This morning at 10:30 AM, car number 9564 left Times Square, headed towards Flushing. It would be an otherwise ordinary and commonplace event, if it wasn’t the last time it would ever happen. 9564 was the head car of a ten car train making her final journey. That train was the last of its kind, and in making the ordinary journey from Manhattan to Queens it marked the end of a magnificent era in the history of New York City, and of the city’s people.
The Redbirds weren’t always red. The oldest of them was the R-26, R-28 and R-29 class cars, built by American Car and Foundry and St. Louis Car between 1959 and 1963. When they were delivered, they were blue and white, and survived through several color schemes, including silver and white, before settling on the bright red for which they are known and will be remembered by most. The Redbirds were the last subway cars with hanging metal straps to hold onto; all the newer cars have long steel poles instead. What are we going to call straphangers now?
It’s hard to imagine them surviving much longer. They have, for all practical purposes, reached the limit of their useful lives. The floors are coming apart. The window frames on many are too bent to be adequately attached to the car. The lights are too dark, the air conditioners too hot, The straps are falling off, the doors break and get stuck open. The brakes are either too tight or non-existent, and the primitive propulsion system (not to mention the complete lack of suspension) makes for an uncomfortable, lurch-filled ride. But the Redbirds, like so many old things that people cling to, have character. By all quantifiable criteria, their newer, stainless steel cousins and ultra-modern computerized grandchildren are immeasurably superior. But the story of the Redbirds is, as is the story of New York, one of crisis and redemption.
New York City entered one of its most harrowing crises in the 1970s. The city’s economy was in shambles, violent crime was at an unprecedented high, and arson in the Bronx was a common occurrence. Landlords, making little or no money, set their buildings on fire to commit insurance fraud. New York City Transit’s answer was to enact a policy of “deferred maintenance.” In layman’s terms, they had no money to fix anything. The subway system nearly collapsed in on itself. Signals were damaged and couldn’t be repaired quickly, making line shutdowns a common event. The storage yards were overflowing with broken down equipment that couldn’t be fixed. Service was cut multiple times to save money. There was no security on trains or in stations, and they became havens for criminal thugs, alcoholics and the mentally ill. Trains and stations weren’t cleaned. Rats and other vermin multiplied and fed on the piles of festering garbage tossed into the tunnels by overworked personnel. There was no money in the budget for poison.
Every subway car was covered in graffiti and a thick layer of grime. Some predicted that the subway could not survive, and New York would experience a mass exodus of business and citizens. The necessary balancing act of an equilibrium that the post-war generation had been so arrogant to blatantly upset.
Fortunately, that didn’t happen. Things got better as the economy improved. Grand Central Terminal went through a multi-year revival and was restored to its beautiful original condition. (Plus some new features.) A no-tolerance policy for graffiti was adopted, and the Redbirds finally obtained their signature red coat. It was a defiant move: what better to counter the actions of a vandal with than a bright, bold statement of order? Spray-painters, mostly defeated, largely leave the cars alone these days. With the Redbirds came upgraded signals, proactive maintenance, the restoration of station artwork, a mass cleanup of some tunnels, and repairs of many failing subway structures. The installation of more escalators and elevators followed, and more than $2 billion in new cars have been purchased in the past few years. It’s these new cars, serving on the IRT mainlines, that are forcing those defiant Redbirds out.
Many of the retired cars have been sunken to form artificial reefs. Other will sit in train museums, and a few will be saved for movie props and to squeeze out their last bit of life as work cars. But you won’t be able to look up in Queens and spot an elevated red train, the length of two football fields, roaring by. It will be the bright silver of stainless steel, and the same color, now, of every class of car in both divisions of the subway system. It probably won’t have graffiti on it. Its air-conditioning will probably spew a nice cool breeze and its doors will work properly. But it will be anonymous. The new cars lack the familiar inadequacy of the Redbirds, and, I think, they lack the daring red spirit that made those cars so special.