Back to the Future—
New York's Lost Transit Legacy
     Page 3

Sturdy but blandly utilitarian , the IND bought more than 1700 of these R1-9 subway cars. Borrowing liberallly from the BMT's 1925 Triplex design, it set the conservative tone for New York City subway design for decades after the end of the BMT. This view is at Coney Island where car 381 and others were tested in revenue service on the BMT's Sea Beach Line from July to November, 1931, before the IND opened.    Paul Matus Collection

The Nation’s Transit Leader

By the late 1920s, with the BMT and IRT systems mostly in place, the IND system being built and additional private streetcar and bus lines blanketing its streets, New York City was the center of mass transit in the U.S., as it still is today. One difference between the 1920s and our new century is that mass transit in general, and rail transit in particular, was a vibrant and mostly free enterprise industry.
     The leader in this giant industry was New York’s BMT. What the IRT and IND lacked the BMT had in abundance: a vision of transit as an attractive product, and the passenger as a customer.
     The subway equipment was made of steel and was new as far as rapid transit equipment went (most around a decade old or less), but the elevated fleets included wooden equipment from the turn of the century and earlier. These wooden cars presented a double problem: safety considerations, including fire and crash-worthiness, led to the removal of wooden equipment from subway tunnels, while the older elevated structures were incapable of handling heavier but safer steel cars.
     The IRT’s solution was a non-solution: its own subway lines and the elevated lines it leased from the Manhattan Railways were virtually separate systems, with some interoperation at the far reaches of the system in the Bronx and Queens. It made only incremental changes to its elevated equipment, such as the fitting of doors to cars that previously used labor-intensive gates for access.
     The City’s cure was worse than the disease for the private companies. Its IND undermined the private companies, both literally and figuratively, by building subways to compete with the elevated lines. For example, the 8th Avenue subway competed head-to-head with the IRT’s 9th Avenue el, and the Fulton Street subway competed with the BMT’s bread-and-butter Fulton Street Line.
     This subway replacement option was not within the private company’s reach as the IND, then being constructed strictly from the public purse, did not worry much about the market at all. This was to result in a magnificently engineered system that was sometimes overbuilt. An ambitious “second system” was proposed in 1929 but the first system had already ballooned New York City’s rapid transit debt.
     The BMT not only had a large elevated system, but one which was much more tightly integrated with its subway system. It had no elevateds in Manhattan, as the IRT did, to bring its elevated line passengers to the heart of the City. It knew that, with the IND getting the City’s construction money, future capital construction would be limited. The BMT had ambitions—it wanted to tie its Fulton Street Line to its subway system at DeKalb Avenue. It wanted to bring subway service to the farther reaches of its system. It wanted to eliminate the dangers of steel and wooden equipment operating on the same tracks. And it didn’t want to upgrade its elevated fleet with patchwork solutions. It wanted to replace the fleet with the most modern equipment in the country, but how?
     In 1927 the Transit Commission, which could rule on the suitability of equipment to run on the City’s rapid transit lines, appointed a committee of engineers to determine the feasibility of constructing a steel car light enough to operate on the older elevated lines. After thorough study, they decided such a car was not feasible.

Continued on page 4

The Bluebird used advanced controls. Both acceleration and braking was regulated by this Cineston controller from General Electric.

Paul Matus Collection

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Last updated December 30, 1999