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110 years of subway car design in New York City
In the 110-year history of the New York City subway system, little has changed in the design of the trains and their cars. They are still basically rectangular-shaped boxes with doors, windows and chairs.
“They’re a friggin’ bore,” said subway historian James Greller. “Subway car design in the city of New York has not really matured to the rest of the world.”
Efforts to make radical changes have been derided, flopped or never made it from the prototype stage into mass use — as with the modern Second Avenue Subway cars built in 1949.
Some conveniences — such as air conditioning — have been introduced to make the ride more bearable. And the transition to stainless steel made trains less expensive.
At the New York Transit Museum in Brooklyn, nestled within a 1936 subway stop, visitors can see many of the old cars from throughout the years as pictured in this list.
Before the subway, there was the "el" — the elevated railway — that served to whisk New Yorkers around the city, with the first line built in 1868. Although initially served by steam engines that rained ash and cinder on pedestrians below, electrified trains allowed the operators of the lines to introduce cleaner locomotives like this one built in 1907. The car was built with wood covering steel underframes. Doors were opened manually by a conductor who also had a bell to notify the motorman when passengers had boarded. (Credit: Black Paw Photo)
With subways reaching capacity in the 1920s, a novel solution was introduced in the design of cars: an articulated subway known as the Triplex. The design called for connected cars with no doors separating them to allow for more space and to give passengers the opportunity to move about. In service between 1928 and 1965, the Triplex cars could seat 160 and were 137-feet long. The Metropolitan Transportation Authority proposed bringing back articulated trains to "maximize carrying capacity" in its 20-year plan released in 2013. (Credit: Black Paw Photo )
THE MILLION-DOLLAR TRAIN
Built in 1949 to serve the Second Avenue Subway, the modern R-11 car was visionary, packed with cutting-edge technology like ultraviolet germ-killing lamps and an electrostatic air filtration system meant to wipe out airborne disease. These features contributed to the eye-opening price tag: At $100,000 for each car, the R-11 became known as "the Million Dollar Train." Only 10 trial cars were built. (Credit: Black Paw Photo )
SPECIAL EVENT CARS
Occasionally, special trains take over the rails for celebrations or to commemorate events. There was, for instance, a train with cars in pinstripes to mark the 2000 Subway Series. For the 1964-1965 World's Fair, the New York Transit Authority ran "Bluebirds," trains painted powder-blue and off-white, seen here from the inside. (Credit: Black Paw Photo )
STAINLESS STEEL CARS
In 1964, the Transit Authority ordered 600 "Brightliners" — stainless steel cars known by the R-32 model number. Officials at the time argued that the city would save money over the long-term because the use of the sturdy but lighter metal reduced the overall weight of each car and lowered the amount of electrical power to move them. The cars have also proven longer-lasting than any other design. The R-32, while far from attractive, is still used today on the C line, and will be until 2017. (Credit: David Pirmann)
AIR CONDITIONED CARS
The late-1960s brought the beginnings of a revolution to the subway system: air conditioning. “You know this can change a lot of things,” said one woman to The New York Times during a trial run of air-conditioned cars in 1967. “Boys take their dates to the movies to cool off. Now, they can take them for a subway ride instead.” Air conditioning had been a dream for many years, but cheaper ceiling fans were still used to cool the masses. But lower costs allowed for the entire fleet, beginning with the R-38 model pictured here, to get air conditioning by the 1980s. (Credit: David Pirmann)
TODAY'S SUBWAY CARS
There are nine different cars now in service, with the latest model on the 7 line. Known as the R188, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority began testing of 11 of the Kawasaki-built cars in November 2013. Manufactured at the company's Yonkers-based plant, the subway cars are rigged with new communication-based train control technology that is touted for improving reliability, creating the capability for countdown clocks and more frequent trains. (Credit: MTA/Marc Hermann)