A Rare Glimpse of the Ancient Infrastructure That Controls NYC's Subway

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New York City’s subway system is a wonder of engineering—but sadly, that engineering is so old that it’s not even manufactured anymore, causing huge problems for the people who run it and anyone trying to use it. That means the MTA has built a whole shop up around trying to maintain its aging technology, and now they’re giving us a look at this underground industry.

The MTA is currently trying to update its 100-year-old system with something called Communications-Based Train Control, which would pull it out of its current, quite dated process of controlling trains. To demonstrate just how bad it is, a video takes us deep into the systems as they stand now. At the West 4th street tower, we see all the original electromechanical equipment that’s used to control the system—including mechanical levers, a light-up control board, and ton of cloth cabling.

Wonder why there are so many signal problems on your train line, which according to WNYC cause up to a third of the delays? As Wynton Habersham, the VP and Chief Officer of Service Delivery, explains, the equipment used at the West 4th street tower—where operators route trains—is no longer even made by the industry. “We are fully self-sufficient and self-sustaining; we have a signal shop that can replace the parts and rebuild these relays,” he says. “And when any modernization goes on, we make sure we scavenge to retain the parts so we can provide replacements for those that remain in service.”


And how about fires? It turns out that the cabling here is all original, cloth-covered cable. “It works, but it’s an antiquated way to run a subway, “ Habersham concludes. Check out the video below for more about the modernization project above.


Contact the author at kelsey@Gizmodo.com.