Friday, 9 March 2007

The New York Subway

Of course, on my first visit to New York, the challenge was to find out a little about the Subway and how it works.

The initial settlement in Manhatten is bounded by New York Harbour to the South, the Hudson River to the West and the East River. As New York grew, expansion occurred in the North, towards Harlem and beyond. The 1811 street plan set up the layout of North - South avenues and East - West streets which survives today. As it grew, New York became a victim of its own success and congestion on the North-South avenues made commuting horrendous.

The first improvement was the construction of elevated railways (illustrated below - a delightful diorama in the NYC Transit Museum in Brooklyn) which gave some relief. Many of the avenues were built over by the 'El' but, with short trains hauled by diminuitive Forney 0-4-4T steam locomotives, the improvement in conditions for the still-growing city was only temporary.

More elaborate plans envisaged underground electric railways speeding commuters in and out of the city and it's that system, opened in 1904, that's still in use, now with 25 lines and well over 400 stations.

In common with a lot of early underground railways, construction was mainly cut-and-cover, where existing roads are dug up to allow a railway to be built just under the surface and then the road is replaced on top. From the start, the principal routes were 4-track. Where space permitted, the two outer tracks were the 'Local' lines, provided with platforms at every station, whilst the 'Express' tracks only had platforms allowing interchange with the 'local' every so often. This approach was intended to minimise journey times. Where space was restricted, the 'local' lines ran near the surface, with easy access from the street, whilst the 'fast' tracks dived underneath the local lines.

Tracks are standard gauge and electrification is 625 volts d.c. using an outside third rail. The top of the rail is the pick-up area and a hinged skate on each bogie collects current. A horizontal wooden board is fixed above the conductor rail, presumably both for safety and to exclude ice and snow on the surface lines.

Each line is designated by a number or a letter. Trains which operate over only part of a line may have a separate designation. But with the perversity I imagine is typical of New Yorkers, the designation is applied to the train, not the line - for instance, (cue music) "If you take the 'A' Train". The front of each train carries the designation and all recorded announcements use the form "This is a Six Train for City Hall". Since many of the minor stations have their geographical position in the name, such as '51st Street', it's easier than I imagined to get to somewhere you've never been. There are also simple rules you can learn (I didn't on my short visit) to convert a building number into the nearest cross street, to decide where to get off.

In general, stations are busy and there are plenty of trains, although I did experience more than once a sudden hiatus where trains appeared to stop running for a while, followed by an equally mysterious resumption of service where the first train was crush-loaded. Most of the stations are fairly run-down and cramped in layout but they're reasonably lit, reasonably clean and I could see why residents make such use of the system.

Like the majority of subway systems, if you stand right at the front of the train, there's limited visibility ahead through the door to the driving cab, allowing the sharp deviations to be observed and giving at least a vague impression of some of the complex underground pointwork and the colour light signals.

Speed signalling appears to be in use so that a reduced speed indication allows the driver the anticipate the sudden lurch as the train is diverted from, say, the through line to the local line. As is common on this type of railway, approach release is used in places. For instance, running into a station a signal may remain red until a timer triggered by the occupation of track circuits clears the signal, provided the train's approach speed is consistent with stopping in the platform.

There's an interesting example of approach released signalling on the Manhattan Bridge, which carries four subway tracks, two used by B and D trains, two by N and Q trains. At the bridge approach, the trains pop out of the ground and climb a fairly steep gradient to reach the bridge deck, high above the East River. On the other side of the bridge, trains descend a similar gradient until they disappear back underground. As trains commence their descent, they're faced with at least half a dozen closely-spaced red signals. Provided the driver suitably regulates his speed, each signal in turn clears as the train approaches.

South Ferry is the terminus for One Trains, right by the Staten Island Ferry Terminal. This is currently a very antique station on a very tight curve, with a series of post and chain barriers to prevent you approaching the platform edge, except in the vicinity of the doors. It looked as if trains go round a dumb-bell to reverse.

The One Trains also seemed the most temperamental. Whilst all the trains come into stations fast and use quite heavy air braking to decelerate, they generally rolled to a stop at the correct point. But on a few occasions, One Trains braked heavily but stopped short with a jerk, necessitating drawing up before the doors opened.

I went out to Coney Island on a 'D' train. Once in Brooklyn, the line emerges to run on brick viaducts to Coney Island, four track most of the way. I returned by an alternative route which was also four-track and on the surface until the vicinity of Atlantic Avenue, Brooklyn.

The subway is operated by New York City Transit Authority. This is an agency of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) which has operated New York's public transport since 1965. Other MTA-agencies run commuter rail lines, buses, bridges and tunnels. The Long Island Rail Road is owned by MTA and has nine lines radiating from New York into Suffolk and Nassau counties. Metro North Commuter Railroad is also MTA-owned covering the Harlem, Hudson and, in conjunction with the Connecticut Department of Transportation, New Haven lines. Lines to Port Jarvis and Pascack are operated in conjunction with New Jersey Transit.

The Staten Island Rapid Transit is another MTA agency. This is a surface line running the length of Staten Island (about 23km). Equipment is similar to the subway but the operating voltage was 600 volts d.c. Operation appears to be automatic except in the vicinity of the Northern terminus, by the ferry terminal, where signals are provided.

Click for my photographs of New York's Railways

[Expanded 18-Mar-2007]