Back to the Future—
New York's Lost Transit Legacy
     Page 1

A newcomer to the Big Apple rarely arrives unaware of the vastness of the New York City subway system.
     After using the system for a while, one begins to notice differences between parts of the system. Some are newer or older than others and, if you venture far enough from Midtown, the “subway” pops out of the underground to ride on elevated structures, in open cuts or earthen embankments or even, in a few spots, on the surface.
     But even those who don’t travel far realize that some subway lines are designated by letters, while others bear numbers. The neophyte paying attention soon notices that the trains on the lettered lines are longer and wider than those on the numbered lines.

This is our introduction to the subways’ rich and varied past, for the lettered lines and the numbered lines were built by and for different entities. The numbered lines (1 through 9, with “8” currently unused) trace their origin to the Interborough Rapid Transit Company, or IRT. The lettered lines, running from A to Z with a number of gaps, reflect the existence of two very different operators, the Brooklyn-Manhattan Transit Corporation, or BMT, and the city-owned and operated Independent System. This latter organization went by various names and acronyms, but finally matched the other systems’ three-letter designations as the IND.
     Since June of 1940 all three systems have been owned by the City of New York and operated first by the City’s Board of Transportation and since 1953 by the New York City Transit Authority. The NYCTA (now popularly but not legally shortened to NYCT by dropping the bureaucratic “Authority”) is itself part of the regional Metropolitan Transportation Authority, though this super-agency is surprisingly invisible in daily operations.

Three Operators, Three Cultures
The cultures of the three original operators—the way they conducted their businesses and viewed their futures—was radically different and reflected their diverse origins.
     The IRT was New York’s first successful subway operator, contracting with the City to operate the famous first subway line from City Hall up the East Side to 42nd Street, across town on the current shuttle tracks, then up Broadway to upper Manhattan and the Bronx. There was no IRT without those City-financed subways. The IRT hoped to be the City’s only subway operator, and attempted to block potential competition by fair means and foul. At the very beginning of the 20th Century that translated to using political and business influence and that perennial favorite, simply buying up the competition. That latter method brought the company to grief years later.
     The BMT’s linear predecessor, the Brooklyn Rapid Transit Company or BRT, had a much different origin. The BRT was created in 1896 to buy or lease the motley assemblage of privately owned and operated elevated, steam railroad and street railway lines running in Kings County and mold them into a viable consolidated system. An observation attributed to James Blaine Walker was that Brooklyn was divided into three parts, Brooklyn (the old city), South Brooklyn (Red Hook) and “the suburbs.” This last was most of Kings County—modern Brooklyn, including the vast crescent from Bay Ridge through Flatbush, Flatlands and Canarsie to the Queens border, from the southern edges of Prospect Park to the sea. The BRT’s proprietary view of its place in Brooklyn life was reflected in the further view that “Dutchmen discovered Brooklyn, Englishmen discovered South Brooklyn, and the suburbs were discovered by the Brooklyn Rapid Transit Company or its predecessors.”

Continued on page 2

The Budd-built Zephyr arrived in the midst of The Great Depression in 1934, one of the BMT's first two candidates to modernize its elevated fleet. It lived out most of its service life on that home of oddball and orphaned equipment, the Franklin Avenue Shuttle.     Paul Matus Collection from the BMT Monthly







The Third Rail and The Third Rail logo are trademarks of The Composing Stack Inc.

Return to The Third Rail Online Home
Return to Home

Everything on this site is copyright © 1999 by The Composing Stack Inc., except as otherwise noted.
Materials with other copyrights are used by permission.
All rights reserved

Last updated December 28, 1999