Monday, August 29, 2011

Train News: For the C Train’s Rickety and Rackety Cars, Retirement Will Have to Wait

From New York Times: For the C Train’s Rickety and Rackety Cars, Retirement Will Have to Wait
There is the telltale wheeze, then an ominous rattle. And then the C train, that least loved of New York City subway lines, rumbles sadly into the station, its faded tin-can siding a dreary reminder to passengers of an earlier subterranean era.

The cars on the C line are not only the oldest in the New York subway: They also rank among the oldest city subway trains still in regular operation anywhere in the world. And they are not leaving anytime soon.

Like an employer pushing back a valued worker’s retirement, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority has responded to budget problems by extending the lives of the C cars, known by their model number as R32s. The cars will now run through at least 2017, when they will be 53 years old, well past the tenure envisioned upon their gleaming debut during the Johnson administration in 1964.

To be sure, there is Buenos Aires, with its fleet of 100-year-old wooden subway cars still rattling on. (Local preservation groups have held up plans for replacements.) And the London tube has its creaky Metropolitan Line, whose 51-year-old trains are just now being replaced.

But many major metro systems, including those in Boston and Paris, have phased out most of their elderly trains, leaving New York at the forefront of the subway senior citizens club.

In a modern city that prides itself on Bloombergian efficiency, the C is a throwback, said Gene Russianoff, staff lawyer at the Straphangers’ Campaign, the riders’ group. “It is a grim reminder of what the past looked like.”

Some riders relish the retro feel of the R32, its dim taupe interiors, old-fashioned roll signs, and an unusual front window that allows an unobstructed view of the track.

Time, however, has taken a toll. This week, the Straphangers’ Campaign released its rankings of the city’s subway lines, and for the third year in a row, the C ranked dead last.

The survey found that C trains break down three times as often as the average subway car, arrive only once every 10 minutes at peak periods, and have the least understandable announcements in the system.

It can be hard to imagine that when the trains were introduced in September 1964, in a ceremony at Grand Central Terminal complete with a 20-piece marching band, the R32s carried the optimistic nickname “Brightliners” and were heralded as the most technologically advanced trains yet seen in the New York City subway.

“The cars, which gleam of steel on the outside, are finished in shades of blue inside,” according to a contemporary report in The New York Times. “Contoured fiberglass seats are arranged along the sides.”

The Brightliners, manufactured by the Budd Company of Philadelphia, were the first subway cars in New York to be made of stainless steel, and they are often cited for their superior durability and craftsmanship, according to James Greller, a subway historian who has written widely on the topic.

In fact, the R32s have outlasted some of their younger brethren. Five other classes of subway cars built between 1964 and 1973 have been retired by the transportation authority, in some cases due to structural defects. One type of train, built around the same time as the R32, can still be found in Queens — as a mounted museum display outside of Borough Hall.

Subway officials had intended to replace the R32s a few years ago with the stylish new R160s, those sleek trains with the digital displays that now ply the E, F, M and other lettered lines. But another type of train, this one from the 1970s, began breaking down and had to be retired first.

New York City Transit will spend about $24 million to refurbish the R32s for their extended careers. (The cars already underwent a major overhaul in the late 1980s.)

A subway spokesman, Jeremy Soffin, said the extension was the most cost-efficient way to provide reliable service at a time when transit financing is scarce. “We’re stretching the dollars we have,” he said, adding that, ideally, the agency could provide every customer with the digital amenities that come standard in the newer fleet.

“The financial situation has forced our hand a little bit,” Mr. Soffin said. “We’re not able to do exactly what we’d like to do.”

Special measures must be taken to keep the R32s in adequate shape. This summer, about half of the cars were switched onto the A line as a way to lessen the demands on overtaxed air-conditioning units. (The C runs entirely underground in stifling conditions, while the A has a long outdoor run in Queens that provides natural cooling.) The cars are expected to return to the C line after Labor Day.

On a Brooklyn-bound R32 on Thursday, stone-faced passengers watched a fly buzz around walls that resembled the color of curdled milk. “It’s loud, it’s bad,” Ron Goldbrenner, 69, said of the C, which he has ridden since he was a child growing up in Washington Heights. In that time, he said, the cars had changed little: “It’s much more the same than different.”

Opinion was not always so negative on the R32s. Mr. Greller, the historian, said that when they made their debut, the shiny Brightliners were warmly welcomed by riders accustomed to ugly, drab subway cars. Stainless steel, at the time, was a well-received novelty.

“People were impressed,” he said, citing the original robin’s-egg blue interior and aquamarine seats. “Rail fans love the R32s. They are very pleased they are not going to replace them.”

No comments:

Post a Comment