The first underground line of the New York City Subway opened on October 27, 1904, almost 35 years after the opening of the first elevated line in New York City, which became the IRT Ninth Avenue Line. By the time the first subway opened, the lines had been consolidated into two privately owned systems, the Brooklyn Rapid Transit Company (BRT, later Brooklyn–Manhattan Transit Corporation, BMT) and the Interborough Rapid Transit Company (IRT). The city was closely involved: all lines built for the IRT and most other lines built or improved for the BRT after 1913 were built by the city and leased to the companies. The first line of the city-owned and operated Independent Subway System (IND) opened in 1932; this system was intended to compete with the private systems and allow some of the elevated railways to be torn down, but kept within the core of the City due to the low amount of startup capital provided to the municipal Board of Transportation, the later MTA, by the state. This required it to be run “at cost”, necessitating fares up to double the five-cent fare popular at the time.
In 1940, the two private systems were bought by the city and some elevated lines closed immediately while others closed soon after. Integration was slow, but several connections were built between the IND and BMT, and now operate as one division called the B Division. Since the IRT tunnel segments are too small and stations too narrow to accommodate B Division cars, and contain curves too sharp for B Division cars, the IRT remains its own division, the A Division.
The New York City Transit Authority (NYCTA), a public authority presided by New York City, was created in 1953 to take over subway, bus, and streetcar operations from the city, and placed under control of the state-level Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) in 1968.
Soon after the MTA took control of the subway, New York City entered a fiscal crisis. It closed many elevated subway lines that became too expensive to maintain. Graffiti and crime became common, and equipment and stations fell into decrepit condition. The New York City Subway tried to stay solvent, so it had to make many service cutbacks and defer necessary maintenance projects. In the 1980s an $18 billion financing program for the rehabilitation of the subway began.
The September 11 attacks resulted in service disruptions on lines running through Lower Manhattan, particularly the IRT Broadway–Seventh Avenue Line, which ran directly underneath the World Trade Center between the Chambers Street and Rector Street stations. Sections of the tunnel, as well as the Cortlandt Street station, which was directly underneath the Twin Towers, were severely damaged by the collapse and had to be rebuilt, requiring suspension of service on that line south of Chambers Street. Ten other nearby stations were closed while dust and debris were cleaned up. By March 2002, seven of those stations had reopened. The rest (except for Cortlandt Street on the IRT Broadway – Seventh Avenue Line) reopened on September 15, 2002 along with service south of Chambers Street.
Over the past decade, construction has been undertaken in order to expand the subway system. Expansions include the 7 Subway Extension that opened in September 2015, and the Second Avenue Subway, the first phase of which is slated to open on December 30, 2016.
The Independent System
Main article: Independent Subway System
Mayor John F. Hylan was an advocate of public operation of the subway, and wanted this goal to be set with a vengeance. He was fired from the BRT after working as a motorman for some time, and he wanted to avoid having to spend more money to recapture the IRT and BRT, so he tried to push the two operators out of business. To that end, Hylan had denied allocating money for the BRT by refusing to build new lines, refusing to raise fares (thereby putting the BRT in more debt), denied building permits so that some major building work lasted longer than planned, and even refusing to build a new subway yard for the BRT. The Malbone Street Wreck in 1918 contributed to the losses incurred by the two companies, which led to the bankruptcy of the BRT in 1918. The BRT, however, was reorganized into the Brooklyn-Manhattan Transit Corporation (BMT). The IRT was almost bankrupt, but managed to complete the line to Flushing by 1928. So, Hylan drew up plans for a third subway network, which should be built and operated in contrast to the existing subway lines, which were privately operated.
On the other hand, the city of New York had grown to over five and a half million inhabitants, and urgently needed new subway lines. The dual system could not keep pace with this ever-increasing ridership. So, a compromise solution was finally found that would allow Hylan’s plans as well as the interests of private operators to be considered. However, the city’s and Hylan’s long-term goal was the unification and consolidation of the existing subway, with the city operating a unified subway system (see below). The city, bolstered by political claims that the private companies were reaping profits at taxpayer expense, determined that it would build, equip and operate a new system itself, with private investment and without sharing the profits with private entities. This led to the building of the Independent City-Owned Subway (ICOS), sometimes called the Independent Subway System (ISS), the Independent City-Owned Rapid Transit Railroad, or simply The Eighth Avenue Subway after the location of its premier Manhattan mainline. After the City acquired the BMT and IRT in 1940, the Independent lines were dubbed the IND to follow the three-letter initialisms of the other systems.
The original IND system, consisting of the Eighth Avenue mainline and the Sixth Avenue, Concourse, Culver, and Queens Boulevard branch lines, was entirely underground in the four boroughs that it served, with the exception of the Smith–Ninth Streets and Fourth Avenue stations on the Culver Viaduct over the Gowanus Canal in Gowanus, Brooklyn.
As the first line neared completion, New York City offered it for private operation as a formality, knowing that no operator would meet its terms. Thus the city declared that it would operate it itself, formalizing a foregone conclusion. The first line opened without a formal ceremony. The trains began operating their regular schedules ahead of time, and all stations of the Eighth Avenue Line, from 207th Street in Inwood to Hudson Terminal (now World Trade Center), opened simultaneously at one minute after midnight on September 10, 1932.
On January 1, 1936, a second trunk line—the Sixth Avenue Line—opened from West Fourth Street (where it splits from the Eighth Avenue Line) to East Broadway. During construction, streetcar service along Sixth Avenue was terminated. The city could either restore it upon the completion of construction or abandon it immediately; as the city wanted to tear down the IRT Sixth Avenue Line right away and save on the costs of shoring it up while construction proceeded underneath it, the IRT Sixth Avenue Line was purchased for $12.5 million and terminated by the city on December 5, 1938, with the steel from the el sold to Japan. To help compensate for the loss in service, service on the Ninth Avenue Elevated was increased.
The first section of the Queens Boulevard Line, west from Roosevelt Avenue to 50th Street, opened on August 19, 1933. E trains ran local to Hudson Terminal (today’s World Trade Center) in Manhattan, while the GG (predecessor to current G service) ran as a shuttle service between Queens Plaza and Nassau Avenue on the IND Crosstown Line. An extension east to Union Turnpike opened on December 31, 1936. The line was extended to Hillside Avenue and 178th Street, with a terminal station at 169th Street on April 24, 1937. That day, express service began on the Queens Boulevard Line during rush hours, with E trains running express west of 71st–Continental Avenues, and GG trains taking over the local during rush hours. The initial headway for express service was between three and five minutes. 23rd Street–Ely Avenue station opened as an in-fill station on August 28, 1939. Upon its extension into Jamaica, the line drew Manhattan-bound passengers away from the nearby BMT Jamaica Line subway and the Long Island Rail Road.
On July 1, 1937, a third trunk line, the Crosstown Line, opened from Nassau Avenue to Bergen Street. Two years later, on December 15, 1940, local service was begun along the entire IND Sixth Avenue line, including its core part through Midtown Manhattan.
Meanwhile, on the East Side, the need for the IND Second Avenue Line had been evident since 1919, when the New York Public Service Commission launched a study at the behest of engineer Daniel L. Turner to determine what improvements were needed in the city’s public transport system. Due to the Great Depression, the soaring costs of the expansion became unmanageable, so it was not built along with the other three IND trunk lines. Construction on the first phase of the IND was already behind schedule, and the city and state were no longer able to provide funding. A scaled-down proposal including a turnoff at 34th Street and a connection crosstown was postponed in 1931. Further revision of the plan and more studies followed. By 1939, construction had been postponed indefinitely, and Second Avenue was relegated to “proposed” status. The 1939 plan for subway expansion took the line not only into the Bronx (by now as a single line to Throggs Neck) but also south into Brooklyn, connecting to the stub of the IND Fulton Street Line at Court Street. Construction of the line resumed in 1972, but was ended in 1975 due to the city’s fiscal crisis, and work was again restarted in 2007.