John Pazmino
 2005 January 26
    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. 
    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 
    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 
    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-
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.