November 4, 2003

Let Go, Straphangers. The Ride Is Over.


Michael Rubino, a train operator, guided the last Redbird subway cars on Monday to the Willets Point-Shea Stadium stop on the Flushing line. On board, Chris Rivera of the Bronx captured a souvenir of the final ride.

For Edward Murphy, 21, all the hubbub on the No. 7 train to Queens yesterday morning was hard to fathom. Clad in a jacket and tie, he stepped into a subway car at Grand Central Terminal, expecting an uneventful ride to Woodside, where he had a job interview.

But Mr. Murphy had unwittingly walked into a historic moment for some at least the final run of a "Redbird" train, with those 1960's-vintage subway cars, painted Tuscan red, that are beloved by subway buffs everywhere.

Over the last few years, New York City Transit officials have phased out these trains, the last ones that had actual straps for subway riders to cling to, in favor of computerized, stainless-steel replacements.

So Mr. Murphy found himself surrounded by a motley crew of buffs, New York City Transit workers and officials and reporters, enjoying the train's final run through Queens.

"It doesn't make any sense to me whatsoever," Mr. Murphy said, as a train conductor crowed over the public address system that the riders were experiencing the final run for "this type of train."

"But whatever," Mr. Murphy added, watching as buffs eagerly made their way forward. "If that's what they enjoy, that's what they enjoy."

The real fans had piled aboard in Times Square, where the run began at 10:30 a.m. There was Koi Morris, 32, a chemist from Plainsboro, N.J., whose extensive collection of subway paraphernalia includes a Redbird "roll sign," telling riders a train's first and last stops, two car-identification signs, and four subway straps. A veteran of numerous "rail-fan trips," special events for devotees, Mr. Morris was among many who took the day off from work for the final journey.

And there was Daniel Clemente, 19, a police studies student at John Jay College, who rides different subway lines for fun several times a month and regularly buys seats in the upper deck at Shea Stadium just so he can watch the trains go by.

"It's a little weird, I know," he said.

Also on board was Chris Rivera, 18, an architecture major at New York Institute of Technology, who once rode the subway with a friend for 24 hours and stopped at every station in the city.

All three eventually crowded into the first car, where fans jostled to catch a glimpse out the "rail-fan window," the front window through which a buff can imagine himself piloting the train. The newer trains don't have such windows, and fans have to deal with staring out the back.

As other riders looked on with amusement, the buffs snapped picture after picture, swapped lore about the Redbirds and showed off their souvenirs.

Peter England, 41, a transit worker for 18 years, brought along an M.T.A. annual report from 1963 with pictures of the original trains to show people.

"This is so awesome," said Mr. Rivera, paging through the report as others craned their necks for a look.

Mark Wolodarsky, 22, who fulfilled his childhood dream when he became a subway conductor three years ago, showed off a model of the original Redbird, painted blue and white. His model train collection includes more than 100 cars, he said, and cost him more than $16,000.

Mr. Wolodarsky, along with other buffs, were a font of subway trivia yesterday, eager to impart Redbird lore to the uninitiated. The trains used to run on all the city's numbered lines. They were assigned to the Flushing line in 1964 and were painted blue and white for the World's Fair at Flushing Meadows-Corona Park. They became silver and blue in the 1970's, then all white in the early 1980's, when they became a preferred target for graffiti.

Finally, in the mid-1980's, they were given their distinctive red coat, as a statement that transit officials were going to war against the vandals.

"It was the line in the sand, if you will," the New York City Transit president, Lawrence G. Reuter, said yesterday.

Over the last few years, the transit authority has spent more than $2 billion in new high-tech subway cars. As a result, the deteriorating Redbirds have slowly been taken out of service. Even though their walls are laced with asbestos, hundreds have found new homes off the east coast, where they have been sunk to become artificial reefs.

From this last train of 11 cars, some cars will become reefs, others will be used in movie productions and one will be converted into a work train.

At the controls yesterday was Michael Rubino, 46. Mr. Rubino, a 13-year transit veteran, and conductor Daniel Wrynn, 39, were handpicked by subway officials to handle the Redbird's final voyage.

The older trains were much trickier to operate than the new ones, Mr. Rubino said, but they also allowed train operators to demonstrate their skills. In order to bring a Redbird to a stop, an operator needed to apply both a manual brake valve and a power switch. The new trains only have a power switch, and all lurch to a stop identically. But a skillful Redbird operator could deftly bring the train to a coasting stop every time.

Mr. Rubino said he was a little nervous guiding the train, packed with transit officials, through its final passage, especially as he came down a slight incline for the stretch run into the Willets Point-Shea Stadium stop. If he went too fast, a sensor could have been tripped, causing the train to come to a sudden stop.

"Put it this way," he said. "I worked up a sweat."

In the end, however, the No. 7 train rumbled down the track and came smoothly to a stop. From inside the train, a cheer went up.

The Redbirds' run was over.

Copyright 2003 The New York Times Company

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