Flying the Subway Express (Feb, 1938)

This is a really fun read for anyone who has ever ridden the NYC subway and wants to know how it works. I think that besides the fact that subways are all one unified system now not much has changed since this article was written 70 years ago.

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Flying the Subway Express

by Donald G. Cooley

YOU shoot through a winding tunnel streaked with colored lights, dive under a river, zoom up on the other side, fly past crowded platforms, sway dizzily as you dash around a curve at breakneck speed—it’s a crashing, flashing, thrilling scene that thunders past as you ride the subway express!

Sightseers in New York soon discover the subway to be one of the city’s miracles. For five cents they can ride for hours or for days on the world’s most exciting underground railroad. When the American Legion held its big 1937 convention in New York, hundreds of Legionnaires stated that the big thrill of their outing came when they stood in the first car of a speeding subway train and found adventure around every curve.

Cave-dweller that he once was, man finds the subway an irresistible lure. There is mystery in every inch of it, the mystery of Mother Earth who yielded grudgingly to human burrowers. That block which you just flashed past in hurtling seconds—above it rises a $50,000,000 skyscraper. That pressure in your ears which warns that you are diving down—over your head flows a mighty river carrying tugs and ocean liners.

Actually, New York does not have a subway, but subways. There are three systems, the I. R. T. (Interborough Rapid Transit), the B. M. T. (Brooklyn Manhattan), and the Independent, the latter municipally owned. Their routes cover more than 200 miles and on a single day they carry some 4,000,000 passengers. This is equivalent to transporting every person in a city larger than Chicago every day. To achieve this major miracle more than 5,000 cars which travel at speeds up to 48 m.p.h, are required.

Since Manhattan itself is only 13 miles long, much of the subways’ trackage reaches out to suburban regions. The subway runs under the East River to Brooklyn, under the Harlem to the Bronx, through the Queens-boro tubes to Queens. In the Bronx, Brooklyn and Queens, it comes out from underground and becomes an elevated.

The place to savor the thrill of a subway ride to the utmost is in the very front of the first car of the train. An open doorway with guard-chains hung across it is all that stands between you and the stretch of gleaming track that runs off mysteriously into the dim distance. The motor-man’s compartment lies behind a steel door which shuts him off from the rest of the car. The space is just about large enough to accommodate one man, but since this is a special sightseeing tour we will edge in with him. The train is halted in the station, the doors are open, and the control handle is moved to its first notch. The controller is very much like that used on electric street railways. The instant the last door closes, the train starts to move—a precious split-second has been gained by that little trick of leaving the control handle “on.” Two electric bulbs on the controller in front of the motorman light up to give him the “all clear” signal for starting, but they are really unnecessary. While the car doors are open, no current can pass through the motors; the very second they close (unless the controller is “off’) voltage hurtles into action and almost by the time the last car has cleared the platform, the train is notched up to full speed to maintain schedule.

Speed! More speed! Speed with safety! Speed is the driving genie of the subway, not alone speed on the straightaway, but speed on the getaway. Ahead of us, around that beckoning curve, thunders, another train like the one we ride, and behind us comes another, all on the same track, racing in the same direction, carrying possibly 1,000 passengers each—small cities going to work or going home at nearly mile-a-minute speed.

During the rush periods as many as 32 trains like the one we ride will slide into a station, take on and discharge passengers, and roar away again, in a single hour—less than two minutes per train. In round terms, this means that a transportation population roughly equal to that of such cities as Elgin, Illinois; or Elkhart, Indiana; or Baton Rouge, Louisiana; or Ann Arbor, Michigan; or Riverside, California; is routed over a single subway track in one hour.

Small wonder that subway schedules are far more strict than those of a transcontinental train. This tunnel through which we rush is not a dull, dark hole that concrete walls but a sentient thing which speaks in crashing echoes, talks to the motorman in a language of blinking lights, warns him of danger ahead, reaches out to trip his brakes if he ignores the signals.

We zoom into a curve and the speed of the train slackens. The motorman, who knows every inch of his run as we know our backyards, takes the curve at its critical speed limit. It is a dangerous curve, threatening derailment or a pileup into a concrete wall if taken too fast, so human judgment is not relied upon. If the motorman enters the curve at too high speed, a steel foot rises and clamps on his brakes.

We flash past a series of metal flags projecting from the tunnel wall outside the motorman’s window. They bear the cryptic marks “R-6,” “R-8,” and “R-10.” The control handle is shoved up and the train gathers speed again.

“R” means “resume speed,” the motorman explains. When the flags appear, it is safe to push the iron horse to top speed again. The figures 6, 8, and 10 refer to the number of cars in the train. Engineers with charts an slide rules have taken such imponderables as mass and momentum and gradients and calculated to the inch the points at which it is safe for a ten- or eight-car train to pick up speed.

Every eight or ten blocks a brightly lighted platform crowded with people flashes past, but we do not stop, for we’re on the inner track flying the subway express. Three yellow lights, one on top of the other, flash into view.

“Curve ahead,” says the motorman, jerking his head toward the signal.

Green flashes on in the signal box just ahead—all clear in the block we are approaching. Red—and we stop until a train we do not see pulls out of the block. Yellow, and we proceed with caution. These are obvious signs which any motorist who obeys a traffic light understands. But what are these mysterious “S. B.” markers which swing into view now and then and are left behind? They must be important, for they are illuminated by a powerful white light, but although our motorman watches them sharply he doesn’t seem to do anything about them. You prompt him with a question and he shouts above the din:

“Section breaks.”

You begin to understand. Power is taken from a third rail running alongside the track; contact shoes on the car trucks feed current to the motor. If current were fed into one end of a third rail which is some fourteen to twenty miles long, voltage would drop so tremendously that cars a few miles away would be unable to operate. Consequently the line is divided into sections, each insulated from its neighbor, each independently fed from the power house. Thus power can be cut off from any section without affecting the others.

Those S. B. markers might just as accurately be labeled “Life and Death.” The white light above one of them suddenly flashes red. Instantly the motorman shuts off his power, applies his brakes.

Something has happened ahead. An emergency, possibly a short circuit. Men are working on the dead third rail, for power has been shut off from the section. Our motor-man has been prompt enough to halt the train before it rolls into the dead section.

If the car had crossed the insulating break before stopping, service lights would have to be switched off instantly, leaving the train illuminated from batteries alone. Otherwise the rear contact shoes, touching the live third rail, would transfer current through the forward shoes to the dead rail which workmen are repairing and they would be electrocuted.

The very spirit of the subway is one of galvanic life, but death is forever trying to crash the turnstiles. Human ingenuity keeps the grim reaper persistently at bay. A bit wryly, the motorman demonstrates the “dead hand control” as “we roll in for a stop at the first express station.

Rising up from the end of the control handlers a spring-actuated knob or button. Only when it is held in depressed position can current flow through the controller. The instant the motorman fails to hold it down, the knob flies up, shuts off the power, applies the brakes automatically. When sub-way trains following close on each other’s heels and racing along as fast as 48 m.p.h., the dead man control prevents frightful collisions should the motorman collapse at his post.

Death in different guise rides ahead of the motorman each time he brings his train into a station. Schedules must be maintained; he does not shut off power until the first car reaches the near end of the platform. At any instant, out of the throngs of humanity packing the platform, a human figure bent on self-destruction may leap to the tracks. The motorman hasn’t a chance on earth of stopping his train within two car lengths, even with full air power applied.

Every few weeks somebody elects this form of suicide. They do not always succeed, for in busy stations a deep trough is cut between the tracks and many persons have landed in it while the train passed over them harmlessly. But the jumper is the black dread of the motorman. There is nothing he can do about it. The law of averages makes it certain that sooner or later a suicide will select his train to end his life. When the event occurs, the motorman finishes his run, just as an airplane pilot goes up immediately after a crash. The subway must go on.

Oddly enough, the motorman is the one man a subway passenger almost never sees. Often he does see the guard who controls the electropneumatic car doors. But as he tools his string of heavy steel cars through the tunnel, the motor-man himself is watched. Like the towers erected along surface railroads, the subway has its control stations at express stops where miniature tracks of the subway section show the movement of trains.

As each train moves along it actuates colored lights which flicker on along the toy tracks to show its progress. At any time the towerman knows the exact position of trains in his section, and he hands out orders in event of emergency.

For a single five-cent investment you can ride the subway as long as life remains in you, and life itself can be sustained at the confection stands and lunch counters which will be found inside the turnstiles and at the route terminals. You can telephone, buy magazines, newspapers, flowers, go to theatres and enter shops and department stores, all without going aboveground.

Subway rolling stock, driven constantly at top speed, is regularly inspected and goes to the shops for periodic overhauls. Much repair work can be done by simply rolling the cars over pits and working from beneath, but just as often it is necessary to lift the massive steel body entirely off its trucks. This is done by 25-ton steel cranes which lift off the body and set it on jacks while the wheels are rolled into the truck shops. Usually repairs are made and the car put back into service within twenty-four hours. Cars in the shops earn no nickels, and the I.R.T. must keep 2,118 cars in daily operation, the Independent subway, 1,162. The average run of a motorman is 100 miles a day.

For the motorman, of course, his run is work, but he derives from it the satisfaction which comes to any railroad man. In many respects the job of the subway trainman is more complex than that of the engineer of a crack transcontinental flyer, and in a single day he carries more passengers that the flyer does in a year.

For the passenger who gets tip in the nose of the first car, lets the breeze tear through his hair and watches the tunnel unroll its light-spattered mysteries, a ride on the subway scenic railway is one of the most thrilling experiencrs of the big city.

  1. Zak Lybrand says: March 2, 20099:06 pm

    I must say, I’m a big fan of this article. I’m a streetcar conductor in Dallas, and we are given the option of using authentic vintage hat badges if we so choose. As a gift from the man who trained me, I was given a conductor’s badge from the IRT division. It’s nice to learn a bit more about it, finally.

  2. Toronto says: March 2, 200910:10 pm

    Zak: I googled Dallas streetcars and all I see are PCC cars. I know your climate is much nicer than ours, but surely these aren’t in daily service, are they?

    And yes, it is a neat article. “An open doorway with guard chains”?? I love getting the front seat or door on the front car, but an OPEN doorway? (In Toronto, if you get the first car on a westbound Bloor train leaving Yonge, you can see the ‘mystery station’ at Bay – disused for decades but commonly used for movies needing a subway platform.)

  3. Zak Lybrand says: March 2, 200911:14 pm

    Toronto, go to . That’s our official website. We have a 1909 Brill, a 1926 Melbourne W2, a 1913 Stone & Webster car, and a Birney whose year I can’t remember. We operate every single day of the week, as a transit/tourist line. We operate 7-10 Mon-Thur, 7-Midnight on Fridays, 10-Midnight on Saturdays, and 10-10 on Sundays. It’s a nice line, goes around uptown Dallas, down McKinney Avenue, and into the Arts District. We have connections to several bus stops and the Dallas Area Rapid Transit trains, both red and blue lines. And, as a bonus, you can charter any one of our cars for a private event. All the info is on the website, including information on every car.


  4. Toronto says: March 3, 200912:39 am

    Zak: Sweet. Does the MATA give out souvenir tickets/transfers? If so, do you carry a punch for real nostalgia?

    I usually bike to work, but follow the streetcar routes (they’re the first streets plowed in the winter, and have stricter rush hour parking controls in the summer.) And they never make a sudden sideways move on you. :0) When I don’t bike, I “Ride the Rocket” (the streetcar slogan.) Besides, bus routes have those ‘wales’ at the corners from the concrete stretching under braking on hot days.

    Sadly, our subways aren’t as nicely maintained. The cars are okay, with newer ones in the pipeline, but the stations are crumbling. The TTC is something like 85% fare-box supported, but has no long term capital support from the province or the feds. It’s a shame, as they carry 1,500,000 people a day – a road with that many cars would be subsidized like crazy.

  5. Zak Lybrand says: March 3, 20092:30 pm

    Actually, Toronto, since we don’t charge fare, we don’t have any tickets. Sorry.

    We actually got two PCC cars from the TTC. They’re very nice, but in off-site storage because we can only support double ended cars, and the PCCs are single ended.

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