Nov
23

Adding an IRT express stop: The story of 59th St.

By · Published in 2010

A 1958 subway map shows local service only at 59th St. and Lexington Ave.

When IRT and BRT officials signed their half of the Dual Contracts in 1913, the area around midtown east was not the commercial hub it is today. While Bloomingdale’s attracted its fair share of shoppers, the Queensboro Bridge had opened only four years earlier, and the area was just beginning to grow. For reasons of both anticipated demand and engineering, the IRT plans up Lexington Ave. included only a local stop at 59th St.

Almost from the start, subway planners came to rue that decision and worked to rectify the omission. In 1914, Alfred Craven, the chief engineer of the Public Service Commission, issued a studied on the IRT’s two 59th St. stations. In the plan, he endorsed converting 59th St. at Columbus Circle into an express stop — a plan that never came to fruition — but “report[ed] adversely upon the application to convert the 59th Street Station of the Lexington Avenue line into an express station.”

Beyond that brief mention in a one-paragraph Wall Street Journal article, details of Craven’s decision are lacking. As far as I can surmise, the chief engineer couldn’t sign off on the IRT’s wishes because the work required to construct a station along the express tracks deep underneath both the local tracks and the BMT 60th St. tunnel would have been either too challenging or too expensive at the time. After all, the express level at 59th St., 73 feet below Lexington Ave., is among the deepest IRT stations in the system, and planning for a station after the fact would have been cost-prohibitive in 1914.

The local-only station opened in 1918, As the decades wore on, the need for an express stop somewhere between 86th St. and 42nd St. became acute. The platforms at Grand Central/42nd Street were dangerously overcrowded with IRT passengers switching from local to express trains, and with more passengers entering the IRT via a transfer with the BMT at 59th and Lexington Ave., the Bloomingdale’s stop seemed to be the ideal choice for a new station. By the mid-1950s, it was after all the fourth busiest IRT stop, behind only Grand Central, Fulton St. and Union Square.

In 1954, it seemed as though Midtown East would finally get its IRT express service. A front-page article in The Times screamed out the news, perhaps too optimistically: “East 59th Street I. R. T. Station To Be Express Stop in 2 Years.” At the same time that the Transit Authority requested money to turn Columbus Circle into an express stop, they did the same for the Lexington Ave. station due to “the rapid development of the East Side of midtown.” For $5 million, the TA planned to build the express platform below the BMT level. Escalators were to help usher passengers into the bowels of the subway system.

An illustration shows the cross-section of the 59th Street subway complex at Lexington Ave. (Via The Times)

The money wouldn’t come through for another five years. In 1959, the TA again voted for an express stop at 59th Street. This time, the project carried with a $6 million price tag and a mid-1963 completion date. The agency planned to cart out 17,000 cubic yards of dirt and construct two 14-foot-wide platforms that would span 525 feet — or the length of a ten-car train. “New high-speed escalators” would connect the express platforms with the BMT mezzanine and the IRT local level above.

To accommodate the work, the East Side riders suffered through years of service delays. From 9 p.m. to 6 a.m. every night from March 1, 1960 until mid-November 1962, the TA ran only local service along Lexington Ave. The project though was well worth it to TA planners. They believed it would reduce crowding at Grand Central; allow for more convenient transfers between the BMT and IRT express lines; and ease crowding on the 42nd St. shuttle and complaints over the long walk from the IRT by providing a more convenient trip to Times Square.

“Providing this rapidly growing section of the city with subway express service is only one of the benefits,” TA chair Charles Patterson said in 1959. “It will greatly reduce crowding at Grand Central. It will take a good deal of the load from the Grand Central-Times Square shuttle. For many it will eliminate the bother of transferring. For others it will make the transferring easier and faster.”

On November 15, 1962, at 11:40 a.m., a southbound express train ushered in this new station. The project cost a total of $6.5 million — or slightly over $47 million in today’s dollars — and took around three months less than anticipated. As part of the celebration, the first train through the station was a new red bird designed to mark the TA’s $100 million modernization and platform-lengthening campaign along the IRT lines.

Today, we take for granted the express service patterns and often assume how it is today is how it always was. As this express stop opened nearly 50 years ago, it’s certainly easy to forget a time when only local trains served what is now, with nearly 19 million annual passengers, the 9th busiest stop in the system. So as we look back at a time without express service, ponder where else in the system an express station would do wonders for transit. As history has balanced out the subway map, express and local service patterns have emerged to meet demand — unless of course it’s the other way around.



Categories : Subway History

40 Responses to “Adding an IRT express stop: The story of 59th St.”

  1. Subutay Musluoglu says:

    The immense value of this transfer cannot be overstated, as is evident by the congestion that occurs on the stairways and escalators there during the peak hours. The crowding is most acute on the stairs that connect the IRT express platforms to the deep mezzanine directly above (or as I like to call it, the “mixing bowl”) and from there to the BMT platform. From each express platfrom there are only two stairways apiece up to the mixing bowl, and from there three stairways link to the BMT platform. At those points during the peaks when there is a train occupying each IRT and BMT track, the conflicting passenger movements and the bunching adjacent to, and on the stairs themselves can be bad enough to make one question the safety of the whole place. It will be interesting to see the effect the Second Avenue Subway will have on the transfer patterns here. If the congestion is not appreciably reduced, I speculate that it will have to be addressed with a capital project at some point in the future, and if such an endeavor comes to fruition it will serve as a stark reminder of the funding and construction challenges facing the TA in the early 1960s when this space seven stories down was first carved out of the rock.

    • Bruce says:

      The 2nd Avenue Subway (Q-extension) will most certainly attract a good number of riders away from the transfer from the IRT to BMT at 59th Street. They will have now have a one-seat ride from the Upper East Side to the Times Sq. Area. Moreover, Queens Blvd. riders may be decide to switch from the 53rd St. to 63rd. St. line (F) as they will have a convenient cross-platform transfer to the Q at Lexington Av/63rd. St. Speaking of which, one can only hope that the 3rd Avenue entrance to that station is finished in time for the opening of the 2nd Avenue line. People in the East 60’s East of 2nd Avenue need a shorter walk!

      • J B says:

        Is 63rd St. actually going to be cross-platform transfer? That almost seems too much to hope for.

        • Brmnyc says:

          The tracks are there already–hidden just behind the 70’s orange glazed tile. Some trains from the BMT 7th Ave Express park here occasionally (yes–the connection to the 7th Ave. BMT is already there, and is occasionally used in service diversions). These tracks will be the ones that eventually connect to the 2nd Avenue line. I know–it’s almost unbelievable that an easy transfer was planned into this station a generation ago.

          • Take a look at this photo. That’s the other side of the 63rd St. station. When SAS Phase 1 is closer to opening, they’re going to tear down that horrendously ugly red wall and open up the platform. You’ll have cross-platform transfers between the F and Q on both levels.

  2. tacony palmyra says:

    “The immense value of this transfer cannot be overstated” — however the fact that they’re not cross-platform transfers is a real disadvantage. You can’t transfer between 4/5 and 6 “on the fly” here or at 86th Street, and outside of peak hours, it’s a gamble whether you should stay on the local or spend 3 minutes walking down to wait for the express. That’s a real problem with the Lex Ave line.

    Also I wonder if anybody at the time realized that the “New high-speed escalators” would require such maintenance. Granted I don’t commute via 59th Street, so my only experience with the station is during odd hours when things don’t seem to get fixed, but I’ve rarely seen the escalators working. And I guess that’s a broader discussion because that’s not limited to 59th.

    • Christopher says:

      Having lived in cities where escalators are much more prominent: DC and SF. I’m always amazed at how well our escalators work. DC has almost no stairs anywhere and one of the deepest systems in the U.S. (if not the world), and their escalators break all the time.

      Oddly, I’ve hearned London’s hardly ever break. But don’t know if that was just DC/SF grumbling.

      • nycpat says:

        They do maintenance overnight when the Underground is closed. Didn’t prevent horrific King’s Cross fire though. Which started with trash under an escalator.

      • Alon Levy says:

        Comparing New York’s transit to other Anglo-American cities’ is like comparing your weight to Drew Carey’s.

        Singapore has a very deep-level subway network, too, and its escalators work. The RER’s deep stations’ escalators work, too.

  3. Ed says:

    I use that stop. I find it better to just take the local to Grand Station, then walk across the platform to get the express. Or even just use the BMT portion of the station, take a train to Times Square, and then take the 2 or the 3 downtown. Avoid the stairs to the express platform entirely.

    Which come to think of it, makes me question the decision to convert the stop to an express stop in the first place, if the only access to the express platforms was going to be two narrow stairs, one quite long. Of course there is no elevator access to that platform, and I often see people with mobility issues struggle down those long stairs, evidently if they are going downtown they don’t know enough to take the local to Grand Central and then transfer.

    • Marc Shepherd says:

      Can you really doubt that the system is better with that stop than without it?

      I agree that the user-friendliness of the station is not as good as if the station had been built for express service to begin with. But “not as good as it could have been” is no reason to suggest that it shouldn’t have been built at all.

  4. John (2) says:

    Somewhere there’s a photo of the Third Ave. el station at 59th Street from back in the 1940s or early 50s with an escalator retroactively installed, which gives you an idea of how busy the area had become even before the el came down and tossed even more passengers onto the Lex.

    The only aesthetic drawback to the original express platform were those gawdawful 1950s TA-style wall tiles, which also got stuck on most of the west side IRT Contract 1 platform extensions and the uptown ones on the 6 south of Union Square. Blech. Fortunately, the 1990s renovation standardized the look between the local and express platforms in the original 1918 style.

    The opening of the Citicorp Center transfer between the 6 and the E/F (now E/M) took a little of the pressure off the 59th Street transfer, as far as people who used to switch off the express at Queens Plaza or take the Queens Blvd. local into 59th Street for the BMT transfer.

  5. BrooklynBus says:

    When I think of what it would be like if 59th Street had not been converted into an express station, I don’t think of what the crowding would be like at Grand Central, but what the crowding would be like at 51st Street. It is so bad now during rush hours, and the 6 is so crowded also, that if 59th Street remained a local stop, no one would be able to board the 6 northbound. The trains would be too crowded resulting in an overflow crowd at the station onto the streets during the morning rush.

  6. SEAN says:

    Verry interesting. I always wondered why the 59th street & Broadway stop was local only. I guess it is now cost prohibitive to convert it into an express stop to increase service patterns at such a busy station.

    If a conversion could be done, it would releave congestion on the platforms on the 1 at that criticle transfer point. In adition transfers to the A, B, C & D would be far easier then they are now.

  7. petey says:

    thanks ben, i knew little of this.

    i don’t have the impression that many people transfer between express and local IRT there. and the short stairs from the IRT local to the BMT are so crowded at peak hours that you can forget about catching a train if you see it already at the stop. but on the whole, putting in the express stop was a good idea.
    i can’t remember what site i saw it at (here?), but the original path of the BMT was one block south, and there are traces of this, in a door on the BMT platform and the IRT underpass between uptown and downtown.

  8. E. Aron says:

    $47M in today’s dollars… and it’s what half a billion for a shell of a station these days?

  9. Subutay Musluoglu says:

    While I agree that a cross platform transfer between the IRT locals and expresses would have been more valuable – think about why the Lexingtion Avenue line is stacked in the first place – the narrow width of Lexington Avenue would have made it prohibitive. As others on this post have correctly pointed out, the real value of this transfer is the connectivity to the BMT and thus to Queens services, and I totally agree with the observation that 51st Street would be untenable today had the situation not been changed.

    As for the initial plan for the BMT right of way to be sited a block south, although such a desire does exist on some drawings, the evidence is inconclusive as to how much of this work was actually carried out. The door that Petey is referring to is actually an accessway to a sump chamber. There is no hidden platform behind the Queens bound track wall. The shift from 59th Street to 60th Street for the BMT ROW was most likely due to having the underriver tube avoid the Queensboro Bridge’s foundations.

  10. Think twice says:

    The perky munchkins in the graphic are hilarious. “Flourescent Lighting!” Did New Yorkers back in the day roll their eyes at such upbeat cheesiness? I’m surprised one of the munchkins didn’t say “Makes a great fall-out shelter!”

    IMO when Phase 1 of the SAS is finished, 86th Street on the Lex should become a local and 51st Street should become an express.

  11. Jerrold says:

    That map sure brings back childhood memories.
    It looks just like the 1961 map, which is probably the earliest one I ever had.

  12. JebO says:

    ponder where else in the system an express station would do wonders for transit

    Easy. If money were no object, I’d build four new express stops along the existing right-of-way.

    1. (4)/(5) at 51st St. to connect with the (E)/(M).
    2. (4)/(5) at Bleecker St. to connect with the (F)/(M).
    3. (A)/(D) at 103rd St. to connect with the . . .
    4. (2)/(3) at Central Park West, which I would also build.
    5. (4)/(5) at Canal St. to connect with the (N)/(Q)/(J).

    Which order would these best be prioritized in? Probably 5, 1, 2, 4, 3.

    • Jerrold says:

      How about 74th St. along the #7 line in Queens?
      The #7 express would then connect to the E,F, R, and M downstairs.
      When they were first building the IND line in Queens, they must have been regretting the fact that 74th St. had not been built as an IRT express station.

      • Jerrold says:

        And coming to think of it, for similar reasons it’s unfortunate that 9th St. along the Fourth Ave. Line in Brooklyn is not an express stop.
        In each case the IND came along later on, and there was only a local stop to connect to.

    • Quinn Hue says:

      Number 5 isn’t necessary as Union Sq serves as a transfer to the NQR and Brooklyn Br for the J. The problem with these would be the slowing down of express services.

    • Alon Levy says:

      Of the five you mention, I’d say none should be built – maybe 4. An express train with this many stops is no longer much of an express train. With four extra stops, the 4/5 would have about the same stop spacing in Manhattan as two-track lines in most other major cities.

      The reason 59th works is that it doesn’t slow the 4/5 too much; the stop spacing it gives the 4/5 is fine for an express.

      If it were possible to easily add stops to the CPW racetrack, I’d put an extra express stop at 86th to connect to the M86, or maybe 81st to connect to the M79.

      • Jerrold says:

        Yes, IT IS strange that the CPW line was built with the expresses making that huge jump from 59th St. to 125th St.

        • Alon Levy says:

          Chalk it up to the IND trying to invent new things and miserably failing.

          • Jerrold says:

            I’m not clear on what you mean.
            What were they trying to “invent”?

            Or do you just mean they were inventing the idea of making express stops VERY far apart?

            • Alon Levy says:

              They were inventing multiple things:

              1. Commuter-style express stops, spaced very tightly in the CBD and the outer ends of the lines but very widely in-between.

              2. A rigid separation into uptown and downtown trains, leading the station at 53rd/7th to have the wrong cross-platform transfers.

              3. A rigid separation into in-island local service (AA, GG) and inter-island express service (A, E, F).

              4. Flying junctions, leading to cost blowouts that doomed the Second System.

              5. Lack of connectivity to IRT and BMT destinations, no matter how important.

          • BrooklynBus says:

            I don’t see how that was a bad idea. Speeds travel from Upper Manhattan and the Bronx to Midtown. Isn’t that the purpose of an express after all?

      • Andrew says:

        Number 4 is an intriguing one. It might not even be massively expensive, since I don’t think it would require moving tracks (as the other four would). And it would open up some interesting transfer opportunities.

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