Inside the City's Ghost Subway System

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The New York City subway system has 842 miles of track, making it the largest in North America. And there's even more to it than riders see: dozens of tunnels and platforms that were either abandoned or were built but never used. They form a kind of ghost system that reveals how the city's transit ambitions have been both realized and thwarted.

Historian Joe Cunningham knows as much as anyone about the subway and how it's evolved since it opened in 1904. He stood before a map of it on a wall in Penn Station and considered its extent. The system is vast, reaching like an octopus from Manhattan to almost every neighborhood outside Staten Island. Cunnningham said that's because its planners have always thought big.

"Oh yeah, it was a bold undertaking and little by little it just grew over a period of about 45 years," he said. He also pointed out the gaps in service: southeast Brooklyn, central and eastern Queens, straight up the middle of the Bronx.

Almost all of those neighborhoods were set to get their own subways. Most of those lines died on the drafting table, but some were begun and then abandoned when the city ran out of money or pursued other priorities.  
 
"After World War II, prices had gone up substantially and it became obvious that it was not going to be possible to build all of the lines they would've like to have built," he explained.

Urban Explorers Head Underground

You can see their beginnings, if you go underground. That's where urban explorers like Moses Gates (left) likes to go. (Gates is working on a book, which is to be published by an imprint of Penguin Books and has the working title, "The Other Side of the Sign: About Urban Exploration Around the World.") He took me down to a tunnel under Nevins Street in Brooklyn, where a line was begun that would've run from Downtown Brooklyn in two directions: east into Bedford-Stuvesant and west under Flatbush Avenue in Fort Greene and then over the Manhattan Bridge to Canal Street.

It sits beneath tracks for the 4 and 5 trains run, which rumbled overhead as we stood on a fully tiled platform never opened to the public. To get there, we hopped down on some tracks that were closed for repairs and made our way to a tunnel begun for the abandoned line. Shadowed and cavernous, it was swampy in places and layered with grit in others. All of it sits beneath the city, unused.

Back above ground, Gates said the system is honeycombed with spots like this: stations, platforms and tunnels prepared for an expansive future that never came to be.

"There's these cool little remnants of foresight that didn't pan out," he said.

For example, a Brooklyn-bound branch of the F train was supposed to keep going under Houston Street, beneath the East River and across Central Brooklyn before turning down to Flatlands near Jamaica Bay. That area still doesn't have a subway.

A large station for that never-built line was constructed under South Williamsburg. Two summers ago, graffiti artists from around the world snuck in and covered its concrete walls with giant works of art.

"We built the subway into farmland on the assumption that people would live there and use them to get to work," Gates said, including tunnels and stations readied to accommodate future lines. "We built a humongous shell station on the G line, or right off the G line, because there was gonna to be two other lines and two new tunnels under the East River that were going to converge there."

One of them would've been that F train branch, another would've been an extension of the Eight Avenue line (A/C) that cut across Lower Manhattan and into Brooklyn.

"This goes on in the '20s and '30s," Gates said. "Then with the Depression in the '30s, the city runs out of money and none of this gets built."

As Gates described it, these unbuilt lines make up an impressive second system that sits invisibly on the actual subway map: lines that would've directly connected Forest Hills to JFK Airport, South Brooklyn to Staten Island and the Second Avenue Subway to Throgs Neck in the Bronx.

"Ever since, you've had all these cool nooks and crannies all around the subway system that were kind of foresight that never panned out," he said.

A Look at One Forgotten Station

The MTA doesn't want people exploring the abandoned or lost station stops. But for those that want a first hand glimpse, there is one option. MTA worker Dan Brucker gives tours of Grand Central Terminal that feature a visit to a secret station far below ground.
 
"That secret train station out there was built for one customer only," he boomed to a tour group late last year under the vaulted constellation of the terminal's main hall. "It was built for Franklin Delano Roosevelt."

He said Roosevelt's custom-built train would pull in and open its doors. A limousine with the president in it would be driven from inside the train, down a ramp and into an elevator next to the platform.

"He and his limousine and his staff would be lifted up and then backed out into the Grand Ballroom of the Waldorf Astoria," he said, where the president would give a speech.

FDR's train car still sits on a stub of track beneath Grand Central, a peculiar piece of the city's lost transit system — like stations once opened and now closed.

Glimpses While Riding the Line

Take the 1, 2 or 3 train and you can see an abandoned station at West 91st Street. In the 1950s, the city increased the capacity of the system by lengthening the average train from eight to ten cars and expanding station platforms. More riders could move through a commute. But to increase the speed of the trains, more space was needed between stations along the old routes. The city shut down 16 stops.

The best known one in Brooklyn is at Myrtle Avenue on the Q line, which has been turned into a work of art called masstransitscope. In Manhattan, there are abandoned stations at Worth Street, East 18th Street and beneath City Hall.

Some of those lost stops hide in plain sight — graffiti-covered indentations lit by a few bare bulbs and glimpsed from a moving train. All you need is to know where to look.

Unused tunnel under Atlantic Avenue in Brooklyn.
Unused tunnel under Atlantic Avenue in Brooklyn. ( Courtesy of Steve Duncan )

City Hall station. An elegant station on a tight curve that served as the original southern terminus of the 4,5,6 line – closed in 1945 after trains were lengthened and  the nearby Brooklyn Bridge Station was expanded. http://bit.ly/qHufe

( Courtesy of Shane Perez )
Tunnel under Atlantic Avenue in Brooklyn.
Tunnel under Atlantic Avenue in Brooklyn. ( Courtesy of Steve Duncan )
President Franklin Delano Roosevelt's custom-built train car, which sits on a secret track beneath Grand Central Terminal.
President Franklin Delano Roosevelt's custom-built train car, which sits on a secret track beneath Grand Central Terminal. ( Courtesy of Steve Duncan )
Spur beneath Grand Central Terminal used by FDR's special train car.
Spur beneath Grand Central Terminal used by FDR's special train car. ( Courtesy of Steve Duncan )
Unused part of the Second Avenue Subway.
Unused part of the Second Avenue Subway. ( Courtesy of Shane Perez )
Abandoned subway at E 18th Street in Manhattan.
Abandoned subway at E 18th Street in Manhattan. ( Courtesy of Shane Perez )

Unused tunnel under Nevins Street Station in Brooklyn.

( Courtesy of Steve Duncan )

Tunnel under Bergen Street in Brooklyn.

( Courtesy of Steve Duncan )
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