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.