Confessions of a Subway Geek

by John Delach

Sometime last year I heard about a new book called: “The Routes Not Taken – A Trip Through New York City’s Unbuilt Subway System.” Fascinated by the title, I asked my son to give it to me for my 70th Birthday. Try as hard as he could, Michael discovered, contrary to the information I had, it was yet to be published. In April, two of my buddies, Geoff Jones and Bill Christman, sent reviews from the Wall Street Journal. I quickly went to Amazon and bought a copy.


I’ve read about half of this history of the transit system in the 20th Century; I will be shocked if the author, Joseph B. Raskin, sells more than 500 copies. It’s not an awful book. Quality is not an issue. The problem is the subject matter is exactly as advertised; a definitive narrative of the reasons that many proposed and planned subway lines were never built. The short answer; lack of money, conflicting interests and / or lack of political will.


You now know the primary cause and effect of Mr. Raskin’s narrative. Beyond that, do you really want to know that the Brooklyn – Queens Crosstown Line, today known as the “G” Line was originally conceived as a steam-powered elevated line in the late Nineteenth Century or that the Winfield Spur in Queens only appeared on the 1929 Board of Transportation Planning Map even though an underground subway terminal was built along the IND Queens Line to accommodate it? That terminal remains today, abandoned, unfinished and connected to nothing.


If you answered anything other than, “Hell, no!” you are a liar, psychotic, a fool or a subway geek. As for me, I jumped on such information like a dog on a bone but, I admit, this book is a test. A test of endurance, knowledge and patience. Witness this simple paragraph describing a proposed extension to the Flushing Line:


“The extended route would run past Flushing and along Warburton Avenue (now 38th Avenue) to Bayside Boulevard (now 221st Street) near Little Neck Bay. For most of this distance, the Flushing line would closely parallel the LIRR’s Port Washington’s line.”


Did you find your eyes glazing over, were you distracted or did you even finish reading the passage? Even if that paragraph made any sense to you at all, admit it; everything being equal, you’d rather be forced to watch snooker on the tele than read any more of this drivel.


But I am hooked as I knew I would be. You see I hold what would be the equivalent of a Masters Degree of Subway having honed by education and knowledge for more than 50 years from publications like the Electric Railroader Association (ERA) and the National Historic Railroad Association’s (NHRA) bulletins. I began collecting material while in college making visits to the nearby Transit Authority’s headquarters on Jay Street where I met two employees who I learned were legendary subway historians; a.k.a. geeks, Don Harold and Frank Goldsmith who introduced me to material I did not know existed about the subways.


My collection of written material expanded over the years. As technology improved first with VHS tapes and, later, DVDs, I grew my video library of the old films featuring trolleys and old els shot in the 1930s and 1940s. Previously they could only be viewed on 8mm and 16mm projectors at club meetings.


It was the internet that made research simple and provided a plethora of information about the subways past, present and the routes not taken. It was about the same time that I secured copies of the official Board of Transportation maps of 1929 and 1939 that laid out plans for the so-called, “Second System” the next phase of extending the IND system.


Please, do not be under whelmed, to a subway geek these maps are the equivalent of Biblical scholars finding the Dead Sea Scrolls. Oh, all right granted I am engaging in a bit of hyperbole, but they were a major find. But the maps had to be taken on face value and details were poor. Oh sure, I could see where the Utica Avenue Line and the Smith Street – Staten Island Line would go or where the two-level South 4th Street Station would be located in Brooklyn, but there weren’t any details.


But Mr. Raskin opened the vault and has provided intense and specific details not only of locations, but of the how, why, when and who were responsible.


He make life good for subway geeks everywhere.


But before I sign off I will confirm one thought you are considering: It’s true; I have never met a subway geek whose all there including when I look in the mirror.