New York “Lasts”
New Yorkers bid farewell to yet another piece of history as the R-32 subway cars roll out of sight.
New York’s subway system retired one of its old guard this week: the steely R-32 trains. Set in motion in 1964, the R-32 model of subway car mainly served the Q line which in recent years extended into the infamous but now functioning “2nd Avenue Subway” line.
With any technology comes the inevitability of obsolescence and replacement, and New York’s subway cars are no different. According to the New York Transit Museum, the R-32s were nicknamed “Brightliners” because of their washboard-like stainless steel exteriors. A daily part of the city’s culture for 58 years, the R-32s had the second-longest service life in New York City subway history with over 600 of them traveling the rails at one time. But just like the R-32, another model came along, the R-160 in 2006, and steadily replaced the aging machines.
When the Metropolitan Transit Authority, the overseer of the city’s subway system, announced that the last of the R-32s were headed for the “end of the line,” throngs of New Yorkers made their way to catch a final ride and pay their respects. It was a brisk Sunday, but I made my way to the 96th Street station in Manhattan to spend some time on the last of the R-32s as it traveled its familiar route to Brighton Beach in Brooklyn.
The excited straphangers cheered when the train pulled into the station. A sign along its nose read “Last of 600 NEW BRIGHTLINERS FOR A BETTER SUBWAY.” Enthusiasts wore their MTA swag and merchandise. Parents brought their little ones who pointed and waved, and giggled with anticipation as they hopped aboard. I surprised myself at how hyped I was to be there, and just how bittersweet it all felt. New Yorkers have an amazing way of coming together to celebrate and pay homage to the things that have made this place unlike anywhere else in the world.
Who knew there were so many subway enthusiasts? Experts not just on the subway as a concept, but of the actual cars that we regularly cram ourselves into without much thought or fanfare. It really shouldn’t have come as a surprise to me. Any niche item, whether it be vintage cars or baseball cards or comic books, has its base of diehard fans and experts on the minutiae of its history. Even though we were all fully masked, the laughter, selfies, and sparkling eyes, exuded pure joy. Sharing this last trip alongside these R-32 fans made it that much more memorable and enjoyable for a rank-and-file rider like myself. I gained a new respect for the R-32’s contours, speed, and longevity.
In 1964, the Transit Authority marching band greeted the R-32 at the end of its ceremonial trip from New York Central Railroad’s Mott Haven Yard in the Bronx to Grand Central Terminal. The cars were sleek, modern, and the start of a new era. I sat there on this final ride and thought of my parents and grandparents who sat in cars like this one. I thought of the millions of people who went about their daily lives, decade after decade. Most days it doesn’t feel like there is a lot that we can or should celebrate about our current subway system, but this day gave me the hope that there might be another Brightliner — and brighter days — waiting for us down the track.