Southern Brooklyn

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

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.

Comment policy


  1. These are such great articles. And thanks for bringing back transit memories of around 1980…. Those who complain of subways now shoulda been around THEN! My record was getting discharged off 3 trains in 1 day. It was a regular occurrence….

    If u would be so kind as to recommend further reading material…

  2. Thank you again!
    My Favorite cars after the GOH were the R26 / 28 /29 cars, They looked better than the R-62’s. Let’s also not forget David Gunn’s decision to ground the Grumman Flexibles.

  3. I don’t usually see credit given to Peter Stangl, who was chair from 1991 to 1995. Gunn had already stepped down as president in 1990, and Alan Kiepper was president during Stangl’s entire tenure. While the system was certainly still improving in the early 90’s, the big turnaround took place in the second half of the 80’s.

  4. It’s a good thing I didn’t have to deal with such poor conditions. I don’t think I could take it.

    The erroneous “General Overhaul” label was probably brought about by someone that thought the G stood for General. Then again, the program did require refurbishment of many subway cars, so it’s not that crazy.

    The plan for the R32 stanchions on the R42s to even them out really was a good plan. It’s insane that someone would want to charge a lot more for the one task.

    I remember reading about those Rockwell trucks on the R46s. Obviously that was a bad idea because the cars that they were supposed to replace (the R16s) replaced THEM. That is a serious embarrassment.

  5. Since this was a subway history, I didn’t talk about buses too much. But the Grumman decision was one Gunn was criticized about for acting too hastily. Not everyone thought scrapping them was the best idea especially when the ones NJT bought from us worked there.

  6. Stangl deserves credit because he got the Authority to start focusing on customer service and emphasized its importance.  To him it was not just a catch phrase.

    I didn’t include Kiepper because I did’t see him offer a single new idea of his own. Between 1992 and 1994, I frequently attended meetings with Kiepper and the monthly MTA Board Meetings.  Kiepper just kept the MTA on the same track that was started by Gunn.

    Once Stangl left, the MTA forgot the meaning of customer service.

  7. Many within the MTA also thought the G stood for “General”. The head of the program told me they were mistaken.  He should know.

    A frequent tactic used by contractors was to bid low to get the job and then cash in on the numerous change orders later awarded believing the MTA would just pay any price for a change to the contract which wasn’t the case.

    There was not enough space for me to get into the Rockwell trucks issue or details about any of the different car classes.  The truck issue was very major and a major embarassment for the MTA, but I believe it was on the R44 class, not the R46.

  8. Don’t get me wrong, I have nothing against Stangl, nor do I have much positive to say about his three successors, Conway, Kalikow, and Hemmerdinger. But I wouldn’t say that he deserves “credit for bringing the system back from the depths of disrepair” – that goes to Kiley and Gunn. He should get credit for the good things he did do, not the good things he didn’t do.

  9. Gene Sansone’s New York Subways is at least one source that says it was the 46. 44s had issues with the P-wire controllers, too much unproven new tech. I heard 46s were better than 44s since they did not have all the crazy new tech that the 44s had, but again they were a mess all because of the Rockwell truck.

    So both of ’em had problems: Unless I am mistaken, 44s had too much new tech including the P-wire, while 46s had the unproven Rockwell trucks

  10. The system still had far to go in 1991, so Stangl still deserves some credit in that regard, but nearly not as much as Gunn and Kiley who started the ball rolling and put many of the programs in place to bring back the system.

    Gunn also made a lot of internal changes that never made the press that are still in use today like creating color coded “Staff Summary Sheets” which clearly showed who had to sign off on various approvals and made it much easier to navigate within a large bureaucracy.  Before that change, there was a chaotic system of interdepartmental memos that were forwarded back and forth with new memos constantly being added to the pile.

    So instead of a neat four page summary, executives had to make their way through a pile of some times conflicting memos of 20 or 30 pages.  That was really a quite simple change that made a world of difference in terms of saving time, but no one else prior to Gunn thought of it.

  11. Thank you. I did not realize. I was pretty upset when that happened in February 1983. I liked those busses much more than the original RTS’s in Westchester with the slanted backs. At least when the NYCTA ordered the RTS’s they had the straight backs which in my opinion were much more esthetic.

  12. Gunn basically put together a comprehensive plan to eliminate graffiti from the subways and stations. THe plan included purchasing new cars, GOH for older cars, better security in the years, instant removal of any graffiti, etc. This is what finally worked. Unfortunately the vandals switched gears and started to scratch, and carve up subway car and bus windows. They also scratched up the stainless steel interiors of the newest car classes at the time.  They scratched stainless steel surfaces in stations such as steel doors, elevator doors, pillars, etc. They started to spray paint track walls and finally they started to apply acid to windows and even the exterior surfaces of the newer subway cars. NOTHING WAS DONE. It took until 2007 until the MTA started to address the scratched glass and acid issue on subway cars. The windows are STILL vandalized on the R-32 & R-42 car classes! THey STILL did not address it on station glass, elevator glass or stainless steel surfaces. THey still have not addressed the track walls or elevated structures. Just look out the window when taking the Brighton line it is a disgrace and it will remain a disgrace until someone decides to take action.
    I cannot help but wonder if David Gunn was still around would he have let these other vandalized issues go unchecked. Heck look at the platforms and the roof tops of the recently rebuilt Brighton Line stations. They have been vandalized from last year. Take the escalator on BB Avenue & CIA up to the Q & B and look at the glass and other vandalized surfaces as you ascend That station was rebuilt in the 1990’s.  

  13. I beg to differ a little. It may have not been obvious to the rider but the scratchitti issue was addressed when I still worked for the MTA back in 2005. They put plastic on the outside of any replaced windows, so that when it was scratched, only a plastic coating had to be removed, instead of the entire glass replaced.

    I just remarked to myself yesterday that the rehabbed Brighton el stations looked pretty good. No grafitti and I only saw one place where they removed it but traces coud still be seen.

  14. >>> you can count on your fingers the number of new subway stations opened since the end of World War II

    Only if you have 15 fingers.

    On today’s A and C lines, there were six: Broadway-East New York (now Broadway Junction), Liberty Ave., Van Siclen Ave., Shepherd Ave., Euclid Ave., and Grant Ave.

    Then in 1967, there was Grand St. on the new Chrystie St. connection.

    1968 saw 148th St.-Lenox Terminal on the 3 (really at 149th St. and 7th Ave.) and 57th St.-6th Ave.

    When the 63rd St. line opened, we got Lexington Ave.-63rd St., Roosevelt Island, and 21st St.-Queensbridge.

    And when the Archer Ave. extension opened, we got Jamaica-Van Wyck, Sutphin Blvd.-Archer Ave., and Jamaica Center-Parsons/Archer.

    My guess is that the author forgot that the segment of the Fulton St. (A/C) line between Rockaway Ave.. and Euclid Ave. didn’t open until after WW II.

  15. I think the point was that there were few new stations that opened since WWII.
    Speaking of new stations, what would you say about the South Ferry station?

  16. You are partially correct.  I thought Broadway ENY, Liberty Ave, Van Siclen and Shepherd opened before the end of WWII.  I knew about Euclid and Grant but forgot 148 Street since it didn’t involve new trackage.

  17. I wouldn’t include South Ferry because it was a replacement, just like I wouldn’t include Cortlandt, or Rector on the #1 when it reopens because if you do, then you would have to include the 5 stations on the Brighton Line that were completely torn down and rebuilt last year.

  18. Good point. The replacement was a good idea, though. Now if only it didn’t have problems since near-completion. (How could I forget the issues about the platform’s width?)

  19. I’m too much of a perfectionist. I think if we are referring to the R-142,43 & 160 the windows were addressed sooner. It might have even been in 2001. The R-68 & R-46 I beleive were not addressed until 2007. With regards to the Brighton Stations, the roof above the entrance @ Avenue U and the concrete platforms adjacent to the tracks have had graffiti on them. I have not ridden on the Brighton line in a few weeks. Hopefully they removed it.


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