Secrets of the Subway

The New York City Subway, One Line at a Time


This blog is home to a series of posts on the secrets, history, and interesting facts about New York City’s subway system. Each post will follow a group of subway lines end to end, revealing the fascinating nature of the subway that regular commuters often miss. This blog is inspired by a YouTube series called Secrets of the Underground, by Geoff Marshall and Londonist which follows each London Underground line in a similar manner. Each post will discuss some of the relevant histories for each particular line, but if an in-depth history is what you’re after, I will point you in the direction of nycsubway.org.

However, some historical background is required for any sort of discussion about the subway. The subway that we know today was built and operated primarily by three different companies, two of which were privately-owned. The Interborough Rapid Transit Company (IRT) built and operated what today are the number lines (now called the A division of the subway). The Brooklyn-Manhattan Transit Corporation (BMT) and its predecessor the Brooklyn Rapid Transit Company (BRT) built and operated what today are the letter lines in the second half of the alphabet, starting from the (J). The Independent Subway (IND), which was owned by the City, built and operated what today are the letter lines in the first half of the alphabet, from (A) to (G). The BMT and IND lines together are known as the B Division, and a number of connections between the two previously separate systems now exist, meaning that often subway services will use both IND and BMT trackage along their route. In 1940, all three companies were merged under the Board of Transportation (the predecessor of the MTA) to form one semi-unified system.

We should also set out some terminology before we start. What the MTA calls a line and what the general public thinks of as a line are two different things. To the public, lines are the letters or numbers in a colored circle that have a set route through the city. To the MTA, a line is a physical set of tracks and stations, that is geographically distinct from other sets of tracks and stations. Every service (the letters and numbers in colored circles and what the public calls lines) that the MTA operates uses anywhere between one and six different physical lines. While which service uses a line can change, and often does during nights, weekends, or construction, the line name always refers to a static section of track. Because some services use multiple lines along their route, while there are 25 named services, there are 36 physical lines in the system. The physical lines have binomial names, much like biological species. The first part of the name is the three-letter abbreviation of the company that previously operated the line, and the second part is a unique name meant to distinguish each line from the others. This name usually comes from the neighborhood or street(s) through which the line passes. For example, the IRT Nostrand Avenue Line was operated by the IRT and runs under Nostrand Avenue in Brooklyn between the Franklin Ave-Medgar Evers College station and Flatbush Ave-Brooklyn College.

Each post will focus on a color group used on the map, such as the red (1)(2)(3). Services are grouped by color based on the primary trunk line (usually the line in Manhattan) they all share. Often, all the lines in the group will be referred to collectively by the binomial name of the trunk line, so for the (1)(2)(3), they are referred to collectively as the IRT Seventh Ave-Broadway Line.

Due to two features in the New York City subway called reverse branching and interlining, subway services from different Manhattan trunk lines (different colors) will share the same line in the outer boroughs of Brooklyn, Queens, and the Bronx (reverse branching) and two different services will use the same piece of track and the same platforms at stations (interlining). At each station in each post, I will list which services use the platform I am discussing in that post. Take the IRT Nostrand Avenue Line again, served by the red IRT Seventh Ave-Broadway Line (2) train, and the dark green IRT Lexington Avenue Line (5) train. I will only discuss each line once, so the IRT Nostrand Avenue Line will only be discussed within the IRT Seventh Avenue-Broadway Line post, not the IRT Lexington Avenue Line post. As each post goes up, the previous posts will be updated with links to the new post wherever relevant. This means that readers won’t constantly be rereading the same things, it saves me from having to write the same thing over and over, and it keeps each post a bit shorter and more relevant.

Another piece of important history concerns the elevated lines. Often you will hear that the subway opened in 1904, and while this is technically true – the first underground passenger railroad in the city did open in 1904 – New York City had rail-based rapid transit for decades before this point in the form of the Elevated Railroads. The Elevated Railroads, or Els as they will be referred to from here on out, first came into existence in 1868 (before the nation of Germany existed!) and remained in the city until 1975. Els predated and coexisted with subway service, but they were largely operated as a distinct and separate system. The distinction became important after 1918 when the worst accident in subway history occurred when an El car traveling through a tunnel derailed and smashed into the tunnel wall, killing 93 people. This prompted new regulation prohibiting El cars (which were made of wood) from using tracks inside of tunnels, and subway cars were required to be built partially or entirely with steel. Most of the original El lines were demolished but some El lines were upgraded in the 1910s and ’20s for subway service, becoming what I will refer to as elevated subways. Most of the elevated lines that exist today were built specifically and solely for elevated subway service.

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