Part III: Lewis B.
The Power to Move People
By Mary Ann Hoffman
This is the third article in a series about the planning and
construction of the New York City subway system.
| Part II.
After many delays, the New York City Rapid Transit Commission (RTC)
officially broke ground for the city’s subway system on 24 March
1900. Construction began two days later.
The challenges were many. Planners knew the subway would have to
serve many of the general public’s needs: people would use it to
travel to and from work and to get to entertainment venues,
among other things. In addition, as RTC announced subway sites,
businesses moved to develop and locate near the desirable
Interboro Rapid Transit (IRT) stations. In part, Times Square’s success
is due to the subway's site. Additionally,
developers built Macy’s and Saks Fifth Avenue above subway lines
purposely to cater to the masses. And the Times Square-area
theatre district began taking shape almost simultaneously with
the subway opening. This development drove up the price of real
estate, a factor that caused significant delays in the subway’s
groundbreaking and growth.
DC to AC
Beginning in 1892, Thomas Edison-style direct current (DC)
generators powered trolleys and elevated trains (Els) in
Brooklyn. But by the mid-1890s, the Tesla-Westinghouse
alternating current (AC) system proved much more practical for
powering homes, industry and transportation, as AC could be
transmitted efficiently over long distances — a critical
advantage to the subway project.
In November 1898, Westinghouse received a contract for what
would be the subway’s main power station and eight substations.
The company had
installed large-scale AC dynamos at Niagara
Falls, and the RTC needed
Westinghouse’s electrical expertise.
The original 19 miles of track required a main powerhouse and
eight substations. The main generating station produced 3-phase,
25-cycle current at 11,000 volts. The powerhouse, located at
59th Street on the Hudson River, contained nine steam-engine
generators with a combined capacity of 100,000 horsepower. River barges
delivered coal that fueled the boilers that provided the
steam for the generators.
Subway electric power was distributed to each of the eight
original substations, which were approximately two miles apart
along the subway path. AC ran through high-voltage cables routed
through ducts within the subway walls. Once the electricity
reached the substation, Westinghouse rotary converters converted
it to DC, which powered the rails, track switches, stop arms and
In 1904 a ride on the NYC Subway cost a nickel.
Today, the same ride costs $2.00.
Twelve thousand men built the subway, using the cut-and-cover
method: rather than drilling and tunneling deep beneath the
city, they cut a trench to accommodate a typically 55-foot wide
and 15-foot high tunnel. They laid the rails and built the
stations, enclosing the finished work in steel beams. Finally,
they placed a shallow layer of fill and paving over the trench.
The first IRT stations were attractively designed and featured
stylish kiosks with mosaic borders for entrances. Many had
specially designed plaques linked to the station name or
neighborhood. The Astor Place station’s beaver motif, for
example, illustrates John Jacob Astor’s involvement in the fur
business. The Fulton Street station uses images of Robert
Fulton's steamboat. Grand Central Terminal highlights train
engine images, while an eagle clutching a shield with the number
“33” on it reminded passengers of the regimental armory just
Today, the NYC Subway is the city’s largest user of electricity.
AC operates signals, station and tunnel lighting, ventilation
and miscellaneous line equipment, while DC operates trains and
such auxiliary equipment as water pumps and emergency lighting.
The system’s 215 electric substations receive high- and
low-voltage power from the New York Power Authority, at voltages
as high as 27kV AC, prior to transforming it for use within the
system. The subway's third rail requires 625 volts DC for
operating the trains. Power is distributed throughout the system
via 2,500 miles of cable, which passes beneath 7,651 manholes
located throughout the city. The power required to operate the
subway system during peak hours is about 500 MW. And at 1.8
billion kilowatt hours, the subway’s annual power consumption
equals that of the city of Buffalo, New York.