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Train fanatic reveals secrets of the New York subway

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The unfathomably complex maze of the New York subway is largely a mystery to commuters beyond the few stations and routes they take each day.

But its sprawling tentacles – underground, open-air, and raised – are as clear as a sunny pond to Peter Dougherty, 60, an amateur railroad enthusiast who has himself been a mystery.

So erased that he’s never been photographed in the media before, he might know more about the system than anyone outside of the MTA – perhaps more than anyone inside.

The 2021 edition of his stimulating but impressive book, “New York subway tracks», Maps its 691 miles of track, 472 stations (the most systems in the world) and 2,000 track switches in microscopic detail. If you thought the signals were as simple as red, yellow, and green, wait until you see page 113.

The ‘tracks’ are expected to captivate the growing number of riders returning to the metro – 2.5 million in a single day last month, well below pre-pandemic totals of 5.5 million but increasing weekly from the total from 385,000 in April 2020 and is expected to skyrocket after Labor Day.

The book is not licensed by the MTA, although “they sold it in their stores until September 11,” Dougherty said. The MTA feared that it might somehow help the terrorists. He says he was careful not to include anything “that might cause harm.” For example, I never give the precise location of emergency exits or electrical installations.

Be warned: “Tracks” is not a track reading. The route yard and connection maps that look like microchip models, and the technical jargon about CBTC signals are not intended for casual readers who might hope to know which movies were shot at which stations (although they are mentioned here and there).

Peter Dougherty, railroad enthusiast and author of “Tracks of the New York City Subway 2021,” which maps its 691 miles of track, 472 stations (the most systems in the world) and 2,000 track switches with microscopic details.
Peter Dougherty, railroad enthusiast and author of “Tracks of the New York City Subway 2021,” which maps its 691 miles of track, 472 stations and 2,000 track switches in microscopic detail.
Courtesy of Peter Dougherty

“My target audience is people who are fascinated by the inner workings of the metro system,” said Dougherty. “The same person stands on a platform every day and notices that there are signals at the end. They see that the train is always going left, not right. I was also fascinated by it.

The 160 spiral-bound pages left me with a sense of wonder at the myriad expansions and contractions of the metro over more than a century, many of which have been forgotten in the mists of time. I walked away with a feeling that the system might be the Big Apple’s biggest landmark, even if it isn’t as scenic as Central Park or the Brooklyn Bridge.

Dougherty, who now lives in northern New Jersey, met us inside the Herald Square station. He pointed out some 20 obscure vital security features. Those little yellow things on the rails are “trigger arms”. They pop up to activate the air brakes in the rare event that a train passes a red signal.

“The trigger arm applies a red signal,” he explained. “The arm was raised at an angle. There is a white valve at the front of the train. When the yellow paint comes in contact with the white, it leaves a telltale mark, which would tell the inspector that someone has passed through a red light.

Dougherty said the extremely complex maps and charts in the book are “based on what anyone can see when looking out of a train window, observing on a platform, at street level, or using resources. online maps ”as well as public and transit-related maps Internet sites.

But it has become more difficult over the years. “When I started years ago, I could look through the front windows of trains to check things out” – but very few trains today still have single-pane front windows. Dougherty “got into the rail industry when he was young in Montreal. I was absolutely amazed that you could get a train to go underground.

“My father said to me: ‘Do you like the Montreal metro? I’m going to New York on business. You can come.’ “

Intricate subway system maps and graphics featured in Peter Dougherty's
Intricate maps and graphics of the subway system featured in “Tracks of the New York City Subway 2021” by Peter Dougherty.
Courtesy of the publisher

In 1975, Dougherty was doing a high school urban transportation project here. A watershed moment came when he asked the New York City Transit Authority for a map of the system. “I received this envelope with a treasure trove of cards,” he remembers happily. Among them was a 4-by-12-foot system map from 1940 but updated to November 1967.

Yet he didn’t actually get on a train – what was then called the CC at Eighth Avenue and West 50th. Street – until a year later, when graffiti and crime reflected the degradation of the system. “The state of the system in the 1970s intrigued me more than it worried me, because the Montreal metro was new and impeccably clean,” he said.

He started working on his first book in 1995 and self-published in 1997. He has updated it every year since then, incorporating an ever-growing source of knowledge gleaned from the MTA’s own textbooks and publications, discovered by an army of bloggers, Google Earth and its own acute powers of observation.

He only sells a few hundred copies each year. But his supporters always want more. “I’ve been working on next year’s book since February,” he said.

Print edition, $ 54.95; Digital PDF, $ 29.95 at NYCTrackBook.com/current- edition

Track facts: gems and details about the inner workings of the railroad

The elevated train that crossed the Brooklyn Bridge photographed in 1895.
The elevated train that crossed the Brooklyn Bridge photographed in 1895.
Getty Images

Trains ran over the Brooklyn Bridge until March 5, 1944.


The abandoned platform at Bowery subway station, one of dozens.
The abandoned platform at Bowery subway station, one of dozens.
Tamara Beckwith / New York Post

In addition to the famous Hôtel de Ville station, which had been closed for a long time on line 6, the system has at least 30 abandoned stations and platforms. I wondered if I had imagined a lower level platform for the F express on Bergen Street in Brooklyn in the 1970s – until I found it on page xxxviii.


Line from Union Square metro station.
The line from the Union Square subway station also has a walled and abandoned track.
Christophe Sadowski

Look carefully across the # 6 downtown lane at Union Square station. You will see the edge of a platform that was once used for an additional track until both were bricked up, possibly as early as 1910.


Photo of the New York subway garbage train.
Garbage from the garbage train goes to four locations around town.
Getty Images / iStockphoto

The yellow garbage trains you see late at night dump their trash at the yards on 207th Street in Inwood, 239th Street in the Bronx, and 36-38th Street and Corona Yard in Queens.


Blue lights along the track indicate the locations of devices that can briefly cut off third rail traction current in an emergency. But the current returns after a very short time.


Masstransiscope, an installation of 228 hand-painted panels
Train drivers can spot Masstransiscope, a hand-painted 228 panel installation.
Stefano Giovannini

Have you ever wondered about those colorful signs that scroll through the windows of the Q and N lines towards Manhattan when the train leaves DeKalb Avenue? This is an exhibit known as the Masstransiscope, a hand-painted 228-panel installation viewed through slits in the wall of an abandoned platform on Myrtle Avenue.


Vintage vacation metro car from the 1930s.
This vintage vacation metro car dates from the 1930s.
RICHARD HARBUS

These vintage “nostalgic” trains that run during the holiday season are maintained and stored for most of the year in the Coney Island Yard, one of the largest railroad yards on the continent. More than 1,000 cars a week go through the car wash on the A16 track.


Brooklyn Broadway Junction Station Complex
Brooklyn’s Broadway Junction elevated station complex is the oldest in the system.
Alamy

As astonishing as Brooklyn’s Broadway Junction station complex is today – a jumble of Erector Set-like tracks in the sky – it is “just a shadow of its former glory,” writes Dougherty. It once included a Fulton Line, demolished in 1956, in addition to the still standing J, Z and L lines and the A and C subways. The elevated structure, the oldest in the system, was built in 1885.


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