Chapter 6, The Old IRT Passes Into History

From nycsubway.org

They Moved The Millions · by Ed Davis, Sr.


Goodbye old friends! IRT Low-V's share a Coney Island area scrapyard with BMT A. B's in 1993. The author had the honor of being escorted away by the dogs after this picture was taken! [This is not the same photo as used in the book; similar view. Collection of David Pirmann. Low-V 5072 in scrapyard, March 10, 1963.]

Section A: First New Cars on the Mainline

While the IRT's Flushing line was served completely by new cars from 1950 on, the remaining part, and major part of the IRT known to operating men as the "Mainline" had rolling stock that, with the exception of the 50 cars built in 1938 for the World's Fair, was over a quarter century and in some instances a half century old. Despite their age they were still faithful performers but to the public, the newspapers, and politicians they were relics of another age that had outlived their usefulness. In those days it was the 50 year old junkheaps that had to be replaced, now it is 25-30 year old junkheaps that have to be replaced.

While the appearance of the then new R16 cars in a forgotten part of Brooklyn and older Queens areas, as Richmond Hill and Woodhaven did not make much of a splash, the appearance of new rolling stock on the IRT lines in Manhattan was indeed big news. In the summer of 1955 the first of the new R17 cars appeared on the Pelham Bay-Lexington Avenue (East Side) local route. New cars! Bright fluorescent lighting, foam rubber seats with red vinyl upholstery (which later had to be removed due to vandalism) and a whole new face for this aged railroad whose rolling stock was entirely out of another age! Some even thought the new cars were air conditioned due to the false ceilings and recessed louver type Axiflow fans but in this respect they were mistaken. They were no cooler than the old cars and it would be over a decade before air conditioning became a system standard. All said and done, to the public they were something new and a sign of better things to come although the system was still a reliable railroad before their arrival.

The R17's did start the ball rolling; there were 400 of them built by St. Louis Car Company and delivered within a year's time. They had completely re-equippled the Pelham line and none of the old trains were left there. Their delivery started a relentless drive which would see all of the original Interborough rolling stock (with the exception of some used on the short, truncated 3rd Ave. Line until 1970) removed from passenger service by late spring of 1964.

The R17 was basically an IRT version of the R16, smaller dimensions and the all-longitudinal seating arrangements used on the R17, as well as three sets of side doors per car side, etc. which we have already discussed as being IRT appointments

If air conditioning was a feature that this modern equipment lacked an experiment was performed during the following summer to find out if air conditioning would indeed be feasible for the subway. Ten R17 cars were fitted with air conditioning but unfortunately the experiment failed. Officials then stated that due to frequent stops with doors opening, heavy passenger loads, high humidity, etc, that air conditioning was not feasible; the equipment was removed and conventional Axiflow fans installed. New cars presently being delivered for the IRT have air conditioning and some older cars are being retrofitted; admittedly machinery is more compact and efficient these days but the crux of the matter is that what is now the PATH transit system to New Jersey, the former Hudson and Manhattan lines, had air conditioned cars built in 1957 which performed a service similar to the IRT cars and were of the same dimensions as the IRT cars.


An R22 car leads a northbound train from the west side at 174th St. Classic apartment house architecture dominates the scenery in this now devastated area.


Northbound from New Lots; an R17 leads a train of SMEE cars thru Brownsville in Brooklyn about 1961.


A northbound train-of R17-22 types arrives at 177th St/West Farms Sq. station. In these days in 1963 they were still sharing trackage on this line with the old Low-V's.


R17's in service an the Flushing Line. As a temporary arrangement some of these were swapped to Flushing while R12's and R15's went to the "mainline." Arrival of new R36 cars would send the R17's back there.

Perhaps because of their smaller dimensions and correspondingly lower weight the R17's along with the cars which followed their plan did not suffer the same poor performance of the R16's; but in any event these still had the same poor control system on the General Electric cars and another two contracts would be ordered before that system was to be eliminated. Perhaps with diligent maintenance that control system would have performed better. Often what cannot perform well in one area works fine elsewhere under the proper conditions.

Delivery of the R17's permitted the first mass scrapping of old IRT rolling stock. Most of the cars retired were those that were never converted to Multiple Unit Door Control, especially the 1904 Gibbs cars. However some of the "battleships" and MUDC Gibbs cars still survived.

The R17 cars served exclusively on the Pelham Bay Line until 1959 when the delivery of class R26 and R28 cars freed some of them for use elsewhere and they started appearing on the West Side lines. They have since been integrated with all classes of IRT rolling stock and have served on all lines of this division, but only briefly on the Flushing line. As they are now approaching thirty years of age they will no doubt be retired by the end of this decade along with their somewhat newer counterparts. They have essentially been a reliable class of car and have served their purpose.

Section B: New Trains on the West Side IRT

The ball was rolling now; more new cars would appear before 1956 was out. In late 1956 new cars began to be delivered for the Broadway-7th Ave. express line so now both East Side and West Side lines would have some new rolling stock. In early 1957 the R21 class cars had begun to be quite common on this line and within months all service except for rush hours was provided by modern trains. St. Louis Car Company got the honors once again, building 250 of these cars. A temporary drawback at the time was that full car service could not be provided with the new cars as station platforms were not quite long enough for ten car trains with the door arrangement on the new cars so only nine car trains of R21's could be operated. The old IRT equipment with its end vestibules had the doors cut out (machinery switched off) on extreme ends of trains because the first and last sets of doors would be past the platforms when a train stopped. Slight lengthening of station platforms solved this problem for the newer cars, and ten car trains could again be run.

With a few style changes the R21 was a virtual copy of the R17. The end doors on the R21's sported square windows with an opening upper sash; porthole windows as the R17 had there were no longer to appear. An unfortunate mistake of the R21 was the mounting of the motorman's cab doors to open facing the end bulkheads instead of opening to face the opposite end of the car. These doors opened outward only rather than inward or outward and where such a cab was at the conductor's position it was difficult for the conductor to enter and leave the cab when the train was crowded. For the motorman it was a nuisance as it didn't provide comfortable ventilaton in hot weather. This was a mistake and this door arrangement was not repeated on future orders but regrettably was never modified on the R21's.

With the delivery of the R21 cars more of the beloved old IRT stock went to the torch. Again it was mostly non-MUDC High Voltage equipment plus another lot of the 1904 Gibbs cars, of course many trail cars which had MUDC but were not powered and had to be scrapped to keep a sufficient ratio of motor and trail cars. The R21 served exclusively on the Broadway line for a few years until more new equipment arrived and they were dispersed all over the East and West Side routes as were the R17's, and R22's which followed. These also have been relatively reliable but will soon be facing retirement.


This is how the IRT has looked to most commuters since the late '50's. This is a nearly new R22 car interior; since this 1959 photo was taken the foam cushion seats have been replaced by hard fiberglass and interiors have been repainted, not to mention graffiti which was nearly non-existent before 1971.

A near immediate follow up to the R21 cars was the fleet of R22's delivered from late 1957 thru 1958. St. Louis Car Company built 450 of these units for the system closely following the basics of the R17 and R21 classes. The major change in the R22 as compared to the R21 was a simplified straphanger or handhold for standees which closely resembled that used on the old R1-9 classes. As mentioned the "backwards" cab door of the R21 fleet was not repeated.

The General Electric R22 cars sounded different from their R17 and R21 counterparts; instead of the whining sound of forced air during acceleration the R22 had a buzzing sound. The last ten R22 cars had a change that was prophetic for the future: hard, molded fiberglass seats in place of the foam rubber with vinyl upholstery. Unfortuntely there are always some people who can't respect property and a transit railway without a crewman to patrol all the cars is wide open for vandalism. All cars built after these would have the hard seats and most existing equipment was later modified with them to reduce expenses. These last ten R22's had a single drop sash window on the end doors as compared to the double sash on other R22's and the R21's, and had a pleasant green and gold flake interior paint scheme. Neither of these features appeared on their successor orders.

The R22's replaced the remaining old equipment on the Broadway-7th Avenue line and once this was done they began to appear on the 7th Ave. ExpressLenox-Bronx route; by the time all of them were delivered they were also running on the Lexington Ave. Express-White Plains Road line on weekends when there were surplus cars available from the 7th Avenue line at East 180 Street. There were now some of the new trains in service on the East Side expresses on a part time basis.

The R22's sounded the death knell for the highvoltage equipment on the West Side expresses; only a few were left on the West Side locals; all the Gibbs cars, deckroofs, and non-MUDC equipment was retired, and for the High-V's that remained the end was near. In time the R22's were also scattered all over the IRT Mainline routes and the majority of their career is a repeat of the story of the R17 and R21 fleets. The next cars to be delivered would incorporate many new ideas but would look the same.


An R21 carries the rear end markers on a northbound 7th Ave. Express leaving New Lots in April, 1983. The white color scheme is its third or fourth. Steve J. Davis.


A pair of R29-33 cars leads a mixed IRT consist at 176th St. on the Jerome line. This train will find its way to Brooklyn as a Lexington Ave. Express.


Some of the replacement IRT stock has gone the way of its predecessors. An R17 poses here, with R12 in the background, both out of passenger service. Franklin H. Roberts.


Seen from the street, here is the only view many New Yorkers get of the system. A married pair set of R29-33 cars runs along the Pelham Bay line in this scene. Victor Gordon.

Section C: The Advent of "Married Pairs"

After the delivery of the R22's was completed approximately half of the original IRT rolling stock was still in service and averaged 40 years of age. More new cars were on the drawing board and it wouldn't belong before they'd be running on IRT rails. In 1959 and 1960 the American Car and Foundry company delivered 210 cars to the system under contracts R26 and R28. These will be called R26's collectively. In addition to many innovations on a standard, practical car design these had the distinction of being the last passenger cars ever built by American Car and Foundry, or ACF.

The biggest change on these cars was that they were built as "Married pairs"; the even numbered car had the motor generator and batteries for providing low voltage for control equipment and doors and the odd numbered car had the air compressor, main reservoir, and feed valve for the brake equipment. Feed valve air was provided to the brake valve on the even numbered car thru a third pipe between the cars, a supply pipe, but only between cars of married pairs. Although built for operation as married pairs these cars had an H2c coupler on both ends and could be "Cut" in switching operations, in shop parlance were known as "Protestant" married pairs as divorce was not forbidden by most Protestant denominations as it was by Roman Catholic rules. "Catholic" married pairs would appear in later car orders. In passenger service it was necessary, however, to have one odd and one even number car in each two car pair in a train.

Due to this arrangement the motorman's cab was only equipped at the number one end of each car; the number two ends would be coupled together but there was a cab there with conductor's controls. In addition to the lack of motorman's controls at the number two end there were no marker lights nor other apparatus for location on the point of a train as it would have been unnecessary.

A big change came about in conductor's controls. The door control levers were replaced on this and all future orders by simple pushbuttons for opening and closing of doors. Rather than being a positive contact these operated relays which as time went by proved to be hazardous but operating rules were put in effect to circumvent the hazard, viz, relays malfunctioning and doors opening on trains in motion.

While these were the same carbodies as those used on their immediate predecessors several interior changes came about. The seats of molded fiberglass were now standard, and a larger standee handhold was used, which would be used on all subsequent orders until handholds ceased to be installed on new car orders, beginning with the R44 of 1970. The opening window on end doors was also a thing of the past, with plain rectangular glass on the doors. Also, glass panes on side doors were mounted in rubber which would make replacement easier.

The R26 cars have had air conditioning installed as have many of their successors. As the IRT had no air conditioning at all until the mid-1970's the newer cars in service were retrofitted to make life more bearable on that division.

There was a brief period of about a year when the IRT received no new cars; attention was turned to ridding the BMT of some of their oldest cars and some non-standard equipment. This will be covered in a subsequent chapter.


Still almost new, a train of Flushing line R36 cars arrives at Woodside station, bound for "the city". Note the European style windows.

In 1962 contracts were placed for more new cars for the IRT; St. Louis Car Company got the contract. Contracts went to the lowest bidder who bid to build cars to Transit Authority standards. This group of cars was built in three contracts whose aggregate total would amount to 770 cars. There were contracts R29, R33 and R36; the last two of these were divided between two types of car, but the R33 was basically the type we write about here, with 40 cars resembling the major portion of the R36 contract, and 34 cars of the R36 contract resembling the R29, and bulk of the R33 fleet. We will collectively call these cars the R29, and will cover the minor portion of contract R33 and the bulk of contract R36 in the next section.

The R29's were basically a repeat of the R26's. The major difference was that the R29's did not have the H2c coupler between cars of married pairs. A solid drawbar was bolted to each car, thru which passed the air pipes. An electrical connection between cars was also made adjacent to this drawbar. Therefore these cars could only be "cut" in the shops, and for all practical purposes no operating flexibility was lost. These were then known as "Catholic" married pairs as divorce was then strictly forbidden by the Roman Catholic church. With the exception of 40 single cars of contract R33, built to enable operation of 11 car trains on the Flushing line, all car orders for the Transit System from contract R26 thru contract R42 of 1969, employed this feature. Transit systems in some other cities, and some commuter cars built for suburban rail routes as well used this feature, the married pair concept.

The R29's were delivered with a bright red exterior paint scheme, the first departure from drab exterior colors on the system. The interiors were painted a more pleasant color also. Unfortunately the bright red soon became covered by subway dirt and in weeks these bright red cars could not be distinguished from their dark fleetmates. The use of car washers for exteriors would come about a few years later on the system, up to this time subway car exteriors were never washed.

When first delivered the R29's were assigned to the Broadway-7th Ave. local line but as more cars appeared they were placed in service all over the IRT, even doing a brief stint on the Flushing line. Some of the R12's and R15's had been sent to the "Mainline" during this period. They have served for years on all East Side and West Side routes, unfortunately mixed in with all types of IRT equipment. Unfortunately because the acceleration rates on the R26 and R29 are somewhat higher than on older cars, and the dynamic brake on these cars is effective practically to a stop whereas on older cars it fades out at about 15 MPH on R12, etc, somewhat lower on R17-21-22 cars. Therefore operation of these mixed trains is not as smooth.

After all of these R29 and associated classes of cars were delivered all of the Flivver cars and virtually all of the Low-V and Steinway cars were retired, with but a several dozen left in part-time service on the Lexington-Woodlawn line and the 7th Ave. expresses. The IRT had nearly all modern equipment now but the nostalgic among railfans still had a little time left to enjoy riding and photographing what was dear to them. As a final note, the R29 cars have also been equipped with air conditioning in the last few years.

Section D: The IRT's New Face is Completed

The year 1964 had a big event planned for New York City. A World's Fair was under construction and the planned festivities would last two years. More new cars were on the way for the IRT, again being built by St. Louis Car company. The Flushing Line was the only rail line of the New York City Transit System to serve the Fair Grounds, although the Long Island Rail Road also had a stop there. No doubt the World's Fair had a lot to do with new trains being placed on the Flushing line, but on the other hand the fleet of cars built in 1964 has served that line nearly exclusively until recent times.

In the last section we mentioned the split R33 and R36 contracts. Well, the majority of the new Flushing line cars, 390 of them, were of contract R36, and were of married pair assemblage. There were 34 cars of this contract built along more conventional lines, also of married pair assemblage, which resembled the R33 and went into service on the "mainline" routes. On the other hand, there were 40 cars of the R33 contract which were built as single unit cars rather than married pairs, and resembled the R36 cars; these went in to service on the Flushing line along with the bulk of the R36 order.

The reason for this brief departure from married pair assemblage has been briefly mentioned but we will go into a little history. Traffic levels had become so heavy on the Flushing line that longer trains were needed. Early in the 1950's platforms were extended to accomodate 11 car trains; unforunately sufficient cars were not available on this line to make use of this reconstruction work and it was several years before 11 car trains were run on this line; nine cars was the limit due to car shortage. It is fairly obvious that with trains being made up of all married pairs that train lengths could only be in multiples of two, therefore single cars were needed to assemble 11 car trains, and 40 of them were delivered for this purpose. It might be good to know that no other line on the IRT has train lengths in excess of ten cars, and that an 11 car train of IRT cars is still not as long as 10 of the IND-BMT sixty footers.

While the R36's as we will call them as an all inclusive group were virtual copies of the R29 and R33, they were strikingly different on first sight, however a brief study would soon confirm their similarity to the rest of the fleet. For once a fleet of cars was delivered whose paint scheme showed a little imagination: a two-tone turquoise and cream color scheme.

Although the R15 of 1950 had a rather nice maroon and cream color scheme, and the R10 and R12 had a drab two-tone gray, not to mention the bright red of the R29 and R33, the R36 was by far the liveliest of any of them. The same combination was later applied to the R10's, already nearing 20 years of age, but it did not work out well because the line they were used on was mostly underground compared to the mostly outdoor Flushing line on which the cars didn't get so dirty.

The other obvious change on the R36 was the elimination of the double hung windows; these cars had a copy of a European design window with little hinged sashes which would open to about a 45 degree angle toward the interior; these were rather small, allowing about a six inch window opening; these were mounted on top of a large picture window. Esthetically pleasing they no doubt did little to relieving the stifling heat in crowded trains.


Originally painted bright red, after having gone thru several repaintings, car 9534, an R36 is painted in "Graffiti-resistant" white. The date is April 8, 1983; the place, Franklin Ave., Brooklyn on the IRT. Classes R26, 28, 29, 33 looked the same. Steve J. Davis.


It's a snowy day in Queens In the late '60's and a train of R36 cars stops on its way to Flushing.

As these cars were placed in service on the Flushing Line the last of the R12's and R15's were transferred to the East Side and West Side routes, run in mixed trains with all available rolling stock. They were to serve the rest of their careers on these lines, but for some reason were never assigned to the Pelham Bay-Lexington locals.

Through the last two decades the Flushing line has been the showpiece line of the IRT, and the R36's have been considered the most reliable cars on that division. Admittedly however their superior performance had most likely been owed to the fact that the Corona barn maintained them better than other shops on the IRT maintained their cars; additonally due to more convenient trackage connections these cars were sent to the old BMT Main Shop at Coney Island Yard, rather than 207th St. Manhattan which was the Main Shop for the rest of the IRT. This was the former IND Main Shop, now shared with the IRT as their Main shop at 147th and Lenox had been closed and demolished.

The R36's have had a mid-life rebuilding program, mostly done by private contractors, and have been retrofitted with air conditioning. They will no doubt be seen in service until nearly the 21st Century, but this too is subject to change.

With the exception of a few of the old Steinways, Low-V trailers, and 1938 World's Fair cars in service on the 3rd Ave. Line in the Bronx, the IRT was completely equipped with modern cars with the delivery of the R36's. Approximately five years later those old faithfuls were retired also. Copyright 1985 by Edward C. Davis, Sr. Reproduced on nycsubway.org with permission. Webmaster's Note: The photos presented in these articles were in many cases scanned from the original slides obtained from the author. Where the original slides weren't available, scans from the book are used. In a few cases, similar photos from the collection of nycsubway.org were used instead of the low-quality scans from the book. These are all noted as such in the captions.

Copyright © 1995-2012 nycsubway.org.
nycsubway.org is not affiliated with any transit agency or provider.
Not mobile.