John Pazmino
 NYSkies Astronomy Inc
 2005 March 18
    In previous articles I spoke about the excursions I took on the
Transit Museum fleet of subway cars in New York. The trips I went on
were operated by the March of Dimes. The vehicles are maintained in
the subway repair shops along with the regular coaches by both regular
transit workers and volunteers.
    In the same way that there are antique car and airplane clubs, New
York has a corps of folk who 'mess around' with antique subway cars.
They do this under the general supervision of both the Transit
Authority and the Transit Museum.
    One of my friends is such a subway club member and volunteer. He
wanted for some time to show me around the cars he's working on,in
return for my helping him with his astronomy interests. It was too
much redtape to get me in the repair shops as a causal visitor. Even
if he got me on the grounds, the workers would be most upset to find a
civilian wandering around unattended.
    It happened that on 8 March 2005 the Transit Museum offered a tour
of the shops he works at, the Coney Island Complex. He fixed me up for
this tour, relieving him of all headache and trouble, yet allowing him
to show me his handiwork on the historic trains.
Coney Island Complex
    Simply put, the Coney Island Complex is the largest and busiest
rapid transit shops in the world. It opened in 1926 for the BMT
company, was expanded repeatedly since then, and underwent a major
upgrade in the 1980s and 1990s.
    The Museum's tour host stated that the complex -- it's actually
several interconnected yards and shops -- cover 75 acres. I did a
planimetry on a Brooklyn street map and come up with about 120 acres,
almost a half square kilometer. I pass the yards from time to time and
noticed large plots of vacant land in it. Perhaps the 75 acres refers
to the developed portion. By any measure the place is humongous.
    The complex is on the north side of Coney Island Creek about a
half kilometer north of the Coney Island subway terminal. This station
serves four major lines: Brighton, Culver, Sea Beach, and West End.
Trains of the Sea Beach, West End, and Culver lines pass thru or next
to the complex. The Brighton line misses it completely. Like any 
industrial facility, public access to the Complex is limited to 
special occasions, like this Museum tour. 
    In addition to the repair shops, Coney Island is the storage yard
for 2,000 subway cars from many lines, not just the four working Coney
Island itself. This yard can comfortably hold the entire second
largest subway fleet in the country, that of the Chicago transit
The tour
    The Transit Museum tour attracted some 100 people. This is amazing
given the heavy snowfall during the day and falling temperatures near
sunset. When I arrived at the shop's control house quite at sunset, I
met my friend. he mustered me up and soon we were herded into a
classroom for orientation.
    What a bunch! Besides the usual railroad fans, there were people
from other states and other countries! They came primarily for this
special tour!! I met folk from Germany, Poland, Italy -- and Japan and
    A large number of guests wore work clothes and safety vests. I
figured they were escorts for the tour. Some were. Others were regular
employees at the shop who took this opportunity to bring their
families to see their work.
    A third contingent was children. They scampered around the room as
kids will do. This antic prompted some harsh safety warnings from the
tour host. The tour was going thru an active industrial facility, not
one buttoned down for a public open house. Grownups were admonished to
keep hold of their children and not let them run loose.
    The host presented a video about the work in Coney Island. It was
a good introduction for the places we would visit and answered most of
the simple questions we had. A booklet about the complex was handed
out for further background.
The shops
    Coney Island is the main heavy repair and maintenance site for
subway cars. the other is the 207th St shop on the Manhattan
panhandle. The complex has many specialized facilities, of which we
visited three. These were the Wheel & Axle hall, the Body overhaul
hall, and the Paint hall. As a final treat we visited the two control
towers within the yards. Just these four features occupied almost
three hours, from 18h to 21h.
    I do not lard you with all facts & figures of the machines in the
shops. First, they can be meaningless for most readers. Second, I by
now forgot many of the numbers! Here I explain in general manner what
the various halls do.
Scheduled maintenance
    In the bad old days of the subway system, trains were run until
they broke down on the rails. Then they crawled or were carried to
Coney Island for fixing. Apart from the erratic flow of work and often
lengthy tedious repair, such operations disrupted service thruout the
system. The worst period for this scheme was the 1970s. In the 1980s a
new paradigma began to look after the cars by preventive maintenance.
    Each module of a subway car is brought to the shop on a schedule
for repair, cleaning, tuning regardless of its operating state.
Depending on the item, the interval between shop calls is running
time, running distance, or calendar time.
    Also in the 1980a there began a massive replacement of the older
coaches with new ones of modular and swoppable parts. A coach is
rolled into the shop, the appropriate parts are taken out, new or
rebuilt ones are put in, and the car is sent out on the road. The
removed parts go into shop treatment without detaining the entire car.
Steady stable workflow
    On this system of scheduled maintenance and huge number of subway
cars, work comes into the shop in a steady predictable stream. Workers
are busy in several shifts round the clock. The shop, like the subway
itself, never sleeps.
    The New York subway has about 6,000 coaches and several hundred
other rail vehicles. This is essentially one half of the entire
country's rapid transit vehicles! Because of the 'market dominance' of
new York, transit manufacturers commonly adapt New York methods in
vehicles they build for other transit systems. They then offer New
York parts to these systems for their own repair shops.
    This strategy is under development for the new 'robotrain' for New
York. While other systems have automated trains, they may be nudged
over to the New York system when their cars are replaced.
    Such a flow of incoming and outgoing work allowed the shop to
align itself like a factory assembly line. At one end come in, say,
wheels and axles. They are treated and processed step by step in the
Wheel & Axle hall, and a finished set emerges from the other end.
Running repairs
    Inevitably there will be problems that spring up on the road and a
car is brought in like an emergency case. One bay of the Body overhaul
room was mostly empty for these running repair jobs. There was, for
instance, a vacuum cleaner vehicle, the contraption that sucks up
trash from the tracks as it crawls thru the subway network. I forget
just what its trouble ws, but it was all dismantled with its guts
spread out on the ground around it.
    An other vehicle was a geometry car, one of two for the subway. It
looked intact but the tour host explained that there was some internal
equipment that konked out. When functioning, this car crawls the
rails, measuring them by laser and sonar for spacing, separation, 
elevation, and other parameters. It also checks for internal flaws, 
cracks, erosion, and the like.
    By the 21st century, Coney Island shops does about 95% of its work
in scheduled maintenance and 5% in running repairs. This is an
astounding ratio for any railroad! It does pay off handsomely in a
professional and content workforce, productive thruput, and continuity
of subway service. There is, believe it or not, a huge savings in
operating costs because trouble is caught early when it can be cheaply
Power by wire
    To move cars within the shop, an assortment of devices are
available. If the car has motor power, a heavy cable from a power
pylon is clipped onto the power shoe. This cable has the same 600V DC 
electric as the third rail. This power is applied also to test other 
electrical components even if the motors are not functioning.
    One of the hideous dangers for the tour was live power on a subway
car. If ANY shoe on a car is energized, ALL are. If a visitor plays
around with an innocent looking car, he may not notice that it is
energized by a cable hookup. The tour escorts were diligent to keep us
away from live power in the shop.
    The pylons are everywhere, so there's cable handy for any corner
of the shop, looking like firehose stations. These are hazardous to
the untutored person, who may want to fiddle with them. There was
furthermore the simple matter of tripping over a cable strung out
across the floor.
It's the pits
    An other peril were the inspection pits. Many of the tracks in the 
shops have a trench between the rails, of man height, for inspecting 
the underbelly of a car. It was awfully easy for the unwary person to
walk across the track without noticing the two-meter drop. With a
train on the track, the trench is covered. The ends, where the access
steps are, is still a mean hazard.
    A particularly nasty scenario was a person skipping around to take
pictures and backing off of the edge of the pit. Escorts were
constantly waving these folk away from the pits.
    The pits are for inspection and some hand tool work. There is no
room down there for machines, spare parts, large tools. Once the
trouble is found, the car is moved to another track and raised on
bolster for the actual work.
Tables, tables, tables
    When a car must have its truck removed, it is moved over a drop
table, This is a section of track that lowers to one floor under the
hall to let a truck come off of the coach. The car, now without its
truck, settles onto bolsters at the ends of the drop table well. A new
truck is then raised up by this table to attach to the car.
    Before taking a truck off, it is 'undressed', meaning that the
nest of wires, cables, hoses are detached. The truck has a hub in the
middle onto which the car body sits. The fit is a sleeve bearing with
no mechanical restraints. The new truck is 'dressed'; its wiring is
attached to enable it for service.
    An other interesting table is the transfer table to shift a car
from one track to an other inside the hall. The car moves onto the
table, a car-length segment of track on rollers. The table slides 
laterally to line up its rails with the appropriate other track.     
    A drop table is hemmed in with fences but the transfer table is 
not. A visitor could step off of its well and get banged up badly, 
despite its shallow one-meter depth. 
Historic cars 
    In the running repair bay were two of the subway's historic cars. 
These were the ones my friend is working on. They were classical BMT 
models built in the 1910s and 1920s and retired in the 1960s. Friend, 
other volunteers, and transit employees are reconditioning these cars 
for a summer rollout on the 90th anniversary of the so-called 'Dual 
Contract' phase of subway building in New York. 
    They really looked out of place! Here was a train of my 
grandfather's vintage being examined by computer-driven ultrasound 
probes! The task was to find the voids in the body frame so new steel 
parts can be fabricated. Nearby on the ground in neat piles were 
rebuilt windows with wood and brass frames. 
    My friend figured to leave me with the tour and do some roof and 
panel work on these cars. We would meet up after the tour and hang 
out. As it happened, he was pressed into service to help mind the 
tour! He got nothing done that night! On the other hand, he repeatedly 
pulled me from the crowd to point out some extra feature of the shop 
or the cars in it. 
    For instance, we looped around a pair of Redbirds. To me they 
looked like they were still in good condition. They were, sort of, but 
retired from service. they were here for conversion into work vehicles. 
He and I examined closeup some of the underbody apparatus. including 
the 'married pair' coupling.
    Just briefly, starting in the 1960s New York bought subway cars 
already joined into two-car sets. In place of the usual make-or-break 
coupling, the tie between the cars of a married pair was a tow bar. The 
pair was treated as a single unit for making up trains. 
Historic parts 
    An obvious question is: where does the historic fleet get 
replacement parts? The cars were out of production for decades, their 
factories long ago shut down, their mechanics retired or passed on. 
Actually, just like for historic airplanes and automobiles, there is a 
thriving 'cottage industry' of spare parts for historic subway trains, 
at least for those of New York. 
    When the coaches were retired, many were in fact cubed or torn up 
for scrap. Many were kept, even if neglected and decayed, here and 
there around the world. While in some cases the exterior is badly 
deteriorated, the internal mechanisms are often in salvageable 
condition. The Museum and Authority tap into this industry to get the 
old cars in working order. With their large stable of historic cars, 
these two outfits are very good customers! 
    In addition, the coaches were thoroly documented while in 
operation with plans, blueprints, manuals. These are still in the 
libraries of the Authority, Museum, and railroad preservation groups. 
From them new replica parts can be made in the Authority's machine 
shops, often right here in Coney Island. 
    There is sometimes a concession to modern safety code, like an 
extra circuit breaker or the removal of harmful materials. The 
replacements are then done in a sensitive manner to preserve the soul 
of the original vehicle. 
    One bunch of cars in the shop was a robotrain. The set to hand was 
under outfitting for the BMT Canarsie line. I recounted the operation 
of this train in my article 'Here comes robotrain' a couple months 
ago. Initial service is expected to begin in May or June 2005 on the 
Canarsie line between Broadway Junction (East New York) and Rockaway 
Parkway (Canarsie). At intervals a couple months apart other sections 
will convert to computer operation so that the entire line is fully 
under robotrain control by the end of the year. 
    These cars, from the R143 contract, are configured in sets of 4 
cars each. A train on the Canarsie line will be two sets for 8 cars. 
It turns out that the platforms are long enough for a 10 car train but 
for assorted technical reasons, the train length is only 8 cars. The 
hope is that with robotrain, there can be more frequent service, so 
the shorter trains will not get overly crowded.
    Because of the computerized machinery in the R143 cars, they can 
not be run in a train with the older vehicles. To make sure they are 
not by mistake joined to other models of car, the couplers are 
deliberately different. One major difference between the other cars 
and the R143 is that the R143 runs on AC motors, not DC ones. The 
current from the third rail is converted onboard to three phase AC. 
One phase is fed to the rotor, the other two are fed to the stator in 
variable voltage and frequency to deliver the proper combination of 
thrust (torque, actually) and speed. 
Control towers
    These two towers were in one structure five stories tall somewhere 
in the middle of the yard. We walked there under escort in darkness on 
slippery ice and unimproved paths. We were let up in small groups due 
to the confined room at the top. By day there is a dropdead view of 
the entire yard but now at night there was only swarms of lights 
in a sea of blackness. For the astronomy of it, from up here I noticed 
that the yards are using partially shielded floodlights to lessen the 
outpour of luminous graffiti. 
    There are two control rooms here. The one we went into looked 
after trains on the mainlines leading to the Coney Island terminal. 
The other, behind glass doors we could look thru but not enter, cared 
for trains within the yard itself. Even tho by now the evening 
rushhour was waning, both rooms were busy. The tour host noted that 
every day this tower sees more rail traffic than all of Amtrak 
nationwide in a week. 
    Operators sat at a long counter in front of a mimic or model board 
of the subway system within its range. All train movements were 
governed by instrument rules. The board had a schematic diagram of the 
four mainlines, Brighton, Culver, Sea Beach, and West End from the 
Coney Island terminal to a point on each several kilometers uptrack. 
When a train moves off the board, it is handed to an other control 
tower beyond that point. A train entering the board was handed to 
Coney Island by the other tower. 
    There was agitation on the Brighton line due to icing of switches 
and signals, It was a cold winter day with snow turning to ice every 
where on the system. Because of the multilane feature of the New York 
subway, trains can be shifted from track to track without shutting 
down the line. On the Brighton line, all traffic was thrown onto the 
express tracks with appropriate announcements passed on to the way 
stations. The other three lines seemed to be running normally. 
    This busyness curtailed our personal interaction with the rail 
traffic controllers. The tour host tried to follow the radio and phone 
chatter and explain what was happening. He showed the train movements 
on the model board and correlated them to the signal indications, also 
noted on the board.
Coney Island terminal
    Our visit was over after climbing down from the tower. After a 
little last minute bantering in the control house we broke up to go 
home. I rode to Coney Island station to get a Brighton train home. 
    The four lines converging here were once regular railroads working 
the seashore resorts of Coney Island in the 1800s. Gradually by the 
end of the 19th century the Brooklyn transit company acquired the 
lines and attached them to its own system of els in other parts of 
    The initial upgrade of operation was merely to add more stations 
and run more frequent trains. The railroads ran on ground level, with 
potential -- and actual -- conflict with road traffic. 
    The railroads had their own terminals in Coney Island, surrounded 
by hotels and beach facilities. Here were built the world's first 
themeparks: Dreamland, Luna Park, Steeplechase. The first transit 
operations kept these terminals for several years. By World War I the 
BMT company consolidated the lines into a new single giant station at 
Stillwell Av and Surf Av fronting the beaches. In addition, the lines 
were multilaned and segregated from road traffic by structures 
substantially those of today. 
What a place!
    This station for a rapid transit system is huge. It's more like 
the mainline rail depot. In fact, the massive overhaul of this station 
in the last couple years actually turned it into a European-style 
train hall! It's not totally complete with the Sea Beach line still 
terminating a station away from Coney Island. The Sea Beach is coming 
back into Coney Island by May or June 2005, to restore full capacity 
in time for the summer beach season. 
    Here is one instance where a rebuilding rather thankfully kept 
little from the original work. Coney Island terminal since I was a kid 
was a reeking dump, full of icky people. The lighting was dim from 
dirt-covered bulbs. The floor was sticky from food slop or human 
    One miserable feature was the men's room, blessedly escaping the 
notice of preservationists. This room -- a stable, really -- had a 
communal urinal, a low long stone trough with a trickle of water 
running along its valley. Clients stood against it, in full view of 
every one else, and dispensed into the trickle. 
    To soak up spills and splash, the floor was (NO! I'M NOT MAKING 
THIS UP!!!!) covered with sawdust. To wash up, you would grab up some 
sawdust, wipe the hands in it, shake off the spent stuff back onto the 
floor. I carried napkins, thank you very much. I also had to whisk 
sticky sawdust from my shoes, else all my friends knew where I went. 
    By quirks of alignment, the Brighton and Culver lines enter this 
depot from the south. The Sea beach and West End come from the north. 
Coney Island (still at times called Stillwell Av) is built as a thru 
station, like Manhattan's Penn Station. Altho the lines end their runs 
here, trains can and do flow straight thru from one end to the other. 
Such moves are how trains are moved from the Brighton/Culver to the 
West End/Sea Beach. This is far simpler than zigzagging trains between 
the lines within Coney Island yards. 
    Each line has its own platform and two flanking tracks, with the 
Sea Beach section finished by May or June 2005. There are, thus, eight 
tracks and four platforms, all on one level supported above the street 
on a forest of stilts. The underbelly of the terminal is taken up by 
workrooms, a few stores, and a bus station. The platforms are joined 
by over and under passes. The latter lead to the headhouse, still 
under construction, and the beach. Despite changes in service over the 
ages, the track assignments of the lines remained remarkably stable. 
    One glitch in the design of the Coney Island Complex was the lack 
of direct yard access from the Brighton line. The other lines pass by 
or thru the yard, with short leads to feed trains to and from them. 
The Brighton corridor is a couple kilometers away. Its only access, 
until the current rebuilding, to the yard was thru the terminal 
itself. As part of the new station, a bypass track east of the 
platforms allows Brighton trains to get to and from the yard without 
disturbing trains in the station. 
Work of art 
    The new Coney Island station is in the motif of a 19th century 
train hall as found in European towns. You got exposed girders, ribbed 
roof, grillwork fences, open stairs. Sightlines from the overpass 
joining the platforms are a good photo angle to capture the ambiance 
of Coney Island station. A darksky enthusiast would drool at this 
immense construct, 300 meters long, about 50 meters wide, five stories 
tall, that throws almost no light into the sky! 
    The place is light and airy. A bit too airy. with the cold weather 
and brisk wind on the tour night. The platforms were sweeped by arctic 
blasts. Riders huddled behind platform furniture or the thicker 
columns. Nothing really odd about this; els everywhere in New York are 
living hells in winter with no refuge from the elements. On the other 
hand, in summer, the room is cool from the roof shade and ocean 
    As an ecological plus, the roof is laid with solar panels for 
electric. No, not for third rail, but for the internal needs of the 
depot like lights, small motors, office equipment, power sockets. 
    I guessed that the Brighton line's switch trouble would clear up 
so I could get a local train home. Nope. All trains were still 
expresses with many going to the yards to sleep out the night. I went 
home via the West End line.