Home Subway History When you could finally take the A train

When you could finally take the A train

by Benjamin Kabak

A relic of a naming convention lost to time. (Photo by flickr user wallyg)

Today, we celebrate a birthday. The venerable A train, made famous by Billy Strayhorn in 1939, is 77 years old for it was at midnight on September 10, 1932 that the A and its local sister the AA started operating along the 8th Ave. IND lines.

The Independent Subway line has, unsurprisingly, a long and tortured history. It took 12 years from the point of conception to open just the 8th Ave. line and parts of the original IND system did not open until 1988, 56 years after the first A train rolled up the tracks. Meanwhile, the Second System, which I explored in depth last year, has never materialized, and we’re still waiting for the Second Ave. Subway to arrive.

While you can read a complete history of the IND at NYCSubway.org, I want to put aside historical skepticism and look instead at the reports of the new subway’s opening. The Times covered the event in great detail, and the article is a gem of 1930s New York City reporting.

The opening itself was not marked by any ceremony. The line took seven years to build, and it cost $191.2 million. By mid-1932, the city was looking for someone else to operate the trains, but amidst a Great Depression, no one stepped forward. Paul Crowell reported on the first passengers to reach the platform:

There was no official “first train,” no official opening ceremony, no laudatory speech-making program. The chains which have blocked access to the turnstiles were removed just before midnight last night, and those who dropped their nickels in the turnstile slots were free to board a train at any station along the line. The full operating schedule has been in effect since Wednesday afternoon, and at every station on the line, uptown or downtown, a local or express was available within a few minutes after the prospective rider reached the station platform.

At Times Square, New Yorkers gathered en masse to await the opening of this new subway line with its brand new R1 rolling stock, wide platforms and mezzanine express stops. Crowell writes of the maddening crowds all waiting to drop their nickels into the turnstiles:

The largest crowd to board trains immediately after the official opening was at the Forty-second Street station. At that point Mr. Delaney gave the signal to throw the turnstiles open to the public. The first person to drop his coin into the slot was Billy Reilly, 7 years old, of 406 West Forty-sixth Street, who had been waiting several hours for his first ride on the new line. He got a preferred place on line when, Mr. Delaney learned that he was born March 14, 1925, the day ground was first broken for the new subway.

At this station, as well as at Columbus Circle and Thirty-fourth Street, a carnival spirit was manifested by those who waited to board the first trains. They rushed through the turnstiles, cheering and shouting and rushed down the stairways to the platforms. The first train to pull in was a southbound express. It was filled to capacity and carried the first load of straphangers to ride on the new line. Fifteen minutes after this train pulled out there was still a line in front of the main change booth at the Forty-second Street entrance of the station.

Of course, not everything was smooth sailing for the A train. One passenger alleged that the turnstile had eaten his nickel, called the new line a “rotten subway” and ran off to catch his train. Other rowdy teenagers stuck gum into the turnstile slots as lines grew long. That’s the 1930s equivalent of “Swipe Again at This Turnstile.”

Meanwhile, New Yorkers celebrated the night away, and many came out just for the spectacle of it. According to Crowell’s reporting, 2808 passed through the Times Square turnstiles between midnight and 1 a.m. on a Saturday, and at 2 a.m., the trains were still packed. “Of this number not all were riders, however, for many were satisfied to pay their nickel, make a complete inspection of the new station and return to the street,” Cowell wrote.

As the MTA and city and state officials have proclaimed the Second Ave. Subway an eventual boon for the Upper East Side, so too did New York officials proclaim the IND for the West Side. “The opening of the Eighth Avenue subway, will, in my opinion, do more constructively to bring about the rejuvenation of the west side than any other single known factor,” one-time Governor and then-head of the West Association of Commerce Alfred E. Smith said.

The technical details of the new subway, meanwhile, were impressive. The city, in fact, learned from the previous mistakes of the Interborough Rapid Transit planners. While the IRT served as the city’s first subway, many of its stations are far too close together, and some key stops are built on curved sections of the tracks. Trains can’t maintain or achieve top speeds as they navigate the Union Square curve or run from Bowling Green to Wall St. to Fulton St. Crowell noted the changes:

Subway stations have been located with respect to the density of population in connection with running distances between stops. The stations are at least 600 feet long, with provisions for extension to 660 feet if necessary. They will accommodate ten-car trains with ease. They are lighted under a new system designed to eliminate shadows. All platforms are straight-edged, locations on curves having been avoided.

The cars are designed in accordance with the view of a committee of experts which gave its services without charge. Tests conducted by the board’s engineers indicate that the trains can be loaded and unloaded in 33.3 percent faster time than those on the B.M.T. and Interborough. Each car will seat 60 persons and provide standing room for 220.

And thus a subway line was born. Today, we take the IND for granted and wait for the Second Ave. Subway. Will we witness “gay midnight crowds” when the 33-block, four-stop extension of the Q train opens up in 2017 or 2018? Will we witness a spectacle and a ceremony or will just shrug its collective shoulders? If history is our guide, it will be a momentous night indeed.

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Alon Levy September 10, 2009 - 5:28 pm

Bleh. The only parts of the IND that didn’t duplicate existing elevated or subway lines are the Crosstown Line and the Queens Boulevard Line, both of which were constructed for maximum incompatibility with the rest of the system. The Crosstown Line could have been built slightly further inland to connect to Atlantic/Pacific, Hunterspoint, and Queensborough Plaza; the QB Line could have been built with the Queens Plaza stop close enough to Queensborough Plaza for a connection, and with its Manhattan trunk line under 50th instead of 53rd in order to connect to the west side IRT and BMT lines. However, because the IND was built as part of an anti-IRT, anti-BMT campaign, instead of as part of a campaign to improve rapid transit in New York, no such connections exist, making the G all but useless and overloading the 53rd Street Line.

Marc Shepherd September 10, 2009 - 5:47 pm

As they say in politics, “mistakes were made.” But that doesn’t mean that the IND was all-bad, or that the IRT and BMT didn’t also make their share of mistakes. The old elevated lines on 6th and 9th Avenue were widely considered urban blight, and while rail buffs have a fond nostalgia for them, hardly anyone else does.

Kai September 10, 2009 - 6:00 pm

I consider the remaining elevated structures in the other boroughs quite blighty. There are few examples where they did it right, the Queens Blvd. section of the 7 would be one such example (concrete instead of exposed steel).

rhywun September 10, 2009 - 8:20 pm

Yet Chicago celebrates its els. Go figure.

Alon Levy September 10, 2009 - 10:34 pm

The old lines on 2nd and 3rd were considered blight as well – there were parties when 3rd Avenue El was torn down. Now people wish those lines were still there.

The issue with the IND isn’t that mistakes were made. It’s that occasionally, it didn’t make mistakes. The QB and Crosstown lines were good ideas, badly executed. The others shouldn’t have been built at all. If the city was really itching to take 9th Avenue El down, it should’ve built a subway under Columbus, not CPW, with only one trunk in Midtown, rather than two.

Woody September 11, 2009 - 12:30 am

Not so easy, Alon. Are you saying that they should have built the subway under Columbus Ave first and then taken down the Ninth Ave el? That would have been an engineering feat, indeed. Or do you really think it would have worked out nicely to first take down the el and THEN build the subway meant to replace it, doing without any train at all for the period of construction.

I understand that Central Park West is not a good place for a mass transit line, because the parkland on one side contributes very few riders. Better if the line had apartment buildings on both flanks. But where would that be? Columbus Ave was occupied by the el. Amsterdam Ave is barely half a block from the Broadway IRT #1, #2, #3 lines. Some for West End Ave. Then Riverside Drive is the mirror of CPW, with parkland on one side.

Jerrold September 11, 2009 - 4:01 pm

On weekends, especially in the spring and summer, many people use the stations along Central Park West for travel to and from Central Park itself. Also, what about the museums that are located along Central Park West?

Alon Levy September 12, 2009 - 9:57 pm

The biggest museum is located between CPW and Columbus, and could be equally served by a station at Columbus and 79th.

Alon Levy September 12, 2009 - 7:01 pm

PATH managed to build a subway under Sixth Avenue El. The IND later managed to build a subway around PATH and under Sixth Avenue El. In Brooklyn, the IND built a subway under Fulton Street El.

The problem with CPW isn’t just that there’s a park on one side. It’s that the buildings are just residential, and relatively low-density at that, whereas Columbus is more mixed-use.

Marc Shepherd September 11, 2009 - 8:32 am

Very few people wish that the 2nd and 3rd Avenue Els were still there. What they wish for is that the 2nd Avenue subway had been built when it was first promised.

I am flabbergasted that you think the IND needed only one Manhattan trunk line. Which of the two do you think could be dispensed with? Or is this another way of saying that you think the Els should have been kept, and no subway built at all?

Alon Levy September 12, 2009 - 7:11 pm

Sixth Avenue already had a subway – it went to Greenwich Village and Jersey City.

And the reason SAS wasn’t built when it was first promised is that the IND First System was overdesigned and overbuilt, leading to cost overruns.

Jerrold September 11, 2009 - 4:05 pm

That’s because the 6th Ave. and 8th Ave. subways are there instead.
On the East Side, TWO els were thrown down, to be replaced with ONE subway that is still not there.

Jerrold September 11, 2009 - 4:09 pm

The above comment was intended as a reply to the SECOND message on this thread, which talks about how hardly anybody misses the 6th Ave. and 9th Ave. els.

Marc Shepherd September 11, 2009 - 4:50 pm

Exactly: the mistake was that both Els were demolished before their replacement was built.

Jerrold September 11, 2009 - 9:06 pm

That’s right. They could have thrown down the 2nd Ave. el, built the 2nd Ave. subway, and THEN thrown down the 3rd Ave. el.

Alon Levy September 12, 2009 - 7:13 pm

But that wasn’t the point. The point was to get rid of the els, the streetcars, and the mixed use neighborhoods. Second Avenue El was more modern in its design and could’ve lasted much longer than Third Avenue El; the reason they took it down first is that if they’d taken down Third Avenue El instead, they wouldn’t have been able to take down Second Avenue El without building SAS first.

AlexB September 13, 2009 - 11:39 pm

In defense of the IND:
– I don’t think following the route of a torn down el is a bad thing. Saying the A wasn’t worth it because els previously existed on 9th Ave and Fulton St doesn’t make sense. The A and C provide constant express/local service in both directions while the Fulton and 9th Ave els were each three tracks, both terminated in downtown Manhattan, and neither had the same number of transfer opportunities.
– Much of the goal of the IND was to replace the els. That many of the routes followed the els they replaced was logical, not a plot to steer clear of the IRT and BMT (although that was also a goal). Two replaced els, on Fulton St in BK and 53rd St in Manhattan, provided the same or fewer transfer options to the IRT/BMT subways. The Fulton St el didn’t connect to Atlantic-Pacific either.
– The entirely new routes (basically the F and G) really did break new ground. The G was ill conceived in terms of transfer opportunities, but remains the only subway service in many areas, which are now rapidly gentrifying because of it. The F strings together Kensington, Park Slope, Carroll Gardens, DUMBO, and the LES and provides service to these areas that never had it during the era of the els.
– The A to upper Manhattan and the E to Queens are still the fastest subways by far in these areas. Not only do they spur growth on their routes, they also allowed for a lot of new capacity. About 80 trains per hour run through the 6th and 8th Ave trunks. The IND trains have higher capacity per train than the IRT or BMT. If the IND had never been built, the 7, N/Q/R/W and 1/2/3 trains would be thoroughly overloaded by now. The Lexington subway would be a minor problem in comparison.

Alon Levy September 14, 2009 - 9:40 pm

No line runs 80 trains per hour. The Lex line schedules 54; the QB line schedules 50. The 8th Avenue trunk line schedules 32 tph per direction, the 6th Avenue line schedules 42.

The F didn’t really provide more service to the LES than the 2nd Avenue el, which ran on 1st south of 23rd.

The problem with the QB line, if anything, is that it is only two-tracked when entering Manhattan. Even in the 1930s Queens had a clear shortage of transit capacity into Manhattan: it had the same population as the Bronx but only half as many two-track crossings into Manhattan, 3 instead of 6. A better-designed IND would have had the G connect to Atlantic-Pacific and QBP, and had a fully four-tracked QB line connecting to QBP and running along 50th to connect to the existing IRT and BMT subways.

AlexB September 15, 2009 - 8:53 am

I said that the 6th and 8th avenues lines together ran about 80 trains per hour during rush hour, not each by themselves.

The QB line has access to 6 tracks headed into Manhattan, and has to share two of those with the NW.

I agree that the G should have provided a connection to Atlantic-Pacific and the QB line should have provided easier connections to QBP, and the variety of stops along 49th, 50th and 51st Sts. They could have routed the G line down Greene Ave and State St, which would have connected it to the A-P complex. That probably would have been wiser.

However, my point it that the IND was following pre-established notions of where the lines should run. In retrospect, they were wrong, but these notions were not just the ideas of the IND. The IRT planned a subway down Lafayette Ave in Brooklyn that also would have bypassed the A-P station (although it would pass through Nevins.) The IRT el on 53rd St was replaced in the same location. There were precedents of the IND. The IND designers did not sit around coming up with inconvenient subways, they simply built other people’s ideas.

Alon Levy September 15, 2009 - 1:44 pm

The el on 53rd Street came before there were subways in New York; it can’t be blamed for not connecting to the subway. However, when you design a new system, it’s incumbent upon you not to blindly copy existing practices, but to see where you can improve. Ironically, the Second System was designed fairly well, with lines serving high-demand corridors like Second Avenue (where population density is about twice that of CPW) and cross-system connections at Utica. It’s the IND that was actually built that doesn’t connect to anything.

The QB line doesn’t really have 6 tracks. The 63rd Street tunnel is far away from where people want to go, and due to track-sharing on QB can’t run more than 15 tph unless the E becomes local. The 60th Street tunnel involves track-sharing, again.

Besides, the IND made mistakes not just in the routing, but also in infrastructure design. Subway stations don’t need full-length mezzanines, and tracks don’t need flying junctions at every intersection. Those extra features are what blew the budget on the First System, ensuring the Second System would never be built.

AlexB September 17, 2009 - 2:25 pm

Fair enough about the routings of the lines. They should have tried harder to provide better connections.

The MTA runs 15 Fs, 15 Es, 10 Vs and 10 Rs per hour, totaling 50, as many as any other line. I ride the V or R almost every day at rush hour and there are often seats, so it’s not a big issue. Between those two trains, I can make just about whatever connection I need. Now, ideally, I think a new pair of tracks connecting the QB local and the Astoria line somewhere between Queens Plaza and 39th Ave would make the system work much better for intra Queens and Queens-Brooklyn travel. Basically, the Queens routings of the V and W could be switched and the G could go to Astoria if there were room.

Even if there were more tunnels, you couldn’t fit any more Es or Fs on the QB express. The location of the 63rd St tunnel doesn’t keep the F train from being packed to the gils as it crosses the East River, so it’s not like it killed ridership.

The mezzanines are a luxury that probably could have been dispensed with in many places, but I think you would have to have built most of the flying junctions to have the level of service that exists today. They were planning for a much larger system that took decades for the built-in capacity to be utilized. Whoever designed the junction of the 2/5 and 3/4 would probably have done things differently if they could see how that turned out.

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