For most New Yorkers, the modern subway car could be described as slightly uncomfortable with muffled speakers and not enough seats. But the cars we ride today are a huge improvement compared to their ancestors’ hundred-year lineage. Subway cars of old had only two doors, ceiling fans, no air conditioning, manually operated doors, and they rained burning cinders onto passersby walking under elevated tracks. Since the late 19th-century, the subway car has been the constant subject of innovation, with each generation’s technology taking new cars to the next level. Have a look at some of the current subway cars’ predecessors, and you may feel much more grateful for the “luxury” subway car of today!
1870: Elevated platforms with steam-powered wood cars
Offering the first-ever alternative to the street-level trolley or horse and carriage, the elevated train debuted in the late 19th century, with the very first line running along Greenwich Street and Ninth Avenue. These cars were made out of wood and were inspired by the western train cars common to the era. These steam-powered locomotives were not without their downsides, they would rain cinder and ash onto those unfortunate enough to walk beneath the tracks.
Image by Interborough Rapid Transit Company via Wikimedia Commons
1904: The first subway line
The transportation company IRT kicked off the underground transit party, opening the first underground subway line spanning from City Hall to 145th Street in Harlem. Called “Composite” cars, they had wooden bodies that were covered in copper with a steel underframe. The cars were relatively roomy, but only featured two sets of doors on each side of the car, doors which the conductor had to manually operate. Other than adding a third door in 1910 to ease rush-hour boarding, these cars remained the same for the first ten years of subway history. After New Yorkers discovered the joy of underground, traffic-free transportation, ridership boomed. The demand necessitated more lines, which were built in the 1910s and 1920s.
1915: The debut of stainless steel cars
In 1915, IRT debuted the “Pullman”-style car made from stainless steel, and went through at least eight redesigns from then until 1938. These cars afforded more standing room, and in the same year, rival transportation company BMT fired back with the “Standard,” a steel car that was even roomier and better-lit than the IRT Pullman.
1932: The debut of the “R-Type car”
Also known as the “City Car,” this competitive model was debuted by the city-owned IND subway company. R-type cars coupled the larger-size of the BMT car with the high speed of the IRT car. Painted a rather-dreary green, these cars were the first to feature four doors on each side of the car, thus making for speedier boarding and disembarking. Rolled out during the Great Depression, they were a positive development in an otherwise bleak time.
1967: Air conditioning arrives
For a long time, ceiling fans had to suffice as New York City residents crowded onto trains during the hot summer months. The MTA first began testing air-conditioned cars in 1967, starting with the R-38 model. As air conditioning became more mainstream and thus less expensive, the MTA was able to expand its use of this modern miracle. By the 1980s, air conditioning blasted through each and every subway line, and New Yorkers rejoiced across the boroughs.
Image by Marc A. Hermann / MTA New York City Transit via Flickr
Today: Better and better communication
If you feel like each subway line seems to look different, you’re not entirely wrong; there are now nine different kinds of cars in service, with the most recent model riding on the 7 line. In November 2013, the MTA started testing Kawasaki-built cars that come wired with improved communication technology. This technology makes trains run more reliably, allowing for the countdown clocks you know and love.
As you can see, the subway car has a rich and vibrant history formed by healthy competition, radical innovation, and some serious trial-and-error along the way. Every time you sit on the subway, you’re participating in our shared public transit history, which, despite its flaws, still sees over five million riders a day.