Over the past two decades, the MTA has engaged in a multi-billion-dollar effort to upgrade its rolling stock. Since 1999, the agency has welcomed over 3200 new subway cars and, once the R179’s testing issues are resolved, an additional 300 are on the way. The agency is also on the verge of awarding a contract for the R211, an order with an additional 1025 new cars that are expected to arrive early next decade. By the time the R211s are delivered, nearly two thirds of the MTA’s subway cars will be a part of the so-called New Technology Train program that launched with the R142s in 1999, and very few of them will feature open gangways, a standard design element throughout the world.
The MTA, as many of my long-term readers know, has had a touchy relationship with the idea of open gangways. Transit experts and advocates have long bemoaned the agency’s reluctance to embrace the design standard, and the agency has hid behind New York City Exceptionalism, alleging that engineering difficulties make the idea impossible to implement. That London has managed to do so on old routes with tight curves should lay bare this lie, and as the MTA’s own internal assessment reports have recently called for open gangway designs, the MTA has determined that its day of reckoning will come way or another.
The benefits of open gangways are obvious: open-ended cars can increase passenger flow and capacity by up to ten percent. At a time when our subway system is strained to meet passenger demand, open gangways offer up a huge boost in space without the need to run more frequent service. It’s practically a free way to provide more service with the only costs being engineering and design work that will pay off over the 40- or 50-year life of new rolling stock.
We know that open gangways are on the horizon. As part of Gov. Cuomo’s plan to not really save the subway system, the MTA unveiled cars with open gangways last year and promised that “up to 750 cars” of the R211 order could include open gangways. The R211 contract will include a ten-car open gangway pilot, and the option for 740 more cars is contingent upon the pilot passing its tests. The contract hasn’t been bid out yet (though Bombardier has already been disqualified), and the test cars won’t arrive until 2020. But recently, the MTA offered up a tour of a model of the planned open gangway cars.
The models were two halves of a subway car and were on display in the voluminous mezzanine at 34th Street-Hudson Yards earlier this month. I had an opportunity to stop by to explore the models, and my photos are below. You can find them on my Instagram page as well. For anyone who has ridden new rolling stock around the world, the models were a familiar glimpse at now-standard technology. The trains come with wider doors for easier boarding (though the doors are still a few inches narrower than London’s current standard), flip seats to fit more standing passengers, open gangways and some technological features such as touch-screen maps, LED indicators on doorways, and upgrades to the FIND displays. Open doors are still be stored internal to the rail car wall so windows are much smaller than they are in Europe, but otherwise, these strike me as what NYC subway cars should have been for the past 10-15 years.
In the end, the MTA spend billions on at least 3500 cars that could have stored far more people. As we look forward to the new design, the R211s are symbolic of a loss opportunity sacrificed at the altar of NYC stubbornness and exceptionalism. Just because open gangways weren’t invented here doesn’t mean they can’t work.
Click through for a few more images of the R211 models.