro systems in large cities with high population densities, where the demand for metro services justifies high capital costs and fares can be used to cover operational expenses. Given the huge investment component coupled with long gestation periods, metro projects are primarily funded by government agencies. Despite this, most mass-transit systems are unable to cover even their operational expenses.


However, experts agree that the socio-economic benefits of a metro outweigh the costs of a well-designed metro system integrated with the other transportation modes. This is the reason governments have been willing to invest in these systems and, quite often, heavily subsidise their operations.


Overview of European metros


Most recent figures suggest that the combined traffic on the 75 metro systems in Europe is 177 million passengers per km. Of the 75 systems, 13 can be found outside the European Union member states (the EU-27), in Belarus (1 system), Switzerland (1), Turkey (1), Ukraine (4) and Russia (6). Amongst the EU-27 countries,, metro systems have been developed in the UK (3), Sweden (1), Spain (6), Romania (1), Portugal (2), Poland (2), Norway (1), Netherlands (3), Italy (7), Hungary (1), Greece (1), France (7), Finland (1), Denmark (1), Czech Republic (1), Bulgaria (1), Belgium (3) and Austria (1).  Germany leads the count with 19 metro systems. Four of the top ten metro systems according to consumer surveys are located in Europe - the London Underground, the Paris Métropolitaine, and the metros in Moscow and Madrid.


Table: Metro systems in Europe


Systems (No.)







Beyond EU-27








 Source: World Metro Database, Metro Bits Organisation


Clearly, around 77 per cent of the existing metro length in Europe lies in the EU-27 countries. The geographical distribution of the systems is skewed in favour of Western Europe, since few Central and Eastern European countries initially invested in metro systems, deciding instead to expand their tramway systems. Further, there are large differences in the structural system characteristics across different countries.


Technology and fleet


In 2004-05, the total metro fleet in Europe amounted to 19,200 vehicles, in which the share of newly purchased rolling stock was fairly low. The share of new fleet built after 1990 ranges between 20-30 per cent for different countries.


Table: Metro fleet by decade of purchase


EU-15 countries*

New member states

Beyond EU-25

Prior to 1970
















2000 – present




Source: European Rail Research Advisory Council (ERRAC)

*The first formation of EU had 15 members only


Given European standards, a lifecycle of about 30 years is associated with metro rolling stock. Hence, during 2010-20, upto 4,300 cars procured during the 1970s are likely to be replaced. Already, many new orders for replacing old rolling stock have been placed with major rail manufacturers such as Bombardier, Alstom and Siemens. In addition, orders have been placed for rolling stock for new lines and extensions under construction, which are expected to be delivered during 2009-11.


Table: Publicly notified metro car orders for Europe in 2008-09



No. of metro vehicles ordered


London Underground














Source: Respective manufacturers’ public notifications

*: Estimate


Most new orders are being placed for air-conditioned cars fitted with modern technologies such as closed-circuit television (CCTV) camera surveillance, passenger information systems and internet connectivity. These new features are geared at enhancing the customer experience and thus increasing customer acceptability.


Further, automation and driverless operation are producing huge changes with their positive impact on service production and provision. Driverless technology which has become popular the world over, was pioneered in Europe as far back as 1987 on the London Underground. Today, there are ten driverless metro systems in operation in Europe. The other nine are in Italy, Germany, France and Denmark. 


Market size


The potential market size in Europe for new systems, replacements, extensions, rolling stock and advanced technologies is expected to swell, given the large number of proposed projects. In 2004, European railways and urban mass-transit operators generated an annual turnover of around EUR90 billion employing a workforce of about 1 million people, while the European rail supply industry generated an annual turnover of around EUR35 billion and employed more than 130,000 people. As indicators of market size, one can consider the research conducted by the ERRAC, which suggests that of the total business in the rail supply industry, over 50 per cent accrues from urban and regional railway systems.


In fact, more recent estimates (October 2008) suggest that the global rail market is valued at EUR125 billion, of which Europe and North America account for two-thirds share. However, while the world market is growing at a rate of 2-4 per cent per annum, the European rail market is growing below the average as Asia has taken over as the fastest growing market. Within Europe, forecasts by the Association of European Railway Industries suggest that the demand in Eastern European countries is likely to be higher than in Western Europe. Moreover, the growth in the light-rail segment is expected to be higher than in heavy metros. Nonetheless, in absolute terms, the European market for urban railway systems is very large and is expected to be propelled by ageing rolling stock and assets needing replacement and investments in new technology for signalling and communications.


Table: Average accessible world rail market 2003-05 (EUR million)

Region Infrastructure Rolling Stock Train Control Services Total
Western Europe 5,418 9,495 3,368 7,357 25,841
Eastern Europe 685 860 411 1,719 3,676
Global total 13,966 24,409 6,976 26,092 71,771*

Source: Association of European Railway Industries

*: includes EUR328 million for systems project integration  


Table: Region-wise market share (per cent)


Market share

Western Europe


North America




Other regions


Source: Association of European Railway Industries


Future Outlook


Metro systems in Europe play an indispensable part in providing fast and reliable transportation. To ensure successful metro operations, there has been an increasing focus on integration with other modes of transport, as well as enhancing the overall customer experience. In this context, various steps for the future are recommended by the different industry associations in Europe.

  1. Capacity additions: Since a large part of the European network is reaching capacity, new technologies and infrastructure are needed to meet rising travel demand in large cities.
  2. Operational efficiency and branding: Developing an attractive transportation system with modern amenities and a futuristic feel is essential in facilitating a shift to public transport via the metro. Seamless passenger transport is a key element in this context. Further, it is possible to reduce operational costs by optimising on existing capacity and promoting best practices.
  3. Green contribution: The environmental benefits achievable through a metro system should be maximised, which will call for new technologies such as automatic train regulation.
  4. Security: Despite the fact that rail is a safe form of travel, problems concerning personal security may be one of the biggest security risks in railway travel given the high number of passengers carried. This makes it necessary to promote initiatives focussed on increasing security.
  5. Facing competition: From the industry perspective, the Asian manufacturing industry in Japan, Korea and China will pose increasing competition to  European stakeholders. Steps must be taken early to ensure that European manufacturers maintain a competitive edge. Standardisation to facilitate interoperability is an important requirement in this regard, as it will allow for economies of scale, reduced time to market and lower technical risks.
  6. Research and development: A positive impact of research initiatives in Europe has been to strengthen the European rail sector; these initiatives should be encouraged.
  7. Appropriate funding methods:  To make metros sustainable and profitable, cost-effectiveness is essential. Innovative financing approaches, such as public-private partnerships and bond financing can be explored.


Despite the heavy investment required in metros, many new proposals have come up in Europe, indicating the continuing popularity of this mode in large cities. Going forward, planners could exploit the full potential of rapid transit systems by following the above recommendations and ensuring integrated inter-modal transport.