On June 1, 1940, the City of New York acquired the two subway systems it didn’t already own — the IRT (Interborough Rapid Transit Co.) and the BMT (Brooklyn-Manhattan Transit Corp.) — and consolidated them with the city-owned IND (Independent Subway System). It was readily apparent that the city’s fleet of aging subway cars was desperately in need of replacement, and immediately after World War II, management began to develop a new car that would be standard throughout the system and incorporate the latest advances in subway design. This effort was complicated by the fact that portions of the IRT had tighter clearances than the IND and BMT, so all future designs would incorporate a shorter, narrower IRT version.
Beginning with contract R-10, and IRT-sized contract R-12 delivered in 1948, the new cars featured welded steel bodies, fluorescent lighting that made them considerably brighter than prewar cars, and seating made of foam rubber covered with velon, a new plastic material that replaced the rattan seating of older cars. A major improvement was a new type of brake system known as Straight Air Motor Car Electric-Pneumatic Emergency (SMEE), which combined ordinary air brakes with dynamic braking, in which a car’s electric motors, by having their polarities reversed, were converted to generators in order to slow the car. This significantly reduced brake shoe wear and maintenance costs. Beginning with the R-12, the postwar IRT cars were known as the SMEE fleet.
The 400 cars built under contract R-17 were part of the 1950s expansion of the SMEE fleet, which also included the similar-looking R-15, R-21 and R-22 cars. As was normal practice at the time, the 400 R-17 cars delivered by St. Louis Car Co. in 1955-1956 were evenly split between General Electric and Westinghouse electrical gear, with each company equipping half the cars. The R-17s could be operated independently or with any other SMEE cars, and various SMEE types were often intermixed in trains. Ten of the R-17s were delivered with factory-installed air conditioning. The experiment proved unsuccessful, however, and the AC was later removed. Also removed were the comfortable velon seats, which proved an easy mark for vandals and were replaced by hard fiberglass benches.
Delivered in a maroon paint scheme, the R-17s were repainted in the MTA’s new blue and silver colors in the 1970s. A less-than-successful white scheme, intended to discourage taggers, followed in the 1980s. And just a few years before their retirement in 1988, 16 cars were painted in the “fox red” used on the Redbird cars, although the R-17s were never officially part of the Redbird fleet.
Preservation and Movie Roles
You can still ride an R-17 today in New York and Connecticut. Both the New York Transit Museum in Brooklyn and the Shore Line Trolley Museum in East Haven, Connecticut have a restored, operational R-17. In fact, the Shore Line’s Car 6688 appears in the movie The Amazing Spider Man 2. Other film appearances by R-17s include The French Connection, Ron Howard’s Night Shift, and an interior shot in the opening credits of Oliver Stone’s Wall Street.