STAND CLEAR OF THE CLOSING GATES, PLEASE -------------------------------------- John Pazmino NYSkies Astronomy Inc www.nyskies.org firstname.lastname@example.org 2004 November 13
[This article was written before NYSkies set up its website and has minor editing, mainly to remove residual typos]
Introduction ---------- Thruout 2004 the March of Dimes (MOD) is running excursions on the New York subway using the Transit Museum's nostalgic trains. March of Dimes hires the Museum trains from time to time, along with a transit crew, for its benefit functions.. I went on two of these trips and reported on these in 'Crossing the bridge' and 'Dis da A train' here in NYSkies. On those occasions the R1/9 vehicles were highlighted. In November 2004 MOD has a set of four trips, on the 6th, 7th, 20th, and 21st. Because on the 7th and 20th I have other engagements (actually related to astronomy, if you can believe that!), I grabbed the chance to take in the November 6th ride
Unspecified surprise ------------------ The advertisement for the November trips was a bit vague. It promoted the Lo-V (loh-vee) train, a tour of the 207th St shops, and some unspecified surprise. The Lo-V train was featured on October 23rd and 24th in the parade of nostalgic trains on the BMT Brighton line. A friend from the Transit Museum got me rides on it, there being no public rides for that show. It would be fun to get a ride again on this MOD trip. The shop tour would be interesting. I missed several previous chances to visit this or other shops around the transit system. And what ever other 'surprise' may come to me, well, that would be an extra treat. I hurried to the meeting place, the center platform of Columbus Circle, IND 8th Av, for the noontime start of the trip. I met up with a transit buddy and about a hundred other subway fans. We drew stares from the regular subway riders because we were on a platform normally closed from the public. Across the tracks we shouted that we were waiting for a special tour train.
The R1/9 train ------------ The initial part of the MOD tour was a ride on the IND classic coaches of the R1 thru R9 contract series. I elaborated on this coach in my two previous articles. This train has been in routine service on excursions all thruout 2004 both for MOD and the Transit Museum as part of the subway's centennial celebrations. The ride was entirely uneventful, a run downtown from Columbus Circle to World Trade Center and then uptown to Dyckman Street, all on the IND 8th Av line. We had only one photo stop at World Trade Center, which I passed up for already having plenty of pictures of this train. At Dyckman St the train left the mainline and spiraled into the surface-level 207th St shops.
207th Street shops ---------------- The 207th St shop was the main depot for the IND system when it opened in 1930. Altho primarily a repair and service depot, it can sleep about twenty full length trains on its fan of tracks. This shop is located between Sherman Creek and Isham Park against the Harlem River flank of Manhattan's panhandle. On a map it does look small, maybe a block wide and a couple long. When our train broke into daylight out of the subway, I was surprised how vast this place is! It looks to be something like 1 by 1/2 kilometer in area.
On the high sea ------------- This shop illustrates one of the weird features of cargo railroads in New York City. They are isolated from the rails west of the Hudson River. Passenger rails cross the river thru Penn Station but no freight trains are allowed on them. To move rail cargo between Rest of World and the City, the trains are sent to a yard to be cut apart into short segments. The segments are floated across the river om barges to an other yard, where the train is reassembled into its original full length. This system of ferrying trains across the Hudson is the 'car float' system. It's not unique to the City but New York has far and away the largest and best developed car float in the country. Each year about 150,000 cargo cars are floated across Hudson River by the several depots on the New York side and the one depot in Greenville, on the New Jersey side. When subway cars are transferred to or from the transit property, they travel by car float from the 207th Street, or at Sunset Park, shops. There we saw on the banks of the Harlem River the car float terminal, a veritable ferry slip, complete with the hooks and pulleys! It could have been for motor vehicles except that tracks led up to it. The barge has rails on it to line up with those on land, so the rail cars can be rolled on or off. On the barge the car wheels are chocked. Tugboats move the barge to the Greenville terminal.
Next stop, Davy Jones' locker --------------------------- The car float at 207th Street was dormant during our trip. It's only once in a while that subway cars move on or off the property. However, in this 21st century the car float was in heavy use for a really strange mission. In 2000-2004 the entire fleet of oldest cars for the IRT lines was replaced by brand new vehicles. The old ones, called Redbirds from their dark red paint scheme, were sent to Davy Jones' locker. Seriously, I'm not making this up. The cars were brought to the 207th Street shops, cleaned and stripped of obnoxious materials, then loaded on the barges. They were towed to offshore sites up and down the East Coast to be dumped overboard! When settled on the ocean floor, they become havens for reefs. Within months, the cars host new colonies of coral, fish, and other sealife. Divers now explore the cars like underwater caves. In all, thru the last of the Redbirds in summer 2004, some 1.100 old IRT cars were 'reefed'. They sit off New Jersey, Maryland, Delaware, and South Carolina.
Apartheid?!?! ----------- You quickly learn after riding the New York subway for a few months that the cars on the IRT are distinct from those on the IND and BMT. The most obvious distinction between the two phyla of car is their width, length, and doors. IRT cars are about 2.7 meters wide; IND/BMT, 3. IRT cars are all about 15 meters long with three doors on each side; IND/BMT, 18 to 23 with four. With the both sets of car side by side on the yard tracks, these distinctions are all the more vivid. The reason for this separated development is the stuff of urban legend. It's really quite simple. The tunnels of the IRT, built under 19th century norms of railroading, are narrower and the curves are tighter than on the BMT or IND. The latter two networks were built in the 20th century with more ample clearances. Cars made for the latter tunnels and turns will not fit into the IRT. To clear up one mistaken reason, the track gage (distance between the rails) and power supply are the same for all three divisions. And this is a good thing.
IRT on IND! -------- Despite the necessity to keep the fleets separate for regular service, the IRT and IND/BMT are interconnected at various points so that IRT cars can be moved to shops, like that at 207th Street. The interconnects were made in the postwar era after the City acquired the private IRT and BMT companies to merge operations with the City- owned IND. In this process the IRT's own central repair depot was eventually closed for being too obsolete. For the 207th Street shop the link is between the 207th St and 215th St stations on the IRT Upper Broadway line, which runs adjacent to the shop. It is a ramp leading into the uptown local track, so a train entering the Upper Broadway line is heading uptown. Switches near 215th St station allow the train to get to the other tracks for an express or downtown run. This link, and all others thruout the subway, is carefully guarded to make sure only IRT cars cross over it, and never a BMT or IND car.
Where's the power? ---------------- Our R1/9 train paused outside one hall, then started slowly into it. We deboarded from the front end door and rollaway steps. We filed along a marked path under guidance from the shop crew. Off limits areas were roped off and we were advised to keep within the delineated paths for obvious (and not so obvious) safety reasons. The tracks in this hall are depressed to floor level like trollwy tracks and there is no longer a third rail. Besides the danger from contact by shop workers, the floor has to be smooth for moving wagons, carts, even motor vehicles around the shop. Third rail is laid only along the outdoor tracks of the shops, with occasional breaks for foot and road crossings. To move a train within the shop or to feed electric to its mechanisms, heavy duty power cables are clamped to the power shoes. These are the 'tongues' hanging out between each pair of wheels of a subway car. They slide on the third rail to collect the electric. Our train paused outside the repair hall to attach this cable.
Time warp ------- For the subway centennial some of the Museum trains were overhauled in this shop. They were in various states of decay from neglect or natural erosion. As we walked about, we saw four of these trains, First was the R1/9 train we arrived on. A team of workers started checking it over for later use in the centennial celebrations. There was the Lo-V train, which we anticipated riding later in the day. Then we spotted the 'gate cars', which was the star of the October parade. Last up was the 'train of many colors'. This was a gaggle of IRT cars from the 1950s and 1960s, fully restored and painted in their original factory colors. Since the IRT went thru several color patterns over the years, we end up with a technicolor set of cars, the 'train of many colors'. Watching the shop crews work on these trains, with modern tools, equipment, machines, was, erm, crazy. All the more so because the crews tended to these trains as casually and routinely as with the new models on adjacent tracks!
Choo-choo chow ------------ The trip began at noon and it was now a little after 13h. The shop set up a mess for us with belly-packing fare. I filled up with a chicken hero sandwich and bottle of fruit juice, then scooped up potato and macaroni salad. We deployed on the floor or at work tables around the shop. Alas, as welcome as this lunch was, it made most of us miss the formal tour of the shop. The line for lunch was long and slow. And we were then encumbered with plates and bottles. Never the less, the shop crew accommodated to our questions and we took in enough of the activity to fill our interest. The Transit Museum had souvenir stands with its mix of old and new transit items. I passed up on this, being that I work near the Museum's store in Grand Central Terminal. The favored item was a steel handhold, the 'strap' you hang from on crowded train, from reefed Redbirds. The director of my office has one in his room mounted on the wall for grabbing in tense moments.
Wheelies ------ The hall we were in catered to the wheels and trucks of subway cars. There were seemingly hundreds of trucks, the heavy carriage encasing the motors and wheels, lined up soldier-like on one side of the repair hall. On the sunken depowered rails, they looked very innocent. When galvanized, each truck sucks in 600 volts and spits out 400 horsepower. Between and below the rails was a man-high trench, reached by stairs from the floor level. This lets the underside of the trucks to be inspected and maintained. I can imagine how fanaticly torrid this trench is when a truck is moved over it fresh from the road. To repair or replace a truck, the car is moved under a travelling crane. The entire car body is hoisted off of the truck. Yep, the car just sits on the truck with a sleeve bearing around the truck pivot with no mechanical connection. Electrical contact with the rest of the car is made with flexible detachable cables. The wheels are seated on the axle by shrink fit. The wheel is electricly heated, making it and its center hole expand. The wheel is pushed onto the axle by hydraulic press and allowed to cool. The shrinking wheel grabs the axle with around 40 tons of pressure! Removing a wheel is done by brute force. The hydraulic press yanks the wheel off of the axle. After dressing the axle for scoring and gouging, it's ready for a replacement wheel.
Surprise!!! --------- The Lo-V train wasn't ready for us yet. To pass the time, the crew rolled out the gate cars. The gate cars!! These are the oldest car in the Museum, built in 1903, predating the underground railroad. They were made by the BMT's predecessor Brooklyn Rapid Transit, which at the time was converting its els from steam locomotives to electric third rail. Remember that the 'centennial' you're hearing about is for only the SUBWAY. New York City (and the then-separate Brooklyn) were running rapid transit by steam locomotives and elevated structures since the 1870s. Only three specimina of the original many hundred coaches survive. For decades they were static exhibits in the Museum. At 207th St shop they were carefully restored to a glistening factory-fresh condition. I missed actually riding them in the parade on October 23rd and 24th, being content then to photograph them from the stations along the way.
Tragic history ------------ These cars, like all el cars of the early 20th century, were patterned after railroad vehicles of the 19th century. They were made of wood with simple fittings and furnishings. The earliest models were trailers, no motors, for being hauled by miniature locomotives. These particular gate cars are among the first set of electric rapid transit vehicles in New York. The Brooklyn system was an all-el grid spreading out from what is now Cadman Plaza to the far corners of the city. Urban astronomers now today starview in Cadman Plaza on the exact spot where the sprawling Brooklyn el terminal and yard stood on stilts high above the streets. In the 1910s Brooklyn Rapid Transit began building subways and ordered new cars. By then steel was the preferred material, a practice initiated by the IRT company for its own subways. But the BRT continued running the woods on both el and underground sections. On 1 November 1918 during a wildcat walkout by train drivers, the BRT sent office workers to run its trains. One was assigned to a wood train -- virtually the same as our gate cars -- starting from Manhattan's City Hall (Brooklyn has its own, thank you very much), over Brooklyn Bridge, thru the Cadman Plaza complex, and eventually onto the Brighton line. The driver had only momentary tuition at the controls. He entered Prospect Park station, on a short tunnel under Malbone Street, too fast. The train derailed. The wood cars burst against concrete walls. Third rail sparks ignited fires. Some 100 riders were killed, an other hundred were injured. So horrible was the accident that the BRT reorganized as the Brooklyn Manhattan Transit company, the BMT. The street was rebuilt and renamed Empire Boulevard. (A short piece of the old alignment of Malbone St remains a kilometer east of Prospect Park.) And wood cars were banned from carrying riders in subway. The woods were supposed to be totally scrapped in favor of the new steel vehicles. With continuing shortage of cars, they were maintained for emergency use. That's how, by sheer luck, we have these last three to delight 21st century New York. There's even the BRT name still burnished on glass panes inside the cars!
Living legacy ----------- The banishment of the woods from underground service is still on the books, long after the woods were confined to all-el operations by 1930. This rule bit us in 2004 during a series of MOD trips with these gate cars. The cars were towed by the R1/9 train partly because the gate cars weren't yet fully operable on their own power. The greater reason was the no-rider rule. When the excursion train approached a subway section, the train crew shooed riders out of the gate cars into the R1/9 cars. When the train emerged into el sections, the excursionists were allowed back on the gate cars!
The gates ------- The gate cars have no side doors at all, just a long row of windows from end to end. At each end of the car is a porch enclosed by a waist-high lattice fence. The fence panel against the station platform is a gate worked by manual lever and linkage. It opens and closes much like the clamshell front doors of certain buses. A gateman is needed at each coupling between cars to work the levers. After the gates are closed and riders are safely inside the cars, the gateman rang a bell on the hood over the porch. When the driver got the bell from all gatemen he threw the train into gear. Riders were supposed to only board and deboard thru the gates. They must continue into the car thru end doors. With the overcrowding prevalent in the old days, riders crammed onto the porch. There's room for six people on each porch, three on each side, leaving a corridor for the end door. In a crush, two more on each porch can stand at the end door, blocking it.
More living legacy ---------------- Modern cars have no such porch. Every one must ride within the body of the car. Yet you hear announcements that you must not ride, or walk, between cars. Why? We STILL ride outside the car! During my house sitting years on Manhattan the Lexington Av line was so stuffed with people it was impossible to squeeze onto the train thru the side doors. We on the platform, after hopelessly waiting for a lesser loaded train, climbed between the cars and rode on the little apron outside the end doors! Yes, the conductor yelled at us and even let out a naughty phrase or two. That we could take as the price for getting to work or home on time. The ride on the end apron was, to be polite, noisy as Hell. There was a protocol to observe. Woe be to the one who tried to buck it. Only two people fit on the apron of each car. No newspaper reading or other space-grabbing activity. No spitting or puking into the wind. No food or drink or loud radios. Latch the safety chain back behind you. Call your stop before reaching it so other apron riders can ease out of your way. Stifle your nature calls.
Lift off! ------- When word rang out about the gate cars, we all cheered! The shop crew led us to a train platform nestled between other shop buildings. There the gate train twinkled in the sunlight! For this ride only one gate was open, minded by crew on the platform. It took a good fifteen minutes to board the hundredish folk wanting the ride. With a throw of the lever and satisfying latching click, the platform attendant rang the bell. With a sudden lurch and rattling of chains and loose fittings, our train eased out of the station. We spiraled around the yard to the Upper Broadway line just outside the campus. The train was up to the task easily, sliding onto the mainline as if it was merely the next run of a normal service life. We let off some excursionists at 215th St for picture taking; we will pick them up on the return leg. then we flipped onto the center track for a roll uptown.
Ride with your head, not without it --------------------------------- What a difference! It's one thing to look out an open window at the countryside rolling by. But you are still 'in the car'. It's quite an other to be outside with nothing between you and the outer space but a thin lacy fence. As we boarded and again when we were about to depart the shop, the crew loudly warned us to keep heads and hands inside. This certainly applied to us on the porch. It also was applicable to those in the seats. The windows on this train open from the BOTTOM, like ordinary house windows! It takes just an instant of foolhardiness to terminate your earthly existence. It didn't take long to see the sense of this warning. Within seconds after leaving the shop's platform, a thick wayside pole whizzed by mere centimeters from our faces. We all were extra careful to stay within an imaginary plane above the porch fence. I have to credit the discipline of the riders for not tempting the fates. On previous trips, many excursionists recklessly leaned out of the windows for a photo shoot in the face of warnings by the crew. Today on the gate cars, I didn't see anyone itching to trade life or limb for a better picture angle.
BMT on IRT? --------- I explained before that BMT trains can not run on the IRT, yes? Well, here we were, a pure BMT train on a pure IRT el! The trick is that the gate cars are of 19th century design, with narrow bodies and short length. They are, in fact, pretty much like the IRT;s own el trains. And so, we took to the foreign rails like we belonged there.
Rumbling thru space ----------------- The Upper Broadway line is the last remaining el on Manhattan, being the northern extremity of the underground branch out of 96th Street station. It is a glatt el with three tracks, wood ties and deck, cute station houses. It sits on tall stalks to even out the ups and downs of the terrain. This profile made for some soaring and swooping and a gorgeous glide over Harlem River into the Bronx. It's a good thing we were on the center track! Not only for the nonstop rumble but also to avoid conflict with the regular trains. This is a busy part of the system, even on the Saturday of our trip, Regulars shot by in each direction on the local tracks every two to three minutes! They greeted us with horn toots. Their windows were filled with nose-pressing gawkers, At the stations, waiting riders stared in disbelief. Not only were they seeing an antique train but they saw people riding on the outside with only a low flimsy fence to keep them from tumbling onto the track! With no confinement by window frames, I drank in the fantastic vista. Wide sweeps of the Manhattan and Bronx countryside, long peers into the side streets, bird's eye views of the Harlem River, Beneath the the rattles and clanks and hisses of the train was an undercurrent of clicks and whirs of cameras. We burned thru a lot of film and chip! There's little artistic relief, if you can't stomach walls of graffiti, car carcasses, weed-filled lots, glass-strewn alleys. On the other hand, we spotted Baker Field of Columbia University, Isham and Inwood Hill Parks, Marble Hill and Fieldston 'hoods, Metro North rail line. Manhattan College, Soviet 'spyscraper', and Van Cortlandt Park.
An incident averted? ------------------ At one point we stopped for a signal to clear. There in the street below was a gang of youths in horseplay. I hope it was only horseplay. Suddenly as we sat still about 50 meters slant range, one of the men looked up and pointed. He grabbed his fellows to look. In an instant all eight or so guys were waving and shouting to us! We were way too far away for voice; we made do with waves and gestures. With a jolt, we started up again, leaving the gang as friends now. Did we dissipate a possible nasty incident? All along the way, from 215th St to 238th St (the paenultimate station on this line) we drew attention from the street. Every one saw us! We got waves, pointed fingers, rubbed eyes. One woman was so stunned as she walked with arms full of shopping, she let her bags spill on the ground!
Modern 'gate' car --------------- The gate train will run for special occasions. You'll learn about them thru transit, not astronomy, litterature. Yet, you can tomorrow acquire much of the flavor of these ancient trains with modern cars rolling around the subway. Modern cars are fully enclosed with flat vertical end faces. One model, the R40 car, has at its ends a slanted fiberglass (or such) face. It is one of the most distinctive cars on the system, easily recognized as it swooshes thru the stations. Today these cars are assigned to routes B (Brighton via 6th Avenue), N (Sea Beach via Broadway), and W (Astoria via Broadway). Only 1/3 of trains on route N are R40s; you may let a couple trains pass by before catching an R40 train. The other two routes are almost completely R40s. One peculiarity you notice is that the EVEN numbered couplings, besides the very ends of the train, have the slant face. The ODD couplings have flat faces. The R40s were made as coupled pairs. The inner ends of the pair have the vertical faces; outer, the slants. A full length train consists of five pairs, The B service has open air sections on Manhattan Bridge (north side) and along the Brighton line. From Prospect Park thru Avenue H the Brighton line is in a trench. south of there the line runs on either a berm or steel & wood el. The N service runs on Manhattan Bridge (south side) and in trench along the Sea beach section. Both N and W trains operate on el along the Astoria line. Having found the R40 train, walk between the cars at the even couplings. You step onto a little porch fenced in by heavy square bars and a chain. Wrapping around the bars secures you against bouncing off of the porch as the train shakes and quakes. The sloped faces open a wide vista and the wind (and noise!) whistles thru your head. I strongly advise that you lay off of this ride when the porch is wet with snow, ice, rain. It may be very slippery. If such is the case, the weather is likely too harsh for outside riding anyway. One blessing is that there's no danger of being whacked by obstructions. The fence is recessed more than arm's length from the car sides. Even so, please stay put, no funny antics, OK? The best prospect is on Manhattan Bridge itself. From the south side tracks via the N train you see Lower Manhattan and the Harbor. On the B train from the Bridge's north tracks you overlook Midtown Manhattan and East River. The view from the N or W train on the Astoria line faces Midtown Manhattan.
Sunset on the rails ----------------- It was late in the afternoon as our gate train rolled back and forth above Broadway. The Sun was skirting the housing blocks, throwing long shadows into the streets. We headed back to the shop. By radio, the crew got word that the Lo-V, the original highlight of the excursion, was now ready for our ride, . Off the mainline we spiraled, back to the service platform in the shop. We pulled in right in front of the Lo-V train, all fancied up for us. We boarded, waited for the gate train to move out of the way, and started to roll. It was now early twilight. All was well for a couple minutes, then, Boom! Motors bucked and chattered. Wheels span. Circuit breakers popped. Something was truly wrong. A bevy of train crew huddled at the driver's cab. Lots of banter by radio, much fiddling with the driver controls. No go. The Lo-V was not up to the mission. After a half hour, by now in deep twilight, the crew let on that we had to cut short the trip. Our tickets were now rain checks for one of the other November trips. For this reason, as well as the length already of this article, I leave out a discourse about the Lo-V car. It's enough to note that this was the standard coach of the IRT until the 1960s, when the Redbirds replaced it. Uh, we're on the center track with no way to deboard. The crew nursed the train enough to move it without risking a shutdown of the whole line. Slowly and carefully the train hobbled along. We ended up at the northern terminal, Van Cortlandt Park. The Lo-V shuddered to a stop and let us off. We dispersed for home on regular trains.