©2021, George J. Irwin. All rights reserved.
I've always been a fan of the New York Subway System. OK, not so much at Rush Hour—I'm reminded of a joke from years ago which appeared in Mad Magazine: "Did you know that if all the commuters in New York City were piled on top of each other, they'd be taking their usual trip home?" And I wasn't necessarily enamored of it when I really needed to get somewhere on a deadline, although that had its moments. Did you know there are several reasonable ways to get from the Columbus Circle station to the 42nd Street/Port Authority or Times Square stations, and sometimes you can just go with what train gets to Columbus Circle first because it's not that much of a difference in overall travel time?
It wasn't easy to be a fan of the subway during the low periods of its history. Graffiti everywhere, crime a bit out of control, dirt and filth dominating, and never mind the "wildlife"—rats, lots of rats, and who knows what else. The worst of this was in the period before I started taking the subway in earnest, for college and for work. During my time in school I made it a point to ride every line, not from end to end, but just a segment or two. The last one was the G Train, which is the only one that doesn't come into Manhattan. I had help from a college friend to make that trip.
One beautiful day I had the opportunity to "Take the 'A' Train." It's a famous jazz piece to be sure, but it's named for the subway line itself. When things are going well, it flies up and down between Columbus Circle and 125th Street, non-stop. The jazz standard "Take the A Train" was written by Billy Strayhorn in 1939, inspired by the first line of directions that Duke Ellington gave to Strayhorn to reach Ellington's residence.
Back then, the A Train ran only from Manhattan to Brooklyn, but over time it was extended to Far Rockaway, Queens, a place that hardly looks like the typical vision of New York City at all. There may be other transit systems from which you can see an ocean, but I'll bet people are quite surprised to know that New York City's is one of them. The Rockaway Line, a former branch of the Long Island Railroad, is where it happens. It was a stellar clear blue sky day in late Spring when the A Train departed the Far Rockaway-Mott Avenue station. Looking directly out the front window of the first car in the train, the Atlantic Ocean soon came into view on the left. The Beach 44th Street-Frank Avenue Station, three stops into the ride, is within 100 yards of the boardwalk of Rockaway Beach and 200 yards or so from the water's edge. A long way from Midtown Manhattan, figuratively if not literally.
After a run roughly westbound, the train turns north and seems to go out to sea itself, but it's only Jamaica Bay. There is a swing bridge carrying the tracks over Beach Channel. You might expect movable bridges like this in Chicago, but not in New York! After crossing an island and more water, the A Train stops at the Broad Channel Station. Then it's off along low level islands again and back over water, including another movable bridge. Depending on how the winds are that day you could see a plane take off or land almost right over your head coming into Runway 13 Right/31 Left at John F. Kennedy Airport. Shortly after that is the JFK Airport station. Those of us of a certain age remember the commercial jingle for "The Train to the Plane," a special limited-stop express service from Midtown Manhattan to the airport. Next is the stop for Aqueduct Race Track and the surrounding area.
At that point the A Train is on the "mainland" of Long Island, and still in Queens. The train takes a hard left and enters a "flying junction." This is a specific track arrangement that allows trains from opposing directions to diverge or converge without the tracks physically crossing each other at grade. There are a number of these in the New York Subway System, many of them underground including on the A train's route. But this one is easily seen as it's elevated above ground. In this case—and this is a little confusing-- the A train has a junction with... itself. There are two different terminals for the A (three in rush hour). When it doesn't go all the way to Far Rockaway, the train terminates at Ozone Park, crossing over, not across, the Rockaway Line to reach that trackage. Rapid transit can get away with flying junctions because they can handle steeper grades than freight railroads (although those lines do have a few including the former Pennsyvlania Railroad "Zoo Interlocking" outside of Philadelphia, probably still the heaviest used and most famous in the United States). A not often obvious aspect of flying junctions is that where it can be done this way, one track goes down while the other one goes up, reducing the amount of real estate needed for the up track to get enough clearance to cross over the down track.
For a few more stops, heading roughly westbound again, the A train is elevated above Liberty Avenue. On both sides of the street there are businesses with apartments above along with multi-family buildings and strip shopping centers. The beautiful sunny day allowed viewing of blocks to the left and right and of course what was directly ahead. But not for much longer. After the 80th Street Station, the last one in Queens, the trackage veers away from Liberty Avenue, descends to ground level and then into a tunnel. For the rest of its run, the A Train is underground, a true "subway."
I wondered whether I would be able to see anything from the front window once in the darkness. Much to my surprise and delight, the light available was much better than I expected, and I could see clearly in front of the train for some distance. And it was quickly apparent by the amount of graffiti on the subway walls that there were plenty of, ahem, adventurers who were willing to brave the trains and the electrified third rail to leave a "tag." As the train continued over to and up Manhattan Island, the amount of graffiti was simply immense. Well, at least it's no longer prominent on the actual subway cars.
The route hosts only the A train until Euclid Avenue, where the C train begins, or ends, depending on how you look at it. The C train provides local service on the same route for most of the rest of the way. At Broadway Junction is the first opportunity to transfer to other subway lines: the L, J and the Z during rush hours. Then the A is express through Brooklyn, making only five stops, one of which is at Hoyt-Schemerhorn. Across the platform, you can see the connecting track to the New York Transit Museum, a formerly in-service station, which houses cars that operated on the subway system in earlier years. You could see through the front window of those cars as well. Alas, all new equipment lacks that feature for safety reasons. It was just dumb luck that this particular A train service was comprised of R32 type cars. On those, you could still watch the goings on from the front of the train—my favorite spot, ever since I was tall enough to observe from the first car of the PATH train between Jersey City and Manhattan.
When traveling into Manhattan, the local and express tracks merge just before Hoyt-Schemerhorn, and the A and the C Train share trackage. That can get a little congested at Rush Hour. The last stop in Brooklyn is High Street/Brooklyn Bridge, then the A streaks under the East River to arrive at Fulton Street in Lower Manhattan, a stop I remember as Broadway-Nassau. This is a part of the city where it seems that the various subway lines are impossibly jammed together. It all works as the lines are at different depths below ground. I could probably stare for hours at a three-dimensional map that shows how the lines co-exist over and under each other... if I had one. Maybe it's better that I don't. (They are available for certain stations if you know where to look.)
After a hard right turn, the A Train arrives at Chambers Street. To the right as you're heading roughly northbound now are two tracks which are used for the E train. The E originates at the World Trade Center station which is just to the south of Chambers Street. It was a rather long walk but it was possible to get from the former World Trade Center all the way up the E platform to the A and C platform. This is the start of the part of the line that I know best. I was a regular but not everyday rider of this section of the A train.
The A and C trains are still using the same trackage through Chambers Street, but that changes just before the next stop, Canal Street. The C moves over to a local track which it shares with the E, and the A has the express tracks all to itself again.
Which is not to say that the A is that much of an express train at that point. Out of the next eight stops, it skips only three. I'd ridden this section often enough to be able to close my eyes and know where we were, but it was so much more fun looking out the front window. After Canal Street, the A rolls past Spring Street without stopping, then takes the upper level of the West 4th Street Station while the Sixth Avenue Line, better known as the B, D, F, and more recently, the M trains, takes the lower level. Then it's a hard left out of West 4th and a hard right into 14th Street. The A skips 23rd Street, stops at a center platform at 34th Street/Penn Station, and then at a platform staggered quite a bit north of the one that serves southbound trains. The E train splits off between there and 50th Street, diving down under the A and C tracks that continue north. If you know exactly where to look down and to the right you can see a little bit of the separate platform for the E train beneath the A tracks. That train has a long way to go, to nearly the farthest east end of the system in Queens, all underground. But that's for another day.
Back on the A train, from the front window you can see more combining of trackage. The B and D "Sixth Avenue" trains previously encountered at West Fourth Street join the A and C trains and all flow into the lower level of the 59th Street-Columbus Circle station. Passengers can transfer to the Number 1 local train, upstairs, that runs up and down Broadway, or switch between the A, B, C or D. It's an important exchange point on those last four, because the next stop on two of them is sixty-six blocks away.
This section of the route might have been what Billy Strayhorn was thinking of when he wrote "Take the 'A' Train." After the 59th Street stop, the tracks are rearranged into a double-deck subway, with the uptown tracks on the lower level and the downtown tracks on the upper level, plus the local tracks on the west. This arrangement continues all the way past Central Park until between the 103rd Street and 110th Street stations. This gives the A train and the D train a veritable racetrack to zoom underneath Central Park West. I can imagine Billy Strayhorn rocking uptown at high speed to see his friend and collaborator Duke Ellington and being inspired by the sound and movement... although I doubt that's what really happened.
A few times while and after I was attending college in Manhattan, I wanted to see what it was like to race up the express track. And then there was the one unintentional trip when I was so lost in my thoughts that I literally forgot to detrain at 59th Street. Each time I had looked forward to speeding under Central Park West... and each time I was disappointed. There was either a "slow order" for the train or it was directly following another one, or perhaps there were several trains in front of us. The C train on the adjoining track made better time at least once and beat the express I was on to 110th Street. Now that was, in a way, embarrassing. It wasn't unlike my being able to walk a faster pace down Ninth Avenue than a taxi in the traffic jam could manage.
Would this attempt turn out the same as all the previous ones?
No, I can report happily. This run was at the express speed, zipping by several local trains, making the run in just a few minutes, and emerging from the lower level of the double deck right in the middle of the 110th Street station. It was a highlight of the trip. The train breezed past 116th Street, a more typical looking local-only stop with the express tracks in the center, and pulled into 125th Street, the first express stop after 59th. There was a fair amount of activity as people switched from the local to the express, or left the A to wait for the next D train.
From that point, if I recall correctly, was new territory for me. I did not remember ever going past 125th Street on the A train. The right of way expanded from four tracks to six in preparation for sorting of trains past the local-only 135th Street Station. Then the B and D tracks descended for a lower level stop at 145th Street, while the A and C tracks stayed at the upper level. The B and D tracks would turn east, cross into the Bronx, stop at Yankee Stadium, and then proceed north to their respective terminals. The A and C continued in Manhattan, rearranging into another double deck stack with local tracks on top and express tracks on the bottom for two stops. I was surprised to find that at the next common stop, 168th Street, the C local train was in the center and the A train was on the outside, the reverse of the usual. This was the final stop for the C trains which then switched direction or headed into a yard for layover.
Then, just as it had began down in The Rockaways, the A Train was again a local service for its last five stops. Almost two hours and more than thirty-two miles after it had started its journey near the Atlantic, the A eased into 207th Street near the northern tip of Manhattan Island.
All in all, it was a great trip that brought back a lot of memories. Observer that I am, it wasn't just the fun of watching the train thread its way through junctions, or race through straightaways on the express tracks between stations. It was also about arriving at each stop, watching passengers get on and off the train, hearing the conversations behind me, listening to the conductor announce, "Watch the closing doors." I didn't realize how much I missed being there. There was no question that it was worth every bit of the time it took to be in the front window for the entire journey.
But I actually wasn't in the front window at all.
In fact, I wasn't even on the train.
I wasn't in New York City, either.
I enjoyed this entire ride from the comfort of my home office over 300 miles away from the city, courtesy of a high-definition "front window" video shot by a fellow subway fan and posted online. For years it's been less expensive and more useful to connect my personal computer to a television instead of a single-purpose monitor. My current one is a 32 inch TV with the audio connected to a stereo system. It wasn't total immersion but it was plenty large enough a picture to get completely lost in the ride. When I first saw that the video was an hour and fifty minutes long, I thought, no way am I going to sit still for this—I can't handle most movies these days without looking at my watch and my idea of "binging" a television series is to watch two episodes in a row. But this completely held my attention. I almost felt myself shifting right and left as the train did.
It was virtual tourism, although I'll freely admit it was an offbeat choice. Since "Taking the 'A' Train," I've watched front-window views of the 7 express train coming back from Flushing to Manhattan, and the number 6 train squeal around its turning loop at the long-closed but still impressive City Hall Station. And I've watched a video of the C train, the local counterpart to the A train express, for its entire route as well.
I certainly miss New York City, and, yes, the subway rides, which have ranged from exhilarating to exasperating. But I'm rethinking whether it's actually necessary to "be there" to have some experiences. I wonder how many other people are considering the same idea, and what the implications are for those businesses that exist and survive to cater to actual live visitors to the subway and elsewhere.