The New York Subway

Historical context

The New York Subway, now owned and managed by New York Mass Transit Authority (MTA) is a combination of two competing subway operations – the Interborough Rapid Transit Co (IRT) and the Brooklyn Rapid Transit Co (BRT).

Amazingly although subway operation commenced in 1904, this is a second generation system. The first rapid transit system in New York was an elevated system running above city streets using steam trains. This ran for 35 years before the change over to using tunnels.

The subway was taken over by New York City in 1940 and the New York City Transport Authority –the NYCTA was created in 1953, to become the MTA in 1968 – the equivalent of London Transport in 1933 and Transport for London in 2000.

The Subway is very complex operationally, compared with the London Underground, and its construction is mainly cut and cover using large sized trains, more akin to London’s Metropolitan Line. Many lines, even in the centre of Manhattan are 4 track with side platforms on the stopping tracks and island platforms along the route for interchange between fast and stopping services.

[New York]This is a picture of a typical station on the Subway. Rather austere often with 4 tracks unlike London's, two on the subsurface sections. Stations take the form of either two side platforms with no platforms on the centre tracks. At interchanges where people change on the same line between fast and slow trains the arrangement as shown is two island platforms
This is a picture of a typical station on the Subway. Rather austere, often with 4 tracks unlike London's, two on the subsurface sections. Stations take the form of either two side platforms with no platforms on the centre tracks; or at interchanges where people change on the same line between fast and slow trains the arrangement as shown is two island platforms.

The great clean up

In 1983 Bob Kiley, who later became London’s first Transport Commissioner at TfL was appointed as CEO of the MTA, the most run down, dirty, dilapidated transport system, crime ridden with “total” graffiti, inside and out including the windows. The system was put in a state of good repair and the graffiti has gone, as have many of the people who used to live on the system.

Bob Kiley was recruited by Ken Livingstone, Mayor of London in 2001, but found a totally different scenario at London Underground.

The subway now

[New York]This MTA postcard shows the evolution of three types of trains on the New York Subway. Amazingly the picture was taken on the A Subway line to JFK Airport and Far Rockaway. The views are more akin to the Florida Keys than a subway system. A ride beyond the airport certainly beats waiting too long in the departure lounge and costs nothing if you do not leave the statin at the far end and just return to Howard Beach for the Skytrain to JFK
This MTA postcard shows the evolution of three types of trains on the Subway. Amazingly the picture was taken on the A Subway line to JFK Airport and Far Rockaway. The views are more akin to the Florida Keys than a subway system. A ride beyond the airport certainly beats waiting too long in the departure lounge and costs nothing if you do not leave the station at the far end and just return to Howard Beach for the Skytrain to JFK.

The New York Subway is still old, very noisy with narrow platforms and many un-modernised stations. The trains are basic in design with steel or plastic seating - no needles, but are air conditioned with passenger information systems improving with each new build. The system runs 7 days a week all day and all night and is extremely busy at peak hours and also at night when the train frequency is lower. Station signs are small and not illuminated so it is easy to get lost on the system.

The Subway is perfectly safe to go on from a personal security point of view but the station interchanges and corridors with dingy lighting do not give a feeling of personal security. The trains are cool but the stations are hot with narrow overcrowded platforms with no access for the mobility impaired.

The network route map is geographic and hard to way-find particularly where the system is served by many lines (as in lower Manhattan and in Brooklyn). Routes are indicated by either numbers or letters. New Yorkers have resisted all attempts to re draw the subway map into a London style Harry Beck diagram, probably on account of the fact that nobody has found a way of drawing it. Here are 7 alternate versions of the subway map.

Unlike London, despite quite long routes the system uses a flat fare system at $2-75 per trip. The equivalent of London’s Oystercard is the Metrocard sold for two journeys, then $20 and upwards. Credit expires after 12 months and there are no refunds.

[New York]New York has its stored value Metrocard ticket. It can be used on the Subway with a standard flat fare, everywhere, on the PATH (see description later), and also on the two Airport systems. as well as on the MTA bus network.
It is not valid on the Long Island Railroad nor Metro North but Metrocards can be added to their tperiod tickets (and some other tickets)
Metrocard is not valid on New Jersey transit systems.
Rhe MTA want to replace this relatively low tech approach with something far more complicated such as London's Oyster-card with a view to increasing fare yield. Fun whilst it lasts.
New York has its stored value Metrocard ticket. It can be used on the Subway with a standard flat fare, everywhere, on the PATH (see description later), and also on the two Airport systems as well as on the MTA bus network. It is not valid on the Long Island Railroad nor Metro North but Metrocards can be added to their period tickets (and some other tickets). Metrocard is not valid on New Jersey transit systems. The MTA want to replace this relatively low tech approach with something far more complicated such as London's Oyster-card with a view to increasing fare yield. Fun whilst it lasts.

In summary, the Subway is a very high volume, no frills people mover carrying 5.6 million people per day or 1.763 billion per year, busier than London Underground which carries 1.34 billion per year.

The Long Island Railroad

The Long Island Railroad (LIRR) is owned and run as part of the New York MTA. It operates a comprehensive network of routes across Long Island which is 118 miles long, more like a small country at 3629 square miles. It is an intensive self contained railway system, 319 route miles, captive to Long Island but linked to Manhattan by a tunnel under the East River to New York’s super dingy Pennsylvannia Station. A second river crossing, the East Side Access project is well underway with the aim of providing a massive capacity boost, running into the Grand Central Station.

Essentially the system is a suburban operation to the huge New York dormitory on Long Island, which has an island population of 11 million! (more than Greater London at 8.6m.) Most visitors from the UK experience the LIRR on the short hop from Jamaica (JFK Airport) into Manhattan (Penn Station) although a trip from the far end of Long Island takes 3 ¼ hours.

The train operation is essentially two overlapping networks – the busy east end nearest to New York and the more country style west end.

The east end is served by frequent EMU trains running 24/7 through to New York Penn Station, with a timed cross platform interchange at Jamaica for Brooklyn and other points within Long Island. The trains are standard 2 car EMUs with a cab at each end and a disabled toilet in each unit. Despite operating even off peak as 10 and 12 car units each has a conductor who uses the classic American style system of replacing each ticket with a destination tag clipped and attached to each seat. This system achieves almost no ticketless travel but is extremely labour intensive.

[New York]Photo of a LIRR 2 car M7 electric multiple unit taken at Jamaica Station. These trains have reliability levels that compare starkly with UK practice with 150,000 miles per casualty. The best in UK is around 50,000 miles the worst is around 1200 miles. You can see the space devoted to the disabled toilet. The
Photo of a LIRR 2 car M7 electric multiple unit taken at Jamaica Station. These trains have reliability levels that compare starkly with UK practice with 150,000 miles per casualty. The best in UK is around 50,000 miles, the worst js around 1200 miles. You can see the space devoted to the disabled toilet. The "Americans with Disabilities Act" is taken very seriously. There are 1172 of these in service. They look a bit plain with their stainless steel unpainted bodies. A key priority for Railfuture is reliability. Putting a bunch of engineers in charge does have its benefits.

It may be of interest to compare these trains with the new Thameslink Class 700 train as the result is surprising.

 LIRR standard M7 emuThameslink Class 700
No of cars1212
No of cabs122
No of toilets6 disabled1 disabled and 4 small
No of seats1266654

 
Railfuture’s Norman Bradbury and Keith Dyall have produced a far more comprehensive critique of the Class 700 at Standing Room Only.

There is clearly a different philosophy for these commuter operations where the M7 is aimed at maximum seats despite level access and reasonably spacious vestibules with maximum provision for people with disabilities.

The west end uses diesel locomotives and bi-level 5 car push-pull sets which provide for a very comfortable commute. These trains cannot operate through the tunnel into New York so level access cross platform interchange is provided at points such as Babylon, at the extremity of the inner suburban sections and also at Jamaica. These are extremely comfortable trains although not brand new like the M7 EMUs. There are some good examples of single track dual pocket platforms which provide for direct level access interchange. The upper and the lower decks are not accessible for a wheelchair, but the high platform ends of each coach provide an informal area with seats, excellent, with loads of room for wheelchairs, prams and bikes.

The LIRR as a commuter railway is workaday but despite limited investment to put it in a state of good repair is clearly focussed on providing good service, with good interchanges, loads of parking, comfortable trains and a high proportion of male and female younger staff who actually talk to passengers. Although not so glossy as a British train operator, the LIRR compares very well indeed assisted by value fares and a simple peak/off peak(not much more expensive) fares structure.

Metro North

Metro North, as by its name, runs four lines with branches northwards from New York, three of which use the impressive Grand Central station. Like the LIRR it is owned and run by the MTA but is managed separately without much dialogue between the two main line systems.

Grand Central is truly grand unlike the pokey Pennsylvania station with 44 platforms on two levels and 67 tracks! Further platforms are under construction to accommodate the East Side Access project which will provide access from Long Island also to Grand Central. To provide for distribution a complementary project is also under way to provide access right to the southern tip – the financial district, the Second Avenue Subway project.

Like the LIRR, Metro North uses EMUs and relatively old single level locomotive push-pull trains using diesel locomotives equipped with third rail collector shoes. Diesel operation is banned into New York’s stations and through the river tunnels. Although Metro North was the first to regularly operate dual mode trains, all three commuter operators now use them. This is in direct contrast to the British system where huge distances are regularly operated “under the wires”. Perhaps London and Birmingham should adopt similar legislation? Amtrak, the long distance operator only uses electric locomotives into New York, with a locomotive change where necessary at points much further out such as Washington.

There are no DMU services on any lines operating from New York, not even on local connecting branches. The practice on Metro-North is for off peak shuttles on the branches but through peak hour trains into Grand Central. Americans cherish the “one seat ride” commute, although they are quite happy to change between fast and slow trains on the Subway in huge numbers.

Given the opportunity to stable trains between the peaks in the station itself, Metro-North has been slow to develop off peak and week end service. However much high tech business has grown up north of New York, in Connecticut, so reverse peak and off-peak service including weekends is expanding.

[New York]New Jersey Transit have recently followed in order to run through trains to New York Penn from non electrified routes that join the electric main line. Through bi mode trains run from rhe Midtown Direct, the Rariton  Valley and  Jersey Shore line using new but extremely large  and heavy Bombardier bi-mode locomotives. One is pictured here at Newark Penn station. Formerly these trains had to run Hoboken for the ferry or PATH for New York or terminate at Newark.
Metro North and Amtrak have operated bi-mode locomotives into New York for years. New Jersey Transit have recently followed in order to run through trains to New York Penn from non electrified routes that join the electric main line. Through bi mode trains run from the Midtown Direct, the Rariton Valley and Jersey Shore line using new but extremely large and heavy Bombardier bi-mode locomotives. One is pictured here at Newark Penn station. Formerly these trains had to run Hoboken for the ferry or PATH for New York or terminate at Newark.

New Jersey Transit (NJT)

Manhattan is linked to Long Island by a multitude of subway lines – there are none across the Hudson River on the west side. This is not on account of the size of the river but because the other side of the river is in a different state - New Jersey. Bob Kiley, following his move to London, saw parallels that led to the London Overground system. How can efficient rail transit be provided outside the metro area? The awkward difference was that in the US case the rail operators in New Jersey either went bankrupt or wanted to get out of commuter rail having resisted investment in equipment. Furthermore not having a link into New York itself from several lines (the ex Jersey Central routes) meant a change to a ferry or the PATH system (described later) at an almost derelict Hoboken station and ferry terminal. New Jersey Transit was formed in 1979 out of the ashes, and the supplier railways couldn’t get rid of these services fast enough. The contrast with London in this respect is stark as UK operators are under a franchise contract, particularly suburban operators, so extracting these from the DfT into Overground was much more difficult.

The 9/11 Twin Towers bombing changed the situation drastically and the response was two-fold – Secaucus Juncton and the revitalisation of the Hoboken waterfront. New Jersey is becoming the “back office” of New York and starting to replicate Long Island as New York’s second dormitory.

Secaucus Junction and Mid Town Connect projects

Secaucus Junction is not a junction, it is simply a new two level station located where the North East Main Line corridor route crosses the 4 track route into Hoboken. It was built purely for interchange, with the principal intention of providing main line rail access into New York albeit at a premium fare. All tickets via Secaucus are marked “SEC” and, unusually in the US for main line, barriers are located between the two levels to enforce this. Neither New York Penn or Grand Central have barriers, unlike London terminals. Secaucus Junction has been a massive success leading to the next project to build a further 2 tracks under the Hudson River to New York Penn, now in its initial stages. The combined number of trains in each direction on the two track section is used by an heroic 25 trains per hour, similar to Crossrail but with manual signalling. Just to add to the fun, just south of this location near Newark there is a lifting bridge where sail can have priority, although the bridge itself being so old regularly fails so effectively cutting off New York from the nation’s main line rail system.

They have not gone for a Crossrail solution, instead linking up other lines to run directly into New York as well as starting on the huge project to build two more tracks under the river plus replacing the Penn station building by the conveniently located New York Farley Post Office which is potentially on a par with Grand Central. This is an Amtrak project. (Amtrak is not covered in this article).

NJT is growing fast and uses massive new 8 and 10 car double decker push pull trains. The older EMUs are being phased out and no new EMUs are being provided, unlike on the other two systems. NJT say that given these high all day volumes, locomotives are more economic than 12 car EMUs and permit double deck operation (much more expensive in an EMU owing to the necessary equipment).

[New York]The New Jersey Transit bilevel electric hauled  air conditioned 100mph push pull trains compare well with best practice in Europe. The loading gauge is restricted but larger than the European norm, so allowing more space upstairs without the inward curved window as seen on Bombardier's ubiquitous German coaches, for instance. The right-hand photo, taken from upstairs, shows the level boarding end vestibules displaying excellent design in the form of some seats and space for people with prams, luggage, bikes wheelchairs

The New Jersey Transit bilevel electric hauled air conditioned 100mph push pull trains compare well with best practice in Europe. The loading gauge is restricted but larger than the European norm, so allowing more space upstairs without the inward curved window as seen on Bombardier’s ubiquitous German coaches for instance. The second photo taken from upstairs shows the level boarding end vestibules displaying excellent design in the form of some seats and space for people with prams, luggage, bikes or wheelchairs.

A ride to Newark Airport or down to Trenton compares well with double deck electric push - pull operation in Germany or Switzerland, with 2 + 2 seating, air conditioning, wide end vestibules and fast boarding.

The Hoboken Waterfront

Directly facing the Empire State building across the river this formerly run down area is coming alive, changing in character from somewhere people change for New York into a destination in its own right, so helping the economics of rail. This is not directly comparable to Docklands in London as the financial district remains firmly in place around Wall Street. Nevertheless what is comparable is that in both cases the agent for change has been the provision of a light rail system - the Hudson- Bergen Light Rail in this case, the DLR in the case of London.

America has seen a rebirth of light rail in many cities but not as yet in New York. (There are emerging plans for a south to north parallel light rail line on the other side of New York on Brooklyn.)

NJT has three light rail lines, the Hudson – Bergen serving the waterfront, a partially underground system in Newark rising out of the ashes of what was an extensive streetcar system and a diesel operated light rail system further south operating from Trenton to Camden (near Philadelphia.) along a regeneration corridor. This latter is a successful tram – train operation sharing the tracks with massive American freight trains, so commercially proving the technology. This really is a fast operation with separation by time from freight (freight comes out between 2200 and 0500. Well worth the ride!

I visited the maintenance depots and operations on all three of these routes where dedicated staff maintain and service the trains, far from the main line culture using local initiative. The current preoccupation on the two electric routes is capacity where, as is common in Eastern Europe, but not Britain, low floor centre sections are being added to the LRVs.

[New York]NJT, like many Asian and European, but not JK light rail systems is increasing capacity by adding a new centre all low floor section. This is the first LRV no 105 to be converted to 3 car photographed  in the depot at Newark nearly ready to go.. The interior is also shown. Interestingly these vehicles are powerful and robust enough to add the extra vehicle without modification to the motors making this approach a. Very cost effective option.

NJT, like many Asian and European, but not UK light rail systems is increasing capacity by adding a new centre all low floor section. This is the first LRV no 105 to be converted to 3 car photographed in the depot at Newark nearly ready to go. The interior is also shown. Interestingly these vehicles are powerful and robust enough to add the extra vehicle without modification to the motors making this approach a. Very cost effective option.

There are no conductors on these light rail systems, which use TVMs and simple flat fare structures. Transfers are encouraged – London is just starting to make transfers available but only between buses so reducing the penalty of changing vehicles.

The Port Authority Trans Hudson – The PATH

Unlike London with a river east to west down the middle, New York has a North to South river at either side. The Port of London has a limited, but important role in London. In New York and New Jersey the Port authority manage the waterfront ports, the bridges and tunnels and the airports, with their associated transport systems.

The main rail role is the PATH which was designed to patch up the gap between the systems in New York with those in New Jersey. The two starting points in New Jersey, both big interchanges, are at Newark and at Hoboken, with two Hudson tunnels, one serving midtown Manhattan the other to the financial district terminating at the World Trade Center. This is a high intensity light metro system using trains of 8 cars. Its single purpose was to get commuters from New Jersey into New York. It is well integrated at the New Jersey end but not so in New York with its own cramped dingy stations. However new trains have been delivered (much like the old ones they replaced) and the system is subject to the provision of an automated control system to increase capacity.

This role is changing with the waterfront development and the PATH is starting to address system integration issues with the rest of the network including now using the MTA Metrocard. There are also plans to extend the Newark line to Newark airport.

World Trade Center – WTC

[New York]Concourse of the new World Trade Center station in New York
This picture shows the just reopened passenger concourse at World Trade Center. The space is enormous but implies it will be a lot busier when the Westfield development opens.

The WTC is being rebuilt following the 9/11 2001 bombing. The PATH station under the WTC is part of this project with an aim of both making a statement and providing proper linkages with several Subway lines, replacing a walk along several streets and re entering the systems. When the PATH was first built the financial district was the destination and onward journeys were not considered.

A price tag of $4bn for a simple metro station even puts Crossrail in London to shame (about £600m). However the station is a national statement. For the passenger it means vast amounts of space, light and easy access. A few seats would be nice but everybody is in too much of a rush for seats! The station is part of a development by Westfield, and partially opened in March 2016. Westfield is well known in West London and Stratford. The concourse is bigger than that at Grand Central despite only having three PATH platforms, with provision for three more, plus the subway interchanges.

Above the concourse is the “Oculus” designed by the Spanish Architect Santiago Calatrava to resemble a great bird, a design subsequently modified several times on security, construction and budget grounds – sounds familiar. It is not an albatross. It is certainly well worth a visit when in New York, also giving the chance to use to PATH to access the delights of the NJ rail network.

The latecomers to rail transport – the airports

Most visitors to New York will arrive at either JFK Airport on Long Island or Newark Liberty International airport in New Jersey.

John F Kennedy Airport (JFK) – The Skytrain

[New York]These two views show the JFK Skytrain in action. The first shows the automatically controlled unstaffed vehicles operating on traditional track that operate singly or in pairs taken from the front of an Airtrain vehicle. The second, also taken through the front window shows the elevated infrastructure over a freeway. This system is  designed for speed as can be seen from the photograph running at 3-minute headways at 60mph with no staff on board

These two views show the JFK Skytrain in action. The first shows the automatically controlled unstaffed vehicles operating on traditional track that operate singly or in pairs taken from the front of an Airtrain vehicle. The second, also taken through the front window shows the elevated infrastructure over a freeway. This system is designed for speed as can be seen from the photograph running at 3 minute headways at 60mph with no staff on board.

Users of JFK had to wait until 2003 for a rail connection in the form of an extremely fast automated and reliable steel rail 1 or 2 car train at 3 minute headways serving the 8 terminals at JFK but also running along dual carriageway median strips outside the airport complex to Jamaica station on the LIRR and the Subway and also to Howard Beech on the “A Train” subway route.

Although this is not a “one seat ride” it provides for good access to the whole region including to all points in Manhattan and Brooklyn. This has replaced the previous arrangement of writhing taxis, limousines, buses and minibuses with premium fares, and is used by most people using the airport. It compares very well with the London’s Heathrow connections, certainly on price - $5 to use Skytrain to access the interchange then about $5 on the LIRR to New York Penn station or $2.75 using the Subway, to anywhere in New York.

Newark Liberty International Airport – The Airtrain

[New York]The picture taken from the front of a Monorail train passing another shows the  Airtrain monorail linking Newark Airport to the main line interchange station. It was cutting edge technology when opened in 2000. Kids love it, regular users have probably got over the novelty. It is slow, wobbly and unreliable and the airport is out to render for a replacement system similar to that at JFK Airport. Each compartment is separate, with a door, akin to a slam door suburban carriage, however the doors slide open automatically. The operation is completely automatic with very loud safety warnings.
These pictures taken from the front of a Monorail train passing another shows the Airtrain monorail linking Newark Airport to the main line interchange station. It was cutting edge technology when opened in 2000. Kids love it, regular users have probably got over the novelty. It is slow, wobbly and unreliable and the airport is out to render for a replacement system similar to that at JFK Airport. Each compartment is separate, with a door, akin to a slam door suburban carriage, however the doors slide open automatically. The operation is completely automatic with very loud safety warnings.

Newark was the first airport to be connected to New York in 2000. The inter-terminal and car parking automated monorail system was extended to a new purpose-built interchange station on the North East corridor main line. It has no access by road, quite a problem when the monorail breaks down or is under maintenance as is increasingly frequent.

The airport station on the main line has a track layout similar to the Japanese Shinkansen standard with an island platform in each direction plus two high speed non stopping lines through the middle. It is also served in a half hearted way by Amtrak regional trains running south to Philadelphia and Harrisburg although if you want to go south it is usually easier usually and cheaper to use NJT and change on to Amtrak at Trenton.

The fare structure is the same as for JFK, ie $5 to the interchange then the regular NJT fare about $11 to New York.

Despite its reputation for slow speed, rickety ride and unreliability the monorail has been very successful commercially, so much so that the Port Authority is out to tender to replace it with a higher capacity more efficient and reliable system akin to the experience at JFK.

La Guardia

La Guardia, the third airport in the region (domestic and Canada), still relies on bus and taxis. A JFK Skytrain style system is being built on the same principle of linking to the Subway network.

Overall verdict


The rail transport systems serving New York have undergone many trials and tribulations including underfunding, tropical storms flooding the system and the WTC bombing .They are emerging and developing fast. There is much good practice. Population and economic growth has continued and the previous strategies of catch up towards a state of good repair, have now been augmented by the need for new projects both on the mainline railways such as the East Side Access project and, eventually the new Penn Station and on the Subway with the new Second Avenue subway.

What appears bewildering soon becomes familiar but overall the whole system is akin to a giant American style all you can eat buffet. Difficult to choose what to eat, the price structure is simple, and you can eat as much or as little as you like.

It is clear why the transport organisations in New York and London regularly discuss and compare best practice.

[New York]I might now be more familiar with riding the New York transport system but what about this little customer out for an evening out. I wonder how many Railfuture readers know what this animal is. You can post your guesses. I know only because I was told, so will post the answer on the Railfuture site in due course.

I might now be more familiar with riding the New York transport system but what about this little customer out for an evening out. I wonder how many Railfuture readers know what this animal is. You can send your guesses to mmc at railfuture.org.uk. I know only because I was told, so will post the answer on the Railfuture site in due course. All photos were taken by the author in May 2016.


This is one of our series of Go and Compare articles.