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First Automated Subway Debuts in New York, 1962

by Rachel

Guest Post

This week Roadtrip-'62 ™ features a guest post by one of our readers. If you have something to say about 1962, drop me a line and maybe you can appear here next.


A journey by train is always one of the most remarkable and enjoyable experiences in a person's life. However a journey by a train which is not run by an individual is even more exciting and adventurous! Driverless trains are pretty popular in Europe, North America, South America, and in some parts of Asia and Africa. The advanced system of subways in New York City is the root of a number of innovations, like the very first subway line that was automated. In accordance with the proposal of Sidney H. Bingham, chairman of the NY Board of Transportation, brief automation of the 42nd Street Shuttle running from Grand Central to Times Square was eventually done. Despite his idea being initially dismissed because of expense issues, the automation idea was tested in 1959, implemented in 1962, and ended sometime around 1964.

New York automated shuttle of 1962
New York automated shuttle of 1962 (public domain from New York Transit Authority)

Charles Patterson, the succeeding chairman of the NY Board of Transportation, inaugurated a test train on the Sea Beach Line in 1959 in cooperation with General Electric, Westinghouse, General Railway Signal, Union Switch and Signal, and Westinghouse Air Brake Company. Commands to let the doors remain open were sent to the train which was sitting at a station. At a prescribed interval the commands would cease and the doors would close. A fresh series of commands would start the train, maintain its speed, and also stop the train upon reaching a station. The decision to maintain the speed of the train was based on tests done by NYCTA using R-22 cars. The test train on the Sea Beach Line proved that the automated train would take 95 seconds to travel between stops whereas a manned train would take only 85 seconds. Hence the speed of the manned train was greater than that of an automated train.


The first automated subway cars began revenue service from Times Square to Grand Central station on Thursday, January 4, 1962. In deference to the Transport Workers Union (TWU), a motorman was riding the train all the time without operating it, to prevent anything from going out of control. Signs indicating the automatic operation of the train were posted all over Track 4. Such a short course was chosen so as not to affect the course of the other trains. The automated train ran every day from January 1962 until April 1964. The equipment used was very reliable. However, people complained of rough stops due to the usage of cobra brake shoes instead of conventional brake shoes.

1960s New York subway map excerpt
1960s New York subway map excerpt, showing the Times Square-Grand Central Shuttle

People began to skip manned trains deliberately and waited a half-hour or more to board the automated train. Many people just crowded at the platforms to see how the automated trains ran. The automated trains could satisfy their passengers and gained a huge popularity, especially among the youngsters all over New York, who would take only automated trains and not the manned ones, as according to them it was a very different experience. Despite lasting only about two years, the automation provided the basis for automated technology on the BART system in San Francisco when that began operation in 1972.


Today the New York Subway is the busiest rail system in the United States. The system currently uses older Automatic Block Signaling with fixed signals and automatic train stops, though they have begun to implement Communication Based Train Control for signaling and controlling the train speed. By 2027, they expect nearly all revenue cars to be equipped with the system.


All photos by the author and Copyright © 2013, 2021 - Donald Dale Milne, except as noted.

All other content Copyright © 2015, 2021 - Donald Dale Milne.

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More Fun Stuff:

What's the weather in 1962?

Weather on February 28, 1962 for New York, NY, from the National Climatic Data Center:

  • Low = 34°F
  • High = 38°F
  • Precipitation = no data
  • Mean Wind Speed = 14mph

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