Me and the BMT, A Memoir
BMT Division sign at Avenue U. Mid-1960s. Photo by Brian J. Cudahy.
By Brian J. Cudahy
My personal relationship with the BMT can be said to involve the period from about 1943 through 1959, a time when I advanced from pre-teen to young adult. I have some admittedly vague pre-1943 BMT recollections, as well as random experiences from the post-1959 period. But "my" BMT is largely the system as it emerged from the years of the Second World War, made a transition from governance by the Board of Transportation to that of the Transit Authority, and in the end began to prepare itself for effective merger into the IND with "Chrystie Street" and all that it represented. While my strongest recollections are of the Brighton Line, I was prone to wander all over the system ... from Flushing to Jamaica to Canarsie and points in between.
My "home station" was Kings Highway on the Brighton Line, which I usually reached aboard the B-2 Avenue R bus, or, as it was once known: B-2 Flatbush Avenue-Avenue R. The "Flatbush Avenue" in the hyphenated title referenced an era when the route ran south on Flatbush Avenue beyond Avenue U to the Rockaway Inlet ferry and, after 1937, across the new Marine Parkway Bridge to Riis Park. (At one time, although it never reached the point of common usage, a portion of Flatbush Avenue, to the south of Avenue U, was formally called Marine Parkway ... hence the name of the bridge. And this, too: the B-2 bus originally ran only from Avenue U to the Rockaway ferry and some of the older buses carried line signs that read, simply: B-2 Flatbush Avenue. The route was extended to the Kings Highway station of the Brighton Line, via Avenue R, in the 1930s.)
I want to keep this reflection focused on BMT subway and el services, but do want to point out that the B-2 route was, in my day, originally worked by small Twin Coach buses ... they could have been Macks, I suppose ... but they had exit doors at the very rear and a neat single seat next to the rear door. Next came larger 800-series ACF gasoline buses with center exits ... my very first solo bus ride was aboard such an ACF ... followed by 1400-series to 1800-series postwar Twin Coaches, and, finally, beginning in 1951, 5200-5400 series Macks, with a few odd fleets, like 4000-series GMs, thrown in from time to time. The Avenue R bus operated out of Flatbush Depot except from the spring of 1949 through early 1950 when, in preparation for the wholesale motorization of area streetcar lines in the spring of 1951 and the need to expand the bus portion of Flatbush Depot, Avenue R buses used West Fifth Street in Coney Island as their operating base while Flatbush was being rebuilt. To this day, in fact, a portion of the exterior wall of Flatbush Depot along Utica Avenue predates the current 1950 structure and was once part of the facility where those early Twin Coaches and ACF's were serviced before, during and after the Second World War. Enough about buses! Instead let's hop aboard an Avenue R bus headed toward Kings Highway and take a look at the Brighton Line.
BMT D-Type Triplex on the Brighton Express at Beverley Road, 1956. Notice the uncovered third rail. Photo by Brian J. Cudahy.
The Brighton Express, with red and green marker lights, operated from Brighton Beach to Times Square, used the Manhattan Bridge, and ran from early morning to mid-evening Monday through Saturday. Its equipment, in my earliest days, was exclusively 2000-series A-B units, eight cars during rush hours, six cars in the off-peak, with cars being added or cut off at Brighton Beach.
The Brighton Local had variations. It ran from Coney Island to Queens Plaza from early morning through mid-evening, Monday through Saturday, and operated via the Montague Street Tunnel using local tracks in both Brooklyn and Manhattan. Marker lights were two red away from Coney Island, and two white toward Coney Island ... one of very few regular BMT services that used different marker codes in different directions. In the 1940s, Brighton Local equipment was a combination of 2000-series A-B units and 6000-series D units. Rush hours saw eight car trains of A-B units and four D units, while during off-peak trains were six A-B's, as I recall, or as few as two D units, although more often three.
When the Brighton Express stopped running in mid-evening hours, Brighton Locals underwent a transformation; they operated via the Manhattan Bridge, used express tracks in Manhattan between Canal Street and Times Square, terminated at 57th Street, Manhattan, and displayed the same marker lights as the express, red and green in both directions. This was often referred to as "theater service," providing a modicum of faster express service for Brighton passengers returning from productions in Manhattan. Sometime after midnight, Brighton Locals returned to the Montage Street Tunnel and local tracks in Manhattan but still terminated at 57th Street. They would be extended to Queens Plaza before the start of the morning rush hour. Brighton Locals operated via the Manhattan Bridge and used express tracks in Manhattan during the day and evening on Sunday, as well. Such "bridge local" service utilized six-car trains of AB units or three D units.
I am aware that Brighton service patterns in the early years of the Broadway subway in Manhattan had additional variations, such as a mid-day local running between Queens Plaza and Prospect Park and locals out of Coney Island operating no further than 57th Street. But as this is a personal reflection, and not a thorough history, I will only describe what I remember.
BMT Standards on the Brighton line. View from Ave. H; Newkirk Ave stationhouse in background on the right, down the hill. 1950s. Photo by Brian J. Cudahy.
Brighton-Nassau was a special weekday rush-hour service that initially ran only in the mornings and involved three trains that began in Brighton Beach, I believe, and operated to Broad Street on the Nassau Loop via the Manhattan Bridge, by-passing DeKalb Avenue and Myrtle Avenue. My recollection is that return trips may have carried passengers and operated via the Manhattan Bridge after turning on the Broad Street tail tracks. City-bound trains displayed an unusual roll sign: "EXPRESS--BROAD STREET," "EXPRESS--NASSAU STREET," while return trips displayed: "BRIGHTON EXP.--BRIGHTON BEACH" and "VIA BRIDGE--BRIGHTON BEACH." In the mid-1950s, city-bound trains began making local stops at Neck Road and Avenue U before switching to express tracks at Kings Highway and service levels may have been increased by an additional train or two. (It's also not impossible that this Brighton-Nassau service originated at Coney Island, not Brighton Beach.) In addition, a complimentary evening service was also begun sometime in the early-1950s. Such trains deadheaded to the Nassau Loop via the Manhattan Bridge and then returned to Brooklyn, in service, via the Montague Street Tunnel showing: "BRIGHTON EXP.--BRIGHTON BEACH" and "VIA TUNNEL--BRIGHTON BEACH." All Nassau Loop service used 2000-series AB units exclusively and, in addition, carried a circular white metal disc on the coupling gate of the lead car.
Although I never rode or even saw such a service, there was a parallel operation to the Brighton's Nassau Loop rush hour operation that began each morning from the 95th Street terminal of the Fourth Avenue Line. Like the Brighton service it operated via the Manhattan Bridge and terminated at Broad Street; it displayed double white marker lights and, I believe, ran express from 59th Street to Pacific Street and bypassed DeKalb and Myrtle avenues. Since the Fourth Avenue express tracks north of 36th Street were already hosting three rush-hour express services ... the Sea Beach, West End and Culver ... I suspect these special express trains out of 95th Street were worked into the schedule in lieu of Culver trains, since three services were the maximum the BMT ever scheduled over a given piece of trackage. I do not recall if there was a parallel service from the Nassau Loop to 95th Street during the evening rush hour. (I seem to have read that in later years ... which is to say the 1960s prior to and possibly even after Chrystie Street ... these rush hour Brighton and Fourth Avenue trains to and from the Nassau Loop operated via the Montague Street tunnel and terminated at Chambers Street.)
The Franklin Avenue Shuttle of the Brighton Line ran, for the most part, between Prospect Park and Franklin Avenue, with three-car trains of 2000-series AB units ... plus, more often than not, the Budd-built pre-war experimental articulated unit, No. 7029. (Toward the end of the 1950's, the Franklin Avenue Shuttle also saw ex-Staten Island Railway cars that the BMT identified as its 2900-series providing service, as well as re-configured Lo-V cars from the IRT that were rendered surplus when newer cars were added to that division's fleet. As will be noted below, the BMT was chronically short of steel subway cars and freeing up even the dozen or so 2000-series cars that ordinarily worked the shuttle was regarded as important.) Double-red marker lights were displayed on this shuttle line.
BMT Standards on the Franklin Shuttle at Franklin Avenue, 1955. Photo by Brian J. Cudahy.
During the summer ... which is to say from Memorial Day to Labor Day ... shortly after the end of the morning rush hour each day and into the evening hours, Franklin service was upgraded: six-car trains of 2000-series AB units and operation through to Stillwell Avenue in Coney Island using express tracks between Prospect Park and Brighton Beach, although during evening rush hours, Coney Island-bound trains used local tracks and made all local stops. This special Franklin-Coney Island service showed two green marker lights, as I recall, and trains also carried a circular white metal disc, often called a bull's eye, on the front and rear coupling gates. Roll signs read: "EXPRESS--CONEY ISLAND" and "EXPRESS--FRANKLIN AVENUE." Such service would typically move from express to local tracks, southbound, just before Brighton Beach. From September through May, Franklin Avenue service operated between Franklin Avenue and Brighton Beach every Sunday from mid-morning until evening ... three-car trains making all local stops.
During the 1940s and 1950s, Franklin Avenue shuttle trains reversed direction at Prospect Park on the local or express running tracks south of the station. It was only later that a crossover was installed in the cut north of Empire Boulevard and shuttle trains both arrived and departed from the city-bound platform at Prospect Park station and a good deal of operational congestion was eliminated ... although passengers had to walk up and down two flights of stairs to effect what had previously been an across-the-platform transfer. I believe ... but do not know for certain ... that in the 1920s and perhaps into the 1930s, routine service to and from Franklin Avenue terminated not at Prospect Park but at Kings Highway. My suspicion is that open-platform el cars were used in such service, not steel subway cars.
An additional oddity of Franklin Avenue service would happen on "sunny summer Sundays." That was when a combined service was run that began at Franklin Avenue, operated via express tracks to Stillwell Avenue, and then continued over the rarely used Sea Beach express tracks all the way to Chambers Street on the Nassau Loop via the Manhattan Bridge. Between Stillwell Avenue and Chambers Street, such express service made stops only at 59th Street, 36th Street and Pacific Street. Often, the storage tracks south of Brighton Beach would be cleared out when this service operated and trains would remain on express tracks through Brighton Beach and Ocean Parkway stations. During the years of my association with the BMT, the 1940s and the 1950s, this summer Sunday express service was the only time I ever recall seeing 2000-series AB units operating over the Sea Beach Line in regular passenger service, as the conventional Sea Beach Express was covered exclusively by 6000-series D units. Every now and then, a D unit might be found in West End service and by the early 1960s, 2000-series AB units would become common on the Sea Beach. But I still think of regular Sea Beach service as one that was operated with D units exclusively. (An oddity of the D units is that while they were the first New York rolling stock to be equipped with lighted line and destination signs, the destination curtains featured white letters on a white background that could only be seen if the designations were lighted from behind ... and even then, it was difficult to make out the reading when trains were operating out of doors in daylight hours.)
Back to the Brighton Line: each express station between Brighton Beach and Church Avenue was equipped with a lighted sign box between the tracks that could be seen by northbound passengers. It had three lines: "EXPRESS RUNNING," "TO MANHATTAN" and "TO FRANKLIN AVENUE." The appropriate messages would be lighted in red. If no express service was operating, the signs would be unlighted.
BMT sign at Coney Island/Stillwell Avenue, 1975. Photo by Brian J. Cudahy.
Coney Island. An interesting feature associated with the operation of Franklin Avenue service to Coney Island was a shifting of platform assignments at Stillwell Avenue for the summer. During the bulk of the year, Sea Beach service used Tracks G and H and the West End tracks A and B. The Brighton Local used tracks B and C and the Culver Line tracks E and F. For the summer, the Sea Beach shifted to tracks A and B, the West End to Track H (only), tracks C and D were used by Franklin Avenue express trains while the Brighton Local used, in some years, tracks E and F, and in other years ... or at least in one year as I recall ... track G. The Culver Line remained on tracks E and F if the Brighton Local used track G, or used track G if the Brighton Local moved to E and F. In order for Brighton Local trains to reach tracks E, F or G, of course, they had to move onto the lower level between Ocean Parkway and West Eighth Street. (The ramps that permitted such moves are still in place, but all trackage has long since been removed.) The interlocking plant to the south, or west, of the Ocean Parkway station was locked into a position that allowed access to the upper level only during the winter, while the interlocking plant on the lower level at West Eighth Street was rigged to permit only Culver Line access. (The second head on interlocking signals at these two points was covered over when the switches were locked into a single position, converting them, effectively, from interlocking signals into automatic block signals. My recollection is also that express tracks at Ocean Parkway were treated as dead-end at the south end of the station during winter months when the interlocking was shut down.) Both of these plants would be re-activated for the summer and towermen assigned to each location. A further oddity of this summer platform switch was the fact that from, roughly, midnight through the end of the morning rush hour, tracks B and C at Stillwell Avenue would be unused, since Franklin Avenue service was not operating to and from Coney Island at those hours. From time to time, a Sea Beach or West End train going out of service at the end of the morning rush hour might terminate on these tracks, though.
Daily summer Brighton service between Franklin Avenue and Coney Island was discontinued sometime after IND service was extended to Coney Island over the Culver Line in the fall of 1954, although my memory is a little vague on exactly when this happened. For that matter, it may have continued on summer Sundays for a number of years beyond. During the summer of 1954, and perhaps 1953 as well, when the Culver Line was being upgraded for IND service, no Brighton trains utilized the ramp to the lower level between Ocean Parkway and West Eighth Street and both Brighton Local and Brighton-Franklin services terminated on Tracks C and D. It was also at roughly this same time that the Sea Beach became a year-round tenant on Tracks A and B and the West End on G and H ... and the tracks at Stillwell Avenue were re-designated with numbers rather than letters.
Another interesting operation at Stillwell Avenue involved adding cars to trains before the rush hour, and all BMT services using Coney Island would have such changes made only here, not at their in-town terminals. Culver Locals typically operated three-car trains during midday, and these would be expanded to six for rush hours. Additional equipment would be moved up from Stillwell Yard by drill motormen onto whatever tracks Culver service was using and coupled onto trains as they sat in the station. Inbound trains, of course, were forced to maneuver into the station at dead slow speed and key by various red signals since the track they were using was occupied by the soon-to-be-added extra cars. Brighton Local and West End trains, that "grew" from six to eight cars of AB units for the rush hour would see two-car cuts of A units ... i.e., single car versions of 2000-series cars ... move up from the yard and be coupled to a six-car train in the station, while Sea Beach trains, as well as any Brighton Locals using D units, would also be expanded. Coupling AB units required a man to be down on the tracks to ensure that m.u. cables located under the couplers were securely in place, while m.u. cables on D units could be attached by men working at platform level. Until work-rule changes were effected, eight-car trains of AB units were assigned two conductors, one for the six-car portion of the train, another for the in the extra two cars. My recollection is that trains comprised of four D units ... the operational equivalent of eight-car trains of A-B units ... only required a single conductor.
Culver Local on Stillwell Track E in summer of 1954. Photo by Brian J. Cudahy.
Another feature of Coney Island worth noting is the fact that throughout the 1940s and into the 1950s, both the Brighton Line and the Culver Line were not equipped with covered third rail, although both the Sea Beach and West End were. Uncovered third rail was positioned closer to the running rails and was necessary for older cars still equipped with elevated style contact shoes that were suspended from above and so could not be used on third rail equipped with a protective cover board. All steel subway cars featured tongue-like third rail shoes that extended outward from the shoe beam and could easily maintain contact with covered third rail positioned further from the running rails, as well as with uncovered third rail. Some elevated cars were converted to "subway style" third rail shoes and they could operate on trackage equipped with covered third rail. Such equipment was identified by white bands painted on the end of the car outboard of the anti-climber.
During the 1940s and early 1950s, covered third rail did not begin on the Brighton Line until trains reached the express tracks at Prospect Park where a sign between the tracks read, as I recall: "Cars equipped with elevated style contact shoes not permitted on express tracks north of this point." The Culver Line featured only uncovered third rail and my recollection is that the third rail between Stillwell Avenue and Coney Island Yards was also uncovered ... or perhaps there were dual third rails, covered on one side of the tracks, uncovered on the other. The Culver was converted to covered third rail in advance of the extension of IND service over that line in 1954 and the Brighton was so converted later in the 1950s as the line was upgraded to handle newer "four motor" R units, then on order. Virtually all outdoor trackage on the BMT's Eastern Division save that across the Williamsburg Bridge also featured uncovered third rail as late as mid-century. It, too, was converted to covered third rail by, roughly, 1960, and I recall a warning sign similar to that on the Brighton at Prospect Park just beyond Marcy Avenue as trains curved off the Broadway elevated line onto the Williamsburg Bridge. (Because elevated style third rail was positioned closer to the running rails than covered third rail, cars equipped with elevated style shoes could be towed along trackage with covered third rail without damaging their pick up shoes.)
Finally this about Coney Island: because the BMT's fleet of steel subway cars was stretched rather thin, while there were generous quantities of no-longer-needed elevated equipment on the property, both Culver and West End services were adjusted during rush hours. Trains to and from Manhattan terminated before they reached Coney Island ... Kings Highway on the Culver Line, Bay Parkway on the West End. Shuttle service beyond to Coney Island was then operated with older wooden-bodied elevated cars, largely, in my recollection, 1500-series C units formerly used on the Fulton Street Line, although I do have recollections of open-platform "gate cars" operating on the Culver Line, as will be discussed presently.
Saturday, October 30, 1954: Construction of connection from IND subway to Ditmas Ave-Culver El. Photo taken around 8:00am. Connection would be completed by the afternoon and IND D service would run thru to Stillwell Avenue. Photo by Brian J. Cudahy.
The Culver Line. Of the four Coney Island lines, the Culver, during BMT days, was the most unusual. Alone among the four, it did not dispatch trains into midtown Manhattan over the Broadway subway; its trains operated onto the Nassau Loop. During off-peak hours, a Culver Local operated between Coney Island and Chambers Street via the Montague Street, using local tracks between 36th Street and Pacific Street. Such Culver Locals were typically operated with three car trains of 2000-series AB units and they reversed direction in the tunnel beyond the Chambers Street station on one of the tracks that led to the Manhattan Bridge. Come rush hour, Culver service would be upgraded. Six-car trains would operate as the Culver Express and run between Kings Highway and the Nassau Loop, using the Manhattan Bridge on city-bound trips, the Montague Street Tunnel en-route back to Brooklyn. Culver Express service would bypass DeKalb Avenue and Myrtle Avenue on Manhattan-bound trips and by-pass DeKalb on the return. This latter maneuver involved using a crossover north of DeKalb Avenue that led from the tracks out of the Montague Street tunnel onto the express track that by-passed DeKalb Avenue. Because trains approaching this junction could be routed in any of three possible directions, a unique "blue light" was incorporated into the interlocking signal. If the lower head of the interlocking signal was showing yellow, the switch was set for the outside track that led to the Fourth Avenue line; if it were green, the switch was set for the center track that led to the Brighton line; and if it were blue, the switch was set for the express track ... which also led to the Fourth Avenue line. Both Culver Local and Culver Express services used green and yellow marker lights.
Although it was not a Culver service, something that deserves mention along with the Culver Line was a rush-hour operation over the West End that, in effect, complimented Culver Express service. This was a West End Local service, displaying white and yellow marker lights, that reached the Nassau Loop via the Montague Street tunnel and returned to Brooklyn across the Manhattan Bridge. Sometimes referred to as the West End Short Line, such rush-hour trains usually terminated in Brooklyn at 62nd Street, but sometimes at Bay Parkway. (Prior to the completion of the link up between the Montague Street Tunnel and the Nassau Loop in 1931, these rush hour West End Locals operated via the Montague Street Tunnel and terminated, in Manhattan, at City Hall.)
There was an interesting variation in roll sign displays for both Culver Express and West End Local services. BMT AB units between No. 2500 and No. 2899, as well as trailer cars Nos. 4000-4049, had larger roll sings and included a complicated multi-line designation: "VIA BRIDGE THRU NASSAU LOOP VIA TUNNEL TO BROOKLYN" for the Culver Express, and an opposite reading for the West End Local. Cars with smaller roll signs, i.e. Nos. 2000-2499, could not include all this verbiage so for their in-city terminal they simply displayed "NASSAU STREET." Interestingly, while "NASSAU STREET" was carried as a possible destination on roll signs of all BMT AB units, there never was such a station on the system!
BMT A/B-Type Standard train entering Ninth Avenue from the Culver line, 1954. Photo by Brian J. Cudahy.
Another Culver oddity I recall involved the operation of open-platform elevated equipment between Ninth Avenue and Coney Island in the 1940s even after through Culver service over the Fifth Avenue el was discontinued in 1940. This service was a predecessor, in a sense, of the Kings Highway—Coney Island rush hour shuttle service of the early 1950 snoted above, and supplemented conventional Culver subway service to the Nassau Loop. I do recall signs posted at Culver Line stations indicating what hours Culver El service operated, and I recall that my first trip aboard a BMT "gate car" was on the Culver Line out of West Eighth Street. During rush hours when Culver Express service terminated at Kings Highway and Culver el service ran between Coney Island and Ninth Avenue, express trains would use the center express track between Ninth Avenue and Kings Highway in the direction opposite the flow of rush hour traffic, the better to speed steel equipment back to the point where it was needed to handle rush hour crowds.
Although I have no recollection of it, prior to the completion of the Nassau Loop in 1931 there was no Culver service into the Fourth Avenue subway at all. Culver trains used elevated equipment exclusively and reached downtown Brooklyn and Manhattan via the Fifth Avenue el and the Brooklyn Bridge. Then after the Nassau Loop was completed in 1931 but before the BMT's Fifth Avenue-Bay Ridge el was abandoned in 1940, the Culver Line operated subway service into the Fourth Avenue Line and el service over the Fifth Avenue el.
A final oddity that I associate with the Culver Line was the Norton's Point trolley line. The layout of the streetcar terminal over Stillwell Avenue strongly suggested that this line was once connected with the Culver approach to Stillwell Avenue and in later years I would learn additional details about how open platform el cars from the Culver Line once transited the Norton's Point Line, drawing electric current from overhead trolley wires, although such operations were long gone when I began to take notice of such things. I rode the Norton's Point trolley line only once and recall seeing lines of streetcars parked inside Sea Gate beyond the terminal of the car line at West 37th Street, a terminal that the Norton's Point Line shared with the Sea Gate Line, whose cars operated along Surf and Emmons avenues between Sea Gate and Sheepshead Bay. Both the Norton's Point Line and the Sea Gate Line were motorized in the late 1940s.
Lighted Platform Signs. Given the multiple options that were possible in and around DeKalb Avenue, lighted signs were installed on northbound platforms at Pacific Street and DeKalb Avenue to inform passengers where the next train was headed. Signs at DeKalb contained three options: "VIA BRIDGE," "VIA TUNNEL," plus "AND NASSAU STREET." Pacific Street was more complex, and included many options that I never saw lighted. In addition to the possibilities included at DeKalb Avenue, Pacific Street signs also showed "NEXT STOP," and these options included "DEKALB AVENUE," "CANAL STREET," "LAWRENCE STREET" and "CHAMBERS STREET." There were also similar lighted signs at key stations along the Nassau Loop in Manhattan, but memory fails to recall the options they included.
Times Square. Nothing could quite match the drama ... and that's the only word for it ... of three separate Broadway express services terminating and reversing direction at Times Square. During rush hour it was especially hectic. A crew of drill motormen was on duty at the downtown end of the uptown platform and when an inbound train would discharge its passengers, such a motorman would board the last car and begin to set himself up in the cab. He would often change the marker lights as the train was pulling out of the station and into the twin tail tracks beyond. The crossovers were located a full train length beyond the end of the platform, so even if the two tail tracks were occupied, an inbound train could clear the station area and let a following train enter the station ... after keying by various red block signals, of course. The inbound motorman would close and lock his cab once he brought his train to a halt on the tail track ... which extended all the way up to the downtown end of the 49th Street local station ... and then the drill motorman, already set up in the Brooklyn-bound cab, was ready to move the train back into the station as soon as the towerman gave him signals to proceed. Meanwhile the regular motorman would walk through the train and take over for the return trip to Brooklyn once the train was back in the station at Times Square. The BMT's AB units kept their end doors locked while in passenger service, but conductors could unlock and open these doors from their in-car control stations and did so during the reversing procedure at Times Square.
This whole operation was hectic and obviously not the last word in efficiency. But it was quite a show while it lasted!
Uptown local trains sign on the BMT Broadway Line at Herald Square. Photo by Brian J. Cudahy.
One more oddity of Times Square, as well as other Brooklyn-bound express platforms of the BMT's Broadway Line in Manhattan, was the use of separate stopping marks for each of the three express services, a feature that allowed the company to hang small circular signs along the length of the platform, each in a coded color, indicating where the doors would be for each of the three services. The Sea Beach used red with white letters, the West End green with white letters ... colors that corresponded to each line's marker lights ... while white with black letters was the designation for Brighton services. Clusters of passengers would congregate under these signs awaiting their trains and woe betide any motorman who missed his stopping mark and resulted in passengers having to shift position before boarding their homebound train. There were, of course, separate stopping marks for each of the three services. And finally this about Times Square; the platforms were too short! When trains of eight AB's or four D units were in operation during rush hours, two or three sets of doors at the Brooklyn end of any train would open not onto a conventional platform, but rather onto a narrow catwalk. Passengers were discouraged from entering these catwalks, of course.
Changes: The first change I recall in Brighton and BMT service patterns was the extension of local service beyond Queens Plaza to Astoria in 1949. I had no knowledge this was in the works, and felt that joint BMT-IRT operation of the two lines beyond Queens Plaza would be a permanent fixture. (I had but one opportunity to experience this unusual operation. We rode out to LaGuardia Airport one fine Sunday ... Fourth Avenue Local to Queens Plaza, down a flight of stairs to the lower level where BMT Flushing Line trains terminated, and, eventually, a Junction Boulevard trolley out to the airport.) So I was quite surprised one afternoon to see a train of 2000-series cars roll into Kings Highway with cardboard signs reading "ASTORIA" hanging below the regular roll signs. The 6000-series D units were apparently equipped with "ASTORIA" signs earlier, but it took some months for roll sings in the AB units to be so altered. This was followed, in the spring of 1950, with the shifting of 6000-series D units from Brighton Local to Brighton Express service. It has been said that door positions on the D units caused some early difficulties on the Astoria Line, and so they were removed from Brighton Local service ... although D units would return to the Astoria Line a few years later. (Incidentally, the Sea Beach Express, during this era, always operated 100% with D units. No Brighton service was ever operated totally with D units in my day, always a combination of D and AB units.)
A subsequent change involved the elimination of Times Square as the in-city terminal for the three express services ... the Brighton, the West End and the Sea Beach. With more flexible turn-back facilities now available in Astoria, and, more importantly, with the extension of BMT Fourth Avenue Local service onto the IND Queens Line in 1955, it became possible to extend express services beyond Times Square ... to either 57th Street or Astoria. When the Astoria Line was made part of the BMT subway system in 1949, Brighton Local and Fourth Avenue Local services were extended to Astoria. With the shifting of the Fourth Avenue Local onto the IND Queens Line, one of the express services was routed to Astoria thus allowing the other two to make 57th Street their Manhattan terminal. It would not have been possible to "turn" three express services at 57th Street since this station lacked the flexibility that Times Square possessed and trains changed direction while standing in the station. But once one of the express services was extended to Astoria, the situation changed and 57th Street was able to serve as the in-town terminal for the other two express services.
One modest change that took me by surprise was the shifting of some IND R units to the BMT, for operation on the Fourth Avenue Local in the late 1940s. Arrival of new R-10 units in the post-war years freed up some of the older R units on the city's newest division, while the BMT was chronically short of subway cars, a shortage that would have been seriously aggravated as subway service was extended to Astoria ... and, later, Forest Hills. I recall riding a Brooklyn-bound Fourth Avenue Local one evening and a blockage of some sort forced the train to be shifted to express tracks. It was my first crossing of the Manhattan Bridge aboard a train of R units.
My final months of daily travel on the BMT ... roughly, the year 1958 ... saw the system preparing for the most profound change in its history, namely Chrystie Street. Late afternoons would see me travelling to an after-class night job in lower Manhattan and each trip would give me a chance to see how work was progressing on re-configuring DeKalb Avenue from a junction with flat crossovers north of the station to one where trains would shift tracks in grade-separated fashion south of the station ... with the platforms later expanded to handle ten-car trains of 60-foot R units. (An eight-car train of 67-foot AB units measured 536 feet from end to end, while ten 60-foot R units were ... and still are ... 600 feet long.) The south end of the original platforms at DeKalb Avenue were built on a curve, and when eight-car trains of A-B units were in operation during rush hours, there was quite a gap to navigate between train and platform. The reconstruction eliminated this problem. Coincident with this work at DeKalb Avenue, the Brighton Line itself was outfitted with all new trackage and, finally, covered third rail. In the 1960s, platforms were expanded to permit the operation of ten-car trains of R units, with work at Newkirk Avenue involving by far the most complexity as the side walls of the open cut had to be reconstructed at the northern end of the station since the platforms at Newkirk narrowed down to just a few feet in width at both the north and south ends of the station.
R-16 (American Car & Foundry, 1955) 6472 at East New York Yard, 1958. Photo by Brian J. Cudahy.
The Eastern Division: My recollections of the BMT's Eastern Division are more limited and quite sporadic. I do recall as a youngster seeing the point, at Livingston and Fulton streets adjacent to the Fabian Fox theater, where the Culver-Fifth Avenue el crossed under the Fulton Street el, and I vividly recall seeing el trains rumble up and down Flatbush Avenue near the LIRR Depot at Flatbush and Atlantic avenues, but I never had any opportunities to ride these services. Although my father and I once walked across the Brooklyn Bridge as el trains rumbled underneath, most of my recollections of the Eastern Division el services involve the era when both Myrtle and Lexington services terminated at Bridge-Jay streets.
Myrtle el service was simple enough ... Bridge-Jay to Metropolitan Avenue. Trains on the Lexington Avenue Line, however, offered a little variety. They generally terminated at Eastern Parkway, although I recall Lexington Avenue trains extended beyond Eastern Parkway during rush hours ... to Crescent Street or 111th Street on the Jamaica Line and Grant Avenue on the Fulton Street Line. Another Eastern Division service that admitted of variations was that portion of Broadway-Brooklyn service that began in Manhattan at Canal Street, ran as a local only, and terminated most often at Atlantic Avenue, but in rush hours was extended to Rockaway Parkway, Canarsie. With the arrival of new R-16 units starting in 1954 and their assignment to the BMT's Eastern Division, we learned that this Broadway-Brooklyn Local service was identified as the No. 14 line, while Broadway-Brooklyn service between Broad Street and 168th Street, Jamaica, was the No. 15.
The 14th Street-Canarsie Line was rather unusual ... a far cry from the isolated L Train service of today. Alone among BMT services of the late 1940s and early 1950s, its assigned equipment included both 2000-series AB units as well as multi-section articulated units of the 7000-series. I had no advance awareness of these unusual cars and recall being quite surprised when I boarded one for the first time at Union Square one day in 1947 ... and was quite taken by the unusual sound they made while accelerating. Another piece of unusual equipment I once rode on the 14th Street-Canarsie Line was the BMT's experimental "Bluebird" train, built by Clark Railway Equipment on the eve of the Second World War.
Trio of BMT oddball trains at Rockaway Parkway; BMT Multisection unit arriving, with Bluebird and R-11 in background, 1955. Photo by Brian J. Cudahy.
But this line was not just different because of its equipment, it also featured a variety of services. Normal operations on the 14th Street-Canarsie Line made all stops between Eighth Avenue in Manhattan and Rockaway Parkway displaying double-green marker lights, but during rush hours ... and perhaps at other hours, as well ... there was also a modicum of express service that by passed certain lightly-used stations in Brooklyn without the benefit of separate express tracks. During hours of express operation, all-stop locals would run between Eighth Avenue and Myrtle Avenue while express trains would continue beyond Myrtle and terminate either at Rockaway Parkway or Lefferts Boulevard on the Fulton Street Line. Only lightweight multi-section units could navigate over the un-rebuilt sections of the Fulton Street Line, of course ... which is to say the portion between Atlantic Avenue and 111th Street. After the outer end of the Fulton Street Line was linked up with the IND Fulton Street subway in 1956 and the segment of the line between Atlantic Avenue and 111th Street was abandoned, the 14th Street-Canarsie Line began to assume its current shape and form. Elimination of 14th Street-Fulton service also meant that the 7000-series multi-section units were not needed on this line and could be deployed elsewhere and so Myrtle-Chambers became their new home for a few seasons, with some units even making appearances on the Franklin Avenue shuttle.
Marker Lights: I never recall seeing any published notices of what the various marker light codes were for various BMT services, as it seems marker lights were intended primarily for company employees. (The IRT, by contrast, included marker light color codes on system maps that were posted in most stations.) What follows, then, is largely from memory, is admittedly incomplete, may well be wrong in a few places, and is on especially "thin ice" in distinguishing which of a given set of marker lights is ... or, perhaps, was ... on the cab side of the lead car or the opposite side. (To complicate matters just a tad, there are some who claim there was no distinction between cab side and opposite side observed on the BMT, although there surely was on the IRT and the IND.) If I had to assign a date as to when the codes listed below were accurate, I'd say it was circa 1948. The numerical identification of BMT subway (and elevated) services was also more theoretical than actual, since until the R-16 units arrived in 1954, only 6000-series D units and 7000-series Multi-Section trains ... as well as three experimental units and a few "borrowed" R units from the IND ... were able to display route numbers on their head end.
|Number||Service||Marker over cab||Marker opposite cab|
|1||Brighton Express via Bridge||green||red|
|1||Brighton Local via Tunnel (from Coney Island)||red||red|
|1||Brighton Local via Tunnel (to Coney Island)||white||white|
|1||Brighton Local via Bridge||green||red|
|2||Fourth Avenue Local via Tunnel||green||green|
|3||West End Express via Bridge||green||white|
|3||West End Local via Nassau Loop||yellow||white|
|4||Sea Beach Express via Bridge||red||white|
|4||Sea Beach Express via Bridge (Times Square to/from Kings Highway)||yellow||red|
|5||Culver Local via Tunnel||green||yellow|
|5||Culver Express via Nassau Loop||green||yellow|
|5||Culver el service (Coney Island—Ninth Avenue)||n/a||n/a|
|7||Franklin Avenue Shuttle||red||red|
|11||Myrtle Avenue El||red||red|
|12||Lexington Avenue El||n/a||n/a|
|13||Fulton Street El (Rockaway Avenue—Lefferts Blvd.)||n/a||n/a|
|14||Broadway-Brooklyn Local (Canal Street—Atlantic Avenue)||green||white|
|14||Broadway-Brooklyn Local (Canal Street--Canarsie)||red||yellow|
|15||Broadway-Brooklyn Local (Broad Street—Jamaica)||green||green|
|15||Broadway-Brooklyn Express (Broad Street—Jamaica)||green||green|
|16||14th Street Local (Eighth Avenue—Myrtle Avenue)||green||green|
|16||14th Street-Canarsie Line (Eighth Avenue—Canarsie)||yellow||red|
|16||14th Street-Fulton Express (Eighth Avenue—Lefferts Blvd.)||red||red|
NB: I have seen claims that Brighton Local marker lights were double red toward Coney Island and double white away from Coney Island. I have strong recollections, though, of seeing things the way I have indicated in the table.
Me and the IRT. I had far less experience with the IRT than with the BMT and, for whatever reason, found it far less interesting. The Flatbush Avenue terminal of the Seventh Avenue Express was only slightly further from my boyhood home than Kings Highway on the Brighton, and even though getting there involved a ride on the Nostrand Shuttle, more often than not we used the BMT. (Riding the Nostrand Shuttle was far more exciting than the Avenue R bus, of course, especially in the days when it was a true shuttle and southbound cars ... 8500-series Peter Witt cars that were technically double-ended but equipped with turnstiles at one end and operated as if they were single-ended ... swung around onto Flatbush Avenue and then returned to Nostrand through an "alley" that ran next to the Bay Ridge Branch of the Long Island Rail Road. Shortly after the Second World War the Nostrand Shuttle was combined with the regular Nostrand Avenue Line and cars ran from Avenue U to Delancey Street in Manhattan via the Williamsburg Bridge.)
The IRT's station at Flatbush Avenue was normally the terminal of the Seventh Avenue Express and service operated from there to 180th Street—Bronx Park until 1952 when the little stub spur to the zoo was abandoned and East 180th Street became the line's new northern terminal. Once, I did ride all the way from Flatbush Avenue to 180th Street—Bronx Park for a day at the famous Bronx Zoo and I recall seeing a sign on the platform at 177th Street advising train crews not to change destination signs until trains reached their terminal. (IRT conductors were wont to walk through their trains as they neared the end of the line changing metal-plate destination signs for the return trip. But the IRT didn't want any signs changed while there was still a junction up ahead ... at 177th Street ... and boarding passengers might be confused.)
It would be a while before I was able to distinguish Lo-V IRT cars from Hi-V's, but I did notice, early on, that on Sundays IRT trains operating out of Flatbush Avenue were no longer the Seventh Avenue Express bound for 180th Street—Bronx Bronx Park, but rather were trains that normally ran to New Lots Avenue, namely the Broadway-7th Avenue Express bound for 241st Street—Van Cortlandt Park. I also noticed that there were slight differences between cars operating on the 7th Avenue Express and those on the Broadway-7th Avenue Express, but it would only be in later years that I understood what these differences represented. At some point in the 1950s, the IRT began running a few Lexington Avenue Express trains to and from Flatbush Avenue during rush hours, a practice that continues to this day.
There was also, during these days, separate 7th Avenue and Broadway-7th Avenue local services, the former operating between South Ferry and 137th Street—Lenox while the latter ran between South Ferry and Broadway—145th Street. Arrival of new R-17 and later cars in the late 1950s permitted the establishment of what amounts to the current service pattern. Namely, all locals remain on the Broadway Line while all express services divert to the Lenox Avenue Line thereby eliminating the need for continuous use of the crossovers north of 96th Street, with consequent delays and schedule disruptions. A clever turn of phrase was used to disguise the fact that Broadway passengers north of 96th Street could no longer board express trains north of 96th Street. I can't recall the exact phrasing, but citing both the new cars, better signals and the expanded length of local platforms along the Contract One portions of the line, the new service was called something like "fast local service."
Northbound Lo-Vs on Broadway-7th Avenue Local at 125th Street, 1958. Photo by Brian J. Cudahy.
One feature of the IRT that I found appealing was the expanded area for front-window viewing that was possible from the platform or vestibule area adjacent to the motorman's cab of Interborough-designed cars. It was necessarily a bit darkened and was, in my view, the most perfect "railfan window" of all time. Of course what the IRT lacked and the BMT featured was that small narrow window in the door to the motorman's cab that permitted someone to observe the man's use of the controller and brake handle while a train was underway ... at least out of doors during daylight hours.
I had rather limited experience with any IRT elevated lines other than Third Avenue although I do recall an early trip with my father to the Polo Grounds when the Sixth and Ninth avenue lines were still in service and the yard north of the ball park was active. (We rode north on the Lexington Avenue Line and walked across the bridge to the park.)
My own direct experience with the Third Avenue el goes back no further than the days when the line's southern terminal was City Hall. I recall being surprised to discover ex-BMT cars from both the Flushing and Astoria lines in Third Avenue service after joint operation of the two Queens lines was eliminated in 1949 and I assumed that the distinctive rolling stock I had encountered there had been scrapped. The Q units, as they were known, would survive their tenure on the Third Avenue el, of course, and return to the BMT as more economical replacements for the 1300-series gate cars on Myrtle Avenue that were the last open-platform el cars to operate in New York. Because the Q units had electrically-operated passenger doors, a train of any length could be assigned but a single conductor. With gate cars, a separate conductor had to be stationed between every two cars to operate the entry and exit gates, manually, at every station.
Concluding Thoughts. Many subway enthusiasts wax poetic over the "old days" and firmly believe that conditions on the subway system ... the BMT included ... are much worse today than in days past. I do not include myself among such nay-sayers. I look back on the BMT of the 1940s and the 1950s with extraordinary nostalgia, but I also recognize that the changes that have come to pass over the past decades have made things immeasurably better. Trains are air conditioned, a simplified system of letters, numbers and color codes has replaced the jumble of nomenclature of years past, and to ride the D train or the F train from Manhattan to Coney Island no longer requires transferring to an outmoded el train for the final portion of the journey because the system could not field enough steel subway cars.
The things I miss the most ... three express services terminating at Times Square, Culver Express and West End Local trains operating through the Nassau Loop in reverse directions, summer express trains from Franklin Avenue continuing through Stillwell Avenue to Chambers Street over the Sea Beach Line ... they have all been replaced by services better tailored to today's needs. I'm very happy to have experienced what I've experienced, though. Too bad I never had a chance to ride a BMT el train across the Brooklyn Bridge. But I did ride PCC cars over the same tracks the el trains once used!
Bluffton, South Carolina, August 2012