Underneath 42nd St., a conveyor belt that wasn’t


City and Board of Transportation officials gather around a working model of the conveyor belt proposed to replace the 42nd St. shuttle. (Edward Haunser/The New York Times)

The 42nd St. shuttle was always supposed to be a temporary train route. It is funny then, that 92 years after it first entered service, the shuttle is one of the most necessary and crowded routes as it ferries commuters in between Grand Central and Times Square. Imagine, if you will, a similar route but filled with open-air cars on a conveyor part as was once proposed and prepared for the underground stretch of track in between the East and the West Sides.

On September 28, 1918, the Interborough Rapid Transit company opened service on its so-called H routing. With the 7th Ave. line south of 42nd St. serving customers and the Lexington Ave. line north of 42nd St. playing host to trains, the original east/west routing that connecting the southern half of the IRT on the East Side with the northern half on the West Side was to become a shuttle, ferrying passengers from Grand Central Terminal to Times Square. From the start, the service was an engineering disaster. “We called the H system for more reason than one,” William Jerome Daly, the Board of Transportation secretary, said with a wink and a smile in 1949.

On opening day, The Times said that service started smoothly, but the article and subsequent tales from underground described a scene that was anything but. Straphangers complained of the long walk from the Lexington Ave. IRT line to the shuttle station. They complained of the crowds and of the way the lighted signs announcing the next train did not give ample warning as customers had to run to catch the next train. The complained of cramped spaces and generally poor engineering as support beams at the West Side interfered with movement. “Shuttle service faulty,” said one 1942 letter to The Times.

By the time 1949 rolled around, the temporary shuttle — called such because the Board of Transportation had never funded upgrades to the Times Square end — still drew the ire of the city’s straphangers, and it was with great fanfare that the Board of Estimates announced an overhaul. For the princely sum of $3.5 million, the Board planned to build double platforms at Times Square to ease the crowd and allow for boarding on one side and detraining on another. The Grand Central terminal would be extended 200 feet east to cut walking distance from the shuttle to the IRT station. Still, these upgrades were “pretty far down” on the list of overall subway improvements, and it took a while to get the ball rolling.

After a few years of fits and starts, the Board of Transportation hit upon another idea: Instead of upgrading the shuttle, the city would instead replace it with a people-moving conveyor belt. As Time Magazine described in a 1954 article, “The jammed, jolting old subway shuttle train between Grand Central Station and Times Square, half a mile crosstown, will be replaced by a gigantic conveyor belt carrying an endless chain of lightweight passenger cars. Riders will step onto a belt moving at 1½ m.p.h., and from there into cars which will then speed up to 15 m.p.h. for the two-minute trip to Times Square and slow down again to let them off.”

A 1951 rendering of the 42nd Street conveyor belt in action.

The project was to cost $5 million — $3.8 million for the conveyor belt system, $1.2 million for necessary tunnel updates — and The Times loved it. Proclaiming the novelty factor, the editorial staff opined, “The conveyor belt has proved itself on many jobs. We have faith that the engineers of today can make this new shuttle idea a working reality…Admitting that it is something of an adventure into experiment, we hope city officials have enough of the pioneering spirit to try it in curing an old ill at a busy crossroads of the city.”

Unfortunately, City Comptroller Lawrence E. Gerosa wasn’t feeling that pioneering spirit. In an August 1955 report condemning the plans, Gerosa warned of “high maintenance charges and risk of injury to passengers.” Noting that this system would be both more expensive than anticipated and the first of its kind anywhere, he issued a warning: “New York City cannot afford to be the guinea pig for such a costly and complex investment particularly in one of the most congested areas in our subway system.”

Two months later, the conveyor belt plan died an ignoble death. Instead of a new investment, the Transit Authority promised to reengineer the Grand Central bottleneck and invest in rolling stock upgrades for the much-maligned shuttle. Thus ended one of the great thought experiments in New York City transit history.

Today, the shuttle suffers from some of the problems described in those missives from the 1950s. The Grand Central IRT stop is still a long walk away from the shuttle, and commuters still have to sprint to catch the train at Times Square when the “next train” sign lights up. The shuttle is a microcosm for improvement plans that were never funded yesterday and aren’t on the table for the future.

From the start of the 1950s onward, The Times repeated a call for a river-to-river shuttle that would service the Hudson River ports, the Port Authority Bus Terminal, Times Square, Grand Central and the UN area on the East Side, and it still doesn’t extend that far 60 years later. An island-wide route would have revolutionized crosstown access and would have been a true international subway. Instead, the TA and the Board of Estimates settled for a patched-up shuttle, and New York’s transit riders are still today hoping for river-to-river rail along the avenue I’m taking you to, 42nd Street.

Categories : Subway History

17 Responses to “Underneath 42nd St., a conveyor belt that wasn’t”

  1. Harlan says:

    What would be wrong with standard people-movers, like at airports? If I could get from Times Square to Grand Central in half the time, walking, that would be quite valuable!

    • Marc Shepherd says:

      There is not much a people-mover can do, that subway cars cannot. And subway cars are what we have; a people-mover would need to be built.

      If money could be found for new construction, I would rather spend it on under-served areas than on replacing a shuttle that already exists.

  2. Scott E says:

    Underground, I’d be concerned about stale air and leaks. At least today’s trains offer contained A/C units and roofs. But it’s a thought — there would be no waiting for trains!

    • Christopher says:

      They had glass roofs and doors, as the post explains, they were removed for the drawing. (Can you imagine all that glass? That would never have lasted.

      • Scott E says:

        I actually meant my message to be a response to Harlan’s people-mover/moving sidewalks idea, but you are right about the glass.

        Even if it weren’t vandalized, if they got crowded on a cold winter day, the glass would surely fog up!

  3. Al D says:

    Very nice article. Thank you.

  4. JoshKarpoff says:

    Imagine, if that people moving conveyor system had been built in the ’50’s, what it would have looked like in the early 1980’s.

    The 42nd St. Shuttle really should be seriously addressed in the 2015 Capital Plan. By then the #7 Extension will be in service, so NYCT should then work on making the Shuttle usable. I’m not necessarily advocating for the cross-island idea (I think it would be seriously difficult to implement, what with the existing IRT lines at each end), but just a serious renovation of the Times Sq. side would be a major improvement. Especially if it gets rid of the moving platform extensions.

    • John says:

      I’ve never had a problem with the shuttle service, but maybe it’s an issue during rush hour? I’ve used it at less busy times and the trains sit at each end long enough where you don’t need to run around to try to get on. But not SO long where it takes forever. Or maybe I just got lucky?

    • Andrew says:

      I read something a few years back about a plan to replace the Times Square end of the shuttle with a single straight platform long enough for five-car trains on tracks 1 and 3. Track 4 would be abandoned. I don’t know if that’s still planned, but the shuttle is the only part of the Times Square complex that hasn’t been rehabbed yet, so presumably something is in the works there.

      The cross-island idea would be virtually impossible to construct – as you point out, the IRT mainline is in the way at both ends. The 7 is being extended west; a station on the 7 near the U.N. would be nice but is probably on too steep a grade to be safe. There’s also an interlocking in the area that the station would need to avoid.

  5. So, why did they abandon the IRT cross-over in the first place? I get that it is faster for the system to run in a straight line, but maybe they could have kept a few routes (locals?) crossing over so people could transfer between each half of the system easily.

    • Andrew says:

      That would require shuttle trains to cross the three other mainline tracks, which would seriously delay service. The only grade crossings in the system are north of 135th and Lenox (only two tracks, with conflicts between the northbound 3 and southbound 2) and at Myrtle Avenue on the J/M/Z (three tracks, but at relatively low frequency). Introducing a grade crossing on two busy four-track lines would seriously degrade service.

      • Alon Levy says:

        Don’t forget Rogers Avenue Junction, where the 2, 3, and 5 briefly have to share tracks before they split.

        • Andrew says:

          That’s a bottleneck of a slightly different sort. It’s not a flat junction – it doesn’t require any trains to cross the paths of opposing trains.

          There’s a somewhat similar conflict (I won’t call it a bottleneck) at East 180th, where 5 expresses to/from Dyre have to cross paths with 2 locals to/from 241st.

  6. Todd says:

    This is seriously cool.

  7. Walter says:

    This looks a lot like the Peoplemover attraction that operates at Disney World’s Magic Kingdom, that Disney even marketed for a time in the 70s to airports and such, with Houston being the only taker (it still runs).

    The Disney Peoplemover (WEDWay) is a cool piece of technology, using linear induction motors, and since Disney took over Times Square in the 90s anyway maybe they could help with this too? 😉

  8. Think twice says:

    Great post Ben. I thought the people mover idea ended with World War I.

    Turning the crosstown into a shuttle was a really shortsighted idea by the city. During the Dual Contracts’ construction, it should have been given flying junction connections northeasterly into the Lex and southwesterly into 7th Avenue. Then we would have had IRT routes running straight north/south as well as detouring from east side and west side. Thankfully the IND got it right with the 53rd Street line and all those Penn Station travelers aren’t all jamming into the Shuttle to get to the east side and back.

    • Andrew says:

      And cut service on the upper 7th Avenue (Broadway, actually) and lower Lex (Park/4th, actually)? I don’t think that would have been a good idea at all – those trains are very busy. The IND and BMT already swing from southwest to northeast – why does the IRT need to do the same?

      There are a lot of people coming from Penn Station, but there are a lot more coming from uptown and from Brooklyn.

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