Home Subway History The tribulations of bringing AC to the subways

The tribulations of bringing AC to the subways

by Benjamin Kabak

As the dog days of summer dawn upon us, the subways are often viewed as the city’s oven, and newsstand operators store candies in the fridge. By and large, though, the subway cars are a cool reprieve from sweltering platforms. While newer rolling stock models have some AC quirks — it’s generally much cooler in the middle of the cars than it is at the ends underneath the air conditioner units — outside of the rare AC malfunction, the trains are kept temperate.

It wasn’t always like this. In the early days of the subways, ceiling fans shuffling around stifling air were the norms. While platforms weren’t as heated by AC exhaust as they are today, traveling underground in the summer was never a pleasant experience. A few years ago, I looked at the history of A.C. in the subway, and today, I want to revisit that post. After a weekend of hot and humid days, the air conditioned train car is something we shouldn’t take for granted.

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 at NYCSubway.org)

Over the weekend, as sticky weather and temperatures in the 90s descended upon the city, I enjoyed relatively good subway luck. I didn’t have to wait too long for most of my trains, but I found myself with a few minutes to kill at both 161st St. and West 4th St. on Saturday. The heat was oppressive, and while summer in the city is my favorite season, 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 settles in to stay for a few more months.

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Alex C August 5, 2012 - 11:43 pm

Modern subway problems: when the AC in an R142 is “not cool enough” and not a freezer.

R. Graham August 5, 2012 - 11:47 pm

The platform heat the air conditioning exhaust is creating has become a huge problem as average temperatures rise year after year.

This will be a true test of how well can this heat be contained when the Second Avenue Subway begins revenue services. Will exhaust ventilation shafts and platform doors make a true difference in the summer?

Alex C August 6, 2012 - 1:45 pm

I’ve been in the DC Metro (to be fair, I was maybe 9 at the time?) in the summer back in the 90s, and I can’t remember that being uncomfortable. I suppose if we look at what techniques the MTA will be using and compare them with other transit systems we might get an idea of what 2 Ave stations will feel like.

Jacob August 5, 2012 - 11:46 pm

This is really interesting. In Montreal, the Metro still has no A/C to this day. The STM, the agency in charge, is adamantly against bringing A/C to the trains, citing the heat that would be spewed onto platforms, the cost of implementing it, and the negative environmental impacts of doing so. Still, there has been a recent push to bring A/C to the Metro, including a campy promo video, modifying a 1970s promo video from “Il fait beau dans Metro” (~It’s nice on Metro) to “Il fait chaud dans Metro” (It’s hot on Metro). Interestingly, it seems that once A/C is implemented, there is no going back, since riders seem to love it.

Eric August 6, 2012 - 3:05 am

Montreal’s heat is mild compared to NY’s, no?

Jordan August 6, 2012 - 8:14 am

Over the years, the waste heat from the constant flexing undergone by rubber tyres has built up to a level that is quite uncomfortable. It’s not clear whether it’s reached equilibrium yet, but I doubt it as in London (which doesn’t have the “rubber tyre problem”) it’s getting hotter and hotter in the tubes more than a century after they opened.

Spendmore Wastemore August 6, 2012 - 10:33 am

You sure it’s built up year over year?

The heat dumped in is the total power used by the trainsets plus station power plus trivia for signals + lights. All of that power becomes heat.

So, if there’s more power going into the system, it’s going to get hotter. More frequent trains, heavier trains, more power in due to more braking would be the main causes. Heating the ground around the tunnels is certainly possibly, but I don’t see it taking 50 years to reach a balance.

Bolwerk August 6, 2012 - 8:42 am

Probably in frequency, but the extremes can be the same. Most of the major “eastern” Canadian cities we’d pay attention to (Toronto, Montreal, Ottawa) are inland on the Canadian shield, and don’t have the Atlantic Ocean moderating them like New York does.

AG August 6, 2012 - 5:19 pm

Never been to Montreal and Ottawa – but Toronto is definitely cooler. Sometimes even on an August night it gets quite cool.

Bolwerk August 7, 2012 - 12:35 am

They’re all probably typically cooler. But Toronto has been seeing record temperatures the past few years too.

Ottawa and Montreal aren’t even on one of the Great Lakes, so their temperature is probably even less moderate.

TP August 6, 2012 - 10:01 am

They have fans and air circulating though, which makes it a little more bearable. The stations in NYC are way more unbearably hot in the summer relative to the outside temperature. I was just up in Montreal in the beginning of July during a heat wave and the temperature is noticeably cooler in the stations than it is outside, unlike NYC where the stations are sweatboxes.

Really the MTA should just put more big fans in the stations. Only a couple have them. Keeping air circulating, and sending the hot air up and out of the station, is key.

Spendmore Wastemore August 6, 2012 - 10:35 am

Of course it’s less nasty in Canada. I doubt the Montreal stations are suffused with urine.

Alon Levy August 6, 2012 - 4:58 pm

I think there’s air conditioning here on Skytrain. In one of the world’s coolest-summer cities.

Stephen Smith August 6, 2012 - 1:44 am

I’d settle for some platform fans, at least at the busy stations with island platforms. The PATH stations have them, and it makes all the difference when you’re waiting 15 minutes for a train at night.

Larry Littlefield August 6, 2012 - 9:50 am

“I have vague recollections from the mid-to-late 1980s of stiflingly hot rides in graffiti-covered cars.”

My recollections of those days are more vivid than vague. Here is one aspect that you forgot — noise.

In order to get a breeze of 100 degree air instead of stifling in 120 degree air, windows were kept open in the summer. The loud sounds of the trains bounced off the tunnel walls back into the cars, and it was just deafening.

Back then in addition to cooler air, the big benefit of getting out of doors was the diminished noise as the sound dissipated outward. Unfortunately back then I was taking the #1 up to 231st in the Bronx from the World Trade Center, so there was no relief until Dykman Street.

Another aspect — constant crush loading. Ridership was lower than today, but not so much at rush hour, and trains broke down constantly. So in those stifling cars you were pressed against other passengers on all sides most days of the week, for 20 minutes at a time. Often in a jacket and tie, because this was pre-business casual.

I recall getting off the #1 at Chambers for an express ride, and then getting on the same #1 at 96th Street after a long wait. At least I could get out of the cars for a few minutes.

Bruce M August 8, 2012 - 2:26 am

And the storm doors on the ends of the cars were propped open too, which helped to make for a stronger breeze if you were riding on a fast express. Those radial fans behind the louvers also blew a pretty strong blast of (albeit warm) air.

John-2 August 6, 2012 - 12:14 pm

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.

It was even worse than that — Hudson & Manhattan’s K cars, built in 1958 and looking stylistically like what the Interborough people would have ordered after the World’s Fair Lo-Vs, if they hadn’t sold out to the city, came with air conditioning. So the AC problem there had been conquered even before the Port Authority took over, while even after the test AC on the R-38s proved a success, the MTA still spent the next decade arguing that you couldn’t get air conditioning onto IRT-sized cars, because they were too small for the components.

As far as the platforms go, the MTA’s actually lucky that cut-and-cover was used on most of the system, since it allowed for station ventilation to the street. Installing fans at the vent openings would be a fast way to circulate the air even better out of the stations, though it would be a little more complicated for the island platform stations, which usually are two levels below ground with a separating mezzanine. The new deep cavern stations will share the same problem, but hopefully the planners have taken the heat ventilation problem into consideration.

throcko August 7, 2012 - 2:20 pm

Bingo–which is why sealing up grates to reduce the flow of rainwater into the system is making stations hotter. The piston action of the trains was supposed to be a passive cooling system.

AG August 7, 2012 - 9:16 pm

well they’ve been planting more trees and bio-swales near gutter opening to prevent too much water going into the sewer system… so hopefully something can be done that would allow them to open back up those grates. It’s complicated issue because too much water in the subway system causes a lot of problems too.

tom August 6, 2012 - 4:09 pm

After the subway strike(1980?) got me on a bike commuting to Manhattan, the miserable AC condition the next summer got me back on the bike, and for the next 25 years. Ah, I remember it well.

billl b August 6, 2012 - 4:37 pm

I remember taking the IND from lex to 179st in the 60′ and 70’s when it was hot out
, they would have all the windows and doors open except for the first car door and rear car door, at least you got a nice breeze while the the sub was movIng. Remember when they even had the heat on in the summer and you had to change subway cars or have heat stroke. My old relatives remember when they even all the doors open.
The elevated lines were much cooler at night.

Kevin Walsh August 6, 2012 - 5:12 pm

Even into the 2000s, you always had 1 or 2 cars in an 11-car unit of Flushing Line trains that didn’t have AC till they went over to the R62’s. One time I had to walk through 3 cars before finding AC.

AG August 6, 2012 - 5:23 pm

The subway system is MUCH better than what I remember in the 80’s and 90’s. Even into the late 90’s it was rare to find a properly functioning AC on the 2 or the 5. So then ppl opened the windows which made it ridiculously loud. The scheduling changes might be annoying… but at least it’s not as often as when the trains used to break down regularly.

Phantom August 6, 2012 - 7:32 pm


The subways are off the charts better thqb they were in the past

We forget that sometimes

Alon Levy August 6, 2012 - 8:44 pm

Pretty much everything in New York today is better than it was before the 1990s, except the rents, and the rents are 2 Damn High because things are good enough people want to live there.

AG August 7, 2012 - 12:34 am

you are right… and that’s why I don’t complain much… renting is difficult… but it’s actually one of the best places to own… for the same reason the rent is high.

William Hamilton August 7, 2012 - 10:18 am

Well try waiting for a bus for half an hour in 100 degree heat by a six lane highway in the Sun like we do down here in South Carolina, without a shelter or a bench, standing in the weeds between the road and an open ditch full of water in the middle of a road construction project. We’re working on it down here too. I don’t expect anyone to shed tears for us, but do try to enjoy trains which come every three minutes a bit more.

Underground, progress by any other name :: Second Ave. Sagas August 9, 2012 - 12:23 am

[…] this week, I featured a piece I wrote a few years ago about brining air conditioning to the subway. It was not easy, unsurprisingly, for New York City Transit to usher in something like air […]

Someone December 15, 2012 - 12:19 am

The R32s and R42s sometimes feel like they do not have air conditioning, especially in the summer.

Summer in the City | lives in Brooklyn August 7, 2015 - 8:54 pm

[…] I mean there are hotter places, and there are dirtier places, but before I write myself into a superlative I’m going to regret, let me just say this town has a whole lot of kinetic energy, and when that energy is forced to function in the humid heat and the stench that invariably rises each August, it’s not always pretty. For instance, riding in an overpacked subway car is never very fun. But doing so when all of the bodies that you are pressed against are sweaty and radiating heat and irritability is just awful. I try to remember it could be worse. […]


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