the writing and photography of Neil Kramer

Vintage Subway Train

Every year during Christmastime, the MTA in New York City runs this special “Nostalgic subway train,” made up of subway cars from the 1930’s and 1940’s.  On a few Sundays during December, it runs back and forth between Queens and Manhattan.  To ride this old train costs the same as a regular ride and it makes the same stops as the M train.  Many regular subway riders had no idea this holiday train exists, and when it pulls into the station, they stare in wonder, as if they are seeing an iron ghost.

This holiday gimmick attracts three subsets of visitors: families with kids into Thomas the Train, Japanese tourists who read about this in some tour book, and very geeky, hermit-looking, New York men who wait all year for this occasion, and can name the model number of a specific E-train running in 1955.

And then there was me, of course.  I’m probably closest to that last group of train geeks, but not THAT bad.  I certainly didn’t wear a t-shirt that showed the map of the NYC subway circa 1972.

So, on the day after Christmas, I spent a good part of my day hanging out in the subway with other train geeks, unaware that a major blizzard was occurring outside.   (Ironically, the only trouble I had with mass transit today was with a modern bus that got stuck in the snow on the way home)

I can’t imagine many of you will be interested in this little video I made on my iphone.  I’m publishing it anyway, mostly for my childhood friend, Barry.

A few of these old style subway cars were still around, even into the late 1970s.  I remember these uncomfortable seats from when I went into the “city” with my parents.  The sounds of the old trains — the racket, the heat, the open windows — is a great way to connect to the classic era of New York life, not the upscale world of Madison Avenue, but of the working class.   The subways were gruffer and noisier.  I forgot how the lights flickered all the time, making the experience a little seedy, like the gritty street scenes from the old movies, where guys smoked and wear hats and were knifed in the alley for looking the wrong way, certainly not the same, slightly-boring Manhattan of today where Times Square is populated not by real-life Guys and Dolls, but the M&M store.


  1. Rebecca (Ramblings by Reba)

    I’m glad you enjoyed it. I think I would, too!

  2. Juli

    I have an enduring love for trains. And I like your video. My NY’s resolution is to make more little movies like yours (even though most people won’t be interested in them).

  3. Dana

    Loved that– something new to add to my life list.

  4. Mamie

    I quite enjoyed that vid, Neil. It was cool to see yet another piece of NY revealed. I never heard of the vintage train, but I was always home in California on the holidays. The subway was always one of my favorite parts of NY.
    Happy new year to you! amiee

  5. Varda (SquashedMom)

    I enjoyed the ride with you, Neil. I remembered the many subway rides of my youth. I have only seen the vintage trains parked at the NYC transit museum, never in action on the tracks. Must ride next year with my boys. Thanks!

  6. Karen

    Look at those seats, just wow, wow.
    I moved to NY with my parents as a little girl
    in 1983, the cars were 100% graffiti covered,
    un-airconditioned – these also had flickering
    lights. Somewhere between 1983 & when I left
    for college, they were replaced by silver, sleek
    air-conditioned cars with lights that flickered

  7. jen

    this is cool,I have never heard of this, wish I had!

  8. Heather

    I absolutely adored this (so did Jack!)! I really thought it was just one car…not the whole thing! That is so fun! I would have waited too…and I’d have the t-shirt of all the subway stops.

    I’m a proud Geek! 😉

  9. magpie

    Totally cool. I’d love to do that one day.

  10. Allyson

    I fall into the first subset of would be visitors and know way more than I want about buffers, shunting, and coupling. (Wow, they sound so sexy out of context.) Anyway, I too loved the video and Barry is lucky to have a friend like you. Can’t wait to add that to the list of things to do in NYC during Christmas…a far off goal for this SoCal girl. Thanks for the 411! Stay warm!

  11. 180|360

    That is so cool Neil! I love all things vintage. Guess I’ll have to come back for a visit one Christmas to ride another subway with you.

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