October 27, 1904: The first section of the New York City subway system opens. Elevated lines had been in use for nearly 35 years before the current subway system began to function. The original track, Contract 1, ran from City Hall to the Bronx. Contract 2 was soon added running to Atlantic Avenue in Brooklyn. At the time of early construction the War of the Currents was the cause célèbre. Thomas Edison tussled with George Westinghouse and Nikola Tesla over direct and alternating current as the main delivery system. Alternating current won but not before the New York City Subways had already adopted direct current. Like many other legacy systems, New York City Transit Authority converts alternating current to 600 volt direct current to power the trains.
IRT (Interborough Rapid Transit) and BRT (Brooklyn Rapid Transit) both wanted access to the area under the Big Apple and finally the city opted to allow both companies to build. Contract 3 went to IRT and Contract 4 went to BRT. Expansion was rapid. Both companies added lines and built more tracks. Taxpayers became disenchanted with private enterprise and felt profits by private companies should not be at their expense. The city responded with ISS (Independent Subway System) and the subways were no longer privately owned.
By 1940 the city took over the running of the BRT and IRT systems as well as the ISS. The new public system was called MTA New York City Transit. Construction of new lines slowed. In 1951, a $500,000,000 bond was passed to build the Second Avenue Subway. Funds were diverted to other subway projects. By the mid-60s $600,000,000 was again given to upgrade the system with actual expenditures in excess of $1 billion. By the 1980s with the system approaching dangerous conditions due to deferred maintenance, upgrades were finally instituted.
Today, the New York City Subway is owned by the City of New York and the New York City Transit Authority leases it. It is one of the most extensive public transportation systems in the world. There are 468 passenger station serving 26 lines. There are over 6 million riders on an average weekday. It runs 365 days a year, 24 hours per day. The fare is $2.25 per ride, with varying options for payment.
“People who want to understand democracy should spend less time in the library with Aristotle and more time on the buses and in the subway.” – Simeon Strunsky
“Julius Caesar built that bridge over the Rhine in 10 days. Ten days! They’ve been trying to fix the Van Wyck since I moved to New York City in 1971. Twenty years and $20 billion later and we still don’t have a subway to JFK.” – Peter Weller
“A nickel will get you on the subway, but garlic will get you a seat.” – Proverb
“You take things for granted until something like this happens and then you realize how much you need the subway.” – Christine Grant
This article first appeared at examiner.com in 2009. Editor’s update: The War of Currents was a battle between delivery systems. There were both advantages and disadvantages to each type of electricity distribution. Direct Current (DC) could be scaled easier and had a built-in efficiency which allowed for storage of power when the load was decreased. When Edison was electrifying America, the major use of power for was for lighting purposes. However, DC could not be easily converted to higher or lower voltages which meant that lines for each voltage had to be run. Alternating Current (AC) had initial difficulties with the metering process which meant billing would be difficult. However, the power could travel longer distances to reach a greater number of users. Europeans preferred the AC power and built meters to accommodate the peculiarities in the power source. After they were able to electrify Rome, the power source was secure. But for anyone traveling away from their home country, it is obvious there is still no set standard for power delivery systems.