By Raanan Geberer
Brooklyn Daily Eagle
Since the Transit Museum in Brooklyn Heights just celebrated the 110th anniversary of the New York City subway system, it may be useful to examine that system.
The New York subway system dates back to the opening of the original IRT (Interborough Rapid Transit) line from Harlem to City Hall in 1904, although it was preceded by an extensive network of elevated, or “el,” lines. That original IRT line was extended to Atlantic Avenue in Brooklyn in 1908, and you can still see a plaque at the station. More lines were soon built. For more than 60 years, there were only a handful of subway systems in the U.S., concentrated in the Northeast.
New systems were built in San Francisco, Washington, D.C., and Atlanta in the 1970s, followed by others. But in the American media, when you say “subways,” you think of New York. When Joseph Sargent wanted to direct a subway-based crime thriller, he made “The Taking of Pelham 1-2-3,” not “The Taking of the Green Line at Kenmore Square.”
New York’s subway system isn’t the oldest – Boston’s is a few years older. But it does have the largest ridership in the country, with a total ridership of 1.7 billion passengers last year. That’s the highest amount since 1949, showing that the subway has been steadily coming back from its graffiti- and crime-ridden nadir of the 1970s and ‘80s. New York also has the largest percentage of people who use mass transit to get to work, 55 percent.
New York also has the largest system in the world. According to MTA spokesman Kevin Ortiz, It contains 659 miles of track, including “layup” (storage) tracks and tracks to and from the yards as well as tracks that see actual service. Subtracting trackage that isn’t used in regular passenger service, it still has 230 “route miles.” A hundred and thirty-seven of these miles are underground, with 70 miles of elevated tracks and 23 “other” (usually tracks in an open cut, such as the N line in Brooklyn). Brooklyn, by the way, contains 84 route miles.
The 10 busiest stations in the subway system are all in Manhattan, led by Times Square. Brooklyn’s busiest station, according to the MTA, is Barclays Center-Atlantic Avenue. It had 13.1 million passengers last year, and was ranked 22nd overall. Still, Court Street-Borough Hall had more regular weekday passengers, showing that much of Barclays Center’s traffic results from games, concerts and other events at the arena.
The deepest stations in the subway system are 191st Street on the 1 line and 190th Street on the A train, 180 and 140 feet below street level, respectively. Both are in hilly Washington Heights, upper Manhattan. However, the honor of the highest elevated station belongs to Brooklyn – Smith-9th Street on the F and G lines, built 88 feet above street level. The station, which has views of the Manhattan skyline as well as downtown Brooklyn, was recently rebuilt, and former Borough President Marty Markowitz predicted that it would become a tourist attraction of its own.
The average speed of the subway system is 17.4 mph, somewhat slower than that of many newer American systems. Trains can reach 55 mph, but rarely get over 30 mph. The longest “run” between stations, and thus the one where speeds can reach the highest, is between Howard Beach and Broad Channel on the A train. Brooklyn, though, claims the two stops with the shortest distance between them – Beverly Road and Cortelyou Road on the Q line, only one long block apart.
Also, the station that is furthest away from the Manhattan business district is Far Rockaway on the Rockaway branch of the A train, according to Ortiz. It’s about 23 miles, and 90 minutes, away.
Finally, Brooklyn was the scene of the worst disaster in New York subway history – the Malbone Street wreck of 1918. During a strike, the Brooklyn Rapid Transit company (BRT), which then operated many of Brooklyn’s transit lines, called in a dispatcher who had never operated a train in regular service and told him to drive a train on the Brighton Beach line. The inexperienced motorman lost control of the train, which started barreling down the tracks at high speeds. When it reached an “S” curve in the tunnel, it derailed, destroying several of the cars and at least 93 people. The accident hastened the introduction of all-steel trains, and was so notorious that Malbone Street was renamed – today, it’s known as Empire Boulevard. By comparison, what was probably the second-worst subway crash, at Times Square in 1928, killed only 16 people, although it injured 150.