I'm a big geek and have always loved subways, trains and the like. To the point that, if I'm traveling, I feel like riding the subway in a given city is somehow a "more real" experience of the city than many other things. It's how the proletariat gets around. Trains are an equalizer... the rich sit next to the poor and get the same place at the same time, subject to the same delays.
Tonight, taking the San Francisco Bay Area's BART back to the Easy Bay from San Fran, I marveled at the Transbay Tube, a nearly 4-mile tunnel under San Francisco Bay that has dutifully withstood seismic events of all manner since 1974.
The BART is a great system, but I've been fortunate enough to travel all over the place and had a hop on the local transit system in many places. As such, here's a completely biased, unscientific ranking of the world's best transit systems that I've managed to come across. By the way... Boston is disqualified from making this list strictly because the green line stops at red lights. Unforgivable sin.
Also, this list is interested in major heavy rail systems. Seattle and Portland have lovely light rail systems. We're looking at city-wide, comprehensive subways here.
1) The London Tube
Let's hit the basics... any system that has terminals at places like "Elephant & Castle" and "Cockfosters" has a an extreme advantage to start with. But the comprehensiveness of London's Tube is truly remarkable. You can, at least from what I could gather, get anywhere from anywhere. And in a super congested city full of narrow European streets, that's not saying a little. It was also an amazingly intuitive system to figure out, even after only a few days. Bravo, London.
2) The New York City Subway
Another miracle of transit, that really only loses points on the fact that despite doing everything well for a remarkably low fare, it's, for all intents and purposes, still serving 1965 New York. That will change with some upcoming expansions, including the new 2nd Ave, line. Still, Queens is woefully underserved. That said... NYC has something unrivaled in the world of subway travel: express trains. Remarkable foresight by people building the NYC subway way back when. Because, really, what feeling is better than skipping all those stops?
3) The Paris Metro
The map looks something like London. The experience is nowhere close. The Paris Metro makes you acutely aware you are on the Paris Metro. From the sounds in the station, the amazingly annoying (yet distinctive) door closing noise (did the Blackhawks just score or something?) to the flip down seats by the door. This is not the Tube. But man if it doesn't get you where you need. And quickly.
4) The DC Metro
This is almost too pretty to be a subway. But it works, remarkably well. If the benchmark of a system is getting you from here to there with relative ease and getting you pretty much anywhere you want to go, this certainly does a good job. But, seriously, the architecture counts. It lacks the breadth of NYC - though it admittedly has less ground to cover - but it has style. NYC has character, but no one will ever call it elegant. DC pulls that off.
5) Chicago L
Let's run it down. You can take the train to both of the city's major airports. You can take it to the city's major sports venues. It is ubiquitous in the downtown "loop." Hell, it's called the Loop because of the bloody train. Wins points on the experience front, too, with major elevated sections and the distinctive churchbell door closing alert.
6) Stockholm Tunnelbana
Was here last summer for the second time and was pleased to see the system has almost entirely new trains from my original trip in 2000. Again, it goes just about everywhere and, in an interesting twist, is the last remnant of Sweden's history as a country that used to drive on the left. While cars easily made the shift to driving on the right, the Tunnelbana still runs on the left. So that's cool.
7) San Francisco BART/MUNI
This is really two systems, but with the Clipper Card, you can use both interchangeably. It would be nice if downtown San Fran was covered a bit better. But anyone who has ever had to drive to the East Bay at rush hour knows... the train is the way to go. Extra points for connecting to the region's two primary airports.
8) Prague Metro
This is a small subway in a small city. But damn if it isn't gorgeous in the stations. It goes most places you'd want to go (though I would have killed for a stop near Strahov Monastery) and, in a place where the language is not at all easy to pick up for an American, the system, down to what fare to pay, was easy to figure out.
This is obviously an incomplete list. Tokyo's system is legendary. Moscow's map is just begging for exploration. Toronto and Montreal could probably neatly fall into this list. It's a big world.
But riding the eight listed above have, at least in my opinion, shown me a side of all of these cities that a tour bus could never manage.