Home Subway History Was the L train considered for elimination?

Was the L train considered for elimination?

by Benjamin Kabak

The New York Post had one of the more infuriatingly tantalizing two-paragraph articles you’ll ever see about the subway today. The story is here, and this is the entire thing:

Every hipster’s favorite subway line — the perennially packed L train — was almost completely shuttered 25 years ago because barely anyone was using it, MTA Chairman Joseph Lhota revealed yesterday.

Now that line — serving once- desolate but now trendy Williamsburg — is one of the fastest-growing in the system.

With a nary a hint of history, The Post drops a bombshell. The MTA may have considered eliminating the L during its nadir. Could it be true? Would the authority sever a cross-borough connection that now is packed morning, noon and night, seven days a week? Some brief Google searches didn’t turn up any history, and this story piqued my interest.

I initially reached out to the MTA for initial comment, and while they’re working on it, they didn’t seem optimistic that too much would turn up. I queried SubChat as well, and those responses were equally as vague. One SubChatter noted a rumor that the TA may have considered shutting down the G, and another noted that a proposal to shutter the L could have been a part of the so-called “planned shrinkage” movement from the late 1970s when the city was literally burning down.

But what of The Post’s claims themselves? One SubChatter disputed the notion that the L was “barely used” and recalled the era of the 1980s when the train was full during rush hour commutes. Perhaps the J/M trains were to be axed instead? Another though remembered a time in the 1960s when the BMT Canarsie line was not a popular route.

There is, it seems, some truth to the fact that the L was not a popular line for a while. Mike Frumin, who used historic ridership data to chart station popularity, noted in 2009 how L train traffic tanked for decades and only recently has enjoyed a relatively strong upswing. At its low point in the late 1970s, only 1.2 million annually — or around 3000 per day — used the Bedford Ave. stop. That figure spiked to nearly 7 million in 2010 with average weekday ridership up to 21,000.

All told, considering the financial and ridership problems that plagued the MTA as well as the social and political situations in New York City at the time, it makes sense that the authority could have considered shutting subway lines. That was, after all, the time of the infamous Ford to City: Drop Dead Daily News cover. Still, without the L train or the J/M/Z or even the G train, areas in Queens and Northern Brooklyn that are enjoying growth today would be entirely lost. Shutting full subway arteries isn’t something that should be considered as an option, no matter how bad a temporary financial situation lasts.

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Noah Kazis February 24, 2012 - 4:21 pm

I can’t speak to the history of it, but Lhota has mentioned this in the same January speech in which he said that the MTA needed new revenues. If you’re still investigating, that at least shows that the Post is correctly quoting Lhota.

Marc Shepherd February 24, 2012 - 5:02 pm

I am sure that there is some truth to the statement that shuttering the L was considered. But we don’t know how seriously, and probably never will.

In a large organization, a lot of ideas are proposed but never implemented. This could have been something tossed out by a low-level staffer, investigated for a little while, and then shelved as impractical.

Jerrold February 24, 2012 - 5:27 pm

Since not everybody here is a middle-aged native New Yorker like me, let me tell you about some of the lines that WERE actually shut down in those days. The #8 line in The Bronx (The elevated IRT Third Ave. line that had survived when Manhattan’s Third Ave. El was demolished.) PART of the BMT Jamaica Line (which used to continue until a 168th St. station.) The Culver Shuttle in Brooklyn (which ran a few stops, connecting the Culver Line to the West End Line.) In the last few decades, I think more subways sations have disappeared than have been created.

Frank B. February 24, 2012 - 9:21 pm

Don’t forget the full BMT Myrtle Avenue line, which used to run all the way to Downtown Brooklyn!

God, it takes so long to drive along Myrtle Avenue; there’s so much traffic. Why did they think ripping down els was a good idea? To provide more sunlight to the street? They could have just closed part of the line, and left the ROW in place, even if it was an unsightly el; They left most of the Rockaway line in place, and now it may be used again, God willing.

pea-jay February 24, 2012 - 11:44 pm

Weren’t some of those redundant or anticipated to be replaced by future improvements.

After the culver line was attached to the IND, the shuttle services was kinda redundant
The Archer Ave line somewhat replaced most of the Jamaica line torn down and with better service too

If I remember correctly earlier planning efforts sought to replace the Third Ave #8 service with some sort of subway service along the Metro north ROW. That of course didn’t happen along with most of the rest of the promises relating to that elevated line

As for the Myrtle yeah that was a loss just like the even earlier Lexington Ave El just to the east. I wonder if there was any real thought of connecting it to one of the downtown Brooklyn subway lines after it lost its bridge connection to Manhattan or was the City/MTA content to let it atrophy to the point it could shutter it

Alon Levy February 25, 2012 - 5:11 am

If I remember correctly from reading nycsubway.org, there were never any plans for subway service along Third Avenue in the 1970s. The plan was always to replace the el with a limited-stop bus.

Bolwerk February 25, 2012 - 11:29 am

I’d have to check, but perhaps some of the reasoning was the Myrtle Ave. Line didn’t have the structural integrity, on top of not having the ridership. At the very least, it was still using the same wooden cars it was using in the World War I era IIRC.

Still, tou have to question the judgment of people who think keeping els is a bad idea but stuffing the poor into superblock housing projects was a good idea. Much of that area, particularly east of Bedford Avenue, looks like shit now.

Jerrold February 24, 2012 - 5:31 pm

P.S. I tried to compose that message in a “tabular” form, easier to read. But it went up as one big paragraph anyway. Has anybody else noticed how that happens? I don’t know if the problem is with MY computer, or with Ben’s.

Bolwerk February 24, 2012 - 5:57 pm

It may be more a feature than a problem. WordPress strips some HTML, presumably for security-related reasons.

Jerrold February 24, 2012 - 6:10 pm

That’s interesting. But coming to think of it, this started happening only recently. Do you know if WordPress is a program that Ben started using very recently?

Bolwerk February 24, 2012 - 6:31 pm

WordPress is the software that is the entire foundation for writing and administering this and many other blogs. Presumably, he’s been using it for years at the very least. It’s a pretty impressive piece of software, but it doesn’t tend to change very much. If you scroll down to the bottom of your a page on this blog, you will see “Powered by WordPress.”

I’m pretty sure it will strip any tabular formatting. This includes tabs and tags like <table>, <tr>, <td>, etc.. I’m not sure which you tried. I haven’t used WP very much in a while, but maybe Ben could enable it so it allows the preformatted text tag (<pre>).

The closest thing I could think to allowing something approximating tabulation otherwise might be to use a lot of blank space HTML character codes, (&nbsp;), but that can get pretty tedious.

Peter February 24, 2012 - 5:47 pm

No mystery here! The L train is eliminated every weekend pretty much.

Jerrold February 24, 2012 - 7:55 pm

The kind of tabulating that I tried to do was simply to begin a new line with each “item”, instead of letting the whole post be one big paragraph. For instance, in my first post above, a new horizontal line would have started with the words “The #8”. Then, a new horizontal line would have started with the words “The BMT Jamaica”. Then, a new line would have started with “The Culver Shuttle”. Likewise with “In the last few”. BY the way, if I try do to that by hitting “Enter”, either the half-completed message gets posted, or it just vanishes altogether. BEN, are you reading this? What do YOU think is causing the problem?

Frank Brander February 24, 2012 - 9:04 pm

The line is the BMT Canarsie Line not IND.

Frank B. February 24, 2012 - 9:17 pm

That’s right, other Frank. At first, I thought he was making a sly reference to the original K train, (that used the IND Chrystie Street Connection which opened in the 60’s), but then I realized that used the BMT Jamaica line, not the BMT Canarsie line.

It’s BMT, Ben. The only way the Canarsie Line could use IND trackage is if it were routed over the BMT Jamaica line, and up 6th avenue, something unlikely to ever happen.

Spendmore Wastemore February 25, 2012 - 7:59 pm

This may seem uninformed, but what is the difference between BMT and IND?

I’m aware that there are 2 tunnel/car widths in the subway, so that it’s not possible to run the lettered cars on the numbered lines. Can’t any of the lettered cars run, at least for maintenance moves, on any lettered line?

R. Graham February 25, 2012 - 9:32 pm

Almost but not quite to the fullest extent of what some may think. The IRT (numbered) and BMT (Division B-1 Lettered) were the original competing subway lines in the city. Take for instance the Nassau line downtown. Some of those curves could only handle 60 feet length cars as where the IND (Division B-2 Lettered) ushered in the days of the 75 feet subway car when put together are not able to handle those extreme turns on the Nassau line nor can you adjust a set to run minus a car to run on a Canarsie line.

Alon Levy February 27, 2012 - 2:04 am

To add to what R. Graham said: the IRT was the operator of the first subway, and chose a loading gauge compatible with that of the els. Then the city built out the rapid transit system in the Dual Contracts, with both the IRT and the BMT. The BMT chose wider trains to run on lines connected to the subway, while keeping the narrower clearances and tighter curves on the unimproved els; the Dual Contracts-era IRT lines were built to the higher standards, but have to run narrower trains because they all use narrow-clearance legacy infrastructure (the first subway for the 1-6, and the Steinway Tunnels for the 7).

The IND was a city-owned scheme to run its own subway trains, built in the late 1920s and 30s; these are roughly the A-G, the other letters being BMT. It’s technologically compatible with the BMT, so there are connections – the B, D, and much of the F run on BMT tracks in Brooklyn, while the R runs on the IND in Queens. However, it was built in competition with the IRT and BMT and most of it replaced els rather than added service, so it doesn’t work well with the IRT and BMT as a system – that’s why there’s no connection between the A/C/F/G and Atlantic/Pacific, or between Queens Plaza and Queensboro Plaza.

The IND was also astoundingly expensive, because it was overbuilt, with flying junctions everywhere. Sixth Avenue Subway, built under the el and next to what is now PATH, was especially expensive, and the cost overruns doomed expansion plans, including SAS.

Evan February 27, 2012 - 5:18 pm

Wait, how are flying junctions a disadvantage cost-wise? I thought those helped the IND be much more flexible and efficient.

Someone February 5, 2013 - 2:24 pm

There have to be 2 levels of tracks as opposed to one level.

Subutay Musluoglu February 25, 2012 - 7:00 am

This native New Yorker does not recall discussion of an L train closure. However, the Franklin Avenue Shuttle was in serious contention for a shutdown in the 1970s and 1980s. Serious SOGR issues and falling ridership were cited as justification, and it took some time for the MTA to realize that the line was caught in a simple, yet vicious cycle – as the line’s SOGR needs and speed restrictions slowed down service, less and less people rode it. The social and economic conditions of the neighborhoods through which the Shuttle traversed did not help the situation. Only after mounting pressure from local residents and Brooklyn elected officials did the MTA invest in the line, including an improved transfer at Fulton Street, and a new transfer at Eastern Parkway-Botanic Garden. Once the work was complete, ridership rebounded. It’s difficult to envision the absence of the Franklin Avenue Shuttle from the subway map today.

I recall some talk of a Dyre Avenue Line shutdown as well. Not sure how far that advanced.

As a way to save the system, some transit advocates discussed shuttering dozens of individual underutilized stations throughout the city, on the West End, Sea Beach, and Dyre Avenue Lines, and at the extreme ends of the New Lots, Rockaway, and Canarsie Lines. This was seen as a way to reduce capital needs and strengthen ridership at the remaining adjacent stations, yielding the benefit of faster service. This concept later involved into Regional Plan Association schemes for system reconfiguration, such as relocating elevated lines into adjacent existing railroad ROW. Of course as we can now plainly see, once the capital investments were made, accompanied by an improved city ecomony and changing demographics, ridership bounced back at almost all of those stations.

Bolwerk February 25, 2012 - 12:58 pm

I’m surprised the bus acolytes aren’t demanding BRT on that ROW.

It’s good that the Franklin Avenue Line was preserved. It may not be especially important anymore, but it is beautiful.

Larry Littlefield February 25, 2012 - 3:14 pm

There was a discussion of shutting down the Jamiaca (JMZ) line, not the L.

The signals and infrastructure on that line were so old that service was near collapse. The Williamsburg Bridge was also near collapse, and the JMZ were shut down over the bridge for safety reasons. There was uncertainty whether rebuilding was worth it, but the decision was made to go ahead.

One project replaced the signals on the Jamaica line from Chauncey St. to Alabama Avenue. It finished in 1987. A second did the replacement from there to the bridge, and on the Myrtle Avenue line. It finished in 1995. Note that planning for these projects probably started at least five years before.

There was also a point, I believe, that emergency exhaust fans for the 14th Street tunnel were only partially operational, so only one train at a time was allowed through the tunnels.

Bruce M February 25, 2012 - 4:52 pm

Speaking of middle-aged New Yorkers, I can vividly recall a big article in the NY Times in the early 80’s (I was in high school) about declining ridership, worsening MTA finances, etc. etc. which prompted the MTA to seriously consider closures of entire lines. This article included a map, and I recall even the #4 train in the Bronx was on the chopping block due to its close proximity to the IND Concourse line.
In those days, crime on the subway was rampant, the trains were covered in grafitti, derailments were a weekly occurence, and there didn’t seem to be any hope in sight for a turnaround. This was true for the entire city–the subway was the most obvious manifestation of the urban decay of the day. Ever see the movie “The Warriors”? It was not so far-fetched! Or Charles Bronson in “Death Wish”, which was kind of laughable in that any filming that took place in the subway back then could only be done on a clean grafitti-free train!
Nobody back then would ever have predicted the renaissance of New York City that started during the Giuliani administration.

Larry Littlefield February 27, 2012 - 8:27 am

Yes I’ve seen the Warriors, and no it was not so far fetched.

But the turnaround of the subway system started in the early 1980s, after inflation cut away at the massive Lindsay debts and Lindsay pensions and at least a little money could go to actual services.

We’ve redone the debts and many of the pension increases (though not 20/50 for the TWU -yet). But this generation of young people is not nearly as criminal as Generation Greed. You see it in every statistic.

Mayer Horn February 25, 2012 - 8:34 pm

I asked a friend about “Was the L train considered for elimination?” and got the following response:

25 years ago (1987) I was in charge of Operations Planning and there was no talk of shuttering 14th St/Canarsie, or of the G (there was of the Franklin shuttle, which I vociferously objected to.)

There was talk, serious talk, of converting the line to K/L skip stop. That would have done away with the L as we know it, and the K/L story could have morphed into the Post story.

And you can quote me this time.

Someone February 8, 2013 - 8:35 am

Yeah, I heard.

Someone February 5, 2013 - 2:24 pm

That’s bad.

david rios April 2, 2015 - 7:45 am

I was around for late 70’s and early 80’s and i wasn’t into the history or anything to do with landmarks but i remember L train or LL at one time called to be dangerousomg i can remember


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