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BMT Sea Beach N Line

Those Sea Beach Express Tracks

Why does the Sea Beach portion of the N Line have express tracks for its entire length (59th Street to Coney Island) but not a single station?

The tracks may be physically part of the Sea Beach Line, but they were never intended to provide service to Sea Beach riders. Rather, they were to be the route of the Coney Island Express, a fast train between downtown Manhattan and Coney Island whose origin went back to steam railroad days.

Wasn't it poor planning to build these special tracks just to provide a fast route to Coney Island?

Not necessarily. Every single one of the modern subway lines that terminate at Coney Island Brighton (Q), Culver (F), Sea Beach (N) and West End (D) [2012 letter usage] was built primarily to carry resort goers and day-trippers from the hot city to the breezes and amusements of the shore in the era before air conditioning. By the time the Sea Beach Line was reopened as a grade separated subway line in 1915 southern Brooklyn was becoming densely populated. The Brooklyn Rapid Transit Co., by then operator of the Sea Beach, thought to have these dedicated tracks for the masses who would be attracted by fast cheap rapid transit service.

But there were four rapid transit lines to Coney Island. Who were these express tracks to serve?

Primarily clients transferring from other systems' lines.

There were two distinct subway systems in New York City in 1915, the IRT and BRT, and three after the IND began operating in 1932, but the BRT (BMT after 1923) was the only one with Coney Island access. The IRT subway line veered away from Coney Island before reaching Prospect Park in the middle of the borough and the Manhattan elevated lines didn't enter Brooklyn at all. So the main audience was folks from Manhattan and the Bronx who could pick up the service where the IRT Lexington Avenue Line and Manhattan Elevated 3rd Avenue el met the BMT at the cavernous Chambers Street station.

So what kind of service did the BMT provide on the Sea Beach Express tracks?

The best known service was the "Sunny Summer Sunday Special," which despite this nickname apparently also ran occasionally on Saturdays. It ran from May 1924 to September 1952. This train's operation was not only seasonal but was also dependent on predictions of good weather. It ran a U-shaped line that ran from Chambers Street via the Manhattan Bridge, the 4th Avenue (Brooklyn) Express and non-stop on the Sea Beach. After a stop at Coney Island it continued on as a Brighton Express to Prospect Park, then via the Franklin Avenue Line to Franklin Avenue station at Fulton Street.

This service was also called "Franklin-Nassau" and used BMT Standard subway cars as their regular equipment. The BMT Triplex cars did have "Coney Island Express" on their roll signs while the Standards didn't. The Sea Beach leg of the service provided a convenient Coney Island service for IRT riders, while the Franklin Avenue leg brought riders from the BMT's Eastern Division via the Fulton Street L.

Why did the Coney Island Express service end?

A combination of events doomed the service. Coney Island, while still a big attraction for bathers, declined steadily as an amusement resort. One of Coney Island's two huge amusement parks of the subway era, Luna Park, suffered disastrous fires, closing in 1949. "Master Builder" Robert Moses had his hand in there, too. Moses hated "tawdry" entertainments. He felt the modern urban beach-goer would be more enobled looking at fish than peep shows, so he moved the New York Aquarium to a large portion of Coney real estate. Actually, the fish are very nice, but they don't attract the huge crowds.

When the New York City Board of Transportation took over operation of the subways and els in 1940 elevated service declined precipitously, including lines that fed the Coney Island Express. What was left of the 2nd Avenue el closed in 1942. Weekend service on the 3rd Avenue el in Manhattan, including service to City Hall, where el riders caught the Coney Island Express, ended before the 1952 summer season.

With the fare increase from five to ten cents in 1948, the Board of Transportation instituted free transfers between the BMT, IRT and IND, but only at select locations, so it became more logical for IRT riders to transfer to BMT trains for Coney Island at Times Square or Union Square and save a fare.

The Franklin Avenue end of the run soldiered on longer. The BMT Fulton Street L was abandoned in 1940 but its replacement IND line made Franklin Avenue a transfer point for crowds from Harlem, Washington Heights and the Bronx. Even this shortened Brighton-Franklin Express was doomed as BMT hegemony over Coney Island service ended in 1954 when direct IND D train service from the Bronx and Harlem was extended over the Culver Line to Coney Island. Brighton-Franklin Expresses continued to Coney Island for a few years longer, then were demoted to locals and finally ended altogether by the early '60s.

Have the Sea Beach express tracks been used in regular passenger service in recent years?

In 1967 a short lived service, the NX train, operated in the direction of heavy traffic during rush hours. It was created to answer complaints that the new 6th Avenue and Nassau Street routings of Brighton trains instituted by the opening of the Christie Street connection in lower Manhattan left Brighton Line riders with almost no Broadway BMT service.

The NX ran "backwards" from Brighton Beach station, making stops at Ocean Parkway, W.8th Street and Coney Island, and then ran on the Sea Beach express track nonstop to 59th Street, then the regular N Sea Beach Express route up Broadway. This was not a popular service. Some people in and out of the Transit Authority pressed to have the NX also stop at 86th Street, Avenue U and Kings Highway on the Sea Beach Line in the hopes of adding usefulness and additional riders.

The TA did not try this and the last regular use of the Sea Beach express tracks died early in 1968 with the end of the NX.

Bernard Linder, writing in the NY Division Electric Railroader's Assocation Bulletin (March 2001) says that a service similar to the above began operating summer weekdays (including Saturday) beginning August 1, 1924, from 6:37 AM to 8:37 PM, with trains from Coney Island operating local to Kings Highway, then non-stop to 59th Street. Short runs operated local from Kings Highway. No other information on this service is provided.

What else were the Sea Beach express tracks used for?

New cars have often received their shakedown runs on the Sea Beach express tracks. The BMT did extensive testing of the Zephyr and Green Hornet there in 1934 and the production Multis in 1936. The Transit Authority tested the ill-fated automated 42nd Street shuttle train on the tracks. Motorman have been trained there. Retired equipment has been stored on the tracks before going to the scrapyard.

It was also common practice to store off-duty service trains on these and other mainline tracks, but this practice was largely ended to minimize graffiti and vandalism.

What are the Sea Beach express tracks used for now?

For a time it seemed that the tracks might be left to rot and eventually be pulled up. In a sort of compromise, one track between 8th Avenue and the switches at Kings Highway was abandoned and the other rehabilitated and signalled for two-way operation, so it is possible to restore one-way express operation if the TA ever sees the need.

The express track is currently used relatively frequently when planned maintenance and construction causes reroutes. These reroutes, and others on the system, can be viewed at New York City Transit's Weekly Subway Service Advisories.

Will regular service ever return to the Sea Beach express track? Past history is not encouraging, but if the long-planned revival of Coney Island occurs and succeeds, there's also hope.

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Last updated June 10, 2012