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.
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.