Remembering the Redbirds

A decade ago, the last train of “Redbirds” made their final run when an 11-car consist left Times Square headed for Flushing, Queens. The trip was taken November 3, 2003 by frenzied rail fans eager to be aboard for the last trip of some of MTA New York City Transit’s oldest rolling stock.  They were joined by a contingent of press, as well as MTA and NYC Transit officials also eager to take the 45-minute ride out to Willets Point/Shea Stadium ( now Mets-Willets Point).

The train was part of a fleet that had once numbered 1,400 cars serving many of NYC Transit's A Division routes (numbered lines). However, with the arrival of more than 1,100 new subway cars, the old cars with their Tuscan red painted bodies, silver roofs and black end caps were rendered obsolete; victims of time, corrosion and fresh technology.

Historically, NYCT's Redbird fleet was made up of six car classes of similar design, manufactured between 1959 and 1963 by American Car and Foundry and St. Louis Car Company.  During their service lives, they sported several different paint jobs.  While the pictured-window Flushing Line cars were the only ones to wear the distinctive robin’s egg blue and cream design created for the 1964 World's Fair, all were painted MTA silvermist and blue in the 1970s and later all white in the early 1980s.

The white paint was designed to be a deterrent for graffiti vandals who some thought would be intimidated by the huge expanse of blank space.  Go figure.  The cars were finally painted dark red and dubbed “Redbirds" when the fleet was overhauled and cleansed of painted graffiti during the period between 1984 and 1989.

The final Redbirds in passenger service were also among the last to be manufactured.  Built between 1963 and 1964 by the St. Louis Car Company, the 51-foot 75,600 pound, picture-windowed R33 and R36 cars were assigned to the 7 Subway line in time for the 1964 World’s Fair at Flushing Meadows-Corona Park.  Shortly after they were delivered, NYCT began running stainless steel cars along the lettered lines and stainless steel has been the standard ever since. 

One of the main things subway riders missed when the Redbirds were pulled from the rails was the individual metal handholds, once a fixture on New York City subway cars.  The Redbird fleet was the last to have them. 

The removal of the cars from service made way for new, more modern equipment with much higher levels of comfort and reliability than the cars they replaced.  Along the Flushing Line, the Redbirds were succeeded by the stainless steel R62A class cars manufactured in 1985 by Bombardier.

On other lines, the Redbirds’ were replaced with “New Technology Cars” filled with brighter interiors, softer-riding suspension, clearer announcements and a more efficient propulsion system that included energy-saving regenerative braking.

“The Redbirds filled an important part of the NYC Transit history, the last of the pre-stainless steel era of vehicles.  Today we are happy to boast trains with greater reliability and an improved passenger experience in the areas of ride quality, climate control, lighting and seating,” explained Michael Wetherell, Department of Subways Chief Mechanical Officer.  A trip on the nostalgia train, on the Redbird Era cars, brings back fond memories of times gone by, but it also reminds us of the comforts we have come to expect from our modern transit system.”

A large segment of the last trip crowd was made up of rail fans and employees who wanted to be on hand to say good-bye to a fleet of cars that had come through the era of graffiti and deferred maintenance to emerge as a symbol of resurgence.

In retirement, the majority of the Redbirds have been the foundation of an artificial reef program off the shores of several states along the eastern seaboard.  The rusting hulks have become a thriving environment for sea life and an interesting destination for sport divers.  Redbird car 9075 has a special place in the New York City landscape, installed in front of Borough Hall and used as the Queens visitors’ center at the corner of Queens Boulevard and 82nd Avenue.

NYCT has also done a brisk business selling parts from the old cars.  Collectors have snapped up sign boxes, hand holds, horns and other items since they were placed on sale.  About 100 of the cars were converted to work equipment and still serve the system while another pair has a permanent spot in the New York Transit Museum.

You can step aboard a Redbird to relive your transit past, just by taking a ride to Brooklyn Heights and visiting the New York Transit Museum.  There you will have an opportunity to catch all the trains you missed.