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FEATURE: Adieu ‘grandmothers of the metro’

‘MOSCOW FOLKLORE’:The ‘grandmothers’ would issue reprimands through a microphone to anyone who broke the escalator rules before they were dismissed in April


Engineer Alexander Kovalyov poses in front of a control panel for the escalators at the Krasnaya Presnya metro depot in Moscow on March 14.

Photo: AFP

Older women sitting in cubicles at the bottom of escalators in the Moscow metro and ticking off anyone who breaks the rules were long a symbol of the iconic system, its stations adorned with chandeliers and mosaics, but the superannuated escalator watchers have fallen victim to a massive modernization drive of the 82-year-old subway network focused on catering to international fans during next year’s FIFA World Cup.

Nicknamed the “grandmothers of the metro,” the women, mostly in their 50s, had been an institution since the system opened in 1935.

The “grandmothers” would issue reprimands through a crackly microphone to anyone who broke escalator rules, like sitting on the steps or failing to hold onto the rail, or keeping to the right, but the “grandmothers” were dismissed in April as the metro system that carries more than 9 million passengers each day whizzes into the 21st century with changes including plummy-voiced English announcements, buskers, and new trains with Wi-Fi and mobile phone chargers.

The “grandmothers” have been replaced by “staff better trained on security rules,” metro spokeswoman Anastasia Fyodorova said.

For metro riders, it closes a chapter of “Moscow folklore,” said philosophy student Alexander Rybkov, who regularly travels on the red line, the system’s oldest.

“There are a lot of rules and I myself often got told off. Sometimes they shouted up at me louder than my mum does,” Rybkov said. “I was really fond of them, I’m going to miss them.”

Nevertheless, changes to the system are aimed at making it more user-friendly for foreigners and more similar to networks in other metropolises.

Russia is hosting the soccer World Cup in June next year, anticipating 1 million foreign visitors, and Moscow’s metro is preparing for the influx by advertising for English-speaking ticket staff, and making signs and announcements in English.

Other updated moves include being able to pay with credit cards at the ticket windows and buskers can play in designated spots next to a sign saying that giving money is strictly voluntary.

In moves aimed at locals, specially designed trains promote the state’s favorite causes — saving native tigers and leopards, or celebrating Russian cinema with an emphasis on World War II epics.

One train even tells the story of 20th century Russian art, carriage by carriage, to highlight the contemporary branch of the Tretyakov Gallery.

The Moscow metro is already a work of art in itself with station interiors showcasing the Soviet “Socialist Realist” style, with bronze statues and bright mosaics.

Modernization has also come to the Moscow metro’s crucial escalators as the system is the world’s third deepest, behind Kiev and Saint Petersburg’s smaller networks.

Stations in the city center were designed to have a dual use as bomb shelters and became a refuge for residents during World War II air raids.

Deepest of all is the escalator at Park Pobedy, or Victory Park, station, which is 126m deep and takes almost five minutes from top to bottom.

One of those keeping the escalators safe is engineer Alexander Kovalyov who works in machine rooms under passengers’ feet at Smolenskaya station, making a deafening row that almost drowns out speech.

“You get used to it,” he said, pressing a button on a dashboard that seems to have changed little since the station was built in 1952.

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