A heaving sigh of air brakes is followed by the jolt of opening doors. Out of a cramped metal box pours a stream of humanity.
It's rush hour in Manhattan's subways, where East Side furs mingle with Greenwich Village grunge, and panhandlers' pitches compete with prework chatter.
To New Yorkers, commuting deep within the earth may be as natural as breakfasting on a bagel. But New York's subways are a sociological - and mechanical - marvel.
The 842 miles of track and 42,000 employees make it the nation's largest subway system. Its fleet of 5,803 cars is larger than any other in the world.
Covering four boroughs with 500 stations and two dozen lines, New York subways whisk 3.6 million passengers from Harlem to Coney Island, the Bronx to JFK Airport, 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
Big Apple trains are also a cultural icon - long honored in song lyrics and starring in countless Hollywood celluloid fantasies.
On them, riders witness the daily coming together of Madison Street execs and the homeless, Latino and Lithuanian, school child and senior. Parents who may never send their children to public school are likely to take the family on the subway. Manhattanites who may never venture to the outer boroughs see the subway bring the Bronx, Brooklyn, and Queens to them: Nearly every line passes through Manhattan. This mlange of humanity creates a spark, a major source of the energy that defines New York City.
"The subway pulls the city together," says Joe Hofmann, senior vice president of the MTA New York City Transit (MTA) in charge of subways. "Instead of being a lot of little neighborhoods, it make us one big city."
The subway's steel tracks were laid more than 90 years ago, with its reach being extended in piecemeal fashion over the decades. Despite a reputation for efficiency, the system has long struggled to provide riders with top service. It hit its nadir in the 1970s and '80s, when taking it often conjured up images of risky rides in dark, graffiti-covered cars.
Problems persist, from broken air conditioning and slow trains to persistent begging. But some say a subterranean renaissance is afoot. The talk now is of a "golden age." The subways are in the vanguard of a drop in crime. They are rebuilding and beautifying - and luring back riders.
"It's definitely safer," says Maria Ross, going downtown on the West Side on her way to class at New York University. "I came in the early '80s and it's nothing like that now. It was messy, loud, scary. Now, I take the trains at whatever hour. I take them home from the library at 1 a.m."
Today, ridership is at a 20-year high. Last year, 1.1 billion riders traversed New York's boroughs. In some immigrant-dominated neighborhoods, ridership has increased by 20 percent over the past five years, according to city transit figures.
Some attribute the increases in part to the unprecedented care that city officials have given to the subway cars and stations. Crime is down by 80 percent compared with 1992 figures. Breakdown rates have been slashed: In 1989, for the first time, the subway repair policy became preventive rather than reactionary (see story, right). A subway car today travels an average of 52,400 miles before needing repair, compared with 7,200 miles in 1982, MTA numbers show.
The transit authority has also launched a station restoration plan and a program to display works of art in the stations. Some 80 stations have been cleaned, repaired, and newly decorated since the early '80s. More than 100 works of art have been added as well - from a symbolic mural showing the transformation from nature to urbanization at the Wall Street stop to a whimsical tile mosaic depicting African-American heroes such as Ella Fitzgerald and Muhammad Ali, among others, in Harlem.
Authorities are also looking for ways to quicken the pace of travel. A campaign begun in January urges riders to "Step Aside, Speed Your Ride," or let current passengers off the trains before new ones climb on. Authorities say this kind of efficiency can shave as much as a minute off the time of a ride. The Transit Authority is also introducing a magnetized card to reduce lines and ease transfers between subways and buses.
The future holds even more improvements. By 2000, 740 new cars, costing $2 million each, will replace the oldest in the subway fleet - improving signaling, signage, and passenger comfort. The subway's control center is scheduled to be completely computerized by 2019. Computers will be able to read bar codes on every subway car to locate them. This makes the control center less dependent on conductor communication with headquarters by radio, which can be thrown off by bad weather.
Despite improvements, the subway still bears the scars of heavy and often careless use. Patties of old gum pock the platforms; the brown speckled floors of the cars are worn. Many stations are under construction. In others, the smell of urine lingers, defying efforts to remove it.
"Every year it's more lousy," says Rosa Herreria, who has commuted daily from Brooklyn into Manhattan for 24 years. She's been robbed twice in the past decade riding the subway. But her biggest beef: "It used to take 20 minutes to get to the city. Now it takes me an hour."
The eye of the beholder
As dozens of interviews with subway riders from Yankee Stadium to Columbus Circle, from 138th St.-Grand Concourse to 42nd St.-Grand Central Station make clear, passengers have their own appreciation for and criticism of the city's underground rails.
Johnny Davila, a student at New York's Fashion Institute of Technology, wants more style. "They should glamorize the subway," he says. "New York is the fashion capital - it should live up to its name."
To Ward Murphy, the subway beats all other modes of urban transportation, hands down. "It's truly the only way to get around in New York," he says, shaking snow off his wide-brimmed hat in the Hunter Street station on the Upper East Side. "It's the best, most efficient way. It's faster than the bus. It has always served me well."
"Every day you see something strange," says Dave Bagan, a lawyer who lives on the East Side. "Just the mix of people. It's a good show."
As a Brooklyn-bound F train shimmies under the East River, the numerous cultures in just one car are striking: An immigrant from Yemen silently reads the Koran in Arabic, his graying hair peeking out of a tight knit cap. A man who motions that he doesn't speak English reads a Chinese newspaper. A shy Taiwanese twentysomething makes her way to engineering class. A Mexican father and his child chatter in Spanish.
Perhaps Mr. Hofmann of the MTA - a man who has spent his life working on subways - says it best. In his well-kept office, made his own with a scattering of Yankees' paraphernalia, Hofmann explains, "I don't really like trains. I take the train because I like the people."
Date New York's subway opened: Oct. 27,1904
In an unscheduled turn of events, Mayor George McClellan insisted on driving the first few miles of the inaugural ride.
Number of subway lines: 25
The state created the New York City Transit Authority in 1953, pulling together two privately owned subway lines, a separate, city-owned subway line, and the bus system.
Longest subway ride with no transfers: 31 miles
Take the A train from 207th Street in Manhattan to Far Rockaway in Queens.
Weight of an average subway car: 75,000 lbs.
Seven different types of cars are still in use on the tracks. This year, the city will order 740 new cars, the first in a decade.
Cost of a new subway car: $2 million
In 1953, an average car cost $71,486; in 1992, $1.8 million.
Busiest subway station: Times Square
Second busiest: Grand Central
Eleven lines run through the Times Square station, which collected 33.4 million fares in 1994.
Way to become a subway musician: Try out.
Since 1987, musicians have had to audition, get a permit, and sign up for playing time. The city can provide a schedule of Dixieland bands, spoon players, Doo Wop groups, and others.
Source: MTA New York City Transit