It’s not the biggest underground railway system in the world, it isn’t the prettiest, and it certainly isn’t the most efficient. But for the hundreds of thousands of people who use the Bucharest metro every day (over 650,000 daily journeys are made, to be precise) it’s the easiest, quickest and – walking aside – cheapest way to and from work. The first section, from Semanatoarea (now Petrache Poenaru) to Timpuri Noi, was opened by none other than Nicolae Ceausescu himself, on November 16, 1979.
In the beginningThe idea of building an underground railway in Bucharest was apparently first mooted in the 1930s, with construction allegedly due to begin in 1941. Alas, the war intervened, and it would be another four decades before construction began, in the summer of 1976.
Once it did begin, however, construction preceded at breakneck speed: the first part of the metro opening just over three years later. No mean feat, especially given that the mix of sedimentary rock and soft clay on which Bucharest sits made tunneling an engineering nightmare.
That the first section to open should be Semanatoarea to Timpuri Noi says much about the original purpose of the metro. As visitors to Bucharest are amongst the first to notice, the metro isn’t all that useful for traveling around the city centre. Damn right it isn’t: that was not what it was built for.
Indeed, the Bucharest metro is one of the most revealing legacies of the Ceausescu regime. It was designed to get workers from the massive housing estates built during the 1960s and 1970s (Titan, Militari) to the factories where they worked, as quickly and efficiently as possible, using as few resources as possible.
That’s why so many stations on the system (and almost every end-station) are (or at least were) home to an enormous industrial plant: Republica, Industriilor (now Preciziei), IMGB (now Berceni), Pipera, Semanatorea (now Petrache Poienaru), Timpuri Noi, Politehnica and Grozavesti. Earlier this year a number of these stations were renamed in a rather poor-taste attempt to airbrush this industrial past out of the system’s history. Fortunately, the old names continue to be used in the vernacular.
Today’s metroThere are currently four lines and a total of 45 stations on the Bucharest metro system. With the exception of the short spur up to Parc Bazilescu and the extension to Anghel Saligny, the metro as we know it today was completed in just 13 years. By the time the section from Gara de Nord to Dristor was opened in August 1989, an astonishing 39 stations and 57 km of tunnel had been built since 1976.
In stark contrast, it took almost 10 years to finish the 3.6 km 1 Mai branch (opened in 2000), and a further eight to complete the 4.75 km extension to Anghel Saligny (opened in 2008). Two more stations (Jiului and Parc Bazilescu opened in July 2011).
The M1 runs from Republica in eastern Bucharest via Gara de Nord to Dristor, looping around the city centre for much of the way. There is also a shuttle during weekdays from Republica to Pantelimon (a station which collectors of quirkiness will love: it has just one platform).
The M2 runs north-south, running through the city centre and ending up at IMGB, now known as Berceni.
There are two stations of note on the line: Piata Romana, a bizarre place with platforms hidden behind walls, and which looks very much like an afterthought. The reason? It was an afterthought. In the original plans there was no station here, it was added at the request of Elena Ceausescu, who overruled her husband, who had insisted the good people of Bucharest did not need a station there: they could walk up to Piata Victoriei. The end of the line, Berceni, is unique in being the only station on the whole Bucharest metro system which is above ground.
The M3 runs from Angle Saligny, at the very eastern edge of Bucharest, to Preciziei (formerly Industriilor). For much of its route it shares tunnels with the M1. The most recent line to open, the M4, currently runs from Gara de Nord to Parc Bazilescu.
It’s not all good newsThe Bucharest metro is not without its problems. For a start, finding an accurate map of the system is all but impossible. We post one above, but we had to design it ourselves.
Beyond the maps, signage on the system in general is totally useless. It can be very difficult sometimes to work out at which station you have arrived at: most locals know how each station looks and work out where they are that way. The best advice we can offer visitors is to work out how many stations they need to travel, and keep count!
And one more thing: lovers of what liberals call urban art should look out for older style rolling stock, usually covered in graffiti. You are most likely to see these trains on the M1 and M3.
Read about our Bucharest Metro Challenge here.