Home Subway History The tribulations of bringing AC to the subways

The tribulations of bringing AC to the subways

by Benjamin Kabak

Too much basketball; too little time for a full post. So instead, I’ll bring a summer tradition back to Second Ave. Sagas. I run this piece each year as the temperatures soar, and although spring has been relatively cool, it’s getting hotter and stickier out. The heat is at its worst in the subways as we wait on sweltering platforms for trains to arrive. By and large, though, subway cars offer a cool reprieve the sweat-inducing stations. 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. Today, as the temperatures climb toward July and August, 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)

I’m a summer guy through and through though with sun light lasting well into the evening and the green grass of a baseball field always a welcome sight. Yet, the subways during the summer are utterly unbearable. When a train pulls up to an underground station in the summer, passengers rush in as much to board their train as to find some solace amidst the cool air of a subway car. With new rolling stock spread throughout the city, temperatures inside are far more tolerable than those outside.

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 conditioning as the mercury rises and summer settles in to stay for the next few months.

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John-2 June 19, 2013 - 12:48 am

IIRC 9012-13 on the 6 were the first cars I rode that had been retrofitted with the new dual unit air-conditioners that the R-26 through R-36 cars received (I think they were also the first two cars I remember seeing the orange paint scheme in, along with the usual 1970s MTA exterior corporate color repaint job). And I started seeing the retrofits on the 7’s R-36 cars a short time later.

After years of hearing MTA officials say IRT-sized cars couldn’t be air-conditioned, despite the H&M K cars being delivered with AC in 1958, it was quite a pleasant surprise (as was coming upon one of the 10 ACed R-38s back in the late 1960s). Of course, given the maintenance standards of the MTA in the late 1970s, by the summer of ’79 you already were finding retrofitted IRT cars with non-working AC units, but for the most part, they did finally get that problem straightened out by the late 1980s.

Vera June 19, 2013 - 3:54 am

The trains are “air conditioned” to far too cold a temperature, which makes the stations even hotter due to the heat exchange. It would be best to do without the A/C altogether and implement a proper ventilation system through cars and stations alike.

Chris C June 19, 2013 - 11:30 am

So any ideas on what this system would be like and how much it would cost?

Benjamin Kabak June 19, 2013 - 11:32 am

Tons of dollars is my uneducated guess. Got a few lying around? 🙂

Bolwerk June 19, 2013 - 2:21 pm

Ventilating regular cut and cover stations may not be that hard. It may just take some fans. Maybe deep stations are harder, but open air stations don’t need it at all. Getting more expensive, platform screen doors offer the potential for climate controlled stations. New ventilation systems on equipment probably requires waiting for new equipment (decades for the whole fleet).

Anyway, I don’t know if any of that is actually a good idea, but there may be something to what Vera is saying, and some places do follow his/her suggestion.

tacony palmyra June 20, 2013 - 9:46 am

Granted it doesn’t get nearly as hot nearly as often up there, but Montreal’s Metro has no AC and is very comfortable thanks to excellent ventilation. It’s like a breeze is running through the whole system.

The MTA could afford to put a couple more huge fans in stations. I don’t know why there are so few. Just to stand in front of a big fan on the platform would make a big difference.

Tower18 June 19, 2013 - 12:26 pm

Huh. I wish my trains were “too cold”. Many times the “new” trains simply blow around humid lukewarm air, where the “old” trains pump out nice cold air. Conversely, the R32s on the C train used to have nice heat in the winter, but last winter, I never got an R32 that had heat.

Spendmore Wastemore June 19, 2013 - 12:53 pm

I’ve noticed that also. Probably another case of planners deciding the old AC systems were too powerful and “fixing” this inefficiency.

SEAN June 19, 2013 - 9:27 am


Is it fair to say that this story is full of hot air? LOL

Larry Littlefield June 19, 2013 - 9:33 am

One aspect to remember about the un-airconditioned cars: unbearable noise. Since trains broke down and workers didn’t show up, gaps in service and crush loading were common. To avoid suffocation you had to keep those windows down.

The tunnels were not only hot but loud, as the clash of bad wheels on bad tracks riccocheted off the walls and into the cars. It was hell.

Thus it was a double relief when the cars got outside. Even if it was 90 degrees and humid, the air coming in the windows was cooler than in the tunnels. And the noise radiated away from the trains rather than bouncing into the cars.

AG June 19, 2013 - 9:45 pm

yeah – i remember that on the old red birds… it was terrible…. hot AND very loud.

capt subway June 19, 2013 - 12:24 pm

Just a correction for an otherwise excellent article: neither the R17s, nor any other single until IRT car, was ever actually air conditioned. Only the IRT married pairs, R26 through R36 were retrofitted with AC. In fact, on the #7, where, due to the 11 car consist, one single unit car was always required (5 marrieds + 1 single) that single car remained without AC up until the very end when the cars (R33s & R36s) were finally retired and replaced with R62/62a cars about 10 years ago.

Spendmore Wastemore June 19, 2013 - 1:08 pm

I wonder if more regen braking would cut the heat in the tunnels. That, and having the locals start coasting 1-2 train lengths before the platform. One train’s worth of motors pull around 2 million watts, that’s a lot of heat.

All energy supplied from the power plant to the trains becomes heat; with regen trains can trade energy back and forth to a limited extent rather than dumping it immediately as heat via the brakes. Thus less power is supplied, meaning less heat dumped in the tunnels.

al June 19, 2013 - 3:14 pm

Part of the problem with regen braking is where to send the power to. If you have a train accelerating on the same circuit, then great. However, that is’t always the case. 600V DC 3rd rail require quite a few circuits due to amp losses.

Epson45 June 19, 2013 - 1:08 pm

leaky a/c units, yeah

Jerrold June 19, 2013 - 1:26 pm

Yes, I remember when the train would arrive, and it would be like almost literally going from the frying pan into the fire.
People would talk about how it was even worse when the train was crowded. You would be straphanging, and suffering from the underarm odor of the guy next to you, whose arm was up because he too was straphanging.

But now, on a hot day you just can’t wait for the train to pull in, so you can instantly cool off.

Eric Brasure June 19, 2013 - 3:37 pm

Speaking of air conditioning, does anyone know why they didn’t make the A/C train set switch after Memorial Day this year?

John-2 June 19, 2013 - 6:06 pm

They’re doing one final scheduled maintenance update on the R-32s so that they’ll survive long enough for the R-179s to arrive 2-4 years from now. That’s supposed to take care of the summer AC woes (though it was noted at some other forums today that the MTA has at least one set of R-32s running on the J today, which also would be a way to keep the AC from being strained on those cars).

Epson45 June 20, 2013 - 11:42 am

No, they already fix the the HVAC issue on the R-32s. We have a surplus of R-32 fleet on the (C ) line service. They are giving some cars to (J)(Z) lines for the R-160 CBTC upgrade.

AG June 19, 2013 - 9:46 pm

subway platforms are hot… but so is a car parked in the sun… summer is summer either way.


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