Bye bye Brightliners: MTA’s oldest subway cars bid farewell on final run after almost 58 years

One of the last the R32 subway cars gets ready to pull out of Brighton Beach station in Brooklyn on Jan. 9. The stainless steel models ended their almost 58-year run on the New York City Subway with a series of commemorative runs.
Photo by Kevin Duggan

Dozens of railfans hopped aboard one last ride on the almost 58-year-old R32 subway cars on their final run Sunday, Jan. 9, before the Metropolitan Transportation Authority retires the models for good.

The vintage trains dubbed “Brightliners” for their shiny corrugated stainless-steel shells chugged along the Q Line from Brighton Beach to the Upper East Side for their last celebratory passenger service after first hitting the tracks nearly six decades ago.

“This is the end of an era,” said rider Zorick Johnson, who showed off a model-sized R32 and donned a train conductor’s hat. “It is an honor for me to be here on this final run to say goodbye to a workhorse of the MTA.”

The same year as the British Invasion brought the Beatles to America and the World’s Fair opened in Queens, the R32 debuted on Sept. 9, 1964 on New York City’s subway with a celebratory ride on commuter railroad tracks from the Mott Haven Yard to Grand Central Terminal.

The train was greeted by “the Transit Authority band of 20 pieces in green and gold uniforms,” the New York Times reported at the time.

Railfan Zorick Johnson shows off a model R32 car on the farewell ride for the almost 58-year-old R32 subways on Jan. 9.Photo by Kevin Duggan

Sunday included the original two front cars from that ride with blue-painted doors and a front banner marking the Transit Authority’s initial order of 600 cars.

Built by the Budd Company of Philadelphia, the R32s were the first mass-produced stainless-steel cars bought by the TA and were around 4,000 pounds lighter than other models at the time, but it was the shiny exterior that made them unique.

“They’re one of the coolest looking cars, on the outside, that we ever had,” said Jodi Shapiro, a curator at the New York Transit Museum. “Even on a day like today when it’s cloudy out and overcast they still look fantastic.”

On the inside, the R32s have a sleek minimal design, with only rows of fiberglass benches on either side, along with analog rolling signs showing the route.

A front window allows straphangers a clear view out ahead of the train, a popular feature that newer cars don’t have.

“You just don’t see trains like this anymore,” said rider Sydney McGinn.

(L-R) Wessley Willsey, 10, with his mom Amy, dad Will, and brother Emmet, 5, traveled from Wappingers Falls, New York, to the Five Boroughs to see off the R32 subway cars on Jan. 9.

The trains began rolling out on what is now the Q Line, and MTA more recently deployed them to the A, C, J, and Z lines.

They originally had a 35-year lifespan, according to the Times article, but surpassed that deadline by two decades at the time of their last regular passenger service in 2020.

“They’ve been through snowstorms, graffiti, violence, scratchiti from the glass, and the cars are still going, they’re still strong,” said Johnson, banging on the door’s glass to make his point.

The MTA — itself a year younger than the R32s — twice planned to retire the old trains in 2010 and 2020 but brought them back to fill in for malfunctioning newer models.

The Transit Museum organized four weekend retirement runs starting in December, with first three on the D Line and Sunday’s final tour on its original route.

The museum almost called off the public events after vandals kicked in the irreplaceable and original seats on the first weekend.

Many fans young and old were happy to see the organization keep the show on the rails so they could bid the trains a final farewell.

Ten-year-old Wessley Willsey came down from upstate Wappingers Falls with his family, including his brother Emmer, 5, mom Amy, and dad Will. 

The youngster said he likes the R32 for its “sound, the noise, how it looks.”

“I can imagine how it operates,” he added.

MTA bus operators (L-R) Javi Batista and Ismael Santos switched from roads to rails to ride the R32 subways one last time.Photo by Kevin Duggan

A pair of MTA bus operators switched from roads for rails to see off the subway trains they had ridden since childhood.

“I grew up riding them and I just like them better than the other models,” said Javi Batista, who joined the ride with his fellow Queens bus driver Ismael Santos. “I just wanted to see them for the very last time, before they’re gone.”