HERE COMES ROBOTRAIN! ------------------- John Pazmino NYSkies email@example.com 2005 January 26
Introduction ---------- The March of Dimes continues its subway excursions using the Transit museum's historical fleet. Thru 2004 these trips were operated almost monthly, with me riding some on of them; these I described in previous articles in NYSkies. The first MOD trip of the new year 2005 ran on January 1st, yes, new Year's Day itself. The importance (to a subway fan) of this excursion is that it may the very last time a historical train will run on the 14th St-Canarsie line. Why? This line is booked to switch to a computer automated service in mid 2005! Once this is done, no trains operated manually, like our excursion train, can travel on this line! Stay tuned. The train for this trip was the R1/9 set of coaches from the prewar IND system. I elaborated on this train in earlier articles. I note here that the train now has six restored cars, the newest finished in fall of 2004. Two more coaches are under rebuild, so eventually in 2005 the Museum can boast having a complete consist of prewar IND cars.
The Equatorial Bear Club ---------------------- By now you know that my stories can be, erm, incredible. Well, this New Year's Day was the annual swim in the ocean for the local Polar Bear Club. It chartered the R1/9 train to carry its members from Columbus Circle to Coney Island in the morning. A normal January 1st in the City has temperature near 0C, perfect for Polar Bears. January 1st of 2005 just happened to be one of the warmest days on record, temperature around +15C!! The Polar Bears did their thing in the surf but there was no fun to it at all. To worsen their day, their charter train was booked to take them only to Coney Island but not back to the City. Soonest the train dropped of the Equatorial, opps! Polar Bears, it had to scamper to Manhattan for the March of Dimes trip. The members went home by the regular trains working Coney Island terminal.
Chambers Street ------------- Our trip started at Chambers Street on the BMT Nassau St line. I arrived a bit early for ts 12:30 EST departure, figuring the train would be on one of the center tracks. These tracks are not in routine use, with the regular trains running on the outer tracks. No special train. On the center track was a regular one! The special idling on the uptown local track with rail fans milling around. Wait a minute. Isn't the special train tying up the Nassau St service? The middle tracks dead end in this station; the local tracks continue to Lower Manhattan and Brooklyn. Then I remembered. On weekends (January 1st was a Saturday), the section from Chambers St to Lower Manhattan is closed; all trains from the north terminate at Chambers St. So! The local track could be occupied by our special train while the middle tracks were pocketing the regular ones!
Nassau St line ------------ For the history of it all, this line was once known as the Centre St line, being that it began here at Chambers St station and ran north in Centre St; there was no prolongation to the south. It is one of the more contentious episodes in New York transit history that eventually the southern arm was built in Nassau St. After some long while, 'Centre St' was gradually replaced y 'Nassau St' for the popular name for the whole line. This line from Chambers St to Essex St stations was heavily rebuilt in the 21st century. It was originally fitted with four tracks but traffic never needed them consistently. Later, when the line was pushed south into Lower Manhattan, only two tracks were installed. So, with reason, it was simpler to operate this entire reach of subway as a bog double-track road with four tracks kept at Chambers St for short runs or layups. The realignment completed in fall 2004 shifted all service to what was the downtown local and express tracks. The uptown local and express tracks are dormant, possibly to be removed or reserved for storage. Only the former downtown island platforms of Canal St and Bowery stations are used; the uptown platforms are closed off. Both stations were remodeled into rather handsome facilities. I usually applaud such rehabilitations. In the case of Bowery, the station is now utterly out of character with the street upstairs. Gone are the junkyard dogs stalking the riders, the ooze trickling down the stairs, the shape screams from dark dank corners. Essex St was also rebuilt, keeping three tracks, which neck down to two to cross Williamsburgh Bridge. (Purists keep the 'h'.) On the south side of this station is a large dimly lighted recess. In bygone years, several Brooklyn trolley lines crossed Williamsburgh Bridge and deposited their cars into an underground depot in this recess. Urban archaeologists explore it for trolley relics. Talk sprouts up from time to time to make this into an exhibit to recall the trolley operations, perhaps with mockups of vintage trolleys and riders.
Williamsburgh Bridge ------------------ Our train departs Chambers St a little late. It rumbles north thru Canal St, Bowery, Essex St on the new alignment, then ramps onto Williamsburgh Bridge. This is the second of the great suspension bridges in New York after Brooklyn Bridge and the first such bridge with steel, not masonry, towers. Probably as a conservative caution, the tower pedestals are masonry. This is also the first combination cable bridge. The cables hang the center span as a suspension bridge but are tethered at both ends. They do not support the end spans, which are carried on piers. In addition to having road and rail lanes, WillyB, as it's fondly called, has a walkway. By chance the bridge connects two major Jewish districts, Lower East Side and WIlliamsburgh. On certain days when the residents do not avail of mechanical or electrical devices, like trains, they course between their nabes on this walkway. In the days of Mayor Koch, Williamsburgh Bridge was in disrepair. It was without warning shut and remained closed for several months. The subway service over it was severed, with trains stranded on both sides. Eventually repairs were made and Koch himself skipped across it yelling out that the bridge is now open! To test the structure before resuming rail service, the Transit Authority filled it with a couple hundred subway cars end to end on both tracks. If the bridge held this extreme load, it would be safe for normal service with trains of ten cars spaced a train length or so apart.
The other Broadway line --------------------- Our train slides down from the bridge into a grungy section of Williamsburgh. From the heights of the bridge we saw factories, tenements, building hulks, the gash of the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway. In school I worked right near here in a factory making electrical parts and hardware. It was a summer job to get me thru school, yet it was a technical one suited for my engineering curriculum. I was then a quality control technician to inspect and approve incoming material, parts from the assembly line, and finished products before shipping. Some of the jobs were subcontracts for the future Apollo lunar flights! For these i was extra careful with the inspections! Hard work it was, given the physical decrepitude of the factory, but it was actually fun. We swerve thru a lazy S-curve into Marcy Av station on the OTHER BMT Broadway line. There's THE Broadway line on Manhattan's Broadway. This one is along Brooklyn's Broadway. And it's all el. We call it the Broadway-Brooklyn line. The first part was erected in the 1880s, worked by steam locomotives, from a ferry on the Williamsburgh waterfront to East New York. During World War I it was upgraded to support the new heavier subway cars, tied into the bridge, fitted with three tracks. It was also extended to Jamaica, Queens. Some time later, the short bit from Marcy Av to the ferry was taken down since every one rode the train to Manhattan anyway.
How many tracks? -------------- In New York one of the parameters to fix for a new or rebuilt transit line is the number of tracks: two, three, or four. No, we don't THINK of having single track lines in the City! For an underground line, we try to put in as many tracks as will fit, four or three. On the els, there is an other factor to consider. Altho the street may accommodate four lanes of rail, the structure would then fill up the whole street width and block light and air from the ground. So the usual practice is to build els with three tracks, or at least with provision for three if only two are laid at first. In the late 19th century after most of the core transit system was built with only two tracks, it was obvious that such a design was totally pathetic. There began, first on Manhattan and then in Brooklyn, an orgy of remodeling the els into three-track roads. The underground routes were laid with four tracks to begin with in the dawn years of the 20th century. Four tracks allow local and express service in both directions at simultaneously. Three allow expresses one way for the heavy traffic direction. The return flow is all local in the opposite direction.
Stacked els --------- Besides the multilane feature of the New York transit system, visitors are freaked out by the way we stack tracks in levels above the street. At the intermediate express stop on the Broadway wl, Myrtle Av, there was once a crossing line humped over this station. Relics of its structure remain. This line ran in Myrtle Av to Brooklyn Downtown with a transfer between the two lines here. In other towns, the lines would intersect on one level, forcing trains to wait their turn to cross tracks. At the next express stop, East New York or Broadway Junction, the structure has THREE levels! This is by far the most convoluted transit interchange on earth! The lowest level, about five meters above the street, has ramps connecting the mainline to the East New York yard, just north of this station. The second level, about ten meters up, is the Broadway line. The top level, fifteen meters up, carries the Canarsie line. The view of the surrounding dilapidated industrial landscape from up there is spectacular.
Broadway Junction --------------- The former BMT company was overly optimistic when it built this pile, a rail equivalent of a highway interchange. East New York was poised in the early 20th century to become a new urban hub and seaport! Plans were floated to hollow out Jamaica Bay into a deep water port, replacing the piers around New York Harbor. A canal would be dug from the Bay to Long Island Sound, bypassing the Hell Gate. Obviously, rail service was needed, so the Brooklyn company aimed several of its lines to this part of town to anticipate the coming surge in business. Nothing came of the plans. Jamaica Bay remains a tidal march. The Van Wyck expressway sits in the never-completed canal bed. Canarise Pier, intended for ocean ships, now seems grossly overbuilt. East New York went to the dogs, litterally so. So this entire complex was never fully exploited, yet it got pretty busy with its transfer facility between its lines and the newer IND subway under it. In time, certain of the lines were dismantled: the Fulton St and Liberty Av line. In the 21st century part of the Canarsie line was removed to straighten out the tracks. Several excursionists use this el structure for movie runs. In such a trick you ride a regular train ahead of the special to a designated station. The special runs thru or by this station while you photograph it. Then it continues to a 'catch up' station and waits for you to meet it on a following regular train. There are three stations within this complex, Broadway Junction (upper, lower, and subway), Atlantic Av, and Sutter Av. All offer wonderful photo angles as the train snakes thru the ramps, curves, and maze of girders.
Canarsie line ----------- We ramp up from the Broadway el to the Canarsie line, passing thru a jungle gym of lattice steelwork. Around us are the relics of the former els flowing thru this complex right thru Sutter Av station. We pick up excursionists waiting from their photo shots. This reach of the transit system is an ancient railroad once all on surface and worked by the Long Island Railroad. When it was tied into transit under the BMT company, the northern part was raised on el to mate into the East New York hub. The southern portion is still at street level. The line originally went all the way to Canarsie Pier in hopes of capturing the marine cargo traffic. When that failed, the line was worked by trolleys, then abandoned for buses. Today the Canarsie line is a quaint road crawling its way from East New York to its present terminal in downtown Canarsie. Until a year ago, the remains of the trackwork continuing the line to Jamaica Bay were embedded in the street. A repair of the bus pads in the terminus removed or covered them over. For ages there was a weird station, East 105th St, on this line. It boasted the only street crossing on the entire transit system! There were real railroad gates, bells, and crossbars. Within the street crossing, the third rail was interrupted, both for sheer safety and a smooth surface for road traffic. In the 1970s the station was rebuilt, pretty awfully I'll admit, to remove the crossing. East 105th St deadends on both sides of the station. A stair/elevator hut let riders got to the island platform between the tracks. The scenery from the el portion of the Canarsie line is dismally depressing, with shells of factories, derelict vehicles, rundown houses. It's only in Canarsie itself that life springs up again. During our lunch break here, the streets were filled with people, shops were busy, road traffic was dense, buses guaguaed every where. Despite this beehive of activity, Canarsie is among the quieter places in the City, with much of a small town flavor to it.
Back and forth ------------ The prime part of our trip was to make round trips on the entire Canarsie line from Canarsie depot to its Manhattan end. The reason was to have a manually operated train, our special train, run on the line before it converts to automated train control. While this changeover is not ready until mid 2005, there may not be an other excursion trip here again before then. We charge thru the stations, whistle blowing, back to East New York, into the underground section, all the way to Manhattan. And back, and forth, and back. Some excursionists were at way stations for photo shoots; we stop to pick them up. I have no idea what the designers of this line were smoking. This is one of the oddities of the City. The effing line, from end to end has only two tracks! Trains make all stops. I don't ride this line regularly. When I do, I get antsy. Stop after stop after stop with numbing monotony. More over, in Brooklyn, the line shifts from street to street, with many curves, so trains can not get any high speed. As some relief to the dull ride, the station mosaics are more colorful than those elsewhere, with nice bright hues.
14th St line ---------- If you live in Brooklyn you know the entire line as the 'Canarsie' line. A Manhattanite calls it the '14th St' line. It does run in 14th Street on the island, stopping at 1st Av, 3rd Av, Union Sq, 6th Av, and 8th Av. The last three have transfer to north/south lines. When construction started, the 14th St line was supposed to link with the LIRR depot in Bushwick, somelike like subways linking with Penn Station or Flatbush/Atlantic Av. Alas, the LIRR gave up its Bushwick service, leaving the Canarsie line starved for traffic. Oh, it worked a busy industrial zone in Williamsburgh and Bushwick, but as the factories closed, the traffic fell off badly. In the 1990s the entire region covered by the 14th St-Canarise line revitalized from the overflow off of Manhattan. The trains are full, even on weekends. For our trip this was a hindrance. With all trains on two tracks, we could not bypass trains, like with an express track, This further made out ride languid. On Manhattan, the 14th St line is a major crosstown service, thronged with riders at all hours of the day. It serves Greenwich Village, lower Chelsea, Ladies Mile, Union Sq, Alphabet City, Stuyvesant Town. In Williamsburgh the line is patronized by artists and clubbers pouring into the newly revived waterfront zone.
Chaos on the rails ---------------- The Canarsie line (I live in Brooklyn); get over it already) in the past couple years has been positively loopy. Weekend on the back of weekend, late night following late night, the line was shut down. You had to ride substitute buses. Either only a part of the line was shut off or, once in a while, the whole effing thing was out of commission. The line can be sectioned from 8th Av to Union Sq, Union Sq, to Lorimer St, Lorimer St to Myrtle Av, Myrtle Av to East New York, East New York to Canarsie. You rode to the end of one section, got onto a bus to skip over the closed part, reboarded a train in the beyond section. If you were riding close to the witching hour, you prayed that your train will be let thru as the final run of the day! This was a totally jackassy way to travel, but everyone along the line endured this regimen for at least two years. What was going on here?
Here comes robotrain! ------------------- Some of the closings were for general repairs. In the majority of the shutdowns the work related to a new experiment in New York transit. This line eventually will shift to computer-controlled automated trains -- robotrain! One reason for picking the Canarise line is that is has few interactions with other lines. Except for the ramps at Broadway Junction, no other lines converge or diverge with it. Hence, it should be easy to run automated trains back and forth on its two tracks. Automated transit is not new in America. Several newer subways operate this way. Examples near the City are the Locust-Lindenwold line in Philadelphia and the AirTrain in Kennedy airport. On both systems, a human pilot is on board for emergencies and general caretaking chores. To run automated trains on the Canarsie line, the entire infrastructure of power, signals, comms, sensing must be completely replaced. So, in addition to the overall fixup of the road, there was a massive installation task for every meter of rail.
A fling with automation --------------------- New York tried automated trains in the early 1960s. As a small start the Transit Authority put a robotrain on track #4 of the 42nd St shuttle. It worked by track sensors and relays to ease the train from Times Sq to Grand Central and back. The shuttle was an isolated operation only on track #4; it didn't try to shift to other tracks. The thing actually worked, with a human in the driver's booth to watch the dials and switches. I don't recall for how long it ran, but when ever I rode it, it worked. The main problem was its turtle speed. To hedge against collision at the two ends of the line, the train creeped into the stations and shuddered to a stop at the bumpers. This could be tolerable on the outer sections of the subway. The 42nd St shuttle is filled to the gills with riders during the day, all in a hurry to get moving. The automated train rested on weekends, parked in Grand Central. One weekend, I forget the date, in the mid 1960s, the whole Grand Central shuttle station burned to the ground! 42nd St near Madison Av caved in from the burned out supports under it. The conflagration was caused by some electric malfunction within the station. Luckily, it was a weekend in an era when Manhattan was emptied of people. The automated train was a smoldering hulk, an innocent victim of the fire. Altho there was never any fault placed on this train for the fire, the whole aura that this thingy caught fire turned off the City from computerized transit for the rest of the 20th century.
Block signaling ------------- To understand what's going on with the Canarsie line, we must know something, a little, about subway signaling. When the underground railroad was planned in the 1890s, the dread of collision was uppermost in the engineers's mind. It was bad enough for trains to collide in the open air. A collision beneath the streets would be catastrophic. This concern was magnified by the crude emergency and medical faculties of that time. The IRT company invented a system of signaling that made it essentially goofproof against collision. It concocted a way for train, track, and signal to 'talk' to each other while the train went its merry way thru the system! The entire road was partitioned into 'blocks', sections of track as long as the stopping distance of a fully laden train. This length factored in slopes, curves, blind spots. Each block was protected by a signal at its front (from your train's eye) end. If there was a forward train any where within this block, even only the last wheels at the far end, this signal is set to red. The order to change the color was made by electric and mechanical circuits in the tracks, activated by the passing trains. Your train must stop and wait. When the forward train cleared the block and was now in the second block ahead, this signal flips to yellow. Your train can move forward. When the forward train is any where beyond the second block ahead, your signal flips to green. There is no inhibition for you to move forward. Once you move into the block behind your signal, the process of color changes repeats again at the next signal, protecting the next block. The very movement of the forward train throws the signal to red or yellow or green, cluing your train to the safety of entering the block that signal protects. If you read again my description above, you realize that a yellow signal means that the next signal, protecting the next block ahead, is red. A green signal means the next signal is not-red; it may be yellow or green. Compare subway signals with road traffic signals. Subway signals. On a road, green means 'go', yellow means 'caution' because the light shifts in a couple seconds to red. Red means 'stop'. Notice, too, that road signals cycle green-yellow-red-green; subway signals cycle red- yellow-green-red.
Tripper mechanism --------------- The instruction of a red signal, to stop and wait, is enforced by the tripper mechanism, also invented by the IRT for the New York subway. When a signal is red, a T-bone bar raises up next to the signal. This bar lines up with a valve under the subway car. When the signal turns yellow or green, the tripper arm lowers flat, clearing the track for the train to move forward. If your train passes the red signal, the T-bone tripper raps the valve open to both shut off the electric to the motors and throw on the brakes. The driver must then crawl under the car to turn the valve on, regaining motor power and brake release. A collision is not absolutely prevented, but immensely weakened. Your train is skidding to a stop with locked brakes, so it can crunch into the forward train. This accident happens every couple years with some human injury and equipment damage. However, there is a big limitation in this block system, as safe as it is. The blocks are structurally of fixed length, regardless of the traffic flow. In times of dense traffic, it would be well to allow, under controlled conditions, trains to bunch up within a block.
Communications based train control -------------------------------- The modern strategy to gain some flexibility in train control is the experiment on the Canarsie line. Ultimately fixed length blocks and wayside signals will no longer govern the trains. They will remain active for the occasion when a manual train, such as a work train, must move on the line. In the new system, called Communications based Train Control (CBTC), trains thru computer and radio 'talk' to each other to compare speeds and separation. Based on these parameters, plus the profile of the track, your train will be instructed by the computer to move in closer to the forward train or haul back and let the spacing grow a bit! The hope is that the capacity of the Canarsie line can be increased to handle the growing patronage in spite of the lack of express tracks. It is unsettled if the plan will actually work properly, even tho it's about equal to existing automated trains elsewhere. The principal concern is the sheer volume of traffic handled by the Canarsie line compared to other subways. The Canarise is among the smaller lines of the New York system, yet it carries every day more riders than the entire Los Angeles subway! An other major concern is the interaction with the transit labor union. It is wary of schemes that potential eliminate jobs or add extra duties with insufficient extra compensation. For one point, the robotrain may have only a driver (more like a monitor) who perfomrs functions normally assigned to two persons, a driver and conductor.
The trains are here ----------------- The newest flock of subway cars, the R143 model, are already provisioned for the automated operation. For the last yearish, they gradually displaced the manual model of coach on the Canarsie line. So far they run under eye and hand control. To the naive rider, the new cars resemble the new ones on the IRT with recorded announcements, LED roll signs, ceiling handbar, wider doors, pneumatic suspension, dynamic braking, and other neat features. Nothing in their operation clues the rider that they will soon morph into robotrains.
Starship Enterprise ----------------- One fascinating piece of New York lore is that the R1/9 train plays a prominently in the Star Trek sci-fi series! If Star Trek takes place far far away, it has one feature in it from long long ago. When the show was in planning, there was need for some spacey futuristic sound for the Enterprise engines. The show producers tried various appliance and machine motors with no satisfaction. The legend goes that one night after working on some segment of the show, one producer was riding home on an R1/9 train on the Canarsie line,this model then being in normal service there. When the train left 1st Av, the last stop on Manhattan, it descended into the tube under East River. With gravity assist and full throttle, the train bulleted thru the tube with all motors screaming. The noise bounces around off of the iron tube; there's a slight rumble from libration against the rails; a whining shimmy from the train's vibration. This noise, believe it or not, is what you hear on Star Trek when the Enterprise revs up its engines! The show producers made many audio recordings on trains thru the Canarsie line tube so they could pick them at random during the episodes. That way each instance of engine powerup is different! SOme of the rail fans were reciting various lines from Star Trek during each shoot under the river!
I bail out -------- The trip started late, 12:30. It was still running after dark! After its laps of the Canarsie line, our train tooled along the Jamaica el. I kind of was pigged out by then. When we got to the Canarsie terminal for the last round, around 18h EST, I bailed out and went home.