The view from inside the Second Ave. Subway

By · Published in 2011

Toward 63rd Street (Photo by Benjamin Kabak)

Six hours ago, I found myself standing where few civilians have been. I am approximately 55 feet underneath Second Ave. between 91st and 92nd Streets, and I am standing inside a wet, dark, round tunnel. An industrial-sized air vent hangs above me while a set of rudimentary train tracks stretch southward as far as the eye can see. In five and a half years, the Q train, bound for Brooklyn via Second Ave. and Broadway, will rumble past that spot, but right now, it is the largest construction site in New York City.

Eleven months ago, the MTA readied the Second Ave. Subway launch box for a ceremonial start. The tunnel boring machine was set to launch, and the press and politicians gathered amidst as much pomp and circumstance as one can lend to the city’s largest ongoing public works project. I had the opportunity to attend that launch and posted the photos back in May.

Earlier today, in a far less ceremonial fashion, the MTA graciously brought a bunch of photographers and reporters down into the launch box to show the progress so far. Even as the MTA’s capital budget remains stretched to the max with a $10 billion hole, work underneath Second Ave. is proceeding at a rapid clip. The western tunnel is dug out all the way to 65th St., and the tunnel boring machine is a few hundred feet into the eastern tube. It might take another five years to finish, and the drama aboveground over station entrances and cleaner construction sites continue. There will, though, be a subway underneath a part of Second Ave. in the foreseeable future.

To get into the launch box requires a long walk down a staircase draped in scaffolding, and the first thing you notice is how truly deep the cavern is. The floor of the launch box, which will one day host the track bed and 96th St. station for the Second Ave. Subway, is around 60 feet down. While the station itself will be at around 50 feet deep, that’s more of a hike that most New York City subway riders are used to today. The next thing you notice is how wet it is. There’s water and mud everywhere, and one of the construction crews told me the wetness is natural. It’s all from the water table, and it’s all moisture that will have to be insulated so it doesn’t seep through station and tunnel walls.

Once inside, you can see just how much of a construction site it is. Heavy machinery that wouldn’t look out of place above ground sits dwarfed by the immensity of the launch box. While my photos — and these links all head to them on Flickr — look as though the launch box is well lit, it’s dark, foreboding and dirty. Sandhogs scurry about, and the subway is on its way.

I’ve embedded the slideshow at the bottom of this post, but I wanted to highlight a few photos I enjoyed: While we were underground, a crane lowered a portable toilet into the launch box. We spotted a microwave at the entrance to the western tunnel. Construction officials told us it takes around 70 minutes to walk from the launch box to the end of the tunnel at 65th St. due to the wetness and mud, and so the crews need their sustenance. The water, as you can see, is literally pouring out of the walls.

Dangling from the roof of the launch box are a series of wooden boxes. These boxes are holding the platforms that are underneath street-level manhole covers. This is infrastructure turned inside out. Above ground, federal safety regulations make sure everyone who enters the launch box is accounted for while inside the tunnel itself, it’s very dark.

After the jump, a full set of photos from the tour.

29 Responses to “The view from inside the Second Ave. Subway”

  1. Dave Gershman says:


  2. Cyrus says:

    So cool. Can’t wait for it to open!

  3. David says:

    Excellent photos, Benjamin!
    Some of these photos should go on Wikipedia for their subway page. It’s rare to see such informative construction photographs.

  4. Joel Goldstick says:

    Its cool, unless like me, you live near second avenue on the Upper east side!

  5. pete says:

    Because its 10 stories underground, it will be faster to walk than to take the subway.

    • That’s pretty much categorically untrue.

    • William M says:

      The Second Avenue Subway is not 10 stories underground. Where, or who gave you that stupid information.

      • Bolwerk says:

        How many is it (typically) anyway? About 4?

        Obviously it will still be a very useful piece of infrastructure, but the depth is a little silly. Not a show-stopper, but silly.

        • John-2 says:

          It’s usually 1-2 levels underground on the cut-and-cover lines, and works it’s way up (or down, if you prefer) from there, depending on closeness to river crossings or in upper Manhattan, on the topography.

  6. Terratalk says:

    Great photos … but the “series of wooden boxes” link is broken … Pls fix?

    • Fixed it. Sorry about that.

    • Ted K. says:

      The water, as you can see, is literally series of wooden boxes.

      The water, as you can see, is literally pouring out of the walls (see link below). Dangling from the roof of the launch box are a series of wooden boxes.
      “Dripping Water” (Flickr photo)

      NB – This blog’s commenting software seems to be quirky when it comes to links. If the link above 404’s trim off the ‘percent’ed (e.g. %20…) crud after the last slash.

  7. Eric F. says:

    Great photos, Ben!

  8. Al D says:

    Wait, something is terribly wrong! The Q will never fit on those narrow rails! Call the IG! We need an investigation! Heads will roll! (if only it were still April 1st!)

  9. Scott Mercer says:

    Now New York is getting the idea of modern subway construction. Every subway station we have in Los Angeles is like this: giant station vault with 30 foot tall roof, circular bored tunnels. I admit, the original IRT lines which are literally just under the street down a staircase of about 15 feet (is that right? I’m just going from memory) are much more convenient. But with modern regulations, ADA, etc. etc. you can’t do that no mo.

    I notice the tunnel bores are going through what looks like solid rock. It’s like you’re carving out Mount Rushmore down there. Here is Los Angeles, they were boring through soft sand most of the time…except for the part that goes under the Santa Monica Mountains (between Hollywood/Highland and Universal City stations on the Red Line), which was also pretty much through solid rock.

    Great pix! Haven’t been to NYC since about 2004, but I look forward to checking out the 2nd Ave subway someday!

  10. Al D says:

    This is probably way too optimistic and prospective, but would it make sense to use this launch box to build the northernmost section of SAS, too? Or is the launch box going to become 96th St station?

  11. Ricky A. says:

    Now if they’ll only patch in a station at 63rd and First-York Avs, there’ll be decent access from Queens to NY Hosp and the rest of Bed Pan Alley. It’s the same with the missing 10th Av-42nd St stop on the 7 extension. To do all that digging and leave out the essential stops is pound foolish.

    • It would be great to have a stop there, but it’s not on the way. You could propose adding it along the 63rd St. Tunnel route, but the station would have be dug too deep if it’s even feasible to stick a stop that close to the river.

      • Bruce says:

        As far as the depth, I don’t believe the tunnel at 1st Avenue is any deeper than at Lexington. In fact, it appears trains entering the Lexington Ave. station from Queens actually come down a slight descent. But alas, it will never be. In any event, the only benefit East Siders in the 60’s will get from the 2nd Avenue Subway is when they open up the 3rd Avenue entrance to the Lexington Avenue station; at least it’s one less block to walk.

      • Hank says:

        I agree it would have to be along that 63rd st. tunnel route but it would have to be at 1st. to be rationalized with the 3rd & 63rd station entrance. While technically feasible, is the F really that convenient for people coming in from Queens?

  12. Cameron says:

    Wow, this is amazing. I can’t wait till this becomes a reality and we’ll be riding the Q in this tunnel. I so wish that this would have an express track like it should have but something is better than nothing and I am grateful that construction is happening at all under 2nd Ave. Thanks Benjamin!!!

  13. Cameron says:

    Will the MTA build or did they already build a little bit of a tunnel to say 61st and 2nd Ave just to prepare for building that part of the tunnel under 2nd Ave or is it just to 63rd and Lex?

  14. Spendmore Wastemore says:

    Great reporting, this is the sort of thing that keep people checking in to this blog.

    Of course it would be better if they’d at least left room for a 3rd tube, but this *is* the USA.
    We can’t expect to keep up with rich countries such as, mmm, China.

    • Alon Levy says:

      All Chinese subways are two-tracked. When you use TBMs, building a four-track line costs almost as much as building two two-track lines, which would have the same capacity and better coverage. The reason New York has many four-track lines is that its subway was dug by hand, under wide streets; when you use cut-and-cover under a wide street, four tracks barely cost more than two.

  15. Alon Levy says:

    Those photos remind me of urban exploration of abandoned factories and such, except this piece of infrastructure is in the future rather than in the past. Great work, Ben.


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