The Lament of the C Train Rider

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The C train.

When the R-32s — the cars that currently operate on the C line — were first unveiled, it was such a big deal that the Transit Authority's 20-piece band played at the official ceremony, held at Grand Central Terminal.

The gleaming new cars were known as Brightliners because of their stainless steel exteriors, a first for the transit system.

The year was 1964. The civil rights movement was in full swing, Robert Wagner was New York City's mayor, and the city was urging residents to take the subway to the World's Fair in Queens. "Just pay 15 cents -- hop aboard! And you're on your way," went one jingle. (Listen to it below at your peril — the song is a total brainworm.)

Fifty-one years later, the bloom has gone off those Brightliners.

"Riding the C train is like riding a buggy," said Brooklyn resident Gisele Parson. "The way it jerks, the way it stops, I've seen people almost go flying."

Parson is a filmmaker and web designer, and her experience on the C has spurred her to join the Riders Alliance, a group that advocates for better subways — and has made fixing the C one of its platforms. 

She'd like her station to get an overhaul, but it's the headways — the length of time between C trains — that Parson really wants to see improved.

Even at rush hour, she said, "I have to wait between 10 and 12 minutes for a train. That doesn't seem like a long time, but it is a long time, when you're trying to get somewhere. Especially when it's cold. And especially when you're seeing other trains zipping by you."

That latter experience is galling to C train riders. Parson has spent so much time waiting for a C at the West 4th Street platform that she's befriended an E train conductor.  "'Miss, I’m sure the C train is right behind me,'" Parson said he routinely told her. "And he just kind of laughed about it, so it became a running joke every time he saw me. It was funny the first couple of times he saw me, but now it’s gotten old." 

Former conductor Henry Butler said the image of the forlorn C train rider is familiar to him, because when he was working on the E, he often had to placate frustrated C riders. "You would see the frustrated look on the C train riders because they're right," he said. "Three E's will come, because...the E runs [every] four to five minutes, or four to six minutes during rush hour. The C is like still at 10 minutes.” And that's during rush hour

Butler, who is currently the district manager of Community Board 3, can laugh about it now — even though he still rides the train. "It gets treated like the stepchild," he said. "It's the Cinderella without the glass slipper coming. That's how the C train is treated."

Despite its shortcomings, ridership on the C — like the rest of the system — is on the rise. According to MTA spokesman Kevin Ortiz, 2014 growth along C train stations in Brooklyn is on par with system-wide growth: 2.7 percent versus 2.4 percent for all subway lines. But some stations in Bedford-Stuyvesant are seeing more growth than others: between 2012 and 2013, there was a 4 percent increase in weekday ridership at the Ralph Avenue subway station. At Kingston Throop, the increase was 6.5 percent. And the Clinton-Washington station has experienced a 10 percent increase.

Meanwhile, the C train continues to run two cars shorter than the A or the E lines, which share the same tracks for portions of their routes. The MTA says that's due to ridership.

"Based on our guidelines," said Ortiz, "there really isn't a need to run a full 600-foot train along the C." Ortiz says the line has the second-lowest ridership in the system, after the G train. But even if the MTA determined that ridership on the C warranted the extra cars, "we don't have them," he said.

There are only 222 R-32s left from the original fleet of 600, so the MTA doesn't have the rolling stock to spare. But Ortiz says there continues to be "ample capacity" on the C train.

What is still in service is limping along. The Brightliners are the oldest cars in the MTA's fleet and right now the number of miles the cars can run before breaking down is about six times lower than the MTA's best-performing cars. That means that a Brightliner can only travel about 58,397 miles before needing repair, unlike the R-160 which can travel about 378,346 miles.

The agency began planning to replace the R-32s 15 years ago, when new cars were included in the MTA's 2000-2004 Capital Program. But younger cars that ran on other lines developed structural problems and got replaced first. Finally in 2012, the MTA cobbled together the money and put in an order for replacements. But last year Bombardier, the cars' manufacturer, reported that there were welding problems with the prototype car. Now it looks like the new trains — model number R-179 — will come in in 2017.    

(While the R-179s haven't been unveiled yet, it's likely they'll be similar to the more modern cars currently in service, with automated announcements and dynamic LED strip maps in each car.)                  

But for years it wasn't certain that the C line was going to get those new R-179s. Every time I asked the MTA, they said they hadn't assigned the new batch of cars to a line. Finally a couple of weeks ago, I managed to wring something like a commitment out of the Ortiz, the MTA spokesman.

"We anticipate the new R-179s, when they do arrive, to be assigned to the C, J, Z and some on the A line,” he told me earlier this month.

When I asked him what changed, he said, "Nothing’s changed, I just got an update. Again, this is something that's been years in the making."

When 2017 rolls around, two of the R-32s will be preserved and sent to the New York City Transit Museum. The rest will be stripped by the MTA's Asset Recovery division, and items that can be sold as memorabilia, like stanchion poles, subway seats, and signage, will be set aside.