Swan Song for NYCT ‘Brightliners’

Written by David Peter Alan, Contributing Editor
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The year was 1964. Lyndon Johnson was campaigning for re-election as President, hoping his “Great Society” and “War on Poverty” programs would help the country, although the nation’s involvement in the Vietnam War was escalating and would later trigger his downfall. “Beatlemania” swept the country, as the “Fab Four” from Liverpool dominated the charts, with only the emerging Motown Sound from Detroit giving them any competition. The nation’s passenger train network was still gigantic compared to what we have on Amtrak today, but it was shrinking fast. Rail transit in the cities that still had it was shrinking, too. In New York, though, the second World’s Fair in 25 years was taking place in Flushing, Queens, and the “Brightliner” subway cars made their first appearance.

Now, nearly 60 years later, the R32s, as they are known officially, are making their last trips into transit history. The first of the “farewell runs” took place Dec. 19, on the Sixth Avenue Line (mostly on the D train route) between Second Avenue Station and 145th Street. More runs were scheduled for Dec. 26 and Jan. 2 on the same line, and the final farewell is slated to run Jan. 9 on the Brighton Line (Q train), where the cars made their debut on Sept. 14, 1964.

The R32s were dubbed “Brightliners” when they first appeared for two reasons: They started running on the Brighton Line on the BMT between 57th Street in Manhattan and Coney Island (along with the Sea Beach Line; the N train, also to Coney Island on a different route in Brooklyn), and because they were the first mass-produced trains on the system clad in stainless steel. They were built by the Budd Company, which was already famous for its dome cars and other luxurious equipment for long-distance trains, and for its self-contained Rail Diesel Cars (RDCs), which became known colloquially in railroad circles as “Budd Cars.” The R32s were the only large order that the company ever made for the New York system,* and they were built for the New York City Transit Authority before it was folded into the state-controlled Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA), which was established later in the decade.

The R32s replaced historic equipment that was drab in appearance, but remembered fondly by Brooklynites of appropriate age. They included the “Standard” (A and B type) cars built during WWI for the Brooklyn Rapid Transit Co. (BRT) and during the early 1920s for its successor, Brooklyn-Manhattan Transit (BMT), and the articulated “triplex” units (D-types) that were built in the mid-1920s for the BMT with three shorter sections that, together, were as long as two “Standard” cars. The triplexes were all replaced by the R32, but the “Standards” lasted until 1969 on the Canarsie Line (L train) and the M train. A few examples of both have been preserved and run occasionally.

There were 600 cars in the original R32 order, built in two series of 300 cars each, and numbered 3350 through 3949. They are 60 feet long. They were given mid-life overhauls in the late 1980s. About two-thirds of them were retired at the end of the first decade of this century, replaced with R160 cars and either scrapped or dumped into the Atlantic Ocean to serve as artificial reefs. The cars that were left ran on the A and C trains (Eighth Avenue Line) or J and Z trains (Jamaica Line, mostly in Queens). They were scheduled to be retired early in 2020 and replaced with new R179 cars, but some of the R179s had problems and were pulled from service, so the R32s made an “encore performance” during that summer and into October. The scheduled “farewell runs” mean that the cars will have run in each of 59 calendar years. There are plans to preserve a few for the New York Transit Museum and other purposes. Only the wooden-bodied (and later modified) Q-cars from Brooklyn had a longer history of service on the system. They started on the elevated lines of the BRT in 1903 and lasted until the majority of the Myrtle Avenue elevated line (“the Myrtle El”) was torn down in 1969.

“With a state-of-the-art design for its time, the Brightliners quickly became a crowd favorite and continues to be a nostalgic favorite to many,” the MTA noted. “The car introduced design elements unlike any of its predecessors, but one that the MTA has received inspiration from for its newest cars. Notably, the R32 is the last subway car class in service to have a front window that passengers can look out of.” 

“As we continue the work to modernize the transit system and improve the customer experience, it is truly bittersweet to say farewell to a fleet of historic R32 trains that have served New Yorkers for nearly six decades,” said NYCT Interim President Craig Cipriano said, noting that the cars had been seen in such movies as Bridge of Spies (2015) andJoker (2019). They were also seen in The French Connection (1974).

The MTA normally runs “nostalgia trains” on Sundays in December, in cooperation with the New York Transit Museum. In recent years, those runs featured trains from the first “R” contracts between the City and the car manufacturers for procurement of new cars for the IND subway. The R1 through R9 cars, all built during the 1930s, normally run as “nostalgia trains” but the farewell runs for the R32s are serving that purpose this year. The above-quoted release has the schedule and can be found at https://new.mta.info/press-release/mta-retire-1960s-era-subway-cars-celebratory-final-runs

I, accompanied by other transportation reporters and advocates, was on the first run of the morning on Dec. 19, which left Second Avenue Station at 10:00, proceeded north to 145th street and Eighth Avenue, and left there at 11:00 to return to Second Avenue, arriving shortly before 11:30. Sadly, the day was cut short by vandalism, with the back of one of the seats broken and a light fixture in another car damaged. A YouTuber who identified himself as “some.transit_buff” shot a video of the train going through 125th Street, but not of the vandalized cars. He reported this in his comment: “Although the first trip uptown had its problems, the real disappointment would come when the following trips would be canceled due to vandalism. The train went back to Coney Island Yard.” It was reported that somebody attempted to tamper with a destination sign, another passenger was caught vaping, and another refused to exit the train at the end of the line.

Concetta Anne Bencivenga, Director of the Transit Museum, spoke fondly of the event in a statement posted on Reddit: “After more than 20 months without a vintage train ride, the New York Transit Museum, working closely with the MTA, was proud and delighted to help bring forward an opportunity to return to the rails and to pay tribute to an iconic moment with the retirement of the R32s.” She also condemned the vandalism: “While the vast majority of riders and railfans enjoyed themselves, unfortunately, the day was marred by acts of vandalism, aggression, foul language and generally unruly behavior.” 

Despite that sour note, Railway Age has received official confirmation that the remaining runs would occur on the next three Sundays, as scheduled. WNYC reporter Jen Carlson did not report on the vandalism in her Dec. 21 story in the station’s companion publication Gothamist, but she did report the enthusiasm of the riders: “With a stainless steel exterior that resembles the side of a soup can and an overall old-timey vibe, the R32 subway cars began their farewell rides this past Sunday. They’re some of the oldest subway cars still running—not just in New York City, but in the world—and railfans came out in full force to say goodbye, many calling them the most reliable cars the subway system has seen.”

Randolph Glucksman, who is now the Metro-North rider-representative on the MTA Board, told Railway Age: “The moment that I received the MTA press release announcing these final train rides, I just knew that I wanted to have one more chance to ride the R32s.” He remembered the cars well: “In the early years of my career at NYCT, I had the opportunity to work on these trains as a conductor and after a promotion, as a motorman. Naturally, I also rode in them as a passenger. These cars have served New York riders well for nearly six decades, and it is very unlikely that any other subway car currently operating will match that.”

Larry Higgs, who reports on transportation for the Newark, N.J.-based Star-Ledger and its website, www.nj.com, also commented: “I grew up riding the R36 ‘Redbirds’ on the Flushing line, which was the ‘family tree’ for three branches of the family. My experiences on the R32s were later as a teen and an adult. To me they were the apex of that ‘turtleback’ style of subway car design. As a rider, I preferred the R32 to the R46 and R68, which seemed like dimly lit behemoths in comparison, especially after they went through the last general overhaul.” 

Higgs also placed the experience in the context of a comparison with NJ Transit’s equipment: “Riding the first retirement run on Dec. 19, I was struck by how noisy the R32s are compared to modern subway equipment. But similar to their Budd Arrow III counterparts on NJ Transit, the old subway cars are fast, which our motorman demonstrated by making a quick sprint uptown, leading me to comment, ‘I wish the D train was this fast when I’m trying to make a Yankee game.’ With their retirement ends many of the features I grew up with as a subway rider, cloth roll signs, the ‘assistant motorman’ window in the lead car where many a kid peered down the tracks an imagined him or herself at the controls and the aesthetic shape of subway car bodies that, since the R-5s, were synonymous with the NYC subway for more than a decade, and of course that distinctive stainless steel fluting that made them look like ‘real’ railroad passenger cars.”

Ralph Spielman, also a transportation reporter, specifically praised the Budd-built equipment. He told Railway Age: “Budd, like Lockheed, built for passengers.” Comparing the R32 to VIA Rail’s long-distance cars, “The fact that 54-year-old equipment could look and handle as well as they did is a testament to the men and women of Red Lion, whose 10-year older passenger cars are still running on VIA’s Canadian,” he said. “With a renewal, PATCO’s Budd railcars will be around for quite a while, the original cars being built in 1968. Still clad in their shotwelded stainless steel, the R32s have served New York riders quite capably for almost six decades, far longer than other equipment.”

Of all the features of the R32 and older cars, probably the one that will be missed the most is the front door, which not only enabled riders to walk between cars, but also offered a view from the front of the train. While the former practice has fallen out of favor for safety reasons, it seems that every New Yorker and visitor of appropriate age enjoyed looking out the front window during a ride. Now that every car in the system has a full-width cab, that experience will never be available again, except on the rare occasions when NYCT and the Transit Museum offer a “nostalgia train,” an occasional adventure that, in the U.S., is unique to New York City.

Joseph M. Clift, an advocate and Manhattan resident who was once planning director for the Long Island Rail Road, commented specifically on the loss of the front-window experience. He told Railway Age: “Bring back the front window so we can see down the tracks on new trains! No sane reason I can conjure up not to get it back.” It’s difficult to fathom that many other New Yorkers would disagree.

My second ride, the following Sunday afternoon, was calmer and less-crowded. While the railfans were out in numbers, it appeared that many of the riders were “ordinary” New Yorkers who happened to catch a train that was older than any others still running. The experience of looking out the front window was gone; a yellow plastic chain designated the front of the first car as off-limits. There were eight cars in the consist, compared to ten the previous week. There were no major acts of vandalism, but there was a minor one: Somebody had sprayed some white paint on the exterior of one of the cars. An MTA supervisor told me that employees were prepared for such an incident and cleaned the affected area with paint remover, but there was still some paint on the window surface; presumably waiting to be scraped off at the end of the day. Given the level of graffiti that plagued the system in the 1970s and 1980s, until hard-line transit chief David Gunn got it cleaned off, a bit of it may have served as a fitting and unwelcome reminder of what the subways were like during a darker portion of the cars’ lifetimes.

The R32s were well-built, interesting and innovative, and they lasted for a long time, possibly as a result of their Budd Company pedigree. Like most of the cars that no longer run on the system, they were fun while they lasted. Without the R32s as part of the system’s equipment roster, the subways won’t seem quite the same as they used to be. 

*Noted railroad historian Joseph J. Cunningham, who in 2004 contributed to Railway Age’s special report on the 100th anniversary of the New York City subway system, comments: “I was glad to see the excellent article on the retirement of the R32 cars. It is a fitting ‘bookend’ to the detailed article that Railway Age published in August of 1964 that noted in detail the construction of the cars, the large number, at that time the largest rapid transit car order in history. It is good to see that Railway Age continues an appreciation of the historic contributions of builders, suppliers and operating agencies. The R32s were one of three Budd-built car types for the transit system. The other two were operated in regular passenger service, though they were experimental demonstration equipment built for a NYCT predecessors: the Zephyr for the BMT Co. in 1934; and the R11 for the New York City Board of Transportation in 1949. Both operated for the Transit Authority—the Zephyr until 1954 and the R11 until 1976, the latter having been rebuilt in 1965 and renamed R34. The former, named for the Budd-built Burlington Route articulated train, was a five-unit articulated train of lightweight design intended to permit joint operation on subways and older elevated lines that could not accommodate cars of the steel construction of the day. The latter were ten single-unit cars intended as prototypes for future subway construction that never materialized. Both were Budd products of stainless steel construction, the only material that the Budd Company used, with its unique ‘Shot-Weld’ process, rather than conventional welding construction.

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