One of the ways that I get conversation started at a party is by asking everyone in a group what they think the maximum speed of a train on the MTA is on a given day. I’m not asking what the fastest train, on average is (most people say the A or the D between 59 and 125, with the token person or two advocating breathlessly for the Q, at least in the crowds I roll with). Rather, I am asking what the maximum value of dx/dt is in a 24 hour period across all trains. You’d be surprised at the responses I get. Most people will say something like “40 miles per hour”, or type “max train speed mta” into their phone which, with some diligent search result spellunking, will get you this site. That site, by the way, does not answer the question — it merely states the fastest speed ever attained by a NYC subway model car in history (87 mph), which occurred on some LIRR track, which technically is outside of the set of lines operated by the MTA.
My current guess is something near 60 miles per hour, on the A train in between 59th St and 125th. For the longest time, though, this was not my answer. I spent a number of years believing that the fastest speed you could hit on the MTA on a given day was between 72nd street and 42nd street on the 2 train, running express. I thought this for two reasons:
The MTA, between 2009 and 2010, spent a lot of time re-doing the tracks on the 2-3 express line in Manhattan, which I noticed because it would seriously hamper my commute from Washington Heights down to Union Square, where I worked. After it was done, I could have sworn that they had graded the tracks so that when the train made its gradual leftward bend between 66th street and 59th st., the subtle tilt in the track cancelled out whatever centripetal force there was, actually allowing you to ride “hands-free”, if you were crazy or enough of a hypochondriac to do so. Clearly the train was moving very quickly at this point.
This seemingly unnecessary investment in track infrastructure, combined with my acute awareness that most folks riding from 72nd street to 42nd street on the express line were fairly high-powered financier or lawyer types — these two legs of thought wishboned their way upward into an all-out conspiracy theory that the 2 train, from a train-infrastructure-financing perspective, effectively transformed itself into a “first-class” train precisely at the moment when the most wealthy, educated, and worldly passengers needed to ride it a single stop from their extremely large and clean apartments on the UWS down to their jobs atop the Bank of America tower. And what better way is there to tell every other passenger on the car that you have effectively subsidized most of the actual fare of $10/ride (or whatever number that is bandied around to justify fare hikes) that it costs for the MTA to haul their overweight and lazy asses to wherever the fuck in Brooklyn they are going, than by having that train, your train, PEAK THE FUCK OUT PRECISELY AT THE MOMENT YOU STEP ON WITH YOUR ITALIAN SUIT ON THE WAY TO YOUR EXTREMELY IMPORTANT OCCUPATION???
At that point in time, I was convinced that the 2 train was hitting 80 m.p.h. every morning.
I have since changed my views. One important realization came to me sometime in 2012, when I noticed that there were quite a few metal pillars flying by quite close to the 2-3 train’s windows during its rocket leg through midtown. Right around the same time, I noticed that the IRT-flavored 2 train (along with its extremely crowded sister trains on the 4-5 line) was an exceedingly narrow train when compared to the much more wide IND-flavored trains that ran on the ABCD lines. The walls of the stations that flew by on the 2 train were thus several yards closer than the walls on the more spacious 8th avenue express line. Could it be that my sense of velocity was skewed by my visual (not to mention socio-economic) perceptions? Did the 2-3 seem fast merely because of motion parallax?
Incidentally, I have tried and failed to test this theory. Many of my attempts to measure the time between stations on 2-3 line have been thwarted by train delays and/or difficulty determining the exact point where the stopwatch should be started/stopped. Plus, it might all be moot, as I have not had the delight of riding, say, the relatively more modern 4/5/6 trains into the northern reaches of the Bronx where the train stops are further apart, or the A train between Howard Beach and Broad Channel *.
Anyhow, I digress. People really get worked up about stuff like this at a party. For instance, a friend of mine was convinced that the C train (yes, the C train), was the fastest train in the MTA, and that it hit its peak velocity between HIgh Street and Fulton Street. When I pressed him further, he explained his theory that the C train was able to travel faster than the other trains because, as the oldest set of cars in the MTA’s fleet, most of its operational controls were left to manual efforts, including door operation, stop announcing, and applicably, the all important accelerator and (in the case of the C train) lack of an automated velocity check. At this point, I really could have ripped his argument to shreds, having TIMED THAT VERY LEG of my new commute from brooklyn successfully (it hits 35 mph, at best). Being at a social function, though, I eased up and sympathized with him, having enjoyed the extreme 2nd and 3rd derivatives of location with respect to time on the downtown C from 163 a number of times in years past. “It could happen”, I told him, as the C train most certainly takes the crown with respect to acceleration and “jerk” (yes, that’s the term for the third derivative of position with respect to time, or the rate at which the acceleration is increasing/decreasing), thanks to its exceedingly sensitive manual controls, and, from what I can tell, imbalanced operators **.
* http://web.mta.info/nyct/facts/ffsubway.htm There are more than 3 miles between these stations! There has GOT to be at least one day a week when an operator just FLOORS it, say, at mile 2.
** There was this one time where it was 9 AM and I was getting on the C at 168, and it was very obvious that the female operator of the train was having a tough morning, as she had all but lost it telling the you-know-whats in the back of the train to stop holding the goddamn door in the rear. Note that the 168 stop on the C very likely marked the first ride of a morning shift for her. Needless to say, when we got to 163, a mere 5 blocks south of 168 on the St. Nick diagonal, and those you-know-whats were still holding the doors in the rear of the train, presumably for purely recreational purposes, she got the f out of the train cockpit and took care of business, because that train really flew the rest of the way downtown that day.