When the New York City subway system was built in the early 1900s and later expanded throughout the 1930s, the route planners had a difficult task at hand. Using the city as they knew it then and the city as projected later, they had to extrapolate routes based on need. It’s tough to know in 1904 which stops should be served by an express train and which shouldn’t in 2010.
Nowhere in the system is this problem more evident than along the West Side IRT — known familiarly as the 1, 2 and 3 trains — at 72nd St. and 59th St./Columbus Circle. With its too-narrow platforms and mid-avenue stationhouses, the 72nd St. station has been a mysterious express stop nearly since day one. It’s not at a major above-ground landmark, and it’s not a fork in the system as 96th St. is. There, the express trains head east and toward the Bronx while the 1 continues north under Broadway. At 72nd St., the stop simply serves as a way point between the run from 42nd St. to 96th St.
Meanwhile, 13 blocks to the south sits Columbus Circle. In 1904, it served as the entryway to Central Park, but today, it is a bustling hub of people with commercial and office space to the west and tourists to the east. As a major transfer point between the 6th Ave. and 8th Ave. IND routes and the West Side IRT, Columbus Circle is the seventh busiest subway station in the system. In 2008, over 20 million straphangers passed through the station. Despite the obvious popularity, it is not an express stop.
Those who frequent the Columbus Circle station have long wondered about the lack of an express stop, and the perfect storm of conditions in the mid-1950s nearly turned 59th St. into an express service. Let’s jump into the archives to relive that bit of subway history. In 1954, Robert Moses, then head of the Triborough Bridge and Tunnel Authority, oversaw the construction of the New York Coliseum at Columbus Circle. Despite his lukewarm support of and outright hostility transit throughout much of his career, this time, he wanted something from the subways and asked the Transit Authority to consider turning 59th St. into an express stop. He nearly got his way.
In August 1954, as construction commenced on the Coliseum, the TA supported a $172 million work plan for 1955. In that plan included an $11.6 million project that would have turned Columbus Circle from a local-only stop into an express station along the IRT. The work would have been massive. The two local tracks would have been pushed out with the platforms remaining in place, and an express bulb in the middle of the two express tracks would have been constructed there. The track layout would have resembled the current design of Penn Station along the IRT. Meanwhile, the express platforms at 72nd St. would have been walled off, and that station would have become a local-only stop.
The plans themselves though never made it off the drawing room floor. The TA approved a contract for the work in March 1955 after the Board of Estimate had approved the plan the previous December. By 1956, though, as work hadn’t yet begun, TA head Charles Patterson had already come out against the plan. He wanted to simply lengthen the five-car platforms at 59th St. and believed that to be adequate to serve the ridership growth anticipated by the opening of the Coliseum.
That lengthening was, of course, how this story ends. The IRT platforms were lengthened in the 1950s to accommodate longer train cars, and 59th St. was no exception. The express plans were discarded. Every few decades, a civic group calls upon the MTA to explore adding an express stop to 59th St. In 1997, the American Institute of Architects passed a resolution with detailed plans — available here as a PDF — calling for that express stop modification. It went nowhere.
Now, Columbus Circle is amidst a massive renovation that won’t bring express service to it along the IRT but will make the station nicer and easier to navigate. For now, we’ll just have to watch as those express trains zoom past a logical stopping point, and we’ll blame August Belmont for his lack of foresight. Mostly, he was right about where to place those IRT stops, but at 59th St., the future proved him wrong.