Southern Brooklyn

A Brief History Of The Subway System: Part 5 Of 6

A Budd R-11 car stops at Grand Street on the Chrystie Street connection on November 18, 1967, a week before service was to begin. Source: David Pirmann collection /

THE COMMUTE: In Part 4 of my “A Brief History Of The Subway System” series (Part 1Part 2Part 3), we discussed the decline of the subways and its renaissance. Today we discuss the merger of the BMT and IND, the history of subway nomenclature and the dawn of florescent lighting.

Merging Of The BMT And IND

The opening of the Chrystie Street connection in 1967 combined the BMT and the IND divisions with three hybrid lines: the B, D and KK lines, the IND in Manhattan and the BMT in Brooklyn. Previously the only BMT train to use IND tracks was the RR Fourth Avenue local via the 60th Street tunnel to Continental Avenue in Forest Hills, Queens. There also was a time when the IRT and BMT operated joint service on the Astoria and Flushing lines, which is why there is an across the platform transfer at Queensboro Plaza, the only IRT/BMT cross platform transfer in the system.

The KK line, using the same connection between the Sixth Avenue line and the Williamsburg Bridge as today’s M train, was short-lived. However, it was the Chrystie Street connection, which made it difficult to tell the IND from the BMT, and the NYCTA began to treat the BMT-IND system as one, renaming it Division B and the IRT, Division A for internal purposes. The Chrystie Street connection also added express tracks on Sixth Avenue between 34th Street and West Fourth Street, previously planned but never built. One year later, in 1968, the NYCTA became part of the newly created MTA.

Trivia Question: Why is the West Fourth Street Station not called Fourth Street without the word “West” to follow the pattern of the other numbered stations in Manhattan?

Answer: Because another huge station complex was envisioned at South Sixth Street in Williamsburg as part of the IND Second System and using the full street name at West Fourth Street was thought to lessen confusion between the two stations, so no one would think both stations were just two blocks apart.

Subway Nomenclature

Now I would like to discuss the origin of the lettering and numbering system we have today.
The railroads and elevated lines had no numbering or lettering system. However, just as no one sat down to plan the routes, no one said let’s give the subways a system of numbers and letters. The IND system was the first to assign letters to its routes from the beginning, a single letter for express, and a double letter for a local. For example, the A was the Eighth Avenue Express, while the AA was the Eighth Avenue Local. Letters A through H were used, but not every letter or combination of letters was used at any particular point in time.

The BMT used numbers beginning with the purchase of the D-type articulated cars early in its history. Correct numbers only appeared on the front car. Most passengers did not know what the numbers referred to — the route or the destination, and few referred to them. All IRT cars purchased starting in 1948 also had route numbers on the signs. IRT cars used numbers one through nine while BMT numbers ranged from one through 16. Like the BMT, correct numbers only appeared on the front car. The number one was the Brighton Line, number 2 Fourth Avenue, number three West End, number four Sea Beach, number seven Franklin-Brighton Local, numbers eight and nine were Astoria and Flushing shuttles when under BMT operation. has the complete BMT Number guide here, along with all other BMT, IND and IRT designations and the time periods in effect.

As a kid I never knew if the BMT numbers referred to the lines or destinations because when Brighton expresses terminated at 57th Street instead of at Astoria during off hours, they used the number three West End designation rather than the number one designation for Brighton Express since the West End D-types always terminated at 57th Street. A number one sign would have confused Manhattan riders bound for Astoria. Not confusing Manhattan riders was determined to be more important than confusing Brooklyn riders by using the West End designation on the Brighton Line. In a way it made sense because if you saw a number three train on the Brighton Line it could not be a West End train anyway.

BMT cars purchased between 1955 and 1989, however, also had their numbered signs on the sides of the cars, but those cars were only used on the Broadway Brooklyn Jamaica line (15 Jamaica Local) so the public never saw numbers five, six and eight through 14 on the cars, maps or station signs. Most riders still referred to the line designations instead. Only the IND letter designations were more commonly used than the named designations since all IND cars had side designations from the beginning on all its routes.

In 1960, the NYCTA decided to convert the BMT from numbers to letters starting with J and continuing to T to avoid duplication with the IND letters and confusion with IRT numbers one through nine. However, the 15 Jamaica local still displayed that sign until 1967. Some double letter local designations were based on the line rather than merely doubling a single letter as the IND always did. For example, the Q became the Brighton Express and the QT and QB the locals via Tunnel and via Bridge, respectively, rather than the QQ. The M became the Myrtle Avenue Express, which actually was express only along the Broadway El in Brooklyn, and the MJ was the branch to Jay Street. That designation only appeared on the subway maps and not on the cars, since older wooden elevated cars were still in use there. When the Jamaica Line was connected to the Brighton and Fourth Avenue Lines, they were known as the QJ and RJ. There was also the NX Sea Beach Thru express, which started at Brighton Beach and skipped all stops between Coney Island and 59th Street in Brooklyn and operated on the unused center tracks.

Before Chrystie Street, the West End Line was either the T or TT line. S was used for the Aqueduct Special, while SS was used for most shuttle lines. The letters I, O and P were never used, nor were the letters between U and Z Y. The MTA did not want riders to confuse the letter I with the number one, the letter O for a zero, or have anyone give a direction by saying “You can take a P against the wall.” The letters V and W were not used until recently, and both have already been discontinued as well as IRT number eighth (Third Avenue El), and Dyre Avenue Line number nine, both in the Bronx. The number nine was used more recently on the Broadway line during the years when skip stop was in effect on the number one line.

As fewer trains were purely local or express, in 1985, the MTA decided to eliminate all double letter designations. The GG became the G; the LL became the L; the RR became the R, etc. The only train whose second letter could not be dropped without causing confusion was the AA. It was renamed the K in 1985 for a short time after the KK in Broadway Brooklyn, which also became the K in 1973. That ended operation in 1976. The new K Washington Heights local was replaced by the B in 1988, which was replaced by the C in 1998. Got that?

Today, there is a line for almost every letter of the alphabet with T reserved for the Second Avenue subway. The IRT continues to use the same designation for some locals and expresses, unlike the BMT/IND. Plans to convert the number six express and the number seven express to the number eight and number nine lines, after those designations were no longer needed, never materialized.

Since the IND lettering system was based in The Bronx, Brooklyn riders saw letter designations change over the years. For example, the Culver Line was the D before it was the F. The D was rerouted to the Brighton Line after the opening of the Chrystie Street connection and the Q shifted from Brighton Express to Brighton Local. The D and B later switched designations between the West End and Brighton Lines when four track service resumed on the Manhattan Bridge after two tracks had been temporarily shut for bridge repairs for more than a decade.

Florescent Lighting

Today we have a subway system that is brightly lit. It wasn’t always that way. All three systems — the IRT, BMT, and IND — were all built with incandescent light bulbs as were the subway cars. Entering the subway system was a dingy experience, which was a shame since the original subway was built with beautiful mosaics that were difficult to see. The dual contracts scaled down the detail of those fine mosaics. The drab dinginess of the subways was most apparent when walking the wide and expansive mezzanines of the IND system. It was overbuilt to handle a city population of 12 million that never materialized with the unforeseen popularity of suburban relocation after World War II.

New stations — such as the 59th Street express station on the Lexington Avenue line around 1960 or the 57th Street / Sixth Avenue Station, built in 1967 — were bare bones and offered no mosaics at all. Platform extensions to accommodate 10-car trains in the 1950s stuck out like sore thumbs, not matching the surrounding tile, but at least they were brightly lit. It was not until the creation of the “Arts for Transit” program that the MTA decided to go back to what the original founders of the subway had in mind: that stations should be beautiful as well as functional. While not as ornate as stations in Moscow, for example, recent station renovations have included art installations such as the rehabilitated Brighton Line. Yet that, too, provokes controversy. Some feel that art is a luxury we cannot afford when economic times are tough.

Subway cars delivered after World War II were the first to offer florescent lighting. Subway stations were converted from incandescent lighting very slowly over a 30-year period or longer, with the oldest stations being converted first. That meant the IND was last to receive the treatment. Subway platforms were also given priority over mezzanines. When the conversion was almost complete, the incandescent lights of the remaining IND mezzanines that were not yet converted were a sharp contrast to the rest of the system and often hit you by surprise. You would say to yourself, “What’s going on?” if you were not a regular IND rider. With subway crime on the rise in the 1970s, it also made one feel extremely unsafe.

In our concluding piece later this week, we will take a brief glimpse at the future, mention some of the subjects we had no time to discuss, and direct you to additional sites for further reading.

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. The Bleecker Street renovation (of sorts) got one thing right. Even though there’s still a considerable contrast between the original station and the platform extensions, they’re still more uniform now than several years ago.

  2. Yes, the picture of the stainless steel R 11. Eight of the cars were purchased as prototypes around 1947 for the coming Second Ave. subway.  The eight cars have long been retired and the Second Ave. subway is still being built. 

  3. Yes, and if anyone remembers, they were used regularly on the Franklin Avenue Shuttle.

    I also think it was dumb that they used 13, and not 14 for the 14th Street line. Just unnecessary confusion.

  4.  From Paulsboro, NJ 08066

    Actually there were ten (10) R-11 experimental stainless steel subway cars purchased numbered 8010-8019.


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