Southern Brooklyn

A Brief History of the Subway System: Part 4 of 6

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Photo courtesy of the U.S. National Archives.

THE COMMUTE: In Part 1, we discussed the rail and elevated lines which preceded the first subway. In Part 2, we started discussing the Dual Contracts. Yesterday, we discussed decline of the elevated system and the rise of the subway system. Today, we continue discussing the subways’ decline and its renaissance.

The Decline of the Subways

What if the automobile had not become so popular and highways were not built to accommodate them? Surely rapid transit would have continued to flourish. Instead, you can count on your fingers the number of new subway stations  constructed and opened since the end of World War II. When you consider all the Els that were demolished and not replaced, there are less rapid transit miles in service today than there were right before World War II.

With declining subway and elevated usage since World War II, there also came a decline in maintenance and a rise in fares.

The first increase occurred in 1948, when the nickel fare became a dime. Five years later it rose to 15 cents.

Politicians afraid of losing reelection after raising the fare again so soon created the New York City Transit Authority (NYCTA) in 1953 to take over the responsibilities of the Board of Transportation. They moved into a new building on Jay Street in Downtown Brooklyn meant for the now-defunct Board, which was why the building was named the “Transportation Building” rather than the New York City Transit Authority Building. It retained that name until being vacated.

The politicians believed the creation of an authority would insulate them from future fare increases, and the NYCTA could be their whipping boy. Still afraid of reprisals from the public on Election Day, politicians saw to it that the 15 cent fare was artificially held at that level for 13 years in part by diverting funds allocated for the 2nd Avenue subway.

We still are paying the price for that decision. Eventually the fare had to be raised again, and the frequency of fare increases accelerated.

By 1980, the system was at an all time low after years of deferred maintenance. Derailments had become rampant. Almost 50 percent of the doors were out of order. Whatever air conditioning there was in the subway cars had stopped functioning. The mean distance between failures, the measure used to determine reliability for subway cars, had declined to below 6,000 miles, as compared to today’s level of well over 100,000 miles.

In other words, riding the system was pure hell. It was nearly impossible to get anywhere on time.

In the late 1970s, while at the Department of City Planning, one study I worked on was how to improve transferring at the Flatbush / Nostrand Junction by coordinating bus and subway schedules, if that was even possible. The first step was to count boarding passengers on the B41 and B44 during the evening rush hour.

We were astonished to find that the buses were leaving the stop at the station nearly empty on the three occasions we checked. So we asked the NYCTA to provide us with the actual arrival times of the subways for the days we counted. The reason why many buses left empty, we learned, was because many of the scheduled trains never arrived at Flatbush Avenue. About half of them were abandoned somewhere along the route due to mechanical failure!

Someone getting on at 86th Street, for example, would be thrown off at Grand Central and told to take the following train. That train may make it only as far as Brooklyn Bridge or Atlantic Avenue, also abandoning its passengers there. Door problems were the major reason for train abandonment since trains were taken out of service if two adjacent panels in any car failed.

Since we sampled on three separate occasions with the same results, we concluded that this was a common occurrence not only on the Lexington and 7th Avenue lines, but also on others. There were newspaper accounts of passengers rebelling where dozens of passengers would refuse to get off trains when instructed. That was because they may have received those instructions two or three times on the same trip. Many times, trains were put back in service when policy required them to be removed, in order not to further delay service. Other times, police were called, or trains took the passengers to the subway yards to keep the line moving.

Finally, graffiti had taken over the subways, and, later, covered tiled subway stations as well, first with magic markers, and years later with spray paint. For years, the NYCTA denied a problem existed, insisting it was just a passing phase requiring no intervention on their part.

Boy, were they wrong on that one.

Subway Comfort

Subways were actually more comfortable prior to the mid-1970s than they were between 1975 and 1985, especially if you exclusively rode the BMT-IND lines.

The reason is that, prior to approximately 1960, all subway cars had soft seats and trains were fairly comfortable temperature-wise with working fans, and windows that would open wide and end doors that were kept in the open position during summer months. In fact, in the 1950s the chief complaint about the subways was not that they were hot in the summer, but that they were extremely noisy which in part was due to the open windows and doors. The noise was so loud that you would feel more like you were on an airport runway, than on a subway train.

Around 1960, soft seating was phased out in favor of more durable hard fiberglass seating due to vandalism of the vinyl seats. They were being slashed at an alarming rate. The hard seats are fine for short trips, but are not okay when you are taking a very long trip between Brooklyn and the Bronx, for example.

Starting around 1962, cars with windows that opened halfway were replaced with cars having windows that only opened a little at the top to reduce noise levels. The R-40 cars arriving at the end of the decade (the recently retired cars with sloped fronts) were the first air-conditioned cars ordered. After only about 10 years, the A/C started failing. The same thing occurred with the R-42s a few years later. Attempted repairs were unsuccessful, so, by around 1978, the cars equipped with A/C on the BMT / IND were actually hotter in the summer than the cars with fans.

About the same time, the IRT began to receive its first air-conditioned cars. So as comfort rose on the IRT with more A/C cars being delivered, comfort continued to decline on the BMT/IND as the fans on the cars not equipped with air conditioning also began to fail, as more and more maintenance was deferred. The result was that you were unbearably uncomfortable in the summer in the years around 1980, unless you were in a brand new car, of which there were few.

The Renaissance of the Subways

It took a lot of money, will, and time to bring the system back to a state of good repair.

Metropolitan Transportation Authority Chairmen Robert Kiley and Peter Stangl, along with NYCTA President David Gunn, are given most of the credit for bringing the system back from the depths of disrepair. The MTA became the NYCTA’s overseer in 1968, recently created by Governor Rockefeller to run the commuter rails.

Those who complain about the subways today have no idea how fortunate they are not to have rode them in the late 1970s and early 1980s, when you would arrive for work drenched in sweat in the summertime.

Gunn’s first target was fixing the tracks to reduce derailments. Then came the purchase of new equipment.

Since there was not enough money to replace the entire fleet, many car classes were targeted for overhauls instead. There were seven levels of overhauls, assigned the letters A through G.  G-Overhaul, or GOH (sometimes mistakenly called General Overhaul), being the most common and extensive overhaul, was designed to add 20 years to a subway car’s life span. The cost to GOH a subway car was approximately $500,000, roughly half the cost to purchase a new one at that time.

After the first cars were overhauled, the MTA realized it needed to hire outside contractors to do the remaining cars, much to the chagrin of the unions, which believed all overhauls could have been accomplished in-house.

I was the initial project manager for the overhaul of the R42 and R32 cars, both Phase 1 and Phase 2, and supervised via telephone NYCTA field inspectors in Hornell, NY, outside Rochester, who oversaw the contractor’s work.

Here is a tidbit you will not read anywhere else. The original R32s and R42s, which were recently retired, originally had 10 and six stanchions per car, respectively. During the overhaul process, the intent was to remove two stanchions per car from the R32s and place them in the R42s, so the overhauled cars would have eight stanchions each, since both car classes were being overhauled simultaneously by the same contractor at the same plant.

It seemed like a good idea that was suggested by my boss. However, the NYCTA determined that the additional money requested by the contractor to transfer the stanchions was too great, so the removed stanchions were scrapped instead. An idea with good intentions did not go as planned, and passengers on the overhauled R-32s standing near the doors found there was nothing to hold on to.

David Gunn was the one person who made the commitment to rid the system of graffiti in 1984, and by 1989 had succeeded. Lasting over a generation, it certainly was not just a passing phase.

Reliable new and overhauled subway cars, new track, along with many rehabbed stations, and other improvements and upgrades marked the renaissance of the subway system. However, major system expansion, which occurred following World War I, eluded us now.

Next week, in the final parts, we discuss the merging of the BMT and IND, subway nomenclature, florescent lighting, and look towards the future.

The Commute is a weekly feature highlighting news and information about the city’s mass transit system and transportation infrastructure. It is written by Allan Rosen, a Manhattan Beach resident and former Director of MTA/NYC Transit Bus Planning (1981).

Disclaimer: The above is an opinion column and may not represent the thoughts or position of Sheepshead Bites. Based upon their expertise in their respective fields, our columnists are responsible for fact-checking their own work, and their submissions are edited only for length, grammar and clarity. If you would like to submit an opinion piece or become a regularly featured contributor, please e-mail nberke [at] sheepsheadbites [dot] com.

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