It’s no easy feat to keep New York City’s more than 6,000 subway cars in working order. That monumental task falls to the expert mechanics, welders, craftspeople, engineers, and electricians who work in the MTA’s maintenance and overhaul shops. In a new project, photographer Christopher Payne turns his lens on the MTA Overhaul Shops to shed light on the work being done inside and to give subway riders a new perspective on their daily commute. You can see more of Payne’s work, including photographs from inside the Steinway & Sons Piano Factory and The New York Times printing facility, in our upcoming talk, Made in NYC: Inside New York’s Factories! Payne will share unpublished photos and share his experience of going inside New York City’s most productive factories in the talk. Below, he shares a selection of scouting photographs from the 207th Street and Coney Island Overhaul Shops with Untapped New York!
Payne has always been fascinated by urban infrastructure, and he conveniently lives right up the block from the 207th Overhaul Shop. “It’s a local landmark that’s impossible to miss,” Payne says of the sprawling complex, which stretches over several blocks along 10th Avenue. “My first book documented the electrical substations that once powered the subways. So a project like this has long been on my mind, and after moving to the neighborhood, it was literally staring me in the face.”
Walking past the shop is one thing, but actually getting to go inside and see the giant machinery at work is a completely different experience. “Seeing the subway cars up close and disassembled is an eye-opening experience, akin to peaking underneath the hood of a giant engine after riding in the back seat your whole life,” Payne recalls from his trip inside. “The trains are bigger and heavier than you’d imagine, though they look like toys when picked up and moved around by overhead cranes at Coney Island.”
The MTA operates thirteen Maintenance Shops and two Overhaul Shops throughout the city. The Overhaul Shops at 207th Street in Manhattan and Coney Island in Brooklyn are responsible for the “SMS-ing” of subway cars and repairs that can’t be done at the smaller maintenance shops. SMS stands for “schedule maintenance system.” In this system, each car is rebuilt on a cycle of every six or twelve years. The 207th street shop takes care of the IRT cars, the cars that run on the numbered lines and shuttles, while the Coney Island shop works on the BRT/IND cars, trains that run on the lettered lines.
In 2018, production at the overhaul shops kicked into high gear with the enactment of the Subway Action Plan. The plan called for an intense acceleration of rebuilds in the shops, amounting to a 40% increase in production. Instead of overhauling 925 to 950 cars in one year, the shops were tasked with overhauling 1,300 cars.
“The overhaul shops have been in constant use for almost a century and are a vital part of the city’s infrastructure, sustaining a transportation network that is so convenient and reliable that we take it for granted,” Payne states. “I hope my images will engender an appreciation for the hard work required to keep the subways running, giving us pause the next time we curse the trains for making us late to work!”
Next, check out the Substations of NYC’s Subway System