Home Subway History The tribulations of bringing AC to the subways

The tribulations of bringing AC to the subways

by Benjamin Kabak

With the bar exam a week away, I’m going to be running a few pieces from the Second Ave. Sagas archives over the next few days. With summer fully upon us and temperatures expected to reach the triple digits on Friday, now is as good a time as any to appreciate air conditioned subway cars. So allow me to present this piece from May of 2010.

The R-17, shown here in operation as the Shuttle in 1982, was the first subway car outfitted with air condition. (Photo via Steve Zabel/NYCSubway.org)

With the warm weather upon us, New York City has been growing increasingly hotter and more humid over the last few weeks. Thunderstorms are in store for us tonight, and temperatures are going up, up, up all week with the threat of a 100-degree day on Friday. Summer in New York — with free concerts, long days and, of course, baseball games — is my favorite season but for one thing: The subways are utterly unbearable.

The worst part of riding around New York City in the summer are the underground waits. With train cars spewing heat from industrial-strength air conditioners, the stations themselves see temperatures soar beyond tolerable levels. The stagnant air induces sweat at hours of the morning far too early for that kind of heat, and only the blessed air conditioning of the train cars makes a commute tolerable.

These days, we take our air conditioned subway cars for granted, but it wasn’t always like that. The MTA undertook its current air conditioning efforts in 1967, and the thought of a summer ride without AC lives on only in the memories of long-time New Yorkers. So as we sit on the cusp of summer and Transit turns on the AC, let’s hop in the Wayback Machine to a time when the New York City Transit Authority just couldn’t quite get air conditioning right.

Our journey begins in September of 1955, an odd time to test air conditioning as the heat is already dissipating by then. On a day that saw the outside temperature hit just 62 degrees, NYCTA ran a successful test of its first air conditioned subway car, an retrofitted R-15 car. As station temperatures hit 81 degrees and the mercury outside climbed to 87.5 in un-air conditioned cars, the test car saw temperatures fluctuate between 68 and 73 degrees. The authority proclaimed this one-day test a success, and plans to outfit the entire subway fleet at a cost of $700 per car were drawn up.

This optimism was short-lived. A year later, the NYCTA unveiled another test run of the air conditioned cars. Six R-17 cars equipped with loud speakers, air conditioned and in-route music provided, of course, by Muzak, made headlines as Transit officials again extolled the virtues of air conditioning. At the time, Transit planned to test these cars along various IRT routes but ran into early troubles.

The authority tried to test it on the Shuttle route, but the short trip did not provide for ample testing time. “The run between Times Square and Grand Central takes one minute,” wrote The Times, “apparently too brief a time to cool the hot subway air taken in during the stops of one and one-half to two minutes at the shuttle terminals.” Passengers complained as well of stale air and high humidity.

By 1962, the promise of air conditioning had failed to materialize, and the NYCTA declared the $300,000 experiment a failure. Even after the successful test runs, Transit found humidity levels well beyond acceptable. “As humidity built up and breathing became difficult,” The Times said in 1962, “passengers fled to the fan-ventilated cars…To add to passenger discomfort the cool air was dissipated when doors opened at stations, while the humidity remained unchanged.” While PATH announced air conditioning, NYCTA was left searching for solutions.

Five years later, the city struck air conditioning gold. After tinkering with the technology, Transit found a costly solution, and early test runs were again successful. This time, the humidity levels were kept in check, and railfans began to stalk the air conditioned cars, riding them along the F line from terminal to terminal to bask in the cool air. With a grant from the government and $15 million from the city, Transit finally promised to outfit its rolling stock with AC.

Even still, the going went slowly. By August of 1970, finding an air conditioned car was likened to finding a needle in a hay stack, and a 1973 proposal called for full air condition only by 1980. Throughout the 1980s, those struggles continued. At various points in the decade, air conditioning either didn’t work or was on the verge of breaking down. In 1983, while Transit officials alleged that 50 percent of cars were air conditioned, one rider found himself with AC during only 20 percent of his trips.

Today, with new rolling stock and a better maintenance program in place, the subways are blissfully air conditioned, a haven from the heat outside and in the station. I’m too young to remember those days of un-air conditioned trains, but I have vague recollections from the mid-to-late 1980s of stiflingly hot rides in graffiti-covered cars. Even if the new rolling stock can seem somewhat sterile at times, I’ll take that air conditioned as the mercury rises and summer descends upon us.

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Todd July 18, 2011 - 7:21 pm

I am so thankful for air-conditioned trains. I honestly don’t know if I could live in NYC without them.

MC July 18, 2011 - 7:22 pm

Could have used a quick copy edit, but thanks for the history!

Alon Levy July 18, 2011 - 8:12 pm

Good luck with the bar, Ben!

BrooklynBus July 18, 2011 - 8:36 pm

The caption under the picture is confusing until you read the entire article.

I remember the un-aircondioned days well. I remember being a kid riding the low Vs and being very hot wishing I was taller so I could be closer to the fans to feel the breeze. When that finally happened, the subways were not that bad. All the doors were opened between cars and with all the windows open and the fans running, there was a cool breeze keeping people comfortable.

The only times it got hot was when the cars came to a stop and the breeze stopped. One drawback was that the cars were extremely noisy, it was like you were on a propeller airplane. The problems came in the late 1970s when the fans weren’t being maintained. Still it was bearable because all the windows and doors were open.

The subways became unbearable in the mid and late 1970s when the air-conditioning started breaking down. The R-40s were the worst because of the small windows on top which were not designed for unairconditioned cars. I had to take them everyday for work when the temperature inside the cars reached 110 degrees. You arrived at work thorough drenched in need of a shower. It was just hell.

Some other interesting points. I didn’t realize that the air conditioning was tested so early because I remember when the TA was questioned about air-conditioning in the 1950s and 60s, their response was that the subways can never be air-conditioned because the stations are too close together for the cold air to remain inside the cars because the doors open so frequently, unlike the commuter rails where the stops are further apart.

After the BMT / IND was air-conditioned, and IRT riders started clamoring for it, the TA response was that the IRT can never be air-conditioned because the cars are too small. They kept repeating that until a reporter asked how come it was possible on PATH with smaller cars. Then they changed their tune.

I think functioning AC on the trains is the single most important improvement on the subways. The second most important improvement in my opinion is the conversion from incandescent to fluorescent lighting on the stations and mezzanines.

David July 18, 2011 - 8:43 pm

Air conditioned subway cars does make living in NYC much more blissful. The station platform heat (at most underground stations) can be unbearable.
Dare we consider glass sliding doors along the platform edges with the enclosed platforms then air conditioned? No more deadly accidents either. Yes the cost is huge, but at some point, people will realize the current situation is no more acceptable than non-air conditioned subway cars of not too many years back.

Kai B July 18, 2011 - 11:04 pm

This is a great (last?*) example of NYC leading in the world. I lived in Vienna in the late 1990s and early 2000s and still visit twice a year. Right now, finally, after a faulty prototype in 2000, about half the trains are a/c’d (the ones built after 2000 which have started to kick out the 1978-era non-a/c models). I’m going to London (no a/c due to tunnel limitations) and Vienna for three weeks starting Wednesday and get to experience this again! In Europe it’s still pretty common to have non-A/C in pre-2000ish transit sets.

*FIND is also pretty cool

capt subway July 19, 2011 - 12:21 am

Excuse me for playing the finger wagging know-it-all foamite. But R17s were never retrofitted with air conditioning. Only married pairs were retrofitted with AC.

Having been a Motorman on the IRT during that whole memorable period (70s into the 80s) I know this for a fact.

DavidDuck July 19, 2011 - 12:31 am

I’ve often wondered why push-button doors have never caught on here in the States. If you are at an outlying station it always seems crazy to open every door in every car at every station, and let all that heat pour in. Passengers pushing a button (or that funky handle gizmo in Paris) seems to work just fine in crowded European subways.

Andrew July 19, 2011 - 10:06 pm

Probably because they’re just one more maintenance item to worry about. (Or, rather, up to 160 per train – 40 doors per side, times two sides of the train, times two sides of the door.) At most stations, most of the doors would have to open anyway.

At terminals, where trains sit around for a while, only one door panel is usually opened in each car.

But I do enjoy the Paris funky handle gizmo!

capt subway July 20, 2011 - 9:04 am

But fewer open/close cycles on the doors would save maintenance on the doors themselves. It might be a wash or, perhaps, even a net savings. I suspect a net savings as I would suspect that, with such passenger operated buttons, you could reduce door open/close cycles by half.

John-2 July 19, 2011 - 12:46 am

If you could get a pretty empty car with the downward pointed axleflow fans going full blast on the R-16s through the R-36, you could tolerate the heat … if you were standing or sitting in just the right spot. But the ‘modified’ fan design that the TA used in the final 200 R-32 cars, the R-38s and the R-40s made summers totally unbearable, since instead of directing the air downward at the passengers they blew the air along the ceiling, creating soot stains radiating out from the fans and basically just blowing the hot air sideways along the top of the car. The difference between an ACed R-40 and an axelflow-equipped car in the summer was like night and day.

Also, a special mention should be made of the H&M K-cars and the PA-1s, which showed up in the late 1950s and mid-60s and embarrassed the TA for the better part of 20 years. Tthey showed that mass transit rail cars could be air conditioned, and then after the experimental R-38 units proved successful, still caused problems for the MTA, since the agency’s argument between 1968 and 1978 was that the IRT sized cars didn’t have enough room to install air-conditioning.

pete July 19, 2011 - 7:56 am

Montreal Metro, which broke ground in the 1960s. Has no AC to this day. The local MTA (STM) has a strict policy of no AC on Buses (yep, gotta tell the bus maker to take the AC off the bus) and on Heavy Rail.

TP July 19, 2011 - 9:17 am

It is quite remarkable and very French of them.

Aaron July 19, 2011 - 1:41 pm

Why removing A/C? Is that an attempt to save on fuel costs?

I’m underwhelmed with Montreal Metro – they also are the most wheelchair-inaccessible transit system in North America, with only a handful of Orange Line stations having wheelchair access, and they seem to not care. Even the few accessible stations (all but one of them at the distant edges of the system) have gaps apparently so large that all wheelchair users need to request ramps. I’d love to go to Montreal, but it’s hardly worth the grief that would be involved.

Al D July 19, 2011 - 8:34 am

In the 1980s, the problem was a double whammy. So not only did the a/c’s not work as noted in the article, but they threw HEAT as a result of not being properly charged. And in cars with just tiny little windows to keep open. So it was the worst of all worlds, and I would just ride in between the cars. It was always comfortable with a nice breeze. Can you imagine this sort of behaviour now?

Andrew D. Smith July 19, 2011 - 1:08 pm

Good luck on your exam, Ben.

Clint Guyon July 19, 2011 - 1:37 pm

I started riding the subways in 1971. It’s my uninformed opinion that the AC cars make the subway platforms hotter, actually. Why did the city have to install the ACs on the IRT Lex platforms at Grand Central? Did the platform temps in the air-conditioned-car 90s get dangerously hot?… or was this something on the books from decades earlier? I look forward to your learned replies, as I am old and foolish…

Andrew July 19, 2011 - 10:07 pm

They were a side benefit of the newly air conditioned terminal upstairs.

W. K. Lis July 19, 2011 - 4:15 pm

Montréal Metro cars are still not air-conditioned at this time. And it gets hot down in the bowels of the earth from friction of their pneumatic tires.

Alon Levy July 19, 2011 - 8:36 pm

The Paris train system isn’t air-conditioned, apart from Métro Line 14 and the bilevel cars of the RER A. In principle, Paris doesn’t have as harsh a summer as New York, so it should be fine. In practice, July temperatures routinely begin with a 3 and once in a while there’s a heat wave that kills a couple thousand people.

Bolwerk July 20, 2011 - 2:32 pm

I don’t think I’ve seen ACs in most of Germany either. IIRC, London has them on the trains.

Henry Man July 20, 2011 - 12:52 pm

Very good piece. I do recall that at GC-42, they have air coolers on the Lex. Is there any plan to expand that?


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