Over the next few hours, hundreds of thousands of people will flock to airports around the country. Some will take buses and taxis while others take subways and commuter rails. Many will rely on monorails to navigate through terminals, and others will have a short walk to the gate all in a mad dash to get somewhere before Thanksgiving.
It is, then, fitting that Michael Grynbaum started the day on The Times’ City Room blog with a paean to the Train to the Plane. For New Yorkers old enough to remember the 12-year subway experiment, the Train to the Plane was a three-car subway that made seven stops in Manhattan — three in midtown along the 6th Ave. line with a switch to the 8th Ave. line south of W. 4th St. — and one at Jay st. in Brooklyn before going express to Howard Beach. In the days before the JFK AirTrain, airport-bound passengers then had to take a shuttle bus to the terminals.
The fares for an express bus with luggage racks and on-board officers weren’t cheap. The ride, as Grynbaum, relates, cost $3.50 in 1978 (or $11.60 in 2009 dollars) and rose to $6.75 by the time service was discontinued in 1990. The train remains part of subway lore though, and Grynbaum tells more of the story:
After a year, the train was handling about 2,000 rides a day, or 12 percent of all trips to J.F.K. from Manhattan. Gas shortages and two strikes on the city’s bus lines helped attract interest — not to mention the infectious theme song, composed by Charles Morrow, a celebrated jingle writer and one-time collaborator with Simon & Garfunkel.
But there was backlash. The train ended before the actual airport, so passengers had to switch to a bus. “Internally, we used to call it ‘take the train to the bus to the plane,’ ” said Trudy L. Mason, who helped oversee the express train service at the transportation authority.
And everyday subway-goers had to be reminded not to step onto the specially marked express trains, which loaded at the regular subway platforms. “One erring passenger did find his way aboard,” a reporter for The Times noted in May 1979. “When the conductor tried to collect the $3 fare, the man apparently thought he was being shaken down and refused to pay.”
The trains, graffiti-free and patrolled by a police officer, were the cleanest in the system, which some riders seemed to resent. “These brand new air-conditioned J.F.K. trains pull into stations with horns blaring,” Joseph J. Filippone of South Ozone Park, Queens, wrote to The Times on July 18, 1979. “They go gliding by, almost always at least three-quarters empty, while thousands of commuters are resigned to stuff themselves into already overcrowded, hot and dirty trains.”
By June 1980, The Times was already wondering: “JFK Train: Wasteful or Wonderful?” The train was running a $2.5 million annual deficit, and officials began discussing an early demise.
As passengers eventually realized that they could reach JFK by taking a slightly longer trip but paying just the regular fare by riding the A train, the Train to Plane fell to the wayside. Every few years, City officials begin a push for a true raillink, a dedicated track that would connect Lower Manhattan to the JFK Airport. We missed an opportunity to build one out to then-Idlewild when Robert Moses built his highways, and due to an estimated cost of nearly $10 billion, we saw a recent effort die in spite of a guaranteed $2 billion federal grant.
And so we remember jingles and long-gone express trains. As many travel for the holidays, we take moderns trains to modern monorails to over-capacity airports. One day, our Train to the Plane may come, but it won’t arrive any time soon.