Catching the Vintage Train

New York Transit Museum operates a special subway train made out of a ragtag selection of vintage trains.  Normally these trains are used as a stationary exhibit, sometimes as a vehicle for special events (like the Old City Hall station tour), but sometimes all straphangers are in for a treat: the train operates on normal subway lines.

Most people view subway trains as uniform utilitarian objects, stainless steel worms that swallow them in point A and if everything goes well spit them out in point B. But in reality the modern NYCTA system is made out of a hodgepodge of different train models, a legacy of three different subway systems. Many old train models have been retired, like the beloved “Redbird” trains. And by retired I mean dumped into the ocean to become artificial reefs in NJ. I remember riding redbirds, and sometimes used to encounter other old trains before they have been scrapped in favor of the more technologically advanced, but poorly designed R160-style trains. The museum train is a special case of this.

The rivets and a mishmash of large windows and steel panels give the old R1 cars look of living prehistoric creatures. Graffiti writers of the 70s hated these cars because they did not have a lot of flat surface to cover in paint and called them “ridgys”. Modern train cars mostly do away with the front windows, cutting off the whole front for a spacious machinist’s cab.

This unfortunate design decision leaves less space for passenger and does not allow kids of all ages to get “machinist’s view”.


These trains don’t sound like the new ones: they don’t make the “ding-dong” sound when the doors are closing, but produce a pleasant “ksssht-pfft” noise of a pneumatic actuator. Instead of whining a few melodic notes like the R160s, R1s roar like propeller planes.

One unique feature is the lack of large plastic American flag stickers that were added to all trains after 9-11.

Helvetica was not dominating the typography of the subways yet. In fact, it was not yet created.

The alternate reality feeling permeates the cars. Dangerous looking ceiling fans, exposed incandescent lightbulbs and vinyl seats were from an era less concerned with vandalism.

State of the art pre-war climate control: rider-accessible vents

and futuristic fans


The tiny little rattan seat behind the machinist’s cab and the completely different design of the hand strap.

One of the biggest difference with the modern trains is how the conductor works. He operates the train with the two hand grips while standing precariously between the cars.


Here’s a video that shows this a little better

One of the coolest parts is the fact that you can ride between the cars (something that is against the modern MTA rules. “<a href=””>Looking at the things flashing by</a>” normally gets you a ticket, even if it’s an amazing experience.


Here’s a video:

Gold and pinstripe “CITY OF NEW YORK” signs are gorgeous, but the ad reproductions are more entertaining than authentic.

A friend of mine who remembered these trains from his youth told me that the part that he hated the most about them were the rattan seats: they tended to fray and fragment into pin-sharp pieces of fiber. Rattan seats look beautiful and are extremely comfortable when new, but I indeed sat down on one seat that had a broken section that was uncomfortably sharp. On the other hand all of these trains feature “conversation-style seats” turned 90 degrees to each other instead of the horisontal rows of benches that are the standard today.

Some dubious advice, although I’ve seen this happen.

I’m pretty sure this patent ran out by now.

Currently this train operates every Saturday through January 19th. This page lists the schedule of departures. A round trip to Queens takes about an hour. The best way to catch the train is to arrive on 2nd Avenue stop of the F line in Manhattan. The train spends about 10-20 minutes standing in the station there, so it’s easier to catch. In Queens it does not stand on the platform, but the departure times are pretty accurate. If it’s more convenient, you can just spend a 15 mintues to half an hour waiting along the weekday M train stops, like 47-50th Street/Rockefeller Center.

Imaginative Inventions: The Who, What, Where, When, and Why of Roller Skates, Potato Chips, Marbles, and Pie (and More!)

Have you ever wondered how chewing gum was invented? Or who made the first roller skates? Or why there are piggy banks rather than doggy banks? Imaginative Inventions answers all of these questions and tells the fascinating stories behind these, as well as potato chips, eyeglasses, doughnuts, high-heeled shoes, the wheelbarrow, marbles, the vacuum cleaner, animal crackers, and more. Written in verse and with illustrations full of offbeat characters and quirky details, this book invites young readers inside the minds of great inventors and encourages them to think imaginatively.

The Case Of The Lost Indication

My train stopped in the tunnel today. “I lost the indication. Do you have it?” — called out the operator to the conductor over the PA system. Sometimes instead of using walkie-talkies they use overhead PA to communicate. Probably by mistake, because hearing subway jargon spewing from the loudspeaker in a stopped train freaks out passengers.

“I lost the indication here too ” — said the conductor. We were stuck for at least half an hour before the train started moving again.

As it turns out, a signal is called and “aspect”. For instance red light is a red aspect. And an “indication” is the meaning of an aspect in a context. Red aspect’s indication is usually (but not always) – stop. So apparently what the machinist and the conductor meant was that the signal light they were expecting was off. When there is a power loss to a signal a trip arm automatically extends up from the track (it’s up motion is powered by a spring, so it automatically engages when a signal loses power). If a train passes an extended trip arm it trips an on/off switch on the train and you get stuck for much longer.

I need to get a scanner with subway frequency.

Blue Lights In The Tunnel

Was taking pictures from the front window of an R40 train again. By the way, in theory it’s ok to take pictures in NYC subways without a permit unless you use “lights” (this may or may not include flash), a tripod for non-commercial purposes. It’s a complicated issue and is pretty open to interpretation, and in fact transit cops might not be aware of it at all. I had been asked by a transit cop once to stop taking pictures and erase what I already shot because of “the 9/11 stuff”. I told her politely about MTA rule Section 1050.9, Paragraph (c), but as I had no desire to argue with her also erased the pictures. You see, if I wasn’t lazy and got an official permit which supposedly “can be obtained from Division of Special Events by contacting Connie DePalma (718) 694-5121, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., weekdays” I could show that to her. Besides, nobody likes a dorky smart ass with a camera.

Anyway, the pictures are pretty, but “hold on Luke, we are going into hyperspace” effect becomes tiresome fast enough. So I’ll spare you. Here’s a slightly more interesting shot taken handheld at 1/10th sec., f/2.0 ISO 400 while the train was standing in a tunnel (if your monitor brightness is set too high, you might not see the details). For all the coffee that I consume my hands are pretty steady.

I always wonder how it was for the people stuck in the tunnels during the blackout. They probably actually had to walk through whole tunnel stretches like that to get out after a while.

The train signaling system is not too complicated. I think I figured out a sizable chunk of it from just watching the tracks, and the rest can be picked up from here. There’s even a “train simulator” for Windows (but for some reason the coolest part, “cab view”, doesn’t work for me.

“… The color aspects of subway signals are vaguely similar to those of street traffic lights — red means “don’t go, but stop,” yellow means “slow down,” and green means “go”. The similarity, however, ends there. Green does not just mean “go”, but certifies that the next signal, the one after the green one, doesn’t say “stop”. Yellow is even more different in meaning: While a yellow street traffic signal means “slow down, because this signal is in the process of changing to red” (which many motorists, of course, interpret as “speed up so as to pass it before it does”), a yellow subway signal means “slow down, (most often) because the next signal already is red, and you must slow down and proceed with caution before reaching it. While street traffic signals usually go from green to yellow to red, subway signals usually go from red to yellow to green…. “

Blue lights probably indicate locations of emergency phones, but could be something else. I am not sure.

Kissed by a Train

A train conductor announced some words of wisdom today: “Don’t push a stroller into a closing train door”.

Train doors in NYC subway cars close with a tremendous amount of force and don’t have a sensor that would keep them open if somebody got stuck. You are at the mercy of a conductor, who usually rapidly opens and closes the door, hitting you a couple of times more before you can enter the car. Jumping into closing train doors is a main event in NYC Olympics though.

You can easily recognize a person “kissed” by a subway door – the rubber “lips” leave black marks on skin and clothes.

It’s interesting to note that the announcement probably was made because somebody actually tried to do this with a baby carriage. That’s Darwin Award material.

Subway Good, Bus – Bad

I am composing this entry on my blackberry device wile riding the D train. The conductor of this particular train is pretty distinctive – he announces all station with the intonations of a professional announcer. He especially likes to say “Loooooong Iiiiiiisland rrrrrailroad”. He’s been doing that for years. Sometimes he wishes everyone “happy Monday”.

This reminds me how many years ago, in my hometown of Odessa, Ukraine, all the buses, trams and trolleys got this little tape player that would announce the stops with pre-recorded messages. It was always weird to see the same regular tram operator, but hear a professional doctor’s voice announcing stops. I think that originated in Moscow during the Olympics because the drivers could not learn how to announce stops in all those foreign languages.

In Brooklyn bus drivers don’t announce stops at all. I should check if this is required by their rule book. They are extremely strict about picking up passengers outside of bus stops – they won’t open the doors even if they are stuck in traffic. I think I should make it a habit to write MTA supervisor to commend good bus drivers and to report various assholery perpetrated by bad ones.

For instance, once I was locked in a bus by the driver for 15 minutes, while he went to discuss something with another bus driver. That was 2 blocks away from my stop. That’s when I realized that I don’t remember which lever releases the bus door. Gotta look that up…