New York: 10 Secrets of the Subway

The New York subway system is full of quirky curiosities, and some of these weird and wonderful surprises are hidden in plain sight. 

It goes without saying that New Yorkers despise anyone who holds them up on the subway, especially tourists. But at the risk of annoying them just a little bit more, I’d urge anyone visiting New York to take time to appreciate the subterranean world that lurks beneath their feet.

New York’s subway system is home to some weird and wonderful finds, including hidden art, abandoned stations and secret VIP tracks.

Even the train conductors perform an unusual ritual that, unless you’re paying attention, you just might miss.

There are a few subway surprises at street level too, so it pays to keep your wits about you as you move around this bustling metropolis.

A staggering 1.7 billion people ride the subway each year; that averages out to about 5.7 million riders every weekday. Still, it’s a fair bet than most New Yorkers are in too much of a hurry to fully appreciate the weird and wacky goings-on in this underground maze.

Here are just 10 quirky curiosities that will completely change your perspective of the New York City subway next time you visit.

The red and green light globes actually mean something 

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Guiding light

Let’s start at street level. We’ve all seen the green and red globes at the entrance to New York subway stations, right? Unless you’re a local, you probably have no clue that these colour-coded light poles actually mean something.

The globes have long been an indicator of whether a subway entrance was open or not.

A green globe meant that an entrance was open around the clock and the station was probably supervised. But if you saw a bright red globe, it meant the entrance was closed and there was probably no one on duty to sell you a ticket.

In the 1990s, half-moon style globes also emerged, with red or green tops and milky white bottoms. These new additions were not significant, they were simply designed to give off more light.

The old-fashioned light system is still operating at some stations although it can’t always be relied upon. Most stations don’t have ticket booths these days with MetroCard’s now bought from vending machines.

What’s with all the pointing?

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Safety first

You might not have noticed as you rush to board the train, but subway conductors have a curious habit of pointing out of their cabins when the train pulls into a station.

Conductors are actually trained to point at a black-and-white-striped piece of wood hanging halfway down every subway platform.

When this indication mark, or zebra board, is lined up perfectly with the conductor’s window, they know it’s safe to open the doors. If they’re wide of the mark, some carriages could still be in the tunnel.

Pointing became mandatory in September 1996 and conductors can actually be dismissed or suspended if they’re caught not pointing. They do something similar on the Tokyo Metro.

Now that’s a music platform

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Hitting the right note

It looks like part of the station infrastructure and often goes unnoticed, but the musical installation at 34th Street Herald Square station is quite remarkable.

Located on both the uptown and downtown platforms, when people put their hands in front of the overhead pipes a burst of music is released on the opposite platform.

The installation basically plays pre-recorded sounds when sensors detect movement, connecting complete strangers on the different platforms.

The audio installation by Christopher Janney is called “Reach New York: An Urban Musical Instrument” and has been creating a stir since 1996.

There’s a library down there

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Books in a nook

Who doesn’t like reading a good book on the long commute home? Well thanks to this outpost of the New York Public Library, hidden in the Lexington Avenue – 51st Street subway, you’ll never be short of good reading material.

Terence Cardinal Cooke-Cathedral Library is located down a flight of stairs, just outside the turnstile entrance to the No. 6 train. It’s so obscure there’s not even a street-level sign announcing its existence.

The fake Brooklyn townhouse

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Not what it seems

The facade of this three-story dark-red brownstone at 58 Joralemon Street in Brooklyn Heights sticks out like a sore thumb. Not only are the windows completely blacked out, but the paint job and brick work is also highly suspicious.

As it turns out, the building is a fake and no one has actually lived here for more than 100 years. It’s used by the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) to store electrical equipment and also houses a ventilation system.

The building also provides access to the world’s oldest train tunnel, the Atlantic Avenue Tunnel, built in 1844.

Bronze sculptures at 14th St Station 

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Life Underground

Subway stations are now a destination in themselves, rather than just transportation hubs, thanks to the great public art that is on display across the network .

The 14th St/8th Ave subway station is a great example with around 130 whimsical bronze statues hidden in unexpected nooks and crannies, including platforms, stairwells and ramps.

Created by Tom Otterness, the large Monopoly-type characters are part of a permanent art installation and can be found at the intersection of the A,C,E, and L lines.

Called “Life Underground”, the collection captures intriguing scenes of city and subway life, tapping into themes of class, money and authority.

It includes a character trying to sneak under a subway gate only to be caught (pictured), a bureaucratic figure with a money bag for a head and a dominant figure taking a bag of money and subway tokens from a smaller figure.

Catch a psychedelic slideshow on the B or Q train

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Bill Brand’s Masstransiscope

If you’re riding the B or Q train from Brooklyn to Manhattan, keep your eyes peeled for a psychedelic slideshow in the tunnel.

Known as Masstransiscope, the public artwork consists of a 300 foot-long painting made on reflective material that creates a series of bright and psychedelic images, colours and shapes as the train moves past.

It’s located on the uptown platform of the decommissioned BMT Myrtle Avenue local station. If you’re on a Manhattan-bound B or Q train from the Dekalb Avenue stop, look out the right side of the train as it nears the end of a Brooklyn tunnel before the Manhattan Bridge.

You actually view the painting through a wall of slits in the tunnel as the train passes – a bit like a camera lens opening and closing. But blink and you’ll miss it.

The Waldorf-Astoria had a secret station

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Roosevelt’s abandoned train

This is one subway secret you’ll just have to take our word for because it’s not accessible to the public. Hidden deep beneath the iconic Waldorf-Astoria Hotel on Park Avenue is a secret railway station used by VIPs who wanted to arrive without being noticed in the 1930s.

Known as Track 61, it was commissioned by President Franklin Roosevelt, who wanted to hide the fact that he was in a wheelchair suffering with polio.

He would commute between Washington and New York undetected in the underground railway. The secret track, which connected to Grand Central Station, has not been used since 1945 when Roosevelt died.

The train, with its ironclad construction and pop-out gun turrets, is still frozen in time under the Waldorf-Astoria.

There are ghost stations everywhere

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It looks like a normal subway station

There are nine abandoned stations in the New York subway system. Some have been  strategically shuttered, casualties of a continually evolving transit system, while others have been turned into museums or art installations (see Masstransiscope above).

The most beautiful is the disused City Hall station, which was in service from 1904 to 1945.

It’s located beneath the Municipal Building at the intersection of Centre Street and Chambers Street in lower Manhattan. The New York Transit Museum (NYTM) offers tours regularly, but you must have a museum membership and it costs around $50 for the actual tour.

Some people suggest if you stay on the 6 train at its final stop at Brooklyn Bridge station, you can admire the abandoned station in all its rundown glory as the train does a loop back uptown. We’re not sure if that’s entirely legal, and this article certainly raises some questions.

One of the best maintained ghost stations is the old Court Street subway at 99 Schermerhorn Street in Brooklyn (pictured), with its original street entrance that is easily confused for a modern day subway entrance.

Court St station is now a transit museum run by the NYTM and it’s open to the public. For $10 admission for adults and $5 for kids, you can see old subway cars, subway signs, September 11 video displays and lots of interesting paraphernalia from bygone eras.

The MTA will actually write you a late note

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It sounds almost comical, but the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) will actually provide late notes to an employer if a subway delay ever makes commuters late for work.

Passengers simply fill out this form and the MTA will verify that a subway delay was the reason for their tardiness.

Since the online program launched in 2010, the MTA has reportedly seen the number of late pass requests balloon. Previously, passengers were forced to call or write to the MTA and had to wait up to three weeks for a response.

Given the New York subway’s on-time performance has been pretty dismal lately, we imagine they’re writing a lot of late notes.

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