Even the most oblivious straphangers knows that not all subway cars are built alike; the differences between the older and newer cars is quite obvious. But not everyone knows what, exactly, differentiates one dated car from another, or why so many types of subway car run throughout the transit system.
While the nitty-gritty details of subway car types may seem tedious, the quality of your commute often depends on it; the next time you’re stuck in a tunnel during yet another delay, the knowledge that you’re inside an R62 might improve the situation by a small amount.
To understand where subway cars are now, it helps to understand their history. The earliest underground subway cars were wooden, previously used on the elevated lines. The change of material to steel was prompted by the 1918 Malbone Street Wreck, one of the deadliest train crashes in U.S. history, in which over 100 were fatally injured. Before it was controlled by a singular state agency, there were multiple private companies in charge—namely, the IRT, IND, and BMT—which ran many car models on the tracks over the course of the 20th century.
Some of the more memorable among them were the D-Type, or the Triplex trains, the short-lived Green Hornet, the blue and white BMT Bluebirds and Redbirds (one of which saw a second life as a rarely visited Queens tourist center before closing in 2015).
The New York Transit Museum, located in a disused subway station, is home to a fleet of vintage trains that the public can wander through. Every so often, these older models will run on the live tracks—during the holidays and for tours and baseball games—as the Nostalgia Train. The Frankenstein-d assortment of cars is usually composed of R1, R4, R6, R7A, and R9 models, all in the Arnine family—a fleet of similar cars manufactured for the IND lines in the 1930s to 1950 and used till the late ’70s.
There are also quite a lot of subway cars swimming with the fishes; many retired models are recycled by way of being sunk in the Atlantic, to form an artificial reef.
The current rolling stock
Excepting only a limited number of non-passenger cars, the modern R-model trains are used across the system today. The “R” number classification entered use in 1948, when the first batch was purchased for the IND. There are 15 different models running in the MTA’s current fleet of passenger trains, their numbers ranging from 32 (the oldest cars in the system, dating back to the 1960s) up to 188.
The observant straphanger will notice that the rolling stock that runs along the lettered lines (formerly the BMT/IND and officially known as the B Division), are significantly wider and longer, at 10 feet wide, than the numbered line trains. Those were once part of the IRT and are now known as the A Division; they’re roughly 8 feet wide.
Those paying attention will also realize that the car models can be grouped into three main aesthetic categories: There are newer cars with blue seating and brighter lighting; these began with the R142s, which run on the 2, 4 and 5 lines and were built starting in 1999. There are slightly older cars with multi-colored seats and jaundiced lighting, with their model numbers all under 100. And then there are the old R32s, with their corrugated exterior, most commonly found along the A, C, J and Z lines. (A fun fact about the R32s: Along with the second oldest models, the R42s, they’re singular in their dated seat layout.)
For train aficionados, there are a slew of ways to recognize not only the obviously different subway models, but also the minutiae that differentiates, say, a R142 and a R142A. The r/nycrail subreddit abounds with discussion of these nuances; many railfans can even recognize the differences between models based on the sounds they make when they roll into stations and open and close their doors. An entire YouTube subculture has been developed around it.
While a casual observer won’t get to the railfan level of knowledge overnight, here are some ways you can spot different subway car models, courtesy of a trivia r/nycrail mod:
- The front LED sign of the R142 (2, 4, 5) is more recessed than the one on the R142As and the R188s (4, 7).
- The car numbers of the R68 (B, D, N, W) are in the 2000s, while the R68A (A, B) have car numbers in the 5000s. They also use different fonts for the numbers (Akzidenz-Grotesk for the R68s, Helvetica for the R68As).
- The front/rear cars (A cars) of the R188 (7) have CBTC equipment near the cab, taking up what was empty space on the R142/As.
- R143s have tri-color LED displays inside, while R160s will either have an art poster or a full color LCD display in its place.
- This one might be obvious, but the destination display of R142s turns off between text transitions, while the R142A doesn’t.
- The exterior door lights on R160Bs have plastic caps that stick out of their metal enclosure, while the R160A doesn’t.
- The R179 is slightly boxier than the R143 and R160s.
For further reading, the Wikipedia pages for subway rolling stock are known to be exceptionally thorough and accurate—thanks, in part, to two truly dedicated and knowledgeable teenaged Queens straphangers who have together edited hundreds of pages.
While the subway’s decayed and aging signal system has deservedly been more in the spotlight lately, the MTA often appears more focused on modernizing its rolling stock.
Open-gangway cars are the way of the future: In late January, the MTA announced its formal approval of the R211 model cars, “535 state-of-the-art, next-generation” subway trains to replace older models on the lettered lines and the Staten Island Railway. Of these, only 20 will actually be open gangway, (the rest the familiar “closed-end” variety) and constitute a pilot program. These new poop trains will hit the tracks starting in 2020, but prototypes have been making highly anticipated debuts since December.
Subways experienced signal delays during morning rush every day in August except 1
There were subway delays on all but one day during August 2018 because of signal problems, a Riders Alliance analysis released Sunday showed.
The Alliance said it reviewed MTA delay alerts for the month of August from 6 a.m. to 10 a.m. They reported delays due to signal problems for every day except Aug. 23.
“It’s just painful,” said Joe Hetterly of Bay Ridge, about his commutes.
The Riders Alliance said signal delays caused problems on every subway line except the L, which has already received signal upgrades.
The analysis showed the worst delays were on the D and R lines.
“It’s always a surprise,” said Tessa Vlaanderen, commenting on the delays. “But other times, it’s perfectly on time, it’s fast.”
The group of concerned commuters is now calling on Governor Andrew Cuomo and the state to implement commuter pricing as a means of funding MTA infrastructure improvements.
“Our transit system is trying to run a 21st century global capital on 19th century infrastructure,” said John Raskin, executive director of the Riders Alliance.
Peter Ajemian, Gov. Cuomo’s deputy communications director for transportation, released this statement to PIX 11:
“The governor singlehandedly revived the idea of congestion pricing, has been leading the charge to pass it and succeeded in securing the first phase this year. The Riders Alliance time would be better spent convincing those who need convincing — members of the Legislature and City Hall.”
The MTA also released a statement to PIX 11, reading:
“The methodology of this “report” provides no context whatsoever. This oversimplification ignores the incredible progress we’ve made under the Subway Action Plan that stopped a steep decline in service and resulted in a series of vital improvements. This appears to be more of a stunt than an actual serious look at the system.
“The system has stabilized over the last year thanks to intensive investment and maintenance associated with the Subway Action Plan which is exactly what it was designed to do. We’ve also launched a new initiative to eliminate 10,000 subway delays a month which is already paying dividends. The complete modernization of New York City Transit, in particular the upgrading of our signal system, is essential to providing safe and reliable subway service, which is why a predictable, sustainable source of funding is vital to making the full Fast Forward plan a reality.”
America’s largest city is facing a monumental subway crisis
Subway delays in the nation’s largest city cost up to $389 million in lost productivity each year, according to the Office of the New York City Comptroller in October 2017, and city officials are increasingly sounding the alarm.
The problem has gotten worse since the comptroller data was collected in 2016. Naturally, transit dysfunction has become a central component of Thursday’s gubernatorial primary vote in the city.
“Our subway system is the backbone of our economy,” New York City Comptroller Scott Stringer said in a statement to Yahoo Finance. “That means with every delay, there aren’t just lives affected — there’s an economic consequence.”
‘It was in a state of emergency long before’
According to the “State of the Subways Report Card” for 2016 by the NYPIRG Straphangers Campaign, 16 subway lines worsened in terms of regularity in comparison to only four that improved.
In June 2017, Gov. Andrew Cuomo declared a state of emergency for the subways. He signed an executive order, pledging $1 billion for improvements. However, few improvements have been made since then.
Cynthia Nixon, one of the Democratic nominees for New York governor and Cuomo’s opponent in Thursday’s primary, made fixing the MTA one of her main campaign issues.
“Frankly, it was in a state of emergency long before Gov. Cuomo finally declared it one,” Nixon’s campaign told Yahoo Finance in an email. The statement cited declining subway performance, delays becoming increasingly worse, slow-moving trains and poor on-time performance.
Earlier this year, the Wall Street Journal reported that an overhaul of the city’s subway and bus systems would take about 15 years and cost an estimated $43 billion.
Nixon says that she would “tax the rich to fix the subway.” Governor Cuomo’s office did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
‘The transit system is the lifeblood of the city’
Marc Molinaro, the Republican nominee who will face Cuomo or Nixon on Nov. 6, recently released an MTA revitalization plan. He told Yahoo Finance that if elected, he intends to make the subway system “immediately” respond to the people.
“The transit system is the lifeblood of the city and is in a death spiral, both financially and structurally,” Molinaro said. “It’s been in a rate of steady decline for about the last seven years.”
Molinaro attributes the struggles of the MTA to the ineffectiveness of Gov. Cuomo. “The governor hasn’t provided the appropriate level of leadership,” the candidate said. “He allowed the misdirection of funds to projects that either have nothing to do with transit or have more to do with vanity.”
But how does he plan to pay for the overhaul? Some of his suggestions include congestion pricing, an MTA commuter payroll tax and the use of value capture. Molinaro says he would also explore the feasibility of public-private partnerships and finding a way for state, federal and local governments to agree on contributing.
‘We need to get started, now’
New York City’s subway on-time performance stands at 58.1%, according to figures for January of this year, in stark contrast to the Washington Metro system (85.7%), Chicago’s CTA (95%), and Atlanta’s MARTA system (96.7%).
New York Subway Station Destroyed In 9/11 Reopens After Nearly 17 Years
After nearly two decades, a New York City subway station that was destroyed in the Sept. 11 attacks has reopened.
The Cortlandt Street station, which was partially buried by the collapse of the World Trade Center in lower Manhattan, reopened on Saturday, just three days before the 17th anniversary of the 2001 terrorist attacks.
“WTC Cortlandt is more than a new subway station. It is symbolic of New Yorkers’ resolve in restoring and substantially improving the entire World Trade Center site,” said Metropolitan Transportation Authority Chairman Joseph Lhota in a release.
The station, which serves the No. 1 train, has fewer columns along the platforms for increased maneuverability, and also features a wall showcasing text from the 1776 Declaration of Independence and the 1948 United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
The station and its 1,200-feet of tunnel and tracks were rebuilt within the previous station’s footprint. Construction on the new station began in 2015 after the MTA was given control of the site, the transit authority said
“It’s long overdue,” Mitchell L. Moss, the director of the Rudin Center for Transportation Policy and Management at New York University, told The New York Times. “It was a major challenge to rebuild the subway at the same time you’re rebuilding the site above it.”
The station cost $181.8 million, according to the Times.
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