This weekend my friends Kristin and Peter were visiting from DC, and after a hearty celebration that began mid-day Saturday and lasted until the wee hours, we were feeling a bit less fresh than daisies Sunday morning. We met Kristin’s brother for brunch, but after that we weren’t sure what to do with ourselves. Peter’s one request was “something not too active.” Kristin’s brother suggested we check out the NY Transit Museum, which I hadn’t visited yet, and it seemed like a good choice for a drizzly, slow Sunday afternoon.
It turns out, the Transit Museum is an excellent hangover cure.
The museum is in Downtown Brooklyn, built underground in an unused subway station. On the upside, it was only $7! On the downside, it was swarming with restless toddlers. We ended up getting there just at the beginning of a tour (museum tours are my favorite!!) so we got on board with that. Our very knowledgeable tour guide took us through the museum’s “Steel, Stone & Backbone” tour which covers the building of New York’s Subways from 1900 to 1925. Then we went over to the trains! They have a ton of old subway cars you can go in and pretend to ride on and learn about!
Ten Things to Learn
1. The first day subways ran in NYC was October 27, 1904.* From the very beginning, the NYC subway ran 24 hours per day and had both express and local trains.
2. The first ride cost five cents, and enabled people to move away from crowded, dirty, stinky, disease-ridden Lower Manhattan.
3. The first subways were the IRT (Interborough Rapid Transit) and the BMT (Brooklyn Manhattan Transit). The IRT trains were number trains and the BMT trains were letter trains (from J to Z).
4. In 1932, the City built it’s own subway line, the IND (Independent Subway System) which includes the letter trains now known as A through H. Soon after that, the City bought out the other companies and unified.
5. While the first subway ride cost a nickle, when it was time for fares to rise, the subway encountered a challenge, as turnstiles could only accept one kind of coin. That’s when tokens were introduced! By 1953, a token was worth 15 cents. Tokens were used until recently; the MTA began phasing them out in the ’90s, and they were completely discontinued in 2003.
6. The third rail is 625 volts.**
7. Attention, NOTE: THIS IS THE BEST FACT. There are all kinds of work trains on the tracks, like trash trains, vacuum trains (which suck up garbage off the tracks), and geometry trains (which make sure the tracks are straight). But there is a special work train. It was painted to make it look like a trash train. But it was NOT a trash train. It was, in fact, the opposite of the trash train, in that it was filled with money. Since turnstiles don’t accept coins anymore and cash from metro card machines is transported by armored truck, money trains don’t run anymore. But in the olden days, money trains would transport over 10 million dollars per day. Where did the trains take the money? According to our tour guide they delivered it to a building that was attached to the station at Jay Street. I haven’t checked this out yet, but supposedly if you go to the end of the platform on the Coney Island bound F train, you can see the gate to a secret elevator where the money train would deliver the loot. No money train was every robbed (despite what the 1995 film would have you believe); it was accompanied by 12 armed guards.
8. Some numbers: there are over 850 miles of track in NYC and 468 active stations. Fifty percent of all US subway stations are in the City. There are over five million rides per day.***
9. SECOND BEST FACT, attention. Letter train cars are one foot wider and five to ten feet longer than number train cars. Here’s why: when the IRT first came around, it was worried that greedy rail barons would steal its tunnels, so it made them smaller than standard railroad train size. But the tunnel theft didn’t happen. So when the BMT came onto the scene a few years later, it made bigger, roomier, more comfier tunnels (and cars) - yes, it was like the extra-wide lanes on Seinfeld, but without the flames (usually).
10. THIRD BEST FACT. Trains typically run for forty years (unless they get graffiti’d, in which case they are pulled from service immediately and cleaned). Decommissioned trains used to just get stripped and junked, but for a brief time (2001 to 2011), the City cleaned old cars up and dumped them in the ocean, to make artificial reefs. The program was really successful, but unfortunately modern trains now have so much plastic that they wont make safe reefs for the fishes.
All in all, I liked the museum very much, and learned a lot of other things that are not included in these ten deep truths, but maybe I’ll write some more about them another time. The best time to go, like most museums, is probably not when it’s rainy and probably not on a weekend. But those are the only times people really want to go to a museum, so…
*Bonus fact: the first electric streetcar system ran in Richmond, Virginia.
** Bonus fact #2: a standard household outlet in the US is 120 v.
*** Bonus fact #3: the second busiest subway in the US is the Washington DC metro, which has about 900,000 trips per day.