From Blue Arrows to Redbirds

In the long history of the NYCT subway, several car models have stood over the others for their uniqueness or special character. From the BMT A/B "Standards" and D-type "Triplexes" to the all stainless R32 and Raymond Loewy-designed R40, some models were special enough to have a spot in the history records. But perhaps one of the most unique car models was the one that was introduced in 1964 on the (7) route. The R36 World's Fair cars were designed and built exclusively for the 7 to be used for thr 1964 New York World's Fair.

The R36 story begins in 1962. With the World's Fair starting in just over a year and a half, the New York City Transit Authority ordered 430 new cars from St. Louis Car for the IRT's 7 route. Since the 7 runs 11 cars per train, single cars were needed to make up the new fleet. The first 40 cars in the order were R33 World's Fair cars (9306-45), with a driver's cab at each end. The remaining 390 cars were the R36 (9346-9523 and 9558-9769) 34 R36 cars (9524-57) were "Main Line" cars and were used on the IRT Main Line (West Side and Lexington Avenue) They were painted bright red like the R29/33 ML.

The R33 WF cars arrived beginning in the fall of 1963. The pilot car, 9306 ran during the Labor Day parade up 5 Avenue that year. The official debut for the cars was on September 26, with a press run from Times Square to Willets Point (future fair site). The first R36s delivered in 1963 were 9558-61.

Into 1964, more cars were delivered onto the 7 to replace the R12/14/15s. When the fair opened in April, new "Super Express" service from Manhattan began, with direct trips from Grand Central and Times Square. The R36 cars were now known as the "Blue Arrow" fleet, as the 7 was known as the Blue Arrow route by the press and on the maps. ("Follow the Blue Arrow to the World's Fair")

The cars were delivered from St. Louis in a turquoise blue scheme and white two-tone scheme. The front ends were all turquoise and the sides had a white center with turquoise trim along the edges. These were probably the among the most stylish NYC Subway cars built then at the time. Large picture windows with open-top vents were introduced with the R36 cars. This feature has continued on every car model up until the current day. An "IDENTRA" system (train identification and communication) was included with the new cars as well. However it fell it disuse and the IDENTRA antennae remained on the cars for years. Typical of early/mid 60s passenger cars, the R36s had no air conditioning, but had Axiflow ceiling fans. 9346-9523 were Westinghouse and 9558-9769 were GE. The even cars had motor-generator/battery sets and odd cars with air compressors.

Througout the 1960s and into the 70s the R36 fleet continued to provide reliable service on the 7. In the 1970s, some of the 9400/9500-series WH cars were assigned on the IRT Main Line. There they were often mixed in with sets of R17/21/22/26/28/29/33 ML cars. By 1972, some of the R36s had the original turquoise repainted over with the new "Silver and Blue" theme of the MTA system. Graffiti would hit by 1975 and the 7 would take a beating, although nothing as bad as the Main Line in the Bronx. Tags would cover the turquoise exterior of the World's Fair cars, plus interior markings.

In 1982, several R36s on the 7 were used as an experimental anti-graffiti project. In the program, the cars were painted all-white. TA crews recorded of the train's location and kept it at various locations along the line. The result: it was less likely to be singled out by vandals. The "all white" scheme expanded to the IRT Main Line in the Bronx, where it was much less successful. A interior restyling in 1981-83 resulted with beige trim and orange doors, gone was the turqouise blue (though it remained in the window sills).

By the mid-1980s, the R36 was due for an major overhaul. As part of the "General Overhaul" program, the cars were first to be rebuilt as part of the NYCT's first Capital Program during 1982-86. Most were rebuilt in-house at Corona (the 7's own shop) and Coney Island, with the remainder done by General Electric at Buffalo and Amtrak in its Beech Grove, IN and Wilmington, DE shops. Unlike later rebuilds, most original parts were kept. The motor-generator/battery sets remained, orginal WH/GE propulsion units were retained and the "SMEE" electrodymanic braking stayed on.

Returning from rebuild, the R36s came back with newly extended and refreshed life. But something else new was just coming in the works. NYCT chief David Gunn began planning for all rebuilt LAHT (non-stainless) cars to sport a deep red exterior with black trim. By 1986, this was underway and "Gunn Red" was the new standard color on the Flushing Line. The red paint would evolve into the famous Redbird scheme by 1989 and all R26/28/29/33/36 would wear this highly graffiti-resistant color. The R36s retained the pre-overhaul interior with orange doors, beige trim and turqouise sills until circa 1990.

Into the 1990s, SMS (Scheduled Maintenance Service) kept the cars in good shape, with increasing MDBFs. Some R36 cars recieved controller units and doors from rebuilt R30 cars in 1993-94. By 1999, the R36 had the highest MDBF in the system-194,150 miles or even better than newer Kawasaki R62s, which were the usual record holder.

In 1998, New York City Transit annouced that the Redbirds would be phased and 1,080 new R142 cars were to be delivered started in 1999. Approaching their 35-year life expectancy, the cars still held well, but rust and corrision were started to wear in.

In the summer of 2001, the first Redbirds were sent out down off Cape May, NJ to buried at sea as artifical reefs for the state of Delaware. Cars were cut up at 207 Street in Manhattan and loaded (car body only) onto a barge. None the 7's cars were scrapped yet in 2001, however some WH R36s (9478-9523) based on the 6 were taken out first.

In January 2002, the first set of R62A cars arrived on the 7 from the IRT Main Line. This move would start a two year long process of phasing out the R36 cars. By the end of the year, the 7 was still mostly R36 (Bombardier was behind in R142 delivery to the 4, which sent R62s to the 3 and in turn gave R62As to the 7).

Towards the fall of 2003, the R36 era came to end. Only several full train sets were left running, with one taken out of service each week or so. On November 3, 2003 the last reguarly scheduled R36/33 train ran on the 7 as a Times Square-Willets Point/Shea Stadium local as a "Farewell to the Redbirds" special.

About 10 cars (one complete trainset) of R36s still remain on the roster, mostly sitting on the property unused. The R33 WFs, on the other hand have found much use in work service and non-revenue use.

Even so, the most important thing about the R36 today is its surviving legacy. Most of the R36 cars still survive (structurally sound) as barrier and diving reefs along the Atlantic, although without trucks or equipment. The large picture windows first seen on these cars have appeared on every car model since, and will do so for the future as well. And lastly, the R36's platform was tough and reliable enough for the R62/68 models to be based on it, rather than on the more modern 1972-78 R44/46. For a car to be designed in the early 80s to be based on a model dating back to 1964 (and with portions even further back to the 1948 R10/12) proves its reliability and durablity.

Kevin Wong
December 2006