Learning to Love the New York City Subway Again

The New York City subway system is one of the oldest in the world. Learn more about its past and how it stays in service with some of the original equipment.

111 years old. 24 hours per day, 365 days per year. 5.6 million riders daily.

The New York City subway is one of the oldest public transit systems anywhere, the busiest in the U.S., and the 7th busiest in the world with 175 billion passengers annually.

A Brief and Wondrous History of the NYC Subway

While there had been elevated train service in parts of New York City as far back as 1868, Manhattan’s first 28 underground subway stations did not open until 1904. In the beginning, this service was provided by three individual companies, two private and one city-owned, each with its own lines in competition with one another. In 1940, the city purchased the two private rail companies and spent the ensuing decade or so integrating and expanding the three competitors into a single system. Today, those original 28 stations have grown to 469, with 22 lines spread throughout four of New York City’s five boroughs. (Only Staten Island lacks a subway, though it does have its own rail service.)

Legacy Infrastructure Meets Today’s Reality

If you are a commuter, or even a tourist, using our subways, you’ve undoubtedly experienced the maddening and seemingly inexplicable delays that beset riders every day. We are witness to fellow riders’ sighs of exasperation and puzzled (or furious) looks as the train slows to a halt for the fourth time between stations. We desperately crane our necks in the hope that just the right head-tilt will enable us to understand the garbled announcements coming over the car’s speakers.

I admit that rage has been a common (natural?) reaction on my part.

The fact that New Yorkers have had continuous subway service for more than a century and that our system runs around the clock every day of the year strikes me as remarkable enough. But these facts are not what made me fall in love with the NYC subway again. Rather, it was a short video by the Metropolitan Transit Authority (MTA) that helped me rediscover this love — and increased my patience in the face of the frequent aggravations I have felt traveling on these trains.

What I Learned About Infrastructure

The MTA’s short film, entitled CBTC: Communications-Based Train Control, gave me a new appreciation for the challenges that subway employees contend with. Many portions of the NYC subway system today remain dependent on electro-mechanical technology that was installed in the 1930s and earlier, with certain parts of the system reliant on the original cloth-covered cables put into place over a century ago. More extraordinary still, there are no railroad industry manufacturers that still support this equipment. Rather, the MTA must turn to its own signal-shop workers to fashion replacement parts out of the equipment and detritus removed with each modernization project. Without their efforts, it would be impossible to provide service throughout many parts of the system.

So. Back to the frustration all NYC subway riders have felt at some point … there is undoubtedly plenty to criticize about the MTA, but I’ve gained a new respect for its engineers and repair workers. And a new patience when I commute.

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