As the MTA is on the cusp of replacing its oldest train cars, which are now more than 50 years old, it’s a perfect time to look back at the even older train cars that our current old ones once replaced.
Before the stainless steel cars we ride now, there were the regular old steel Redbirds (which weren’t exclusively red or even red at first), but were on the rails from 1959 until 2003. They’re the focus of the newest exhibit at the New York Transit Museum.
The Redbirds “were introduced into our subway system at a time of great prosperity for the system,” says Jodi Shapiro, Associate Curator at the museum. “There were a lot of plans afoot for subway expansion. More people were taking the subway, up from a postwar dip.”
The first of these cars arrived by boat. There were celebrations, live music, and crowds gathered to watch them float down the river.
The trains had linear, fiberglass seats and various flooring patterns, including checkered tiles and ones that subtly encourage people to step in and move to the middle of the train.
The trains were uniform, but not identical. The A division (numbered lines/IRT) and B division (lettered lines/BMT/IND) were slightly different (about a foot wider), due to the size of the tunnels (still true today). IRT cars had three doors, BMT had four doors. The windows on each were slightly different as well. Both had the long metal oval-shaped straps for riders to hang on to.
Many of them had more poles in the middle than we’d see today.
They also came in a variety of colors.
The Bluebirds ran on the 7 line and were introduced during the New York World's Fair in 1964, and matched the Fair’s color scheme.
But they’re best known by the last color they were produced in, Gunn Red, named after the Transit President David Gunn.
"It's really a railroad color, it's a type of red that hides steel dust pretty well. It's also kinda nice to see these red cars on elevated lines in New York City," Shapiro said.
In 2000, when the trains were beginning to be decommissioned, they were degreased, had all the electronics and fiberglass removed, and were “reefed” off the coasts of New Jersey, Delaware, South Carolina, and North Carolina. The exhibit features photos and video from this process, which shows how the train cars have really made a go of it underwater. Mussels started forming on the trains within six weeks of their arrival. Apparently, the fishing industry in the area picked up eight weeks later, too.
Other fun tidbits you’ll learn about at the exhibit: some of the trains are made of a type of steel known as weathering steel, the same type used at the Barclays Center. And the various types of graffiti removal cleaner had names like: Greek Power, DWR or Dirty Word Remover, Sunray Orange Power or Orange Magic.
There are also videos of the workers who cleaned and maintained the Redbirds. Shapiro says, “It's not just the citizens of New York who feel emotionally attached to these types of cars, but the people who worked with them every day feel an affinity for them as well. Which is why I say this show is like a love letter, because everybody loves the Redbirds.”
She notes that all new trains today have a red flourish somewhere on the front, like around the headlights or a single red stripe running down the side, in homage to the Redbirds, “to look back and say, hey, you know, we replaced you, but you're still in our hearts. If subway cars have hearts.”
Reign of the Redbirds is on exhibit through September 13th, 2020 at the New York Transit Museum, located at 99 Schermerhorn Street in Downtown Brooklyn.