by Kevin Walsh

Funny thing about subways. I am an avid subway rider since I do not own a car and admittedly, have always been too chicken to learn to drive. Thus it has always been buses and trains, car services, and the kindnesses of driving friends to take me where I want to go. I have been frustrated in that regard since March 2020 since I haven’t taken a subway train since then, also fearing the enclosed air suffused perhaps with Covid germs; despite the MTA’s overnight cleaning policy, I will not trust the subways until the frequency is reduced 100% or they invent a vaccine and neither is assured. Am I through with the subways altogether?

I do ride the Transit Museum nostalgia train runs with older cars, most often at Christmas and once during the summer. Still, I’m glad most of my subway rides have been in modern equipment with air conditioning, the most important invention of the 20th Century, more important than the computer I’m writing this on. However, as far as the subways are concerned the cars themselves aren’t my first enthusiasm. Signage is.

In the 1980s, the MTA settled on the present color scheme for identifying subway lines. In places like Boston, Chicago, Washington, subway and surface lines are identified by color. But NYC’s system is so complicated that identifying routes by color would be impossible. Instead, individual lines have numbers and letters; I’m sure you’re aware of that.

However, trunks are identified by color, according to what avenue or street they run beneath (for the most part) in Manhattan:


7th Avenue (1, 2, 3) = Red
Park/Lexington (4, 5, 6) = Green
42nd Street (7) = Purple
42nd Street (S) = Black


Broadway/2nd Avenue (N, Q, R, W) = Yellow
14th Street (L) = Gray
Nassau Street (J) = Brown


6th Avenue (B, D, F, M) = Orange
8th Avenue (A, C, E) = Blue

In Brooklyn the IND G line runs under Lafayette, Marcy, Union and Greenpoint Avenues and is light green.

Why can’t they be identified by color? Because they combine. For example in Manhattan, the E and M combine under 53rd Street and run into Queens, and on Queens Boulevard, the E, F, R and M, from three different Manhattan “trunks” all use the same express and local tracks.

Subway cars formerly placed trunk line color bullets, marked with the line number or letter, on the front of the train. One knew what train was coming when they were in the distant tunnel by the bullet color and large letter or number! Countdown clocks displaying which trains are coming and when have mitigated the need for this and indeed, newer subway cars such as the R-142, R-143, R-160 and R-188 have eliminated the color bullets except for the electronic strips inside the cars, where they are still displayed.

I miss the bullets, and also the window-facing seats still found on the R-46 and R-68 cars, which will likely be phased out by mid-decade, 2025-2030. But will I be able to enjoy interior subway car design at all anymore?

Newer R-212 cars, set to enter service later this decade, reportedly restore the bullets.

Check out the ForgottenBook, take a look at the gift shop, and as always, “comment…as you see fit.”



Ron S June 26, 2020 - 12:17 pm

Re the danger of riding subways, there have been recent reports that subways are LOW risk environments for CoVid. The studies looked at many international cities with subways and traced many cases (I believe in Paris). You can find the details, but in conclusion, people were not getting infected in subways. One theory is that people were masked, social distanced, but most importantly DID NOT TALK.

Andy June 26, 2020 - 6:49 pm

I too like the color-coded trunk line bullets. The current NYC subway color coding dates from about 1980, when NYCTA replaced an earlier 1967-68 version under which each line was a different color. In those days there were more routes than today because of variations depending on time of day, plus some shuttle lines that have vanished. Each variation of route often received a separate letter designation, even if it the variation was a late-night shuttle when the main service did not run (such as the #5 and its late night shuttle in The Bronx). Thus there were not enough contrasting colors, requiring colors were to be used two or more times.
Unfortunately, the color codes were applied without any apparent logic, resulting in a mish-mash. For example, black was used for the QJ (today’s J line), the LL (today’s L), the B (today’s D in Brooklyn), and the #5. Dark blue was the A, TT (a variation of today’s D in Brooklyn), the and IRT’s long vanished Bowling Green-South Ferry shuttle. And orange was used for no less than six routes – 1, 7, and D, plus the JJ (a J line variation), the EE (the R between Whitehall and Forest Hills today), and the long-vanished Culver Shuttle in Brooklyn.
In my not- always-humble opinion, the current scheme of using one distinct color for the trunk routes is a vast improvement over the 1967-68 scheme. It’s relatively easy to follow each line. I am always amused to find a person asking where the Orange or Green Line is located, since no New Yorker uses such terminology. Such a person is an definitely an out-of-towner. But don’t take offense – after two recent trips to Manhattan this month, after a three month enforced absence, I wish more out-of-towners were back in NYC – even those from Boston where the Orange and Green Lines reign supreme.

Andy June 28, 2020 - 2:14 am

Kevin, you might be interested in this:
You need a “Culture Pass” which as an out-of-towner I cannot get.

Steve June 28, 2020 - 3:13 pm

“Newer R-212 cars, set to enter service later this decade, reportedly restore the bullets.”

I believe you mean the R211.

Ed Findlay July 1, 2020 - 3:10 pm

The colors don’t matter when you are already in the tunnels at the station, what matters is the actual letters, circles, and diamonds. As much as the bullets were helpful, they were also conceived in a different era when rollsigns were still used extensively.

Technology changed. LEDs are more efficient and can change easily, you can wipe a whole train’s signage clear in a second and show the accurate destination where it’d take minutes in the past and likely require someone to double-check the signs to ensure that they weren’t broken or stuck. The new LED technology is evolving so fast that the signs can finally show color alongside showing different routes, something that wasn’t possible YET when the previous two designs were implemented. If it gets cheap enough, the previous two designs will get variable color LED signs in the future when they get overhauled, so it’s coming for them- it’s just a matter of time.

I’d rather have a sign that was accurate than one that looks nice but is wrong, but then again I’m just a commuter.

Railoffroader2 July 12, 2020 - 1:14 am

Multi colored LEDs have been around for sometime now, NYCT just went the cheap route with the single color end of car route signage


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