New Yorkers tend to view the subway map and the system’s current routes as something set in stone. The W has always run from Lower Manhattan to Astoria; the Q has now and forever been the Brighton local to Coney Island. In truth, it takes an encyclopedia memory of subway history to remember the myriad service changes and now-defunct routes that litter transit history. Anyone want to hop the QJ or NX with me?
Over the years, I’ve taken a look at various subway lines lost to history that have a pesky habit of cropping up on subway roll signs when they shouldn’t. We’ve explored the H train, the Grand St. shuttle, the unlucky 13 train, the brown diamond R train and the various routings for the B train, just to name a few.
With the V and W set to join the great subway letters of history, Transit will be eliminating route designations for the first time since it killed the 9 train in the mid 2000s. As part of the subway funeral, Heather Haddon explored the history of subway designations. She writes:
When the V and W trains are eliminated later this month, they will join the KK, NX and about two dozen other lines that have pulled out of the station for the last time. “There hasn’t been a lot of stability to be perfectly honest,”said Glenn Lunden, a transit agency director for planning.
Changing demographics, budget issues and big construction jobs force planners to perpetually tinker with the subway routes, said Lunden, an MTA veteran. The train names have always been a work in progress. Back in the 1930s, NYC Transit first start assigning letters to the lines, picking roughly in alphabetical order. Local routes were given double letters and an express a single one, like the “A” and “AA” running along Eighth Avenue. The numbers were first added in the 1940s, but it took 20 years to fully phase them in, Lunden said.
At its peak in 1967, the MTA was home to 34 different routes, including such confusing lines as the MJ, QJ and six different “SS” shuttles. “It was all very complicated,” said Kevin Walsh, editor of the Forgotten New York website.
Haddon tells a tale familiar to us today. Amidst budget crises in the 1970s, the MTA started to cut back on train designations, and by 1985, a so-called “beautification committee” had successfully eliminated the last of the double letter routes. “They didn’t mean much by that time,” one-time MTA planner Robert Olmstead said.
The piece concludes with an interesting sidebar as well. Haddon explores how the MTA has revived route designations but won’t assign I, O, P, U, Y or X to routes because they’re either full words or resemble bullets already in use. The 8 as well will never see the light of day because it sounds confusingly similar to the letter A.
When the V and the W depart, they will have lived short and controversial lives. For a few weeks, we’ll miss the, but then, they’re just join the QB and RR trains as remnants of a bygone era living only in subway map archives throughout the city.