4 The Third Rail and The Third Rail
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Back to the Future—
New York's Lost Transit Legacy Page 4
The Great Depression
In 1929, the Great Depression set in. This largest of American business panics was a great blow to the electric railway industry in New York and nationally and one of the key factors in the industry’s decline.
The Depression gave a boost to the City’s desire to own and operate not only its under-construction Independent system, but the BMT and IRT as well.
The economic downturn was the last straw for the IRT: the decline in ridership was added to the financial strains of its onerous lease of the Manhattan Elevated lines and the City’s refusal to allow it to raise the five-cent fare. Bankruptcy was the IRT’s lot, and selling out to the City began to look more like salvation than defeat.
Innovation in Hard Times
The BMT refused to go down for the count, however. Management felt it could overcome both hard times and City competition with innovation. As it had in the past, it went direct to the public to show it the future at a time when most were grateful to live day-to-day.
In December 1932, discussions began as to the construction of an aluminum rapid transit car. In June 1933, the Transit Commission gave its approval for the BMT to construct such a car. A few months later, it approved a stainless steel car as well.
On June 19th and 20th, 1934, the aluminum car, unofficially styled The Green Hornet, made its public debut at the Park Row terminal of the BMT elevated lines. Built by the Pullman Car and Manufacturing Corporation, it featured a futuristic curved body design which earned it the nickname “Blimp,” but this was in jest, as this two-toned green beauty heralded a new era for transit riders.
Later in 1934 the pioneer of stainless steel railway construction, the J.G. Budd Company, delivered its own version of the elevated car of the future, popularly called the “Zephyr” after the ultra-modern diesel units Budd was building for the Burlington railroad lines.
Both cars were dubbed “Multi-Section Cars” by the BMT. The cars appeared to solve all the BMT’s future elevated car needs at once. The Hornet, Zephyr and the 1935 production order of 25 multi-section cars each consisted of five sections combined into a single unit and carried on six trucks. This was done using the principle of articulation, of which the BMT was a leading advocate.
Articulated cars had a truck assembly (the mechanism holding the running wheels) at the extreme ends of each five-section unit, plus a single truck underneath the joints between any two sections.
The term “articulated” is used in nature to describe snakes, whose segmented bodies allow them to slither through tight spots that would trap larger, bulkier, beasts. The snake analogy aptly describes one of the great advantages of the Multi-Section Cars—they snaked around the tight curves of the older parts of Brooklyn’s elevated system. Paradoxically, they created a longer car for the passenger. The Hornet was 170 feet overall, as long as the body sections of four elevated cars, yet riders could stroll among the five individual sections through passageways called vestibules, without subjecting themselves to the discomforts of weather or the danger of passing between swaying cars.
The Multi-Section cars were also fast. Lighter weight and more powerful motors made riding them a hold-your-hat experience, even if you weren’t wearing one. The BMT estimated that a fleet of Hornets would trim the running time of a Fulton Street Local, encompassing 11.3 miles and 32 station stops, from 49 to 36 minutes.
But what about weight? Could the BMT “lower the river” with cars capable of operating on existing structures instead of “raising the bridge” with the massive capital expenditures of completely rebuilding els or new subway lines?
Although elevated cars were lighter in terms of axle loading than subway cars, the weight per passenger carried, which determines how much energy is used to carry each passenger, is comparable. The BMT’s heaviest car, the subway Triplex, weighed 212 pounds per square foot of floor area fully loaded. A BRT el car worked out to a surprisingly close 204 pounds. The Green Hornet slashed this weight to 158 pounds.
It is axle loading, however—the weight carried by each car axle—that determines whether a car could operate on one of the old structures at all. A loaded Triplex maxed out at 40,000 pounds per axle. A wooden elevated car put 28,000 pounds on each axle, while the Hornet blew both away at only 23,600 pounds.
In the early Fall of 1936, after extensive revenue testing on the Canarsie Line, the BMT and its passengers saw the first (and last) fruits of its light-weight technology efforts. Multi-section cars, based on the Hornet design, began service from the 14th Street subway in Manhattan to the outer reaches of the Fulton Street elevated line.
The BMT was also in the forefront of advanced streetcar design, as announced by this 1936 brochure. Cars like this one spread across the U.S. and Canada and similar designs were deployed worldwide. New York's Mayor LaGuardia forced the BMT to cancel its order for an additional order of 500 of these cars. Technology prioneered in this design was used in the Bluebird. Paul Matus Collection
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The Third Rail and The Third Rail logo are trademarks of The Composing Stack Inc.
Everything on this site is copyright © 1999 by The Composing
Stack Inc., except as otherwise noted.
Last updated December 30, 1999