Steampunk Technology Fuels NYC Subway System

It's amazing (and kind of shocking) to see the incredibly old technology that runs the NYC subway. . (Photo: Courtesy MTA)

New Yorkers and tourists alike love to complain about the NYC subway, but I've been riding it regularly since I was 16 years old and rode it daily throughout my 20s. I found that overall, it's a dependable system. And while you get the idea that it's 100 years old from the horrible screeching sounds the cars sometimes make (along with the awesome vintage tile work in many of the stations), it's surprising to realize that the the technology running the cars is almost as old.

I was shocked and a little dismayed to watch the video above, which comes from the Metropolitan Transit Authority (MTA) about the system's absolutely ancient tech.

It's like stepping back in time, isn't it? Not exactly what you'd expect from a city as large and wealthy as New York, or one that transports 5.6 million people a day, with some lines running 24/7. But the subway has been operating, more or less continuously, since it opened in October 1904, and with 468 stations (the largest number in the world). Any changes will take years to implement across the whole system.

The 1930s technology is so old that when it needs repair, the city has to make the new parts in its own machine shop — because the companies that used to make the parts no longer exist. We're talking cloth-covered cables here — remember those? (The electro-mechanical relays at the 2:14 mark in the video are my favorite part. How about yours?)

NYC isn't the only city with seriously old technology running its subway cars, by the way. The London Underground's is almost as old, and so is Singapore's. Upgrades are slow to happen there as well.

It's clear the system needs updating, and that's what's happening. The Communications-Based Transit Control (CBTC) has been installed on the L train in the city, which runs from Brooklyn to Manhattan and back, and they are now working on the 7 train. And of course, the new Second Avenue Subway, which is being built on the East side of Manhattan, will have all-new technology when it's completed sometime in the 2020s.

Some engineers point out that there are advantages to the old system; it's quirks and issues are known and it has been running reliably for 100 years, though some New Yorkers would say certainly not reliably enough. And others point out that a mechanical system like the one in NYC makes it safer from terrorists — because it's not wireless or connected to the Internet, it can't be hacked.