History of the New York City Subway

History of the New York City Subway
Charles Harvey demonstrating his elevated railroad design on Greenwich Street in 1867

The New York City Subway has a long history, beginning as many disjointed systems and eventually merging under City control.


Early steam and elevated railroads

See also: Beach Pneumatic Transit

The beginnings of the Subway came from various excursion railroads to Coney Island and elevated railroads in Manhattan and Brooklyn. At that time, New York County (Manhattan Island and part of the Bronx), Kings County (including the Cities of Brooklyn and Williamsburg) and Queens County were separate political entities.

In New York, competing steam-powered elevated railroads were built over major avenues. The first elevated line was constructed in 1867-70 by Charles Harvey and his West Side and Yonkers Patent Railway company along Greenwich Street and Ninth Avenue (although cable cars were the initial mode of transportation on that railway). Later more lines were built on Second, Third and Sixth Avenues. None of these structures remain today, but these lines later shared trackage with subway trains as part of the IRT system.

In Kings County, elevated railroads were also built by several companies, over Lexington, Myrtle, Third and Fifth Avenues, Fulton Street and Broadway. These also later shared trackage with subway trains, and even operated into the subway, as part of the BRT and BMT. Most of these structures have been dismantled, but some remain in original form, mostly rebuilt and upgraded. These lines were linked to Manhattan by various ferries and later the tracks along the Brooklyn Bridge (which originally had their own line, and were later integrated into the BRT/BMT).

Also in Kings County, six steam excursion railroads were built to various beaches in the southern part of the county; all but one (the Manhattan Beach Line) eventually fell under BMT control.

The first subways

Political cartoon critical of the service of the IRT in 1905. The IRT is labeled as the "Interborough Rattled Transit".

In 1898, New York, Kings and Richmond Counties, and parts of Queens and Westchester Counties and their constituent cities, towns, villages and hamlets were consolidated into the City of Greater New York. During this era the expanded City of New York resolved that it wanted the core of future rapid transit to be underground subways, but realized that no private company was willing to put up the enormous capital required to build beneath the streets.[citation needed]

1906 IRT map

The City decided to issue rapid transit bonds outside of its regular bonded debt limit and build the subways itself, and contracted with the IRT (which by that time ran the elevated lines in Manhattan) to equip and operate the subways, sharing the profits with the City and guaranteeing a fixed five-cent fare.

At this time, the original subway (Contract 1) was built from City Hall to the Bronx, with the first part opening in October 1904; an extension to Atlantic Avenue at the LIRR Flatbush Terminal (now Atlantic Terminal) in Brooklyn was built soon after as Contract 2.

The subway system began during the War of Currents when Thomas Edison and his opponent, Nikola Tesla, struggled over acceptance of direct current or alternating current as the standard way to deliver electricity. Alternating current became the standard for non railroad purposes, but New York City Subway adopted direct current as more suitable for urban railroad purposes. To this day, the New York City Transit Authority converts alternating current to 600 volts direct current to power the trains, as do most earlier and later local transit railways around the world.

In Brooklyn, the various elevated railroads and many of the surface steam railroads, as well as most of the trolley lines, were consolidated under the BRT. Some improvements were made to these lines at company expense during this era.

The Dual Contracts

1924 BMT map

The BRT, which just barely entered Manhattan via the Brooklyn Bridge, wanted the opportunity to compete with the IRT, and the IRT wanted to extend its Brooklyn line to compete with the BRT. This led to the City's agreeing to contract for future subways with both the BRT and IRT.

The expansion of rapid transit was greatly facilitated by the signing of the Dual Contracts in 1913. Contract 3 was signed between the IRT and the City; the contract between the BRT and the City was Contract 4. The majority of the present-day subway system was either built or improved under these contracts[citation needed], which not only built new lines but added tracks and connections to existing lines of both companies. The Astoria Line and Flushing Line were built at this time, and were for some time operated by both companies.

The Independent System

The City, bolstered by political claims that the private companies were reaping profits at taxpayer expense, determined that it would build, equip and operate a new system itself, with private investment and without sharing the profits with private entities. This led to the building of the Independent City-Owned Subway (ICOS), sometimes called the Independent Subway System (ISS), the Independent City-Owned Rapid Transit Railroad, or simply The Eighth Avenue Subway after the location of its premier Manhattan mainline. After the City acquired the BMT and IRT in 1940, the Independent lines were dubbed the IND to follow the three-letter initialisms of the other systems.

1929 expansion plans
1939 expansion plans

As the first line neared completion, New York City offered it for private operation as a formality, knowing that no operator would meet its terms. Thus the city declared that it would operate it itself, formalizing a foregone conclusion. The first line opened without a formal ceremony. The trains began operating their regular schedules ahead of time, and all stations of the Eighth Avenue Line, from 207th Street in Washington Heights to Hudson Terminal (now World Trade Center), opened simultaneously at one minute after midnight on September 10, 1932.

Magnificently engineered, almost entirely underground, with ~670 foot (~204 m.) platforms and flying junctions throughout, the IND system tripled the City's rapid transit debt, ironically contributing to the demise of plans for an ambitious expansion proposed before the first line of the first system was even opened.

Unification and contraction

In June 1940, the transportation assets of the former BMT and IRT systems were taken over by the City of New York for operation by the City's Board of Transportation, which already operated the IND system. In 1953 the New York City Transit Authority, a state agency incorporated for the benefit of the city, now known to the public as MTA New York City Transit, succeeded the BoT.

A combination of factors had this takeover coincide with the end of the major rapid transit building eras in New York City. The City immediately began to eliminate what it considered redundancy in the system, closing several elevated lines including the IRT Ninth Avenue Line and most of the IRT Second Avenue El in Manhattan, and the BMT Fifth and Third Avenue Lines and most of the BMT Fulton Street Line in Brooklyn.

Despite the unification, a distinction between the three systems survives in the service labels: IRT lines (now referred to as A Division) have numbers and BMT/IND (now collectively B Division) lines use letters. There is also a more physical but less obvious difference: Division A cars are narrower than those of Division B by 18 inches (~45 cm) and shorter by 9 to 24 feet (~2.7 to 7.3m).

The original IRT subway lines were built to modified elevated line dimensions. Whereas the IRT els were originally equipped with cars that were 47 feet (~14.3m) long, the cars designed for the IRT subway measure 51 feet 4 inches (~15.6m) long. Both sets of lines permitted cars not wider than 9 feet (~2.7m). The clearances and curves on these lines are too narrow and too sharp for any IND or BMT equipment. The later extensions of the IRT, constituting the bulk of the system, were built to BMT dimensions, and so are of a profile that could support the use of IND/BMT sized equipment. In other words, Division B equipment could operate on much of Division A if station platforms were trimmed and trackside furniture moved, thus letting Division A lines carry more passengers. However, there is virtually no chance of this happening because the older, narrower portions of Division A are centrally situated, such that it would be impossible to put together coherent through services. The most that can be reasonably hoped for is that some branch lines of Division A might be resized and attached to Division B lines. This was done with the BMT Astoria Line in Queens (which had formerly been dual-operated with normal IRT trains and special narrow BMT shuttles), and has been proposed for a connection of the Second Avenue Subway to the IRT Pelham Line in the East Bronx.

Because the Division A lines are of lower capacity for a given capital investment, all new extensions and lines built since World War II have been for Division B. Division A cars can travel on Division B lines when necessary, but are not used for passenger service on those lines due to the dangerously wide gap between the car and the station platform.

Even during World War II, which gave a reprieve to the closure of most rail transit in the US, some closures continued, including the remainder of the IRT Second Avenue Line in Manhattan (1942) and the surviving BMT elevated services over the Brooklyn Bridge (1944).

The interior of an IRT Third Avenue Line car before the line's demolition in the 1950s.

The originally planned IND system was built to the completion of its original plans after World War II ended, but the system then entered an era of deferred maintenance in which infrastructure was allowed to deteriorate, and closures of elevated lines continued. These closures included the entire IRT Third Avenue Line in Manhattan (1955) and the Bronx (1973), as well as the BMT Lexington Avenue Line (1950), much of the remainder of the BMT Fulton Street Line (1956), the downtown Brooklyn part of the BMT Myrtle Avenue Line (1969) and the BMT Culver Shuttle (1975), all in Brooklyn.

Only two new lines were opened in this era, the IRT Dyre Avenue Line (1941) and the IND Rockaway Line (1956). Both of these lines were rehabilitations of existing railroad rights-of-way rather than new construction. The former line was the City portion of the New York, Westchester and Boston Railway (an electrified commuter line closed in 1937) and the latter a line obtained from the Long Island Rail Road. While the Rockaway Line is a long and substantial line, it consists mostly of a long right-of-way crossing Jamaica Bay with a single station on Broad Channel island and two branches on a peninsula that is only several city blocks wide.

In 1951 a half-billion dollar bond issue was passed to build the Second Avenue Subway, but money from this issue was used for other priorities and the building of short connector lines, namely a ramp extending the IND Culver Line over the ex-BMT Culver Line at Ditmas and McDonald Avenues in Brooklyn (1954), allowing IND subway service to operate to Coney Island for the first time, the 60th Street Tunnel Connection (1955), linking the BMT Broadway Line to the IND Queens Boulevard Line, and the Chrystie Street Connection (1967), linking the BMT line via the Manhattan Bridge to the IND Sixth Avenue Line.

In the mid-1960s, $600,000,000 was made available to the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) of New York City for the purposes of Subway expansion. $1,230,000,000[citation needed] was spent to create three tunnels and a half-dozen holes as part of construction on the Second Avenue and 63rd Street Lines. Construction would cease in 1975 on account of the city's severe fiscal crisis; none of the sections were usable by the time federal payments were suspended in 1985.

Because the early subway systems competed with each other, they tended to cover the same areas of the city, leading to much overlapping service. The amount of service has actually decreased since the 1940s as many elevated railways were torn down, and finding funding for underground replacements has proven difficult.

Due to deferred maintenance, the condition of the subway system reached dangerous conditions as of the early 1980s. Talk of new construction was considered absurd at that point. However, during the mid-1980s, reconstruction began. Stations were refurbished and rolling stock was repaired and replaced. Around 2002, talk began to circulate about taking up the construction of the Second Avenue subway. Most New Yorkers regarded these plans with cynicism, since citizens were promised the line since well before the Third Avenue elevated was torn down in 1955. Funds have been set aside and environmental impact reports have been completed. A ceremonial Ground-breaking for the Second Avenue Subway was held on April 12, 2007 and contractor work to prepare the project's initial construction site at 96th St & 2nd Ave began on April 23, 2007.

Reconstruction and incremental advance

The Archer Avenue Line was built in the 1980s, putting the east end of the BMT Jamaica Line underground. The BMT and IND 63rd Street Lines were completed in 1989, with the connection to the IND Queens Boulevard Line opening on December 16, 2001.

See also



  • Cunniff, M. G. (September 1904). "The New York Subway". The World's Work: A History of Our Time VIII: 5347–5364. http://books.google.com/books?id=AYbNAAAAMAAJ&pg=RA1-PA5346. Retrieved 2009-07-10.  Includes numerous construction photos.
  • Cunningham, Joseph and Leonard de Hart: A History of the New York City Subway System, 1976, 1977, 1993.
  • Rainie, Harrison: Tunnels to Nowhere: Washington Monthly, March 1986.

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