I debated whether to take the train or drive to the day’s excursion. Either one would have been easy from my home but I opted to take the short drive down the Bronx River Parkway, grabbing breakfast on the way.
The spot where East 180th Street station sits is a crisscross of train tracks, roads, and the elevated parkway. I wasn’t too familiar with the area, so I used my smartphone GPS to get close then and made an educated guess about where a good parking spot would be. I walked over about two blocks from the small sidestreet and recognized the big, pretty station house building. I knew I was in the right place!
As I walked up, I saw a few people gathered around a man in an New York City Transit vest. He looked familiar, and I realized I knew him from the 239th Street Shop tour I went on a couple of years ago. He was chatting with the interested crowd, which asked him miscellaneous questions about subway cars, track, and shop. I was interested in the conversation, but also realized I had better eat the breakfast I’d brought before the tour officially began. I could only hear snippets of the conversation over the wind and other background noise.
As I sat on the wall near the group, I had a nagging recollection that we were supposed to meet inside the station house near the turnstiles instead. I quieted my brain by telling it that I should finish eating first, and that I couldn’t be in the wrong place if there were all of these other people (including our guide) here!
Right around start time, the tour coordinator came out to fetch our group with a playful quip about us hanging around in the wrong place. We followed our guide inside, did our official check-ins, and received our little radio receivers and headphones.
We stood around for a few minutes in the station’s lobby waiting for stragglers. The space was pretty nice inside and wide enough for arriving passengers to navigate around the big blob of us tour participants. I recalled that I’d heard about the station recently undergoing renovations, and I could tell that things in here looked shinier than in most subway stations.
After a few minutes it was time to depart. Our guide led us out the doors of the station house that we’d come in and he explained some about the station itself.
The East 180th Street station had, indeed, undergone a renovation recently to the tune of 6.6 million dollars. The project plan had not included a budget for a new clock on the front of the station house building, but apparently the contractor gifted one to the project since it looked strange without it. How kind! The clock was definitely a lovely touch and seemed in keeping with the original architecture.
Our guide explained that not only was the renovated station aesthetically pleasing, but also ADA compliant.
In a separate project, the adjacent yard had been recently re-signaled.
We turned right from the plaza in front of the station. The Bronx River Parkway, which I’d driven to get there, loomed above to our left. Our guide made a crack about its unpleasant appearance.
Beyond the parkway, he pointed out that you could just barely see the catenary for the Metro North New Haven line.
As we rounded the corner onto E. 180th Street itself, we passed underneath a set of no-longer-used stub tracks. In front of us, also overhead, we could see the part of the current 2/5 line track just south of the station.
Pretty quickly we arrived at the driveway entrance to the yard and shop. We stood right inside the tall, chain-link fence as our tour guide chatted with the security guard. I was eager just to be that far into this exciting, restricted area and gazed all around me. There were funny signs, gloomy little spots underneath the abandoned track, and every once in a while a train would draw my attention as it passed nearly directly overhead.
Our guide began calling out names of tour participants in order to hand out visitor badges. We were in a relatively small space so there was a little bit of jostling each time to get the right person close to our guide.
Once everyone had their pass, we moved quickly along a little path and to a large freight elevator. We squished in and the elevator groaned its way up one floor.
We emerged on a kind of concrete patio. There were more things to look at all around here. Pallets of supplies sat around the perimeter. We got a few strange looks from riders waiting for the train at the E. 180th St. Station across the way, wondering why there were so many people standing up there. And the modern shop building stood tall next to us.
We prepared to enter the shop. A bank of yard tracks was to our right, and our guide pointed out that an R188, which were being tested on the 5 line, could be seen from where we were. While I knew this new model bears few differences from the R142As in current service, it was both cool and nerdy to get a preview of these new babies. The railfans in the group, not surprisingly, seemed extremely excited at the mention and the viewing opportunity, which made me giggle to myself.
As we entered the maintenance shop building, our guide explained a bit of history about the yard and shop. Originally there was an elevated yard near this site, but when the 239th Street Yard opened, it took over much of the function of this yard. The original E. 180th St. shop building used to house eight tracks. But with the current building, completed in 1999, the space between the tracks was increased so that inside were just five pitted tracks. Our guide told us that this shop’s yard was home of 300+ R142 train cars which run on the 5 line.
Right where we came in was the first of many pieces of interesting memorabilia lining the walls of the shop: a collection of signs from the Subway Series in 2000, including a photo of trains wrapped for the occasion.
Our guide escorted us to a train car that had a set of steps pulled up next to it. We were going up and into the car! We shuffled into a single-file line to climb the stairs. While waiting to board, I got a great, close-up view of the truck (wheels-and-motor assembly) of the car we were entering.
We walked back a couple of cars and were instructed to take a seat.
Three workmen entered, wearing vests, hardhats, and gloves. They started unscrewing things around the perimeter of the inside of the train as our guide gave an explanation.
Older subway cars’ air conditioning units were underneath the cars. This was a problem for maintenance purposes – they were not easy to access or replace. With the newer cars, the air conditioners were located in the ceiling. This way, it’s easy to remove and replace the units, especially in the summer when they’re getting heavy use. Shop crews are completely cross-trained and work in teams of three to perform maintenance and repairs like the one we were witnessing.
Under the panels that the men were removing, we began to see components that looked recognizable as parts of an HVAC system: vents, ducts, and electrical wires.
Air conditioning, our guide said, was first installed in the 1970s as a retrofit to one of the models of redbirds. In the early models that shipped with air conditioners, the airflow wasn’t as good – air from the unit at one of the ends of the train would only blow down one side of the car, and the other end’s unit would blow air only on the other side of the car. Imagine sort of nested “L” shapes where the short legs are the AC units and the long legs are the vents down the length of the car. This would work fine most times, but if one unit failed, basically only the people on one side of the train would get cool air! In the newer models, air mixes uniformly from the two units along both sides of the length of the car.
As our guide explained this and other details of the HVAC system, he didn’t realize that the workers had begun to lift the AC unit off of the top of the car above him! It was kind of cute because guide was wrapped up in his explanation and the men had just been working efficiently through a process they clearly had down pat.
Our guide wrapped up his explanation by taking a few questions from our group, including about differences in and preferences about car models. We then reversed our route back through the cars and towards the stairs. As we walked, I got a closer peek at the guts exposed under the removed HVAC panels.
Before climbing down the stairs we each got to take a quick look into the train’s cab at the operator’s console. Other than the presence of what I knew was a touch screen (it wasn’t powered on), the controls actually looked a bit retro to me, especially compared to the sleek design of the interior and exterior of the rest of the train. The panel kind of reminded me of the controls for a 1960’s room-sized computer. It was neat to see, though we weren’t allowed to take any photos here.
As the last of the group filed out and down the stairs, the workmen prepared to lift the HVAC unit back onto the train. This one was not actually slated for replacement, but was removed simply for our demonstration. I felt honored, but mildly concerned that we may have wasted the team’s time.
We walked around some pallets of replacement train parts and across the width of the front of the shop as the men worked to reinstall the AC unit back on top of our train car.
Then we began our journey back alongside the trains down the length of the shop. Our guide told us about some other technical aspects of these fairly new train cars as we passed them.
I knew about some of the basic mechanics of these trains before from previous tours, reading, and friends. It was nice to hear some familiar terms (a much different experience than my first shop tour, when I didn’t know any of this!) and to learn even more from our guide.
The resistor grid, which looks like a big cage underneath the train car, helps step down the electric power provided to the train so that it can operate at slower speeds. There’s lots of space in there so that the resistors can be cooled by the movement of air around them as the train moves.
Another box under the car body contains a knife switch. I didn’t remember if I’d ever seen one of these boxes open before. This intimidating-looking switch essentially allows the third rail shoes to be turned off for a given car, making it safer to work with and around. Power can be fed to the train by a jumper cable connected inside the knife switch box.
Even riding the train often, you seldom get a good view of all of these parts that are below your feet or obscured by the platform.
Another of these parts is the car-borne tripping device, or trip cock. When a signal in front of a train is red, a little lever near it and alongside the track called a stop arm is in the up position. If the train runs the red signal, the trip cock will bump into the stop arm, which triggers the train to automatically apply its emergency brakes. This same action can also be triggered by debris on the tracks. Our guide told us that in the newer car models like these, the tripping device is smart, letting the train operator know which particular car in the consist tripped. When I first learned about all this, I was impressed and comforted by the simple beauty of this safety system. The car-borne tripping device can be seen below the little ladder and just above the rail near the center of this picture.
On our walk-and-talk through the shop, I enjoyed the many more commemorative signs that decorated the walls. Usually these celebrated the successful build of a certain number of train cars of a certain model. It was great to see the pride in the history on display.
Closer to eye level, diagrams and schematics lined the walls. I wondered if the maintenance staff used these on a regular basis, or whether they were just there for occasional reference. I tried to imagine a team standing around matching up the parts in the diagram to a particular problem they were trying to solve. The diagrams looked so complicated!
We paused nearer to the back of the shop for a few minutes of questions and answers. Here, our guide also pointed for us to look up – the exposed, gray ceiling beams were a vestige of the pre-1999 shop.
In a few more feet, we gathered around a small alcove cut out of the long wall we’d been walking next to thus far. Our guide affectionately pointed out photos of his team and plaques they’d received in a display case. Up higher on the wall was a big, black-and-white photo of the old shop. I wished I could get closer to see it better.
Further down still, we passed a low wall lined with employee lockers to our right, and glass offices on our left.
The shop was generally very tidy, and clean as you’d expect a place full of subway cars to be, but I saw one contact shoe slipper (a cover for the third rail contact shoe for safety when the train’s in the shop) laying haphazardly on the floor. Of course this warranted a photo!
We were escorted into the glass office area. Our guide pointed out that you could see the Bronx Zoo outside – that was the monorail track! Since leaves hadn’t sprouted yet, we got a good view. When the weather got warmer, our guide said that peacocks and Mongolian ponies could be seen wandering outside.
We filed into a medium-sized room (though it felt small with a whole tour group in there) called the Car Desk. Our attention was directed towards a flat-screen monitor mounted on the wall. Here, our tour guide said, data can be viewed and solutions discussed by the shop personnel. When we entered a promotional video of footage from the shop was playing.
Then, a worker pulled up a set of graphs. This was the data from a train’s “black box” – a feature of the newer trains that’s very useful for determining the causes of problems and troubleshooting them. The four graphs shown represented, in order, the motor torque, the train’s speed, the brake pipe pressure, and the master controller (the combined accelerator/brake lever used by the train operator). The first set of graphs showed normal operation of a train. Then we saw a series of graphs and analysis that described a problem where the train’s emergency brakes got applied.
At that moment I felt a sort of uncanny dovetailing of my interests – at my day (and freelance) jobs I work with computers and software. I even recognized the screen on another computer as running the same administrative database system that my workplace used to use. But yet, all of this technology I was surrounded with in this room described my other passion: infrastructure, and specifically trains! It was an interesting moment.
I tried to absorb as much as I could while in this room. There was so much that was going on in the background, and massive amounts of data recorded on the computers and on paper here.
People asked a few final questions and then we filed out of the glass office. On our way, we snaked through a different office. Transit Museum personnel helped pass out a parting gift: an Arts for Transit banner-style poster for each of us!
Before getting on our way, someone mentioned they’d had trouble getting to the shop; there was lots of track work going on that weekend. Our guide kindly found the paperwork and tried to make heads or tails of the complicated General Order (memo that describes the geographic scope of work going on in the system and reroutings).
I took one last look at the Car Desk before we took the long walk back next to the long rows of subway cars.
Back out on the patio, my eye was drawn to a stack of HVAC units, probably because we’d witnessed the one being lifted up and back on our train car earlier! I wondered if these were going out for repairs or coming in to go back on cars.
We squished into the elevator, creaked down to the ground floor, and before going out through the chain-link gates I took one last photo of a train coming into the station above.
We followed the passageway under the abandoned stub track to get back into the E. 180th Street station. On this walk I chatted with a nice couple who asked me about my photos and the other tours I’d been on. Once back in the station, our headset receivers were collected. Most people went straight through the turnstiles to catch their train home. I said goodbyes and parted ways with my new acquaintances.
Even though I was getting tired and my brain was full of information from the tour, I knew I wanted to stick around the area for a few minutes. I’d never really gotten to spend time looking around the pretty station house, though I was curious about it, especially knowing a bit about its historical significance as a previous major New York Westchester and Boston station and administration building.
Inside the foyer, there was glass-walled empty space on either side, ready for retail establishments to move in. Everything was new and still pretty clean. Arts for Transit had made its mark here, in colorful mosaics above the doorways and elsewhere.
I walked outside and pondered how best to set up a shot of the building itself. Standing on the plaza in front of the building I was still too close to get it all in frame.
I hadn’t noticed before that the building extended a bit to the south. This extension hid behind a hill of dirt. The building I previously thought to be perfectly symmetrical was proven not to be, which made it more architecturally interesting to my eye.
One of the women who was on the tour waited at a bus stop near the plaza. A mother and her child walked by, and the tour woman gave her poster to the child – a kind and unexpected gesture. She dismissed the act, “I wouldn’t have a use for it anyway!” The mother, surprised and appreciative, thanked her.
After watching this sweet interaction I waited to cross the street. Here, under the Bronx River Parkway, would be good place to photograph the building’s entire facade. I stood there for a few minutes, waiting for an window where fairly few people were outside the station house so I could get a clear shot. I felt a little creepy just standing around there, especially since I was near a police precinct, but no one seemed to notice. At an opportune moment I took a couple of photos.
Then I headed back towards the car. Crossing the street, I noticed an interesting view of the station house over the little mound. It looked like a castle or mansion on a hill. Its first level was obscured by the dirt so it was as if the second floor was its entry point. The “No Trespassing” sign added to the intimidating, castle-like effect.
I tried to get another peek at the New Haven line catenary as I walked back to the car.
I passed the mother and daughter with the poster, who had been moving quite slowly down the street, and turned down the sidestreet that I parked on. There were a few more cars here now. Before climbing in the car I spotted a train on the structure. It had just pulled out of E. 180th Street station.
I had a lot of fun that morning – our tour guide was great and I much appreciated the special touches like the HVAC removal demonstration, seeing the train diagnostics, and our poster gift. Every shop tour is slightly different because each shop is different and each guide has his or her own style. Hopefully I’ll visit many more in the future and also find time to write about the ones I’ve already visited!