Reporter’s Notebook: A Ride On New York City’s “Zombie” Train

Posted by Justin Franz
on Thursday, August 24, 2017

New York's 'zombie' train. Photo by J.C. Smith Jr. Trains Magazine Collection
Note: Besides writing for Observation Tower twice a month and Trains News Wire, I’m often working on a number of stories for the print edition of Trains Magazine. Occasionally, I’ll share some interesting tidbits I come across in Reporter’s Notebook.

Whenever I’m working on a story for Trains Magazine, or any other publication, I frequently find myself going down the “rabbit hole” of newspaper archives. I can spend hours flipping through old newspapers, sometimes finding useful information for a story and other times just reading whatever piqued my interest at that moment.

This week, I’ve found myself searching through the New York Times archives for information about the world’s first automated subway train, which ran on the 42nd Street Shuttle in the early 1960s. Transit Authority Chairman Charles L. Patterson first suggested building an automated subway train in 1959 and the concept was briefly tested in 1960 on a short stretch of track in Brooklyn. A New York Times story about the tests announced that the train could do “everything but answer riders’ questions.” The subway cars were outfitted with equipment from the General Railway Signal Company of Rochester and Westinghouse Air Brake Company. According to an October 1960 article, the two companies spent nearly $300,000 on the experiment and the Transit Authority chipped in another $20,000 to $30,000. An “electronic train dispatcher” would send orders to the automated train through electronic relays that controlled acceleration, deceleration, braking and operations of the doors, according to one story.

In 1961, Patterson announced that the city would take what it had learned from those Brooklyn tests and put it to use on the short shuttle service between Grand Central Terminal and Times Square. At the time, the Transit Authority predicted that it would save anywhere between $60,000 and $150,000 in related labor costs. If the tests were successful and the Transit Authority decided to implement the technology on a wider scale, Patterson suggested the authority could reduce the ranks of its motormen by 90 percent.

News that the Transit Authority was considering widespread implementation of driverless subways angered union bosses however, who quickly called for a strike in December 1961 if the plan moved forward. Michael J Quill, international president of the Transport Workers Union, said the plan to run a “zombie” train was “insane.”

The Transit Authority and the union eventually settled their differences for the tests by agreeing to have a stand-by motorman on every run. With the union in reluctant agreement, the “first fully automated train in the world” left the station on Jan. 4, 1962. The three car train attracted the interest of people all across the city, although the first day wasn’t without its hiccups. During one of the first trips, Mayor Robert F. Wagner and a number of reporters nearly lost their footing when the train jerked to a sudden stop. The mayor later said that it had been a “very fine ride” and that he expected any problems would be soon “ironed out.”

The automated train continued to operate through 1962 without incident and the only time it was taken out of service was for regular maintenance. The novelty of the train quickly wore off for New Yorkers however. “Only out-of-towners now seek it out from the two manually operated shuttle trains that also run between Times Square and Grand Central,” the Times reported on April 4, 1962. Transit Authority officials also began to lose enthusiasm for the automation plan. Because of the agreement to keep a stand-by motorman, the city realized few savings from the test. Officials also realized that while an automated train could be operated on a short run between two stations, it would be harder to implement on the wider-system without drastic investments.

The automated train continued to operate until April 21, 1964, when it was destroyed in a station fire at Grand Central. New York’s automated train was gone as quick as it had jerked into the station.

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