THE CONEY ISLAND SUBWAY SHOPS --------------------------- John Pazmino NYSkies Astronomy Inc www.nyskies.org email@example.com 2005 March 18
Introduction ---------- 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 system!
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 Australia!!! 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 fixed.
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.
Robotrain -------- 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 Brooklyn. 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 discharges. 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 breezes. 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.