Home View from Underground In the company of retired and forgotten train lines

In the company of retired and forgotten train lines

by Benjamin Kabak

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.

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Marc Shepherd June 18, 2010 - 12:12 pm

I suspect that W and V will be revived someday, if not in their current form.

From Haddon’s piece, it sounds like X could theoretically be used someday, if they were out of letters. (First, K would have to come back.)

Another problem with U, besides the fact that it’s a word, is that it resembles the letter V.

Kai June 18, 2010 - 1:09 pm

The Q is expected to go up 2nd Ave in a few years – so I figure the W will have to come back to Astoria.

The M pretty much as the V covered, but there could always be a new demand (and funding) for service to Downtown Brooklyn and points south (such as the F Express).

Kai June 18, 2010 - 1:21 pm

*The M pretty much has the V covered

Benjamin Kabak June 18, 2010 - 2:30 pm

Ideally, the V would become the Culver Express if and when MTA grants that service to the far reaches of Brooklyn.

Andrew June 18, 2010 - 7:10 pm

Don’t count on that any time soon. As we discovered the last time this came up, the F in Brooklyn has plenty of room to spare during both rush hours, according to NYCT’s loading guidelines. (That doesn’t mean that the trains aren’t crowded. It doesn’t even mean that some cars, or some entire trains, aren’t overcrowded. It means that the average car on the average train during the peak hour is significantly less crowded than NYCT considers reasonable for rush hour.) And what you’re proposing here isn’t even just an extra train or two, but a full second service, which, at least at its current Queens end, operates 10 tph! Given the cuts that are about to go through, I expect that the first givebacks will be on the D and/or R, not on the F.

Furthermore, where will this train go once it reaches Manhattan? All of the relevant trunks and terminals are essentially fully accounted for during rush hours. Or do you think M passengers are going to willingly give up their new direct service to Midtown so that Culver passengers can have two services to Midtown?

Kid Twist June 18, 2010 - 4:35 pm

Under the original IND lettering scheme, the V would have been the FF.

Alon Levy June 18, 2010 - 2:29 pm

X is supposed to be the Triboro RX line.

Andrew June 18, 2010 - 7:11 pm

Supposed to be? According to whom? As far as I know, New York City Transit, which assigns line designations, has never endorsed the Triboro RX line let alone made plans to operate it.

Alon Levy June 18, 2010 - 8:35 pm

It’s the letter used in the RPA plan, that’s all. (That’s one of the few RPA fantasy ideas that are actually good – as opposed to, say, the Atlantic Subway.) Lee Sander endorsed the line as a long-term plan just before the financial crisis wiped the MTA’s surplus.

bob June 21, 2010 - 5:07 pm

Lot of good that did Lee Sander, eh?

Andrew June 22, 2010 - 10:58 pm

He endorsed the concept. He didn’t agree to implement the specific details. He certainly didn’t assign a letter!

jamabam June 18, 2010 - 12:54 pm

full words? aren’t B, C, Q, R, and T also full words?

Marc Shepherd June 18, 2010 - 1:01 pm

Yes, but not words that could be confusing or the butt of jokes, as in, “Go downstairs and take a P.” Words like “Why” and ”You” are sometimes used in asking for, and receiving, directions, and it could be confusing—especially to non-native speakers—if they also designated train routes.

BrooklynBus June 18, 2010 - 6:59 pm

Sounds like a potential Abbott and Costello Routine.

Scott E June 18, 2010 - 1:02 pm

Wasn’t P used (or planned to be used) as an express routing from Jamaica to Penn Station in the event of an Amtrak or LIRR strike?

Kai June 18, 2010 - 1:09 pm

I do remember reading that.

Alon Levy June 18, 2010 - 2:28 pm

P was supposed to be the BMT Culver Line. The letter was not used because the IND took over the line before the unified system began using letters for the BMT.

Similarly, T was the BMT West End Line, later taken over by what is now the D.

Nabe News: June 18 - Bowery Boogie | A Lower East Side Chronicle June 18, 2010 - 1:26 pm

[…] the defunct subway lines of the past [Second Avenue […]

Al D June 18, 2010 - 3:24 pm

Nice NX picture in Ms. Haddon’s article. Wonder where she got it. The QB was a nice, rich red color on its destination signs.

MTA Routes Lost to Time | OrignauxMoose June 18, 2010 - 3:35 pm

[…] Second Ave. Sagas | Image via NYC Subway Historical […]

Kid Twist June 18, 2010 - 4:33 pm

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 used to be even more confusing than that. Until about 1965, the BMT had its own system for numbering its lines, which had nothing to do with the post-unification numbering scheme adopted for the IRT. So there were simultaneously two different sets of numbers in use. And at times, the same BMT route had some trains with letter designations and some with numbers. And some IRT cars carried only the line name but not the route number.

rhywun June 18, 2010 - 6:47 pm

Why not be daring and replace all the letters with numbers…? I never liked letters as routes anyway.

John Paul N. June 18, 2010 - 7:40 pm

Line 26, anyone?

Alon Levy June 18, 2010 - 8:36 pm

Shanghai plans to go that high. And unlike in New York, its lines rarely share tracks; 3 and 4 have a shared segment, but all other lines run on dedicated tracks.

rhywun June 18, 2010 - 10:17 pm

Sure… why not?

Paris goes up to 14 and the sky hasn’t fallen.

I wasn’t born here, and I don’t care about the history of IRT/BMT/IND*, so the mixture of letters and numbers has always struck me as ugly.

*Well, I do – but as a curiosity that has no bearing on current usefulness of the system.

Aaron June 19, 2010 - 12:50 am

What would that accomplish, other than confusion? The distinction between letters and numbers doesn’t matter to most people but the system still works – people immediately know what the 7 is or what the R is.

BrooklynBus June 18, 2010 - 7:02 pm

Anyone remember when the AA was briefly the K after the other K was discontinued?

bob June 21, 2010 - 5:15 pm

As other comments (and articles) make clear, there have been enough changes over the years that you can’t worry too much about this. I don’t really see the W as important – there were short turn N trains before it and I expect them to continue. (You’ll recall the original reason for giving it a new name was express service in Astoria. That didn’t last long.)

Similarly the 9 was really a 1 (and treated as such internally). I think the move of the D from the Brighton to West End is a bigger change, I still get that wrong. It took me several years to stop thinking of the F as a 53rd St service.

Personally I liked the single letter express – double letter local system. It actually conveyed useful information.

Andrew June 22, 2010 - 11:05 pm

The W was a new service – it took over the West End line from the B when the north side of the Manhattan Bridge closed in 2001. It also gave the Astoria line a much-needed service boost – I don’t remember any N’s that terminated at Whitehall before 2001 (I think there were some R’s that turned there).

After 2004, when the W was no longer needed on the West End line, it still needed its own designation, since the N runs express and over the bridge.

No Astoria trains are terminating at Whitehall after this week. The gap left by the removal of the W is being filled by the Q.

As for double letters, I never liked them. They’re fine if every route is either local throughout or express throughout. But what do you do with lines that run express in one part of the city and local somewhere else?

herenthere June 22, 2010 - 5:04 pm

“The 8 as well will never see the light of day because it sounds confusingly similar to the letter A.”

So are the M and N lines which will soon be at Herald Square…

Andrew June 22, 2010 - 11:06 pm

Today’s M and N already meet at three stations.

The problem with A and 8 is that “A train” and “8 train” sound identical.

e170jerome June 8, 2014 - 10:49 pm

3 and E sound alike. In the 70’s, they were even colored powder blue.

Raymond November 8, 2014 - 2:52 pm

Wow. I remember a lot of these! The TT, the KK, the QJ. My goodness, so many memories!
Thanks for this post!


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