Home Rolling Stock R211 models show the promise, and lost opportunity, of open gangways

R211 models show the promise, and lost opportunity, of open gangways

by Benjamin Kabak

The R211 model was on display at 34th St. – Hudson Yards earlier this month. (Photo by Benjamin Kabak)

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.

Future generations of MTA rolling stock will feature touch-screen subway maps, perhaps with the return of the Massimo Vignelli subway map. (Photo by Benjamin Kabak)

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 R211s feature doorway widths of 58 inches. The MTA believes the wider boarding space will improve passenger flow. (Photo by Benjamin Kabak)

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.

The R211s will include a 10-car pilot with open gangways and an option to order 740 more. (Photo by Benjamin Kabak)

The updates to the FIND displays may include distance-based travel times. (Photo by Benjamin Kabak)

The FIND displays may also include station exit indicators. (Photo by Benjamin Kabak)

You may also like


A.chan December 18, 2017 - 1:41 am

So, how are they gonna keep the smelly homeless people from stinking up all five cars?

SEAN December 18, 2017 - 9:05 am

By getting them to use Uber or Lift.

ChrisC December 18, 2017 - 11:07 am

How about by finding them homes and jobs and not demonising them.

One thing they should think of adding is a ‘carriage load’ indicator like they have on the new Thameslink trains. If people can see that a carriage further up or down the train is a little less crowded they might move down to be more comfortable.

SEAN December 18, 2017 - 7:03 pm

How about by finding them homes and jobs and not demonising them.

So right.

Lady Feliz December 18, 2017 - 9:58 pm

Funny how that’s always the question posed, as if there are no smelly folks in London or Latin America. To answer your question, the smelliest damn person on Planet Earth couldn’t stink up more than one subway car, so it’ll be no different than current conditions, except that passengers will be able to move away from said stinky person that much quicker.

AMH December 19, 2017 - 4:09 pm

Exactly–I’m amazed that everyone who brings up the hypothetical smelly person or criminal would rather be trapped in one car.

SEAN December 19, 2017 - 7:54 pm

Could someone please tell me where this narrative came from? I’m serious – & it needs to stop!

Lady Feliz December 19, 2017 - 9:08 pm

Some dude from Jersey saw a homeless guy once in the three times he actually rode the subway, so he raised holy hell and it’s been going on ever since. There are people in this world who hate cities, period. They trash them every chance they get, and the “smelly dude stinking up three subway cars” trope seems to have gotten traction (no pun intended). It’s the same reason why have Donny Trump as president. He made stuff up about killer Mexicans, and voila! Never underestimate the stupid in America.

oinonio December 21, 2017 - 1:53 pm

Well said, Lady Feliz!

One thing America is exceptional at, is weaponizing ignorance.

As to the new cars (can they still be “new” if the tech in them was in play 15 years ago?), I’d like to see an LED strip or similar on the outside length of the train that indicates train line/destination and bullet color.

SEAN December 21, 2017 - 3:10 pm

One thing America is exceptional at, is weaponizing ignorance.

I couldn’t say it better. Notice how so much online & offline commentary in recent years has become “weaponized.”SJW’s as an example & it reflects badly on us as a culture.

E Train Stinker December 20, 2017 - 1:05 pm

Have any of you ever taking the E from Jamaica? Rolling homeless shelter. And they stink!!!

So instead of virtue signalling, why don’t some of you get them a job, and invite them to stay in your home. Oh right, didn’t think so.

SEAN December 21, 2017 - 3:16 pm

I have taken the E numerous times from Jamaica & never had that problem. So much for virtue signaling.

John December 22, 2017 - 1:45 pm

It’s amazing how many people like you exist in the world – looking down on your fellow man instead of proposing something to actually address the problem. And no, inviting one homeless person into someone’s home and “giving them a job” (?) is not how the world works. Way to move the goal posts of this argument. Maybe instead of whining about a smelly person in a subway car, you could actually think about the systemic reasons why that person is there, and do something with your life to work on changing those things? Volunteer? Donate? God forbid, actually work professionally for money in a helping calling? I guess it’s a lot easier to sit around on the Internet anonymously blaming others though.

Rich December 20, 2017 - 1:43 pm

I often ride the E train late at night. I know to “beware the empty car”. I am very familiar with the issue you describe. I still support open gangways, because:

1. I’ve been on subways all over the world. Most have open gangways. It’s wonderful. This does not seem to be an issue in those other places, or people don’t complain about it. Every place cities have launched open gangways, it has been considered well-received and a success. So this a either a solvable problem or an acceptable trade-off.

2. Perhaps we should be focusing on the real issues. Do more for the homeless, ideally. If someone is creating an odor issue, there should be staff that can come quickly to any station and escort these people to a shelter with a free hot shower and laundry. These things are really not expensive. The MTA could even operate several short-term “clean-up” shelters of its own, for not that much money, relatively speaking. How much is a small space with two staff, three showers, and a washing machine? It would be the humane thing to do.

3. Or there is the cruel but effective approach of stricter rules and enforcement. Make people disembark and leave the station at each terminal, every time.

4. No one likes a bad smell, but open gangways make it easier to move AWAY from the average bad smells and bad behavior. One can imagine very extreme situations where that may not be true. But for most smells, and most bad behavior, open gangways are a net benefit.

5. If we’re talking about a 10% effective capacity increase for the whole system, thats’ a MASSIVE benefit. I will take the occasional bad smell in exchange for more capacity EVERY TIME. Like, that’s not even a contest. I can’t even fathom how anyone could think otherwise.

Kit December 21, 2017 - 4:34 pm

2) There actually is an organization that focuses on homelessness in the subways, and works with the MTA:

Webster December 18, 2017 - 11:45 am

…I know that the whole “exceptionalism” thing is a great talking point, but no one ever offers a thorough explanation as to why the MTA’s protestations are just excuses.

Did London have to retrofit older stations and tunnels to reduce turn radii for open gangway cars? How much work was required? Can it be reasoned that the MTA should be able to add the required work into these procurements to achieve this?

What’s changed in recent years that they’re willing to try? Are they eyeing a strategic deployment of the cars on specific lines that are less problematic?

Moreover, I’m curious, because I was always under the impression the reason so many American agencies have hesitated embracing open gangway designs — and EMU/DMUs, for that matter — has more to do with the headache of trying to sort out how to retrofit existing maintainanence facilities and yards for them.

Supposedly, this is why Alstom convinced Amtrak to forgo ordering the Pendolino off-the-shelf and using the Avelia platform, which is a marriage between the pendolino and whatever it is the TGV uses, instead.

I’d suppose this issue would be moot if an agency were entirely replacing its fleet at once (eg BART or WMATA, I believe), but the MTA keeps doing these weird incremental orders to upgrade their rolling stock.

I mean, I get why one would look at the idiosyncratic tendencies of American agencies compared to their peers abroad and question what’s going on: I do think, though, that the discussion should be a bit broader than “they’re stupid/incompetent/think they’re exceptional.”


Peter L December 20, 2017 - 12:27 pm

I’d suppose this issue would be moot if an agency were entirely replacing its fleet at once (eg BART or WMATA, I believe), but the MTA keeps doing these weird incremental orders to upgrade their rolling stock.

BART: 662 cars on roster.
WMATA: 1242 cars on roster.
NYC MTA: 6418 cars on roster.

IOW, a “weird incremental order” for the MTA would replace the entire fleet in either of the two systems you cite.

NYC *is* exceptional in many ways.

Remember, too, that in the entire USA, there are only about 10 billion transit trips every year and that the NYC subway carries 25% of them.

SEAN December 21, 2017 - 8:04 pm

Lets not forget that both BART & WMATA fleets are the same systemwide while the MTA operates duel gage fleets making car purchases not as simple as we would like, but that doesn’t excuse mismanagement by the MTA or the car manufactures.

Speaking of WMATA, there original fleets were of three manufactures & each order had there own set of reliability issues, but as they upgrade those issues should be ironed out.

With BART the way that system was built there cars wouldn’t work on any other rapid transit network as the track gage was considered non-standard.

Mike December 30, 2017 - 3:15 pm

No work needed on station platforms or in tunnel curves. However some station platforms are marginally too short so in those cases the first front set (or rear) doors are locked at those places as required. Also some curved platforms have quite wide gaps but they are usable. Overall our open gangway trains are magnificent. I was once asked to supply a photograph of the queen on one to someone in the MTA engaged in trying to persuade the organisation to adapt them.

tim December 18, 2017 - 2:25 pm

While on the new Sub Surface (Metropolitan, Circle, District) Rolling Stock do now have open gangways, the new Victoria Line Rolling Stock doesn’t. This is largely due to smaller tubes and tighter curves. So the logic of the MTA may have some truth. It will be interesting how other deep level (smaller with tighter curves than SSL) rolling stock develops over the next few years.

RichardB December 19, 2017 - 4:40 am

I think the decision to go for closed gangways on the Victoria line trains was nothing to do with tighter curves. It was a PPP contract (similar to a PFI contract) at the time and I think Tube Lines (the name of the now defunct contractor) went for a traditional design. It was Transport for London(TfL) that pushed for the radical open gangway approach for the new sub surface stock together with air cooling. It is notable that the new specification for replacement deep Tube fleets requires open gangways and air cooling. I am not aware that new major structural work will be required within the tunnels at each curve to accommodate open gangway trains.

Mike December 30, 2017 - 3:17 pm

True that was the case. Open gangway trains would have been our preference for the Victoria line. In Berlin their new small profile U-Bahn trains are open gangway and I think they have tight curves in some places.

Subutay Musluoglu December 18, 2017 - 9:43 pm

With respect to New York exceptionalism, I respectfully take exception to your last two sentences – we actually kind of did invent open gangway technology here, clearly illustrated by the 1928 BMT D-Type Triplex class of cars that still runs on occasional Transit Museum fan trips. The BMT was well known for experimentation with their rolling stock designs, as evidenced by the Triplex, and the later mid-1930s era Multi-Sections. The Triplex was an articulated set made up of three car bodies carried on 4 trucks, while the Multis were comprised of 5 body sections carried on 6 trucks. For reasons too numerous to go into here, the results were mixed with these experiments, but one can argue that not enough time was invested to allow this technology to mature here in NY. With the 1940 unification of the three subway systems, the emphasis was on the design established by the IND and their single motorized units of the IND R1-9 car classes. One has to wonder how different things would be today if articulated, open gangway technology was further developed here in NY over the last several decades. If anything, once passenger numbers started sharply rising 15 years ago, and this technology was seriously considered again, before thousands of new cars were purchased (as Ben points out correctly) it’s safe to day we would be in a much different place right now.

AMH December 19, 2017 - 4:14 pm

Exactly, I keep pointing out that we had articulated units 90 years ago! It’s pretty simple to specify a wheelbase that will handle the tightest curve in the system and go from there.

Dexter December 23, 2017 - 6:05 pm

Why do so many people confuse open gangways and articulated units?

The D-Types, MS, and this Ellie it were articulated. NOT open gangway. The areas over the trucks were still closed and offered no additional capacity. Plus, the sections were shorter than the standard car length.

Open gangways are just that. The cars are still completely separate and the dimensions don’t change. The dead space is now in use for passengers.

Dexter December 23, 2017 - 6:07 pm

EDIT:D-Types, MS, and the like

Subutay Musluoglu December 28, 2017 - 11:03 am

Yes, you are correct that there is a difference between open gangways and articulated units, but here are a few things to keep in mind. First, the size of the opening does not determine whether you have an open gangway – as long as there are no doors separating the threshold between cars (or sections if you prefer) you have an open gangway. In the D-Types and the Multis there is a clear opening without doors over the threshold, and while it may be considered narrower compared to what is expected today, that is more reflective of the state of technology at the time. The proposed R211 open gangway is certainly wider than the D-Types and the Multis, but not as wide as what you find in Toronto, Paris, and Hong Kong, where the opening extends to the full interior envelope of the car.

This brings us to the second factor – safety – primarily collision survivability. NYCT is very conservative with their car designs, with respect to materials (stainless steel), buff strength (the strength of of the car ends and the extent to which it resists a head on collision), and weight (arguably the heaviest subway cars on the planet). This is all in the interest of keeping the car as intact as possible and protecting the passengers within. This is a clear illustration of the American philosophy of collision survivability versus the rest of the rest of the world, which emphasizes collision avoidance. This is entirely a separate debate, but that mindset is pervasive throughout American railroading culture, when each accident and and loss of life results in stronger and heavier cars, while the rest of the world focuses on avoiding the crash in the first place, achieved with signaling technology and intensive personnel training.

As such, coming back to the R211 design, there will still be a significant amount of steel framing and support at the car ends. But if they settle on a design with a width similar to what was seen in the prototype, in conjunction with no seat placement on either side of the threshold, then there should be a decent gain in capacity, which by the way, is not just a function of the net gain in additional passengers being carried; it’s also the ability of passengers to circulate better and move deeper into the cars, which the open gangways will encourage.

And finally, cars versus sections. This is a moot point. It may turn out that having a train comprised of shorter sections may actually provide fleet flexibility, being able to operate anywhere in the system, and not be hampered by loading gauge restrictions, as found on the legacy BMT Eastern Division. All things to consider…

Lady Feliz December 18, 2017 - 10:06 pm

Curious if the Staten Island Railway order of R211 cars will be open gangway or just regular type, since overcrowding is not that much of an issue for SIR trains, with the occasional rush-hour trip being somewhat full, but never seriously overcrowded.

Interesting fact: when these R211s go into service, they’ll only be the third type of cars to run on the SIR since the line was electrified in 1925. The original SIRT electric cars built for the Baltimore and Ohio RR ran from 1925-1973, and the current R44s from 1973-present. Some LIRR cars did run on the SIRT for a brief period in the early ’70s when the old B&O cars were running out of steam (no pun intended), but they were just loaners and not specifically built for SIRT service.

SEAN December 19, 2017 - 7:47 pm

Thanks for that – I wasn’t even aware & I’ve been riding transit for a long time.

Lady Feliz December 19, 2017 - 9:10 pm

Any time, Sean! When it comes to SIRT cars, Staten Islanders are a patient lot. Once every 45 years or so we get new rail cars 🙂

SEAN December 21, 2017 - 8:21 pm

Shockingly, there are suburban bus lines I know of that carry more total riders than SIRT does on any given day. In NJ alone, interstate lines 126, 139, 158/ 159, 163/ 164 & 190 along with there express companion lines operate at almost subway like frequency. And I’m bearly scratching the surface.

Lady Feliz December 23, 2017 - 11:15 am

Those bus lines also go directly to Midtown Manhattan, something the SIR sadly does not do. Believe me, if the SIR was extended to Manhattan, the ridership levels would go through the roof.

SEAN December 23, 2017 - 4:35 pm

Oh, no doubt. If you want a farer bus comparison then look at NJT’s 87 line between Hoboken & Jersey City, it almost follows the PATH to Journal Square. There’s also NICE routes 6, 15, 22/ 24, 40/41 witch serve the triad of Minneola terminal, Hempstead TC & or Roosevelt Field.

In Westchester routes that connect Yonkers, Mount Vernon, New Rochelle & White Plains have huge ridership pools especially the 20/ 21 on Central Avenue.

BruceNY December 20, 2017 - 12:31 pm

I wish they would bring back having doors on the right side not lined up with doors on the left (R-15 through R-42 were like this). Crowds of standees tend to want to stay closer to the doors, and resist moving into the middle sections where the seats are making it difficult for more passengers to enter. When the doors are offset, this effect is mitigated somewhat.

AMH December 26, 2017 - 3:34 pm

Absolutely, this is especially noticeable on the IRT where R142 B and C cars have much better circulation because of the more open interior facilitated by offset doors. It’s a no-brainer that this should be standard practice.

smotri December 21, 2017 - 9:55 am

Open gangways. Such a simple concept implemented in old, not so old, and young subway systems the world over, but nearly impossible to implement here in NYC, except (1) later in the game, and (2) most likely at a higher cost.

How long and at what cost did it take to implement MetroCard, which was already an outmoded way to handle fares when it was implemented?
How about countdown clocks? Same story.

Business as usual.

BruceNY December 21, 2017 - 1:46 pm

I’ve always wondered what genius at the MTA came up with the idea to make passengers have to manually swipe their cards (“Please Swipe Again at this turnstile”!!!) where every other transit system I’ve ever ridden on since the age of magnetic strip cards have turnstiles which automatically take in the card, process, and spit it out the other end?

Rich December 21, 2017 - 1:53 pm

Your card can’t get stuck inside a manual swiper. The AirTrain turnstiles at JFK take in your MetroCard. I’ve had my MetroCard get stuck in one of those. It was a massively annoying 10-minute ordeal to get someone to come open up the machine and retrieve my card. So I totally get why the MTA went the way they did on that one.

SEAN December 21, 2017 - 3:37 pm

As I mentioned here before, Cubic told the MTA NOT to go with the current Metrocard set up., but they insisted. Cubic for it’s part wanted them to go the WMATA tap card route. I read this in one of the national transit publications, but I cant remember witch one since it’s been quite a few years. For all it’s faults, Cubic was correct in it’s assessment.

To prove this point lets take a quick look at the CTA. they are on there second generation fare system called Ventra. The first few months for Ventra had it’s share of problems witch you can find on YouTube, but it’s a far better product than we have here.

Walt Gekko December 21, 2017 - 10:55 am

I’m suspecting this protest against open gangways come from mainly loudmouths who in some cases either were victims of crime in the 1970’s or are children of victims of crime from that time and still think of the subways as they were at that time along with those who think the homeless will simply go through all the cars in an open gangway and intentionally smell them up because they have nothing better to do. That type of fear to me is driving the resistance to open gangways.

SEAN December 21, 2017 - 3:39 pm

Walt, I think it is nothing more than the phrase “you cant fix stupid.”

AMH December 26, 2017 - 4:02 pm

The Times has been pointing out the positives for years, while the naysayers keep bringing up the hypothetical dangers and their desire to be trapped in a single car with said hypothetical danger.


kisumxes January 24, 2018 - 5:10 pm

Any times I’ve gotten on a smelly car I’ve cursed the train for not being an HK or Ik.


Leave a Comment