If you’ve been in New York for longer than a day, you’ve been here: standing on the subway platform, watching the rats scurry, wondering how a person’s ONE sock somehow fell beneath the tracks below you. In waiting for the subway, one is left with much time to dwell in the mysteries of the underground, made realities by the New York City Transit Authority.
What happens at the end of the line? How do the trains turn around? For years, I’ve assumed there’s a trick that I’m just not seeing in plain sight – something that happens when I’m not looking or because I’m not paying enough attention. Well, yes and no.
“You clearly don’t live in New York,” said a slightly irritated Charles Seton, a Spokesperson for The New York City Transit Authority, when I reached him on the phone. Evidently,there’s no magic. And there’s really nothing to it either, according to Charles, who has been with the MTA for 18 years. When each train reaches the other end of the track, he explained, the engineer walks to the other end of the train, and it just goes back the other direction. “There’s only one line in the city that turns around, and that happens on a loop track – the 6 and the turn around is at the Brooklyn Bridge stop,” said Charles.
Sure, it made sense. But I still didn’t quite understand all the nuts and bolts of the process. Take the L train, which Charles says has “thirty cars on the track at one time”: if the cars just go back and forth without turning around, won’t they collide at some point en route? Charles, not-so-patiently, explained that the L train pulls into 8th Avenue on one track. The train operator then goes to the opposite end of the train, pulls out of the station, and switches to another track. A HA. I hadn’t thought about switches before – therein lies the key to my confusion.
Onto my next question: How do the trains get underground to begin with? “I always assumed that the subway cars were built underground somehow,” said Eric, a twenty-something daily subway rider. But Charles had the answer. “Our trains are built in Yonkers and upstate. They access underground through the tracks on the street level. Tractors bring them in to the city and they get lowered down.”
The Spokesman for the MTA also told me “newer cars travel up to 600,000 miles between break downs.” If a subway were to break down or require repair, they are fixed in one of the 15 subway yards scattered throughout the city. Which, of course, brought up a new question – how do those cars get aboveground for repairs? But something in Charles’s tone told me it was time to just hang up.