A Look at the Awesome but Ridiculously Old Technology That Runs the NYC Subway System

Vintage technology is fun and fascinating. It feels new all over again to see how old devices made modern concepts possible. But buying LPs again is different than finding out that missile silos in the United States still rely on floppy disks. And this video of the old tech still in use in the New York City subway system feels more like the latter. It’s delightful, sure, but also deeply baffling.

The main point of the 9-minute video, released by New York City’s Metropolitan Transportation Authority, is to talk about how the subway system is modernizing. The agency has been working for years to implement “communications-based train control” on every line. It’s a system that tracks each train’s position, automates speed control, and calculates safe distances between trains. Compared with the current manual system of “fixed block signaling,” CBTC allows for more trains per hour, better precision, and less infrastructure maintenance. But first the MTA has to finish implementing it. (The automated system is only in use on one out of the system’s 34 lines so far, with another transition almost complete.)

The most captivating part of the video, though, is the opening section showing the devices that control trains in and around the West 4th Street stop in Manhattan. “What our riders don’t realize … is that in our system it’s not just the architecture that’s 100 years old,” the narrator says. “It’s a lot of the basic technology as well. The infrastructure is old.” And the MTA is not joking around. The video shows 1930s devices, dispatchers filling out handwritten call sheets, and levers for manually operating signals and moving track switches.

In the relay room, MTA vice president and chief officer of service delivery Wynton Habersham talks about how difficult it is to maintain the aging technology.

This equipment is not supported at all by the railroad industry. We are fully self-sufficient and self-sustaining. We have a signal shop that can replace the parts, they rebuild these relays. And then when any modernization is going on we scavenge to retain the parts so we can provide replacement for those that remain in service.

Holy. Crap. This is a 24/7 subway system we’re talking about. Habersham goes on to say that the cables connecting many of the electromechanical relays throughout the system—meaning in control rooms but also on the tracks—are the original cloth-covered cables. And then Habersham talks about what would happen if there were a fire. (Bad things. Bad things would happen.) Vintage tech, so much nostalgia!

The video is fascinating, but Rebecca Fishbein put it best on Gothamist: “This shit is OLD, like grizzled dude who won’t stop stabbing at the back of your plane seat because he can’t figure out the TV touchscreen old. It’s a miracle the F train even runs at all.”

An electromechanical relay refurbished in … 1952.

Image from MTA