Home View from Underground The many colors and destinations of the B train

The many colors and destinations of the B train

by Benjamin Kabak


A rollsign from years gone by recently on display on the B train. (Photo by Benjamin Kabak)

I took the picture atop this post on Dec. 8, 2009. It was shortly after 2:15 when one of the last remaining R32s to make the B run pulled into Broadway/Lafayette, and the car I boarded was just flat-out wrong. As is evident from the picture, the B, normally running down the Sixth Ave. line and then the Brighton line out to Brighton Beach, was confused. It seemed to think it was running the BMT Broadway/West End Line, and while most passengers hesitated to board the train, most seemed content to ignore this anomalous rollsign.

For the B train, errant rollsigns are not an occurrence all that rare. Due to the Manhattan Bridge construction that spanned three decades and lasted nearly twenty years, the B train has been rerouted more frequently than any train, and for significant chunks of the 1990s, two different B trains — one orange and one yellow — ran various routes in Manhattan and Brooklyn. In fact, a few months before boarding the confused B, I saw another slightly less lost B train:

So why the divergent history? The tale lies in the MTA’s need to adequately serve Brooklyn and in the need to shore up support for the Manhattan Bridge. Because the subways lines are on the outside lanes of the bridge, the joints on the bridge were severely stressed for decades, and by the mid-1980s, trains could only crawl across the bridge for fear of structural damage. Facing a disaster, the city and MTA finally began work on a decades-long project to steady the bridge. It would prove quite disruptive to subway travel and did not wrap until 2004.

To accomplish its task, the MTA had to close various sides of the bridge for long stretches of time. Today, the B and D trains run along the northern tracks on the bridge to Grand St. and up the Sixth Ave. IND line. The Q and N take the southern crossing and enter Manhattan at Canal St. before heading north along the BMT Broadway line. But that is a creation of the last six years. How then did service used to look and why are these rollsigns as they are?

Well, when the northern tracks were closed, the B train ran in two segments. One trip took riders from 168th St. in Manhattan — now a C train stop — to 34th St./Herald Square along the IND routes under Central Park West and Sixth Ave. That was the orange-and-white section. The other part of the trip started at either 21st St./Queensbridge in Queens or 57th St. and Broadway in Manhattan and carried the B over the southern Manhattan Bridge tracks. The train would travel along the West End line and terminate in Coney Island as the D does today.

When the southern tracks were closed, the B would invariable run via the 6th Ave. line, across the bridge and to Coney Island. At times, the B was truncated and saved as a Brooklyn shuttle between Atlantic Ave./Pacific St. and Coney Island. Sometimes, it would run weekedays-only, and sometimes, just in Manhattan. The fact that the B has had a stable route for the last six years and counting is a modern creation.

When the Bridge reopened for good in 2004, Transit had to address changing conditions underground and changing travel patterns. In 1986, when the Bridge closed, people were generally not too keen on riding the subway, and no one wanted to go to Union Square or Times Square, major destinations of the BMT Broadway line. So when faced with the chance to run trains that could spur to either route, the MTA polled riders and found a preference for the Broadway route that hadn’t existed 18 years earlier. As The Times detailed then, the routes were adjusted and for a few weeks, confused reigned.

Today, we know the B as the Brighton Express. It’s an orange-and-white bulleted train that runs only during weekdays and not at all during the overnights. It’s a speedy ride into Manhattan, and it’s the train I take more than any other these days. Today, it’s a very stable ride, but now and then, when someone sets an improper rollsign, the B can still remind of construction from years past.

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Andrew February 12, 2010 - 7:48 am

The Manhattan Bridge is owned and maintained by the City of New York. The MTA had little to do with the bridge repairs, aside from having to get its trains out of the way.

In the first iteration of north side bridge closures in the late 80’s, the yellow B ran to Astoria. In the second iteration in the early 00’s, the same service was called the W. When the bridge reopened in 2004, NYCT took advantage of the loss of Brooklyn B and D service three years earlier to implement a service pattern that matches up the part-time service at the south end to the part-time service at the north end – hence the B on the Brighton express.

During south side bridge closures, the only stable piece of the B, running 24/7, was the West End portion. At night, it ran as a shuttle. On weekends, it generally ran to Queensbridge (since the regular service there was the Q, and that only ran on weekdays). On weekdays, it generally ran up Central Park West, either to 168th Street or, after the B and C swapped north terminals in 1998, to 145th Street or Bedford Park Blvd.

In 1986, the Brighton line had access to both Broadway and 6th Avenue, as now, except that the Broadway service – the QB – only ran during rush hours. (Other times on weekdays, the only Brighton local was the M!) That’s a relic of the Chrystie Street Connection changes of 1967, which perhaps pushed the new connection to 6th Avenue a little too hard – I doubt the popularity of Times Square and Union Square had anything to do with it. The details of the 2004 changes were the result of extensive market research, not just a few surveys.

Currently, the B runs local in Brooklyn, just like the Q, except where stations are closed for rehab. The particular train of R32’s that you saw – which is still out there – was transferred to Coney Island Shop to mitigate the slightly longer trip that the B now has due to the station rehab program. It seems like it’s only used when nothing else is available, so you won’t see it every day, but I saw it a week or two ago in Manhattan.

And since the signs on the R32’s predate 2004, none of the many sign settings for the B include a reference to the Brighton. The only one that excludes the Brighton includes Washington Heights! So there’s no way to sign it perfectly. But I think most people who ride the B know where it goes, so it’s probably not a big deal.

Jerrold February 12, 2010 - 11:20 am

Are you sure that the B runs local on the Brighton Line?

I thought it ran express, and I checked it here:


Benjamin Kabak February 12, 2010 - 11:27 am

Right now, due to the ongoing Brighton line station rehabilitation work, the Q and the B are both running local. When the work is completed, the B will again serve as the Brighton express.

Sara Nordmann February 12, 2010 - 1:40 pm

The way this makes it seem, you’d think it was an open road underground. There must be many, many track switches underground for all of that to be possible. I guess the original planners of the system were more versatile than I thought.

Russell Warshay February 12, 2010 - 2:11 pm

Yeah, a lot of flexibility was built into certain parts of the system. If you’re really bored, you can check out track maps of the subway here.

CenSin February 12, 2010 - 8:38 pm

Most of this versatility came from the BMT. The IND simply gained all the benefits by connecting its Sixth Avenue line to the bridge.

Jerrold February 12, 2010 - 9:48 pm

I still think that, when the Manhattan Bridge work was finished, the service should have gone back to being seven days a week on a Brighton Line/Sixth Ave. line route.
After all, the West End continues up Sixth Ave. seven days a week.
(The transposing of the B and the D lines in Brooklyn is not the point here.)
They could have had the B line run local on the Brighton line on weekends, and then continue up Sixth Avenue, just like the old D train used to do before the Manhattan Bridge renovations got started, and the Q would only run weekdays.

Andrew February 14, 2010 - 8:58 pm

Why? If only one is available, I think Broadway generally is the more convenient route.

ferryboi February 14, 2010 - 11:19 am

What gets me is that the conductor/engineer doesn’t have the presence of mind to figure out what “B” train they are operating. Couldn’t they have spun the sign around a few more turns until they got to the “B – 6th Ave/Brighton” sign? It’s the same with many bus drivers. All they have to do is point their bus in the right direction and change the destination sign at the end of their run. I lost track of how many times, especially on the M104, the driver forgets to punch in those three digits and change the darn sign. Lazy and/or forgetful. Glad we’re paying these guys $60k a year.

Andrew February 14, 2010 - 9:03 pm

As I already said: “And since the signs on the R32’s predate 2004, none of the many sign settings for the B include a reference to the Brighton. The only one that excludes the Brighton includes Washington Heights! So there’s no way to sign it perfectly. But I think most people who ride the B know where it goes, so it’s probably not a big deal.”

The sign should probably have been set to an orange B rather than a yellow one – but each train has 20 signs that have to be rolled by hand, which is often simply impossible for a crew of two to do in the time allotted, so I think this is forgivable.

Why don’t you mention to your bus driver when the sign is set wrong? They usually appreciate it when I do. Or do you never forget a detail?


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