Subway Terms

Our reader Dmitry wrote to ask about subway words. Dmitry, if you are confused about American subway terms, I think that’s not surprising! Only a few cities in the US have subways, so most Americans don’t live near one. (I didn’t live in an area with a subway or metro until I was 21 years old and moved to California.) As a result, we don’t use subway-related words very often. To confirm my guesses, I asked some of my friends to find out what words they use. Some people had firm answers. Other people weren’t sure. And some people said “I’ve never gone on a subway, so I don’t know!”

BART Train exterior drawing by SteveLambert at

I live in the San Francisco Bay Area, and we have several public transportation systems run by different counties and cities. BART (Bay Area Rapid Transit) is a kind of light rail line. Sometimes the trains go underground, like subways, and sometimes they go above ground. I live near a BART station which is also a transit hub: several different bus lines and bus systems stop at this station.

Dmitry also asked about the connection between two subway stations.

If it’s underground, I would call it a “tunnel.” I might say “Going through the tunnels while riding on BART makes me nervous, because I’m worried about earthquakes.” If I am looking at a subway map, I might say “section.” However, my friend who works in public transportation says it’s a “line.” But we rarely need to use these words for subways, because in most cases we would just say “It’s 3 minutes from the Fremont station to the Union City station.”

Dmitry also asked about stations where you can change lines. Most of my American friends said that this is a “transfer point” or “transfer station.” However, we all agree that usually we use the verb form here: “You should transfer from the Richmond line to the Pittsburg line at Macarthur Station.” Some of my friends who speak more British-style English said that they would say “interchange,” but that’s not common in the USA. We all feel that a “hub” is either 1) a central station where a lot of subway lines meet, or b) a station where different systems connect, such as the bus, the trolley, and the subway.

If you need to use these words in conversation, find out what the local people call these things. If you need to use these words in writing or outside the US, don’t worry about it. Your meaning will probably be clear from the context.

I hope this answers Dmitry’s question! Thanks for asking.

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