Newark's Best Kept Secret: The City Subway
Article by Otto Vondrak/Photos by the author, except where noted.
Outside of Newark, and certain transit buff circles, the City Subway is indeed "Newark's Best Kept Secret!" Running for nearly seventy years out of the basement of Newark Penn Station, the 4.3 mile line has enjoyed the protection of obscurity. The City Subway has always been a favorite of mine. Imagine! PCC trolley cars built in 1941 still operating in regular service in the shadow of New York City! I was lucky to have discovered this little jewel of rapid transit while the fleet was still in operation. Coming from suburban New York, my trip would start on a Metro-North train to Grand Central, shuttle to Times Square, N-train to 34th Street, then transfer to PATH for the trip to Journal Square, and then a final transfer to a Newark-bound train. While the trip and all of its connections was an adventure in itself, the main event lie across the Passaic River at Newark Penn Station.
Newark Penn Station is an Art Deco monument to the efficiency of modern transportation. It is the westernmost terminal for PATH (the former PRR-controlled Hudson & Manhattan Railroad), a major hub for NJ Transit, and a stop for Amtrak (both running over the former PRR mainline). Down one level are both local and long-distance buses. Many different trains stop here- from the workaday PATH, to the sleek NJT commuter trains, to the latest Acela Express. Impressive! But the real show lies in the basement.
Subway construction by the City of Newark began in 1929. When it was completed in 1937, it provided an off-street route for some of the Public Service surface trolley lines entering the city. The route was laid in the former bed of the Morris Canal. The line is a little more than four miles long, while the actual subway tunnel is one mile in length running under Raymond Boulevard. The underground portion has four stations: Penn Station, Broad Street, Washington Street, and Warren Street. The line was opened from Broad Street to Heller Parkway in May 1935. Upon completion of the new Penn Station in 1937, the Subway was extended to serve it.
The City Subway station at Penn Station has two inbound tracks with platforms leading to a double track loop to three outbound tracks with platforms. Since 1952, only the outside tracks are used, and the center tracks and platforms were used as the only shop and repair facility for the PCC fleet.
Because the Subway was built as a conduit for the surface lines operating in the city, there were five connections to the other routes. At one time, there were connections in the subway just after Penn Station that ran over to the old Public Service terminal lower level. There were also ramps at Washington Street, Central Avenue (west of the Norfolk Street station), a connection at Orange Street crossing, and more ramps to Bloomfield Avenue just east of the Bloomfield Avenue station. Evidence of the ramps can still be seen today. The last connecting route (21 and 29) was closed in 1952, leaving the Route 7-City Subway as the last remaining trolley operations in New Jersey. The Subway was integrated into Public Service's bus operations, retaining its route number.
Public Service Coordinated Transport of New Jersey operated the line through the 1970s, when the state began its process of taking over operations. Transport of New Jersey operated the line until the early 1980's, when New Jersey Transit took over. Few changes occurred over the years, except that the cars were painted into the snappy black and white with "disco stripes" just like the bus fleet. Stations were rebuilt and rehabbed throughout the 1980s and 1990s.
As the light rail movement took root in the early 1990s, it was decided to integrate the Newark Subway into any future light rail lines. Through 1999, the trolley wire was upgraded to light rail catenary, and trolley poles were replaced by Faivley pantographs. The PCC's were slated to be replaced by the same vehicles operating on the Hudson-Bergen Light Rail by the end of 2001. I knew that my rides back in time would draw to an end soon.
I appreciate the Newark Subway for so many reasons. First, it is unusual (and welcome!) for a smaller city like Newark to even consider building a rapid-transit line, which makes it that much more interesting. Second, it reminds me in so many ways of the now-abandoned Rochester (New York) City Subway that was built for the same reasons using the same methods. The fleet of PCC's was the real reason for my early visits, and therein lies the reason that the Newark City Subway endured where others fell. After World War II, replacements were sought for the forty-year old trolley cars that were trying to keep up with schedules. The alternative was to pave the Subway and turn it into an expressway. Minneapolis was abandoning their trolley system and their fairly modern PCC trolley cars. Part of the fleet was acquired for less than what it would have cost to pave the Subway. Since the PCC is one of the most well-engineered rapid-transit vehicles of the 20th century, its durability and practicality served well for over fifty years!
The ride would begin at Newark Penn. I always took the rearmost seat, and opened the window. The cars had quick acceleration, and the only noise was the vibrations through the rails and on the wires. The cars were clean and comfortable, and were kept spotless by NJT. The single seats along the window made you feel like you were riding in your own private car! Shooting through the Subway tunnel, an inbound car on the opposite track would whiz by and disappear into darkness, giving the impression of great speed. The sights and sounds were amazing, and I would alternate between soaking in the atmosphere and taking as many photos as I could. I felt like a railfan time-traveler, with a limited amount of time before returning to the present day world.
NJT has wisely invested new money into upgrading the line into the 21st century so that this unique transit corridor would be preserved for generations to come. With the retirement of the PCC's however, the time-travel effect fades into the history books. Here is a small collection of photos from my brief time exploring the City Subway, "Newark's Best Kept Secret."