It’s the most powerful address in New York City you’ve never heard of. One false move and the entire city stops dead in its tracks. Not East 88th and East End Avenue, the traditional home of New York’s mayor, or 11 Wall Street where profit-driven twenty and thirty-somethings play games with the world’s economy. Not even a certain stretch of Prospect Park West, where a vindictive former DOT commissioner and her Senator husband plot the destruction of one of the City’s most popular bike lanes.
Instead, it’s a two-block stretch of mostly mundane buildings on West 53rd Street just north of Times Square where the New York City Transit’s Power Control Center and several substations quietly manage the entire subway network’s electricity. Last year, Untapped toured the 53rd street substation for Open House New York, but this year we take you into the underbelly of New York City Transit’s Power Control Center.
No bulls, beautiful parks or bike lanes mark the spot, but don’t let that fool you. Behind the bare brick walls at 333 West 53rd street, or the mysteriously grand wrought-iron doors at 225 West 53rd Street, sit the turbines, wires and controls to all of the subway lines in the city.
Beginning with New York City Transit Substation 13, “Old #13” was built by the Interborough Rapid Transit company in 1904 and has been propelling underground subways in New York since opening day on October 27th, 1904.
Upon entering, the first thing you see is a 100,000 lb Westinghouse 1,500 kilowatt Rotary Converter, a hulking monolith of steel that until just over a decade ago fed the third rails on the 1,2 and 3 line between 42nd and 72nd street with enough electricity to power 1,000 homes. These rotary converters whirred in almost 75 substations, propelling subways throughout the city until finally being phased out in 1999. Today 215 modern solid state rectifier substations have taken their place.
Dial to sync currents to 625 DC
Along with the end of the Westinghouse, 1999 also saw the conclusion of manual substation operation for New York City’s transit system. This meant that instead of NYCT employees literally “throwing switches” in substations near the lines during rush hour as more trains were needed, or synchronizing power currents using 90-year old dials that flickered from “fast” to “slow,” a centralized power control center just down the street began to do everything remotely.
Bob Lobenststein, a retired general superintendent and 40 year veteran of NYCT (1970-2010), walked several transportation professionals and I through the substation last week. He toured us past a preserved Westinghouse converter, its power maintainer control board where the operator would have to eyeball the amount of current generated from each particular Westinghouse so that it matched the voltage already in service.
At the Direct Current Feeder Control Panel, we practiced shutting on and off power to portions of the 1,2 and 3 line between 42nd and 72nd Streets as they used to do it until 1999. “Never grab the handle,” Bob told us, demonstrating a two-part motion meant to prevent electrocution where you raise the wooden handle open handed and then slam it into place with your palm. “625 volts DC can really tingle,” he said with a bit of a smirk.
Afterwards Bob walked us over to where the power lines were still “live,” something he proved by holding a conducting rod up to the metal which quickly lit up five lightbulbs. “The operaters used to light their cigarettes off this thing,” Bob remembered, as our group anxiously took a further step back.
After leaving the station, we were led down a block to 333 West 53rd Street to NYCT’s Power Control Center. Here was where 19th century technology of the substations supposedly entered the 20th century. Huge panels of different colored lights and labels organized by the old subway companies that had operated then (The IRT, the BRT and the IND) covered the walls. For every track in the city, there was a line, with the one exception being the rail yards out in Coney Island because, we were told, there just wasn’t enough wall.
There was even an unlit panel for the mythical Second Avenue Subway collecting dust in one corner of the room. Fridge magnets with a decidedly more ominous tone – see the coffin – are used to mark where NYPD dispatches, someone hopping onto the track or the formerly common track fires occur.
While we were in the room, a truck drove into a substation on Jerome Avenue in the Bronx, shutting down a portion of the elevated 4 line. Houston, we have a problem. Suddenly a dozen staff were huddling around a wall panel of flashing lights, waiting for the next report from the field on the extent of the damage.
As we left, the lights were still flashing.