16 things you didn’t know about the NYC subway
If you take the subway every day in NYC, you probably know the basics: put $19.05 on your MetroCard, don't block the left side of the escalator, let everyone off the train before you barge in, and never -- under any circumstances -- get on the empty subway car during rush hour. Still though, there are probably a few things you don't know, like, say, which historic buildings have secret subway entrances...
NYC's early subway system was made up of three competing companies
Ever wonder why the A train is so wide but the 1 train is so narrow, or why you have to walk an entire avenue to transfer between them at 42nd St? That’s because the Interborough Rapid Transit (IRT), Brooklyn-Manhattan Transit (BMT), and Independent Rapid Transit Railroad (IND) lines operated independently until 1953. Though the city’s first official subway line was the IRT, which opened in 1904, the elevated El ran up and down Greenwich St and 9th Ave beginning in 1870. Today’s numbered lines are the old IRT, while the BMT and IND form the lettered lines. Conductors can operate one or the other, but not both.
The first subway cost five cents to ride
Annoyed about the impending fare hike? New Yorkers were pretty pissed when the original subway fare doubled from 5 to 10 cents. Brass tokens were introduced when fares were raised to 15 cents, as they couldn’t construct turnstiles that would accept two different coins. Tokens -- once an icon of the NYC subway -- were used for fifty years before the MetroCard was introduced in 2003.
There are 60 million tokens left over
It took almost 10 years to eliminate tokens entirely, and when they were finally discontinued in 2003, the MTA was left with 60 million tokens. After a few calls to the MTA, it seems what happened to them is still largely a mystery.
There was once a V train
So it's possible you knew this, but then totally blocked it from your memory -- it ran along the 6th Ave track with the B, D, and F trains, but was replaced by the M. There was also a W train, double-lettered trains, and numbered trains up to 13. Curiously, there was never an X train, though one was proposed. The T train is set to return when the Second Avenue Subway opens. There was never a P train because, well, who would want to ride the P train?
Every now and then, the MTA brings out vintage subway cars
If you’ve ever seen photos of the NYC subway in the ‘80s, you know how far the subway has come. Amazingly, some of the oldest (and cleanest) subway cars have been preserved, and run during the holidays and special events, including Yankees-Mets playoffs. Made up of a combination of cars from the 1930s to the 1970s, the Nostalgia Train will run on the M line every Sunday in December. Bonus transit fact: every September, the Transit Museum brings out its fleet of vintage buses too.
There's an abandoned station under City Hall, and you can still see it
Completed in 1904, the old City Hall station shows the aspirations the subway’s original engineers held. Vaulted arches were decorated with Guastavino tiles (the same ones used in Grand Central), a leaded glass skylight filtered light underground, and brass lamps illuminated the station after dark. The station was decommissioned in 1945, when the curving track could not accommodate new, longer trains, and a new City Hall station was built nearby. You can still catch a glimpse of the original one by staying on the 6 train after the last stop. It passes through the abandoned station as it curves around and heads back on the uptown track.
The Woolworth Building once had its own subway entrance
Frank Woolworth didn’t skimp on the details when he built his Gothic-inspired tower in 1913. Not only was it the city’s tallest skyscraper when it was built, but it also had an advanced elevator system, a luxurious Roman-style underground pool, and its own subway entrance in the basement that opened onto that old City Hall Station on the IRT.
The Knickerbocker Hotel also had its own subway entrance
You’ve probably heard of the secret track under Grand Central that allowed VIPs to enter the Waldorf Astoria, but did you know that the Times Square subway has its own mysterious door? A bronze plaque above a sealed-off door near the Shuttle reads "Knickerbocker Hotel". The super-chic hotel was opened by John Jacob Astor in 1906, but quickly declined after Astor died on the Titanic, and closed down in 1921. It’s set to reopen in January, though the subway entrance will remain off-limits.
There's a huge mural by Roy Lichtenstein in the 42nd St station
The 42nd St Times Square subway stop is probably the last place on Earth you want to be, but if you find yourself there, make sure to look up. In the transfer area between the 1/2/3 trains and the N/Q/R, there’s a huge mural by pop artist Roy Lichtenstein, famous for his comic-style paintings. Lichtenstein was a native New Yorker and jumped at the chance to create a public work for the subway as part of the MTA’s Arts for Transit initiative. Keep an eye out for other artworks all over the NYC subway, from Tom Otterness’ subversive little statues at 14th St to Sol LeWitt’s exuberant tiled mural at Columbus Circle.
More people pass through the NYC subway every single day than live in all of Denmark
5.8 million people ride the subway every day, 0.2 million more than live in Denmark. We still pale in comparison to Tokyo, though -- its annual ridership (3.334 billion) is nearly twice as large as ours (1.708 billion). Although that's still equivalent to every single person in the USA riding on the subway approximately five and a half times a year.
Laid end to end, all of the subway's tracks would stretch from here to Chicago
There are approximately 660 miles of track in passenger service. Counting subway yards and other non-commercially used tracks, there are over 840 miles of track. The longest subway line is the A train, which covers more than 30 miles between 207th Street to Far Rockaway in Queens.
A fake townhouse in Brooklyn Heights hides a subway ventilator
If you’ve been paying attention you might already know this, but those blacked-out windows hide the fact that there’s no house behind the façade of 58 Joralemon St in Brooklyn Heights. Instead, there’s a subway ventilator and an emergency exit, stuck there when the original townhouse was gutted in the first half of the 20th century.
There's a mysterious A/C/E lower level track at Port Authority that was never actually used
NYC has a bunch of abandoned subway stations, like the old Worth St and 18th St stops, plus abandoned platforms in otherwise functioning stations (Hoyt-Schermerhorn, for one). But the abandoned track under the 42nd St Port Authority station might be the strangest of them all. It’s unclear why it was built in the first place, since it never operated as part of the IRT or IND systems. It was apparently used for the special Aqueduct Racetrack train, which ran express to the racetrack from 1959-1981, which actually sounds pretty awesome..
There's a Signal Learning School in the 14th St Station
Not everyone who works on the MTA is a conductor. In fact, the conductor isn’t even the guy who drives the train -- he’s the one who makes sure it’s safe to close the doors and leave the station. The train operator is up front. Then there are the signal maintainers, who are trained at the Signals Learning Center in the 14th St and 8th Ave station, which has a signal light that actually changes color outside the door.
There's a NYPL branch in the Lexington Ave/53rd St station
Need a new book for your morning commute? You can stop by the Terence Cardinal Cooke-Cathedral library -- an adorable little public library branch in the Lexington Ave/53rd St station. Without a street-level sign, it’s one of the MTA’s many secrets. You’ll find it at the entrance to the 6 train at 50th St, though it’s temporarily closed for repairs.
The 2nd Avenue Subway has been in the works since 1920!
At least, that’s the first time it’s mentioned. The city’s most infamously delayed line was planned to ease congestion on the 4/5/6 trains on the East Side, but has hit so many snags that it’s become more of a running joke. It’s currently under construction and is supposed to open in December 2016. We’ll see if that actually happens...
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Laura Itzkowitz is a Brooklyn-based writer and editor of Untapped Cities. You can reach out to her on Twitter, but she takes the G every day, so don’t bother complaining about your commute.