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NY's Subway Celebrates 100 Years of Service - 2004-04-08

New York's first electric underground train was an instant hit. The subway opened in Manhattan a century ago. The number of routes quickly grew, as did the number of riders. Not only did the subway help New Yorkers get around, but it also allowed communities to form along its route.

The first subway opened in New York City with great fanfare. An estimated 150,000 people rode the underground train from lower Manhattan and traveled along the west side of the island on its opening day, October 27, 1904. It took four years to build and cost about $33 million. Chief Engineer William Barclay Parsons used the so-called "cut-and-cover method" to save time and money. Instead of digging deep tunnels, workers dug trenches for the train and covered them with street-level planks.

Curator John Ganly recently put together an exhibit for the subway's centennial at the New York Public Library. He believes giving people another way to travel was essential in a city bursting with new immigrants. "You had electric cars, which are these trolley cars, which run with electric wires," he said. "You had horse drawn cars and you had millions of people all walking around and (the city) it was exploding. They needed to move out. So one of the big things was to get this done and to get it done quickly so that you could create other parts of the city where people could move."

The subway expanded two more times, going under water to bring train service to the city's outer-boroughs along more than 1,100 kilometers of track. Although talk of expanding service in some areas continues, routes have barely changed since 1941. Now, more than four-point-five million people ride the subway every day. The fare, which was five-cents a ride for half a century, has gone up to two dollars. Today, New Yorkers use an electronic ticket called a metro card, instead of coin tokens.

An expensive renovation campaign began more than a decade ago, removing graffiti and restoring historic terra-cotta designs and colorful mosaics in many stations. A renovated sound system on some subway cars also makes travel easier.

New York riders say there is plenty to appreciate about their subway, but they also find a lot to complain about.

(RIDER): "When you are on the train and it is telling you to get off and wait for the next train, which will not come for another 20 minutes, along with five-thousand other people who are waiting, that is pretty annoying."
(RIDER): "The smell of, I will not say what, in the area of the shuttle (subway), was just overwhelming on some days, I could not imagine why anybody could not clean it up, it was so obvious."
(RIDER): "You do not know who you are going to meet and who you are sitting next to in the subway and that is really exciting."

Executives and secretaries, performers, beggars, and peddlers all ride the same New York City subway.

New York Times reporter Randy Kennedy has written a book derived from his columns about the subway. During three years of reporting, he visited nearly all of the 468 subway stations, spent 24 hours underground, explored subway habits, subway riders and met with subway buffs.

A Texas-native, he says he sees the mix of people in the cramped subway cars as a gift that differentiates New York from other U.S. cities, where most people get around by car. "You have to stand really close to all these people who you would never choose to be that close to and you might not talk to them, but you have to stand there and look at what their shirt looks like and their bag looks like and you hear them talking to their friends and they hear you talking to your friends," he said. "I really do think that it makes us more tolerant. Not really more personable, but you get frustrated together so you share that and you are a little worried together if the train stops in the tunnel and you can not understand the announcement, and so you have a common experience, and I think that most cities in this country nobody has those."

As in many subway systems around the world, New York's subway also serves as a stage for struggling musicians. Mr. Kennedy says that for him, music on the subway even sounds better than street performances above ground. Many New Yorkers agree. But above all else, New York riders say there is one quality about the subway that stands out. "You can take it wherever you are," said a rider. "You know you can always take the train, no matter how long you have to wait it is going to be there."