Back to the Future—
New York's Lost Transit Legacy
     Page 5

Far from its future, the Bluebird spends its last days in the Lutheran Yard of the BMT Myrtle Avenue Line in 1956. A few of the elevated gates cars it was intended to replace sit nearby. They actually lasted in service two years longer than the Bluebird.    Paul Matus Collection

Art Deco and Advanced Technology
Having “solved” the future of its elevated system, the BMT could have been expected to rest on its laurels. Though 25 multi-unit cars had been ordered and delivered, there was more innovation to come. Working with the Presidents’ Conference Committee (PCC) of the electric railway industry, the BMT was a major force in development of PCC technology, which revolutionized electric rail transit worldwide, though it only slowed its U.S. decline.
     In 1936, the BMT’s contribution to PCC technology was recognized as Brooklyn received the very first fleet of PCC streetcars.
     The BMT believed it could extend PCC technology and principles to a subway-elevated car. Not only would the technological advances of PCC equipment advance the state of the rapid transit art, it promised to introduce major economies of scale as identical advanced components could be ordered for streetcars and rapid transit cars alike. In 1939 it introduced the pilot unit of the Bluebird. The BMT used a new term to describe the three-section Bluebird: “compartment car.” Inside and out, the Bluebird’s art deco design was a gem of modernity and comfort. Its list of advanced features was lengthy. So impressed was the BMT and the public with the new car that a fleet of 50 was ordered.

The End of Innovation 
New York City politics was not standing still, however. Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia, who had taken office in 1933, was no friend of streetcars, of elevated lines, or of private ownership of transit. He pressed relentlessly for “Unification,” the City takeover of the BMT and IRT. The IRT was happy to go out of business but the BMT fought almost to the last.
     On June 2, 1940, the BMT was in City hands. Of the fleet of 50 Bluebird cars ordered, five were under construction by the Clark Equipment Company. It was the City that took delivery. The cars ran, but theirs was a lonely existence, for the rest of the order was cancelled. The stolid Board of Transportation was in the driver’s seat.

After the Fall
After taking over the private companies, not only did the innovations of the BMT end, but the City lost its taste for subway building. The IND “Second System” of 1929 remains unbuilt. The private lines that attracted IND competition were abandoned, several immediately and more as the years went on. Major improvements have been proposed periodically and in 1950 a $500M bond issue was passed, ostensibly to build the Second Avenue Subway. But despite revived plans from time to time, including an ambitious program proposed in 1968, the Second Avenue Subway remains unbuilt and most other plans are pipedreams.
     PCC technology came to be used in other cities’ rapid transit systems, but not New York’s. During the lowest days of rail transit in the U.S., in the ‘50s and ‘60s, most new subway equipment built in the U.S. was built for New York, due to the sheer size of the system. New York’s car design department specified how the equipment was to be built, down to the last nut and bolt. Not only were these designs conservative to say the least, but so elemental an improvement as the use of stainless steel car bodies was precluded until the Budd Company, builder of the Zephyr, won the R32 BMT-IND contract in 1964 by underbidding the other builders who offered LAHT (non-stainless) steel construction. Thirty-five years later, these R32 cars are among the most durable in the fleet. After that order, the TA specified stainless steel in their new car specifications. One might say they innovated in spite of themselves.
     New York, which with its BMT was the national leader in transit, had become the industry’s albatross.







Beyond the BMT, and in the New York City Transit Authority's backyard, Bluebird influence shows in this car built for the Port Authority Trans-Hudson Corporation in the 1960s.    PATH photo

Chicago was the city most influenced by the Bluebird and it shows in this articulated car, running here on the Skokie Swift.    Stephen D. Maguire photo

The bankrupt IRT could do no better than this car, built for the 1939 World's Fair, contemporaneous with the Bluebird.    Paul Matus Collection

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Last updated Febraury 26, 2000