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Rapid Transit in New York City (1903)

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Municipal Engineers of the City of New York ยท Paper No. 3; September 30, 1903

By George S. Rice, Member of the Society

I am very glad to talk to-night on the question of rapid transit. I realize that it is a large subject and will not go into great detail. I am going to treat it in a general way, commencing with the first demand, in 1831, for improved facilities for New York City, when it was sought to get a surface railroad down Broadway, and in 1833 this was virtually accomplished by having the double track line down Fourth Avenue to City Hall. The street railways took care of the people in a general way, and in 1869, when the first elevated line was built, ran a short line (a cable line) down Greenwich Street. When, however, the legislature passed an act in 1875 organizing a Committee which looked into the question of elevated roads, and which afterwards became the Manhattan Elevated, the public were to a great extent relieved. The Street Railway people, always alert, went to the legislature at that time and had an act passed that no road should be built which could pass over, under or through 42d Street, creating the condition of having a disjointed road, i. e., separating the city north of 42d Street; and in after years, from 1880 to 1890, when several Commissions were appointed for the furtherance of rapid transit, this difficulty invariably confronted them. Fortunately, in 1891, an act was passed by the legislature annulling that restriction, but when the matter came before the public, or rather, came to a test, there was no responsible bidder.

In 1894 the present Rapid Transit Act was passed by the legislature and the present Commission created. This Commission immediately laid a route, or rather a series of routes, and I had the pleasure of being Mr. Parsons' assistant at that time, and it was planned to lay out a line down Broadway. The cost was to be somewhere in the vicinity of $55,000,000. Everything went along smoothly and the citizens passed a vote of three to one in favor of rapid transit, when the act went before the Appellate Division of the Supreme Court, after they had appointed their own Commission to examine the matter and which Commission reported in favor of the scheme; but the Court decided that the city had no right to build a road if it did not extend, and this in short phrases, from one end of the city to the other, and unless it could be built for an amount considerably less than $55,000,000. The Commissioners were not dismayed. They went at the problem again and laid out another route parallel to Broadway and running the road through Elm Street, Fourth Avenue, 42d Street and then up through upper Broadway; in fact, laid out the present route. This contract is now known as the McDonald contract. It involved an expenditure, as far as the City was concerned, of less than $50,000,000, as limited in the act. It was a contract supposed to be for $35,000,000, with an additional amount of $1,750,000 for real estate and terminals. The act provided also for changes and additions to the contract, so much so, that the present contract will be somewhere in the vicinity of $40,000,000, not including the cost of the equipment, which expense falls upon the Contractor. By the terms of his contract, the Contractor not only builds the road, but is to operate it for a term of fifty years. The equipment costing somewhere in the vicinity of $18,000,000, involves a total expenditure of nearly $60,000,000; but, as far as the City is concerned, it is a question of less than $40,000,000. This route extends along Broadway, the backbone of Manhattan Island, out into the Bronx on the west as far as Kingsbridge, and on the east side to Bronx Park, practically connecting City Hall with Van Cortlandt and Bronx Parks. The route extends up Elm Street, Fourth Avenue, 42d Street, Broadway and to Kingsbridge, and then on the east side it leads to 104th Street, at Broadway branches out under 104th Street in the tunnel under Central Park, up through Lenox Avenue, thence under the Harlem River to 149th Street, to Westchester Avenue and Boston Road to Bronx Park. Of course, that means a complete reconstruction of sewers and relaying of water pipes throughout the entire route.

In the original discussion or study of rapid transit, the first question that came up was how the road should be built, whether a deep tunnel would be more advantageous, or to build close to the surface of the street. It was decided that a shallow tunnel would be the better type, leaving a subway where it is possible and more convenient, and then a deep tunnel when necessary. As laid out today, taking the three miles in Brooklyn which has been added to the 21 miles of the McDonald contract, there are 24 miles of railway (about 80 miles of track actually, but 24 miles of railway). Of that, 13.5 miles are subway, 5.5 are elevated and about 5 miles are deep tunnels; so that we have all methods of construction in New York City.

In the construction of the subway in New York City an immense amount of rock has been excavated. Of over 31 million cubic yards of excavation in the McDonald contract, nearly one-half is rock. When it is attempted to take the rock out of a crowded city like New York, with the tracks of surface railway, it is a very serious problem. In that portion of the work where we expected the least trouble, we had the most, i. e., Major Shaler's contract, between 41st and 34th Streets. Here there seemed to be a concentration of bad results, and although the damage was not very much from a monetary standpoint, there was loss of life. It is well known how Major Shaler met his death. It was a sad affliction and an unfortunate ending of a brilliant life. [See Design and Construction of the IRT: Civil Engineering. ]

As to the masonry and steel on the work, the detail is something stupendous. There are 62,000 tons of steel which are being made and which are almost in place, and the design of that work is very large. The material has been very carefully inspected; much more so, I think, than any work ever constructed, notwithstanding the amount of work. The inspection of the work has been done very carefully. All steel is tested. Even the shop work is looked after with a large corps of Inspectors, who are appointed under Civil Service rules, and the cement is inspected. The paint and the asphalting, and in fact all material of the rapid transit work is carefully inspected. I want to speak more particularly in reference to the cement, which has been well under control. It is the best cement used in this country, mainly because it has been uniform. The Engineers have been somewhat arbitrary with the manufacturers, have gone right into their works, and have tested the material as it goes into the bins, when it is tagged, so that one can go on any portion of the work and find evidence of when the material was tested, and the records will show just exactly what the conditions are in which it was accepted.

The principal elements of design, have been speed and watertight work. To have the subway watertight, the principle involved is that if you exclude the dampness, you will in that way have an air which can be handled. Instead of being a heavy air you will have an air something like the atmosphere of this room, and that principle has been the one evolved when the design of the New York subway was made. What the results will be will be demonstrated in the next year. In many portions of the work we have some leaks, which we are trying to remedy, but as a general thing the work is watertight and the air of the subway is good.

As to the question of speed, the problem was to take all classes of travel from one end of the city to the other, i.e., from Kingsbridge and The Bronx to the City Hall. Of course this is a complicated question and the way to solve it is to have a four-track line from City Hall to 104th Street which would allow of an express service for that distance; then on the west side of the city up to 147th Street extend the four-track line to a three-track line, allowing an express service morning and night during the rush hours or whenever required; and for the east side, in the same way, to have two and in some places three tracks. When the Commission laid out the original route it was intended to have an east side line, but as the Court decreed that the expenditure must be cut down below $50,000,000, the Commission reduced it to about $35,000,000. That really threw out the east side line, but in laying out this route that was not overlooked and the scheme contemplates making extensions in different directions which I will speak of later.

The express line has stations 1.5 miles apart, that is, starting at the City Hall, one at 14th Sheet, the next at 42d Street, the next at 72d Street, and the next at 96th Street. In that way one will be able to start at City Hall, and, with the schedule as already laid out by the operating company, get to Harlem in fifteen minutes, and reach the different parks on the east and west side of the city in thirty minutes.

The express tracks will accommodate trains with eight cars or less, and on the local tracks there will probably be five-car trains or less.

The number of miles of sewer construction was about 12. This matter was gone into very carefully. The details were published in the contract plans, and were very carefully considered. There were over forty miles of water pipes, gas pipes and electric ducts, etc., which had to be reconstructed and moved, and to date, covering a period of three years and seven months there has been expended of the $35,000,000, not including extras, about $29,000,000. The contract time is 4.5 years, and the time is not up until about September, 1904. Had it not been for the strike last summer, the road would have been in operation in the latter part of October or the first part of November. At the end of next month there will only be two portions of the work where excavation is not completed. Those two places are Fort George, where there is about 600 lin. ft. of tunnel to be excavated, and under the Harlem River, where there is a section of about 300 ft. of tunnel to be constructed. Half of this tunnel has already been constructed, and the other part is to be constructed within the next year.

The material encountered below 14th Street is mostly sand and gravel, but which is generally dry, free from moisture, except where it comes under Canal Street and vicinity, and in the lower part of Broadway; from 14th Street to 122d Street rock and gravel are encountered; rock also extends to Fort George, and on the Central Park section, to the junction of Lenox Avenue and 110th Street, and in the tunnel through 114th Street to 104th Street, but north of that point gravel and sand are found until you get to this side of the Harlem where there is some limestone.

The original contract contemplated that the stations would have platforms about 200 ft. long, but when the contractor considered the changes which he was asked to make in the design, his first request was that the express stations should be placed nearer together, less than 1.5 miles apart. Mr. Parsons, however, insisted on the distance between the express stations as originally proposed, 1.5 miles apart, as affording real rapid transit, enabling those living in the outlying districts to get to their homes with few stops. After 96th Street is passed the road is so designed that if desired to have an express service from 96th Street to 168th Street the stations between these two localities can be made express stations, switching facilities having been provided to accomplish this purpose. There are sidings arranged at 42d Street and at different places along the line of the road. At 42d Street there is additional track so a train can be run in there instead of running all the way downtown, and a schedule could be made to accommodate the travel. There is also another fifth track at 14th Street arranged for the same purpose; another at Spring Street, and also two loops, one at City Hall, which is a single track loop, and which enables the trains, instead of going down to the Battery to be turned around and sent uptown again from that point, and a double loop at the Battery, so that the operation of the road can be made to meet the demands of the traveling public.

On Broadway between 137th Street and 142d Street there are eight tracks under ground, five of which are for the storage of cars. Instead of having the ordinary storage as you have seen on the elevated road at 145th Street, these tracks have been put underground and placed so that they can make up their trains with the least amount of trouble and which can be operated with ease. On the east side there are terminals at Lenox Avenue and 150th Street, another at 177th Street and Southern Boulevard which will afford facilities for the storage of cars, etc.

When it is considered that in building this railroad the contractor is using 1.5 tons or 2 tons of dynamite a day, the difficulties under which the contractors have done their work are apparent; and with the blasting that has been done at all hours of the day and night on some portions of the work, the wonder is that more accidents have not occurred. The only real serious accidents have been the slipping of rocks in tunnels and the explosion at Park Avenue. [See Design and Construction of the IRT: Civil Engineering. ]

The 42d Street and the Fourth Avenue constructions have been the most objectionable of the whole work, but those sub-contracts were made at a time when it was questionable if the City could get a bidder, and in writing the original specifications the contractor was allowed liberties which have not been allowed in the consideration of the Brooklyn contract. He was allowed to have some material deposited on the streets, and was permitted to make excavations by forming an open trench and keep it open in almost any place desired. In the letting of the Brooklyn contract, the contractor was compelled to conduct his work in a different manner, without interference of traffic and without seriously obstructing the streets. The work now going on in the lower part of Broadway is something that I hope you gentlemen will watch, and I think that you will be pleased at the way in which it is being done. The work in front of the Park Row Building where many of you gentlemen have your offices, has been in the last four or five months, and on the east side of Park Row, i.e., on the opposite side of the Post Office there has been a trench dug about 12 ft. wide and about 20 ft. deep, and a cable-way erected over that trench, and material from the whole street taken out, and the street kept in place, notwithstanding that there are four tracks of surface roads to be supported. It has been a pleasure to me to see how that work has been done, and done practically without the knowledge of the people on that street. They did not know, and some of them today do not know, that the work has been completed. It was supposed that the trench dug there was about all the excavation which bad been made. I can tell you a story about that work which shows its magnitude, and how often those in charge of the work will know little of what is going on. One of the contractors saw the sub-contractor of this Park Row section, and said, "Why don't you put more men to work on this section," adding, "I have been here and I have my office in this building and see only about 20 or 25 men at work. It seems to me you ought to put more men to work." The sub-contractor remarked: "Do you know that we have had 200 men at work on this street for the last six weeks and that there is no more excavation to come out of the street." That gentleman was the head contractor. He bad not gone into the trench; had not seen the work, and thought it was operated only as seen from the surface.

In lower Broadway an attempt is being made to temporarily replace the surface of the street by planking, and then pursuing the same method as pursued in Park Row, with the shafts in front of St. Paul's Church. Lower down on Broadway it is proposed to keep the surface of the street intact as long as possible and pursue the same course of taking out the excavation.

The East River problem is a serious one. There is a tunnel 1.5 miles long extending from South Ferry to Joralemon Street, Brooklyn, and at the present time there are two shields working to the east in Joralemon Street through a dry sand. Eventually, or within two months, there will be two other shields which will work down hill, and go into the water section. At the present time those two shields are working without having any trouble so far as the water is concerned. In Battery Park, there are two shafts, and excavation is made underneath the elevated road. They have gone to the south about 200 ft. which I will show a little later by the stereopticon. The rock extends on the Manhattan side nearly to the middle of the East River; beyond that and in Brooklyn the material is sandy and has some clay mixed with it, and, of course, there the problem will be a little different from what it will be on the Manhattan side, although I think the Contractor will be obliged to use compressed air to guard against it on the Manhattan side in the construction of this tunnel.

The stations as designed by the Rapid Transit Engineers are to be ornamental. About eighteen months were occupied in designing the first station at 59th Street. I wish when you gentlemen go up that way you would take a look into that station, which is the first completed, and it will show you a general idea of the construction which is to be followed on all the different stations, except the ornamentation will be varied in the different parts of the work. There will be lavatories on both sides of the stations for men and women, both pay and free. The contractor has not spared any money in carrying out the requests of the Commission. He did not calculate in the beginning to put so much money into these different stations and into the operation of the road. In the building of his power station he will spend more than double the amount be originally intended to spend. His original estimate of equipment was about $8,000,000 and the changes probably will aggregate about $18,000,000. The power station is not paid for by the City, but he has to furnish it, for which he is remunerated by means of the operation of the road. It is located at 59th Street and the North River, and has a capacity of about 135,000 horse-power. It will be the largest power station in this country, if not in the world. The tracks, of which there are 20 miles already laid, are to be 100-lb. rails, although the contract calls for an 80-lb. rail.

A great deal has been said in connection with our rapid transit work in regard to accidents. It cannot be said that no accidents will occur; provision, however, has been made against a recurrence of the accidents of the past.


When the original contract was let (the McDonald Contract, having been drawn up in 1898), it was not specified that electricity should be used because it was considered possible that a more efficient power might be discovered and put into use; hence, in the original contract, no mention was made as to the kind of power to be utilized. After the execution of the contract the Contractor elected to use electricity, and requested that the ducts be put in the side wall of the subway. This has been done. There are sixty-four ducts on each side along a large portion of the subway, and in these are to be built the cables for the power. There will also be independent ducts for conveying power for lighting which are entirely independent of the inside of the subway, and are independent of each other, so that if one should become defective the probability is that no interruption in the service would occur.

The local stations are in the lower part of the city and are about five to the mile, where the subway has been made wide. A four-track subway is about 50 ft. wide, which allows 12.5 ft. between centers, and in the case of an accident the opportunity is given for the passengers to alight from the train so that they would not be in danger from the third rail, which is to be covered. On account of it being a separate system it does not seem that we could have the same accident that happened in the Paris subway.

I do not know whether you gentlemen have realized what is going on in New York on the question of transportation when you consider the question of dollars and cents. It is to my mind stupendous to note the amount of money which is to be spent in the next five years in this city and its vicinity upon the transportation problem. You have the Rapid Transit Subway, which involves an expenditure of something like $60,000,000, and you have the Brooklyn contract, in which the contractor gets $2,000,000 for work which will cost him $9,000,000; you have the Pennsylvania tunnel, which will cost all the way from $60,000,000 to $70,000,000; you have the New York Central improvements, which cost somewhere in the vicinity of $20,000,000; you have the Jersey trolley tunnel which is now over half completed across the Hudson River, which costs $10,000,000, and you have these improvements of the Pennsylvania Railroad for running its freight around through the Brooklyn section over the Island and connecting with the New York, New Haven and Hartford Railroad; you have your new Williamsbridge approach, and you have your new Manhattan Bridge in course of construction, and the Blackwell's Island Bridge. Take all these transportation problems, for which large appropriations have been made, and you have (with some extensions of the subway which are bound to come) an expenditure Of an amount estimated between $250,000,000 and $300,000,000. It is expected that all of these rapid transit systems will be completed within the next five years. I do not know of any other city or any other country that can spend such an amount for transportation purposes.

I have only gone over this subject in a general way for discussion. I did not have much time to prepare myself to talk to you, but thought that a general statement of the rapid transit problem, accompanied by a number of views, 100 or more of different portions of the work, would open the subject for discussion.









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