Last Saturday, after a disappointing afternoon running errands in Manhattan, we descended into the subway system at Times Square to head home, and stumbled on an antique subway train on the tracks. The three-car train represented three different moments in the city’s subterranean history, and was full to brimming with excited passengers waiting for the doors to close and the journey to Grand Central Terminal on the shuttle line to begin. E and I deliberated for a moment before deciding a trip onboard was worth a slight detour from our route, and jumped into the R10 model car.
Saturday was National Train Day, and we had gone to Grand Central that morning hoping to see the “Parade of Trains,” a gathering of antique trains on some of the tracks in the station, including the 20th Century Limited. When we got there, the line to see the trains was 2-3 hours long, and they reportedly had to cut the line early to ensure that people in line would be able to get in. The antique subway train on the shuttle line was part of the festivities, but not a well-publicized one.
These chance encounters with historical objects are successful because they are surprising. In a city with as many layers of history as New York, it’s easy to forget about everything that has happened on the spot where you stand before you got here. Every day I walk on streets and work in buildings and ride through tunnels that are many, many decades old, and yet most of the time I’m more focused on what I need to pick up for dinner than I am thinking about the human drama that has played out on this set. And then I see a subway car from another era in a station that I regularly pass through, and it jars me out of the mundane.
Riding on a train allows you to understand it, and how it works, much better than looking at pictures, reading about them, or even boarding a train as it stands still. The conductors on Saturday were focused on running the trains, and there wasn’t any additional interpretive layer. Still, riders learned things firsthand: without air conditioning, subways were hot; they were noisy, because the windows were usually open to try to generate a breeze; for the same reason, they smelled; and riders in the past had a much more intimate experience with the subway tunnels thanks to those open windows.
At the New York Transit Museum (one of my favorite museums in a city of wonderful museums), you can board any of the trains I rode on Saturday as they stand inert on the tracks of a disused subway station-turned-museum. It’s a fun and interesting way to spend an afternoon, but it sort of feels like visiting ghosts in a forgotten place. Trains come alive when they are in motion. True, without interpretive labels you didn’t have the benefit of knowing when the trains were in service, or particulars about their design, technology, and construction, but most of those facts are immediately forgotten by all but the most devoted of train enthusiasts.
The NYTM takes several opportunities throughout the year to roll its stock onto the active tracks of the subway system and delight MTA riders. I have boarded the holiday “nostalgia train” in December, letting modern trains pass me on the platform while I waited anxiously for it to arrive, brandishing my camera gleefully as I rode to Rockefeller Center for some classic NYC holiday fun. But then, I planned my trip, and I felt like I was in on the joke. I loved watching the reactions of people on the platform as this ghost clambered into the station and people boarded a train they may have recognized from their childhoods. On Saturday, I got to experience that surprise and delight along with many of the other people on board the train.
I didn’t get to see the assembled trains at Grand Central, but I still got to celebrate National Train Day, and it was a lot of fun.