The original interior of the Subway of Tomorrow. Bugs Bunny however is nowhere in sight. (Courtesy of the Transit Museum Archives/New York Times)
The New York Times is reading my e-mail. That’s the only way I can explain the appearance of this article on the original prototype cars for the 1940s iteration of the Second Ave. subway line.
Here’s my backstory: Every day, the MTA, on its Website, features a classic photo on their “MTA in Pictures” feature. Last Sunday, the picture was a glimpse of the R11 car parked at the Transit Museum. I e-mailed myself that photo and a link to NYCsubway.org page on the R11 for a future post. So much to my dismay, I opened my Saturday Times to find that William Neuman beat me to the punch.
Well, I’m on to you, William Neuman. Stop reading my e-mails! Personal grudges aside, the story in The Times is pretty interesting. The story tells the tale of 10 cars designated R11 that were commissioned as prototypes in 1949 when the New York Board of Transportation believed the Second Ave. subway would soon be a reality.
Robert Moses would have none of that whole mass transit planning, and the money disappeared before the line could be built. The city meanwhile had to deal with 10 subway cars not designed with flexibility in mind. Neuman notes:
The cars cost about $100,000 each, and together the 10 prototypes became known as the “million dollar train.” They were not built to be compatible with other cars, though, so they could not be added to most other trains. Without a line to belong to, they remained an oddity. Orphans, they kicked around the subway system, running on a few scattered lines (the Canarsie line, the Franklin Avenue shuttle) until they were retired in 1976.
Interestingly, the R11 cars were built and marketed as the Subway of Tomorrow. They featured new innovations such as flourescent lighting and a stainless steel exterior. The plaque at the Transit Museum also tells us about some of the time-sensitive aspects of the R11 cars.
A description posted at the museum says that because polio was a concern in the 1940s, officials were looking for a way to curb the spread of germs in the subway. Earlier subway cars had conventional fans mounted on the ceiling. The designers of the R11 developed a forced air system that brought in air from the outside, ran it through “electrostatic dust filters” and under ultraviolet lamps intended to kill germs, before blowing it through ceiling vents into the cars.
As with all of the other old train cars parked at the Court St. subway station — once itself a possible destination for the Second Ave. subway — the R11 car passing the time there is a fascinating glimpse into an era that doesn’t exist and never existed. Had the Second Ave. subway found life in the 1950s as was once planned, the R11s would still be out of service by now. Yet, today in 2007, we can still look forward to train cars from the future to arrive on Second Ave. when the line is complete.
Of course, now we know what those trains look like. They’re bright with stainless steel exteriors. They feature mechanized voices yelling at you to “Stand clear of the closing doors please.” And they’re air conditioned. It’s more fun though to imagine the future that never was on the Second Ave. subway line that wasn’t.