Home Subway History The tribulations of bringing AC to the subways

The tribulations of bringing AC to the subways

by Benjamin Kabak

The R-17, shown here in operation as the Shuttle in 1982, was the first subway car outfitted with air condition. (Photo via Steve Zabel/NYCSubway.org)

For the last few days, New York City has been enjoying some unseasonably warm weather. Although temperatures should dip back into the 60s over the weekend, the days of sun and 80 degrees remind me of the summer to follow. Summer in New York — with free concerts, long days and, of course, baseball games — is my favorite season but for one thing: The subways are utterly unbearable.

The worst part of riding around New York City in the summer are the underground waits. With train cars spewing heat from industrial-strength air conditioners, the stations themselves see temperatures sore beyond tolerable levels. The stagnant air induces sweat at hours of the morning far too early for that kind of heat, and only the blessed air conditioning of the train cars makes a commute tolerable.

These days, we take our air conditioned subway cars for granted. The MTA undertook its current air conditioning efforts in 1967, and the thought of a summer ride without AC lives on only in the memories of long-time New Yorkers. So as we sit on the cusp of summer and Transit turns on the AC, let’s hop in the Wayback Machine to a time when the New York City Transit Authority just couldn’t quite get air conditioning right.

Our journey begins in September of 1955, an odd time to test air conditioning as the heat is already dissipating by then. On a day that saw the outside temperature hit just 62 degrees, NYCTA ran a successful test of its first air conditioned subway car, an outfitted R-15 car. As station temperatures hit 81 degrees and the mercury climbed to 87.5 in un-air conditioned cars, the test car saw temperatures fluctuate between 68 and 73 degrees. The authority proclaimed this one-day test a success, and plans to outfit the entire subway fleet at a cost of $700 per car were drawn up.

This was short-lived optimism. A year later, the NYCTA unveiled another test run of the air conditioned cars. Six R-17 cars equipped with loud speakers, air conditioned and in-route music provided, of course, by Muzak, made headlines as Transit officials again extolled the virtues of air conditioning. At the time, Transit planned to test these cars along various IRT routes but ran into early troubles.

The authority tried to test it on the Shuttle route, but the short trip did not provide for ample testing time. “The run between Times Square and Grand Central takes one minute,” wrote The Times, “apparently too brief a time to cool the hot subway air taken in during the stops of one and one-half to two minutes at the shuttle terminals.” Passengers complained as well of stale air and high humidity.

By 1962, the promise of air conditioning had failed to materialize, and the NYCTA declared the $300,000 experiment a failure. Even after the successful test runs, Transit found humidity levels well beyond acceptable. “As humidity built up and breathing became difficult,” The Times said in 1962, “passengers fled to the fan-ventilated cars…To add to passenger discomfort the cool air was dissipated when doors opened at stations, while the humidity remained unchanged.” While PATH announced air conditioning, NYCTA was left searching for solutions.

Five years later, the city struck air conditioning gold. After tinkering with the technology, Transit found a costly solution, and early test runs were again successful. This time, the humidity levels were kept in check, and railfans began to stalk the air conditioned cars, riding them along the F line from terminal to terminal to bask in the cool air. With a grant from the government and $15 million from the city, Transit finally promised to outfit its rolling stock with AC.

Even still, the going went slowly. By August of 1970, finding an air conditioned car was likened to finding a needle in a hay stack, and a 1973 proposal called for full air condition only be 1980. Throughout the 1980s, those struggles continued. At various points in the decade, air conditioning either didn’t work or was on the verge of breaking down. In 1983, while Transit officials alleged that 50 percent of cars were air conditioned, one rider found himself with AC during only 20 percent of his trips.

Today, with new rolling stock and a better maintenance program in place, the subways are blissfully air conditioned, a haven from the heat outside and in the station. I’m too young to remember those days of un-air conditioned trains, but I have vague recollections from the mid-to-late 1980s of stiflingly hot rides in graffiti-covered cars. Even if the new rolling stock can seem somewhat sterile at times, I’ll take that air conditioned as the mercury rises and summer descends upon us.

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JP May 5, 2010 - 6:01 am

I’d prefer ventilated and cooler platforms to the combination of sweltering waits with freezing cars.

Scott E May 5, 2010 - 7:51 am

Great article. And even nicer is that sparkling-clean photo at the top! Even the ceiling looks nice.

I’m a bit confused though… the caption on that photo says it’s from 1982 (which makes sense, being a color photo; but looking too clean to be 1982), while the fourth paragraph seems to say the first test on the R17 was in 1955. Am I missing something?

Boris May 5, 2010 - 9:49 am

The R-17 cars served the shuttle route in 1982, but air conditioners were first installed on them years earlier.

Todd May 5, 2010 - 9:08 am

The guy in the hat needs to stop holding the doors.

petey May 5, 2010 - 9:32 am

the helpful clock. the tobacco ad. the world’s fair colored tiles.

AK May 5, 2010 - 9:32 am

My favorite part of the photo is the old Marlboro Man ad on the clock. It’s funny remembering how ubiquitous smoking advertising was prior to 1994.

Al D May 5, 2010 - 9:45 am

The ’80s also saw ‘heated’ cars. Specifically since most a/c units were broken or more simply out of coolant, the vents blew HOT air. So not only was it hot, the HVAC unit heated(!) the cars even more.

As someone quite sensitive to heat, I would ride between the cars to enjoy the cool tunnel breeze generated by the moving train buffeting me. Ah, so comfortable.

Later, I discovered the comfort of the express bus, and would basically abandon the subway in the Summer months. I would miss underground, if you could believe it, and as we know, express buses are not necessarily express, so I would venture underground anyway. By that time, car maintenance had improved to the point where we are today, and at least the cars are comfortable. Now I no longer live near an express bus, so it’s Summer time in the subway for me! 120 degree platforms and 60 degree trains!

digamma May 5, 2010 - 10:05 am

What JP said. They keep the cars ludicrously cold and everyone on the platform suffers (along with Transit’s electric bill). I plan to do a lot more cycling this summer.

BrooklynBus May 6, 2010 - 9:15 am

There is a reason why the cars are “ludicrously cold” at times. People generate heat and the cars are designed to be comfortable when the train is full with people. When the train is nearly empty, the temperature goes down several degrees. The alternative is to set the temperature higher, but then the trains would not be comfortable when there us a crush load. Absent some type of variable sensor which can alter the temperature depending on the crowding level, I don’t know what the solution would be. You would think one would exist. Until then, just carry a sweater or light jacket with you when riding the trains.

W. K. Lis May 5, 2010 - 10:42 am

The only drawback to air-conditioning in subway cars is the heat that the AC units dispense. Air-conditioning is like your refrigerator. It takes the heat from inside and pumps it to the outside. Feel around your refrigerator or air-conditioner and you will find heat coming from it. That heat in subway cars gets pumped outside the cars. Out in the open sections, that is fine. However, underground, the heat is pumped into the tunnels and stations. That makes the tunnels even more hotter.

BrooklynBus May 5, 2010 - 10:52 am

I remember the non-air conditioned days well. Actually when the fans were working well and all the doors were left open between the cars, it was quite comfortable even on the warmest of days, as long as the trains kept moving, but they were extremely noisy. But when they stopped even for a few seconds, you would start to sweat. But the worst times, were in the early 1980s when the ao-called air- conditioned cars like the R-40s had their sir conditioning broken, which was most of the time. The small vent windows could not cool the car at all even when it was moving and of course there were no fans. If someone didn’t open the end car doors, it was like a sauna often reaching temperatures of 110 degrees. You would arrive at work all drenched and would risk catchinga cold in an air-conditioned office. Those were the days.

Also, what you don’t mention was that when consumer groups were screaming in the 1960s and 70s to get the trains air-conditioned, the Transit Authority was insisting that it would never work because unlike the railroads which were air-conditioned, the stations were much closer together. The TA claimed that the trains couldn’t stay cool enough because the doors would open too frequently. Of course they were proven wrong, at least on the BMT-IND. But they continued to insist for years that it would never work on the IRT because the cars were too small, until someone pointed out that PATH was able to do it even with smaller cars. Finally, they relented and agreed to test A/C on the IRT. Again, they were proven wrong, but those cars received A/C much later than their BMT-IND counterparts.

I could go on and on with other examples where the MTA or TA insisted that something couldn’t work, and later gave in after political pressure, such as articulated buses,which they insisted couldn’t operate on NYC streets and articulated buses with three doors which they claimed weren’t structurally sound enough. Now we have them also. But we are stuck with those having only two doors which slow them down a great deal where there is heavy passenger turnover.

SignalWatcher May 5, 2010 - 12:50 pm

More baseless ranting and raving from BrooklynBus, who is wrong. We do have three-door articulated buses now.

John May 5, 2010 - 1:02 pm

He said they have them. But I think his point was that you’re stuck with a bunch of old two-car buses that they bought back when they could have (but wouldn’t) buy the three-car buses.

BrooklynBus May 6, 2010 - 9:07 am

Thanks John. That’s exactly what I was saying. Apparently SignalWatcher has a reading comprehension problem and is quick to accuse. We now see who does the baseless ranting and raving.

SignalWatcher May 6, 2010 - 9:10 am

No, he said that now we have articulated buses, but we’re stuck with 2-door models.

BrooklynBus May 6, 2010 - 2:09 pm

That’s correct. The 2-door artics should not be running on the heavily used crosstown routes where there is very heavy loading and unloading at each stop. It once took me 30 minutes just to go from 6th Avenue to 12th Avenue on the 23rd Street Crosstown without any traffic. Two-thirds of the time was spent at the stops loading, unloading and waiting for the traffic light to change. That never would have happened with 40 foot buses and is just ridiculous.

There are very few routes where 2-door artics are beneficial, as long as the MTA replaces 5 40-footers with 4 artics.

Andrew May 5, 2010 - 11:46 pm

One doesn’t catch a cold from air conditioning.

If you caught colds on days like that, it was probably from being inside an unventilated subway car with lots of strangers, a few of whom were probably carrying a virus or two.

railien May 5, 2010 - 10:53 am

Everyone, including the author, got some of the facts wrong:
1. In 1955, the 1st subway car with a/c was the R-15 (the 1st car of that series is in the NY Transit Museum). The a/c didn’t work well enough.
2. In 1957, it was tried again, this time with bigger compressors. The result was the same – the a/c didn’t work well enough.
3. The first successful subway cars with a/c was the 10-car train of the R-38 model in the 1960s.

Benjamin Kabak May 5, 2010 - 10:58 am

I don’t mean to be defensive, but I’m a bit confused. The story says that the first cars fitted with AC were R-15s. The R-17s, delivered the next year, were the first with air conditioners installed, and as I said in the article, that test was declared a failure in 1962. Later on, cars delivered in the late 1960s, as the article says, came with AC that worked. Those were the R-38s. Which facts did I get wrong then?

Brandon May 5, 2010 - 11:42 am

We can look forward to platform doors and cooler stations in the future. However, other than the second ave line and the 7 train extension, its probably going to be the very distant future.

Think twice May 5, 2010 - 12:21 pm

I hope scientists figure out a practical method of turning heat energy into electricity. That and those piezoelectric floors from the Tokyo Metro would really help.

Rhywun May 5, 2010 - 9:41 pm

As an R commuter, I have never, ever had occasion to think of my commute as “ludicrously cold”*. In fact we still occasionally get some cars that pump heat rather than chill–car-hopping becomes something of a sport during the more disgusting months. As for platform vs. car, well, I spend a heck of a lot more time in the car than on the platform. I think the trade-off is worth it.

*But if the recent R160 experiment on the R lasts through the summer, I might change my mind. Those cars can be chilly! Not that I would ever complain. As a non-native New Yorker, I will take chill over disgusting, swampy gross summer heat any day.

Andrew May 5, 2010 - 11:35 pm

This native New Yorker agrees.

Alon Levy May 6, 2010 - 12:16 am

As a native of Tel Aviv and Singapore, I concur. Air conditioner chill is minor – it gets down to about 17-18 degrees at the lowest. In a city that gets down to -5 in winter, it’s nothing. I worry a lot more about sweating at 27, which makes me stink for the entire day.

Andrew May 6, 2010 - 7:58 am

Translation for the Celsius-impaired:

“As a native of Tel Aviv and Singapore, I concur. Air conditioner chill is minor – it gets down to about 63-64 degrees at the lowest. In a city that gets down to 23 in winter, it’s nothing. I worry a lot more about sweating at 81, which makes me stink for the entire day.”

petey May 6, 2010 - 2:47 pm

thanks andrew. 🙂

“sweating at 81”

just wait till it’s 35!

Rhywun May 8, 2010 - 11:54 am

I sweat at 81. Thus, my dislike of summer (and much of spring and fall around here, too).

Alon Levy May 5, 2010 - 11:31 pm

The air conditioners on the pre-1990s trains sometimes don’t work. Part of the problem is that the decision about whether to turn them on or not is based on outside air temperature, rather than underground subway temperature.

Andrew May 5, 2010 - 11:42 pm

The air conditioners don’t always work no matter what (everything breaks down once in a while), but I’ve found that the air conditioning on the older cars is generally better than on the newer ones.

The HVAC system is supposed to be turned on all the time; whether the system pumps out cold or warm air depends on the reading of a thermostat in the car (in at least some cars it’s mounted on the outside of the cab). Outside air shouldn’t have anything to do with it. If the HVAC is turned off (i.e., nothing’s blowing from the vents), check the next car (perhaps it’s just broken in your car); if it’s out in that car too, ask the train operator or conductor to turn it on.

Alon Levy May 6, 2010 - 12:02 am

Sometimes it’s off in multiple cars, yes… anecdotally, I’ve generally found this to be correlated with the outside temperature not being too high. Maybe I’m wrong – I don’t know.

Andrew May 6, 2010 - 8:06 am

No, you’re probably right, but that’s not how the system is designed – it’s probably due to operator error. Either the HVAC was off while the train was laid up in the yard and the train operator didn’t notice (because it wasn’t very hot outside), or the train operator thought it would be more comfortable for everyone with the HVAC turned off (forgetting that a cab with one person and a window that opens wide won’t get stuffy, while a car with 100+ people and a few windows that tilt open an inch or so will).

In either case, when I’ve asked for the HVAC to be turned on, it has always been turned on, except of course when it isn’t working. The same, unfortunately, cannot be said for my experience on buses (where the same rule applies – the HVAC is supposed to be turned on whenever the bus is in passenger service), but at least most buses have sliding windows. (The shift in recent purchases to flip-in windows makes me nervous, though.)


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