For rail fans, a nostalgic subway ride

Restoration: The oldies look, smell and sound different, and that's what appeals to the devotees.

December 19, 2004|By David Kohn | David Kohn,SUN STAFF

NEW YORK - Bob Osman was very excited. So excited, in fact, he was practically trembling. Or maybe it was the vibration of the nearly 90-year-old subway car he was riding.

He was aboard a Low-V, a subway car that first traveled New York's underground tracks when Woodrow Wilson was president. With its ceiling fans, wicker seats and World War II-era ads exhorting riders to get Liberty Loans, the train was clearly from another era.

Osman, a psychotherapist, tried to explain the deep-seated, subconscious origins of his passion for old trains, insights already understood by almost any child. "They're squeakier," he yelled over the din. "They smell different!"

To mark the 100th anniversary of the nation's largest subway system, New York's Metropolitan Transit Authority has organized a series of celebrations, including exhibits on station architecture, readings of subway-related poetry and a revival of the beauty contest that crowned "Miss Subways" from 1941 to 1976. The MTA also has offered aficionados the chance to ride on a train that first traversed the tracks in 1916.

On a brisk Sunday morning, Osman and about 300 other subway enthusiasts paid $40 each to pack themselves into four refurbished Low-Vs and spend the day riding under and above Manhattan, the Bronx and Brooklyn.

The trip was due to begin at 10:30 a.m. at Grand Central Terminal in midtown Manhattan. But the subway buffs arrived more than an hour ahead of schedule, including 16-year-old James Hynes, wearing a jacket decorated with insignias of MTA repair yards. A junior at Monsignor McClancy Memorial High School in Queens, he acknowledged that his classmates did not share his ardor. "They're nowhere near into it," he said ruefully. "The only thing they think about is sex."

People had come early in hopes of getting a spot at the very front of the train, where they could look out of the "rail fan window," as it's known.

Osman, 48, was satisfied simply to be there. He has visited all of New York's 468 active subway stations (plus several abandoned ones). He provided commentary as the Low-V toured underground.

"The abandoned 18th Street station," he said, pointing out the window at a darkened, graffiti-covered subway platform, not obviously different from the unabandoned variety.

"We're on the middle track. This is rarely ever used," he said as the train rumbled Bronx-ward. The cars trembled and squealed, but kept rolling.

Osman had brought his 3-year-old son, Ethan, who already shares his father's subway interest. Walking down the street, the toddler pretends he's a conductor and calls out stops. Instead of Sesame Street, Ethan prefers watching videos of old subway trains from the 1940s and 1950s.

"When you live in a small New York apartment and you need a place to take your kid," Osman said, "the subway is great."

At the 168th Street station, under Washington Heights in Upper Manhattan, the train made a special stop so passengers could take photos from a footbridge crossing above the tracks. When the train doors opened, almost everyone dashed off with a camera to capture the Low-V in all its glory.

Unlike contemporary cars, which are all silvery sleekness - at least until they deteriorate from steady use - the Low-Vs have the somehow comforting look of something that has been riveted and screwed together by hand from big pieces of metal.

And unlike the current cars, manufactured in Japan or Canada, the Low-Vs were built in the United States, many by the Pullman-Standard Co. or the Pennsylvania Railroad.

"The cars now, they're too smooth," said Mike Hanna, a retired subway repair foreman who oversaw the train's restoration.

He has been a subway car archivist since 1986, when he was foreman of the Coney Island Yard. The MTA was planning to junk 16 old subway cars. Hanna, who remembered the Low-Vs from his youth in Brooklyn, persuaded the city to let him keep the cars in the corner of a Brooklyn storage yard.

Low-Vs get their name from the fact that they used low-voltage electricity. The previous model had used much higher levels of electricity. This current powered everything, including the light bulbs, and was a hazard to both subway workers and riders. "It was like an electric chair," said high school science teacher Steven Kaye, who helped restore the Low-V window frames.

Almost every Tuesday night for the past decade, Hanna and a few helpers have labored to restore the rescued Low-Vs. The crew meets at the Coney Island Repair Yard to scrape off rust, fix burned-out motors and replace broken windows. For the paint, Hanna contacted the manufacturer, who found the original formula.

Refurbishing the old cars doesn't seem like all that much work for Hanna: As the Coney Island foreman, he was in charge of maintaining a fleet of 3,200 cars. As a young repairman in the 1950s, he had to remove, clean and replace seven subway car motors during every shift.

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