I moved to New York City, a naïve T passenger from Boston, in October 2000. In line with its puritanical ways, the Boston subway system, better known as the T, was all color-coded simplicity. The subway map could be masterfully replicated by any seven-year old armed with four crayons-red, orange, blue, and green, each line appropriately named by its respective hue.
So, having arrived with the most rudimentary of commuter skills, I thought that the New York subway system would be as intuitive. I was proven wrong on several different occasions.
The first New York City subway stop that I called home was the 103rd Street stop on the B train, or, as I saw it, “the orange line”. As I boarded like-colored Q, F, and D trains, I embarked on a series of unwelcome subterranean adventures. Presumptively homebound, I got on the Q, realizing, at Roosevelt Island, that something had gone terribly wrong. On another occasion I gamely hopped on the F and exited sheepishly at Queens Plaza. And how many times had I taken the D to 125th Street, only to gaze through the steel prison of the express track as my mosaic-tiled 103rd Street whizzed past me.?
There are several stories of the same nature that I could recount, like the mornings that I would walk to Fifth Avenue from the 42nd street C because I had no idea that the B, which ran on the same track, would take me three avenues closer. Or the wasted minutes I spent cursing my ride on the C local from 103rd to 14th Street because I didn’t know that such thing as an A express existed. But, as they say, live and learn, and so I did. As soon as I clued in, I began to regard the subway as a well-planned and deliberate venture, designed to get me where I needed to go with the utmost economy of time and travel. I became a jockey of the express, a master of the cross-platform switch, and a devotee of the trusty system that, like math, would work for you if you followed its carefully constructed rules.
And then there came W. And V.
In 2001, the New York Transit authority introduced these two new routes. Although neither of these trains was within my realm of travel, their newly-sprung existence disturbed me. Where did they come from? How could the V so casually step into the skin of the familiar round orange circle that once housed the F? And why was the W masquerading as the long lost triplet of the N and the R, all in bumblebee yellow and black? I didn’t know about anyone else, but for me something was awry. I wanted to know: why the letters W and V?
The pamphlets that were handed out to explain the changes did not satisfy my curiosity. “New Routes, More Options, Less Crowding” they telegrammed. But I didn’t care about the practicalities-I wanted to know why they picked those letters. Using my own deductive logic, I figured that they could have chosen H, I, K, O, P, T, U, X, or Y. Clearly the rejects of the Metropolitan Transit Authority, for some unknown reason, Hikoptuxy had been blacklisted.
I took it upon myself to figure out the logic behind these oh-so-casual changes. Seeking an expert, I phoned the MTA and reached James Ayansi, a talking head in the Public Affairs department who speaks in the otherworldly tongues of the IRT, BMT, and IND, the three latter day subway lines that merged in 1967 to become, more or less, the subway as we know it. So, James, why W and V? “The decision to use the V goes as far back as the late 80’s for the 63rd Street connector service plan lines.”
Oh, okay. So why W?
“We don’t know why. The decision to use the W, which was introduced in July of last year was because we didn’t want two V trains.”
“We had two B’s in ’88, which was pretty confusing.”
Uh…okay. I don’t really get it.
“There’s no real rationale to it.”
Do you mean to tell me that there is no rationale to the naming of 26 subway lines, with 490 stations, 5,871 subway cars, 685 miles of track, and 1.3 billion passengers a year?
Feeling less sure of the origins of the W and V than ever, I dug deeper and found an historian at the MTA who has chosen to remain anonymous. Full of information (he has a subway-centric theory about the title of J Lo’s album “On the Six”), he could tell me little about the origins of these two letters. When pressed, the historian ventured that new letters “tend to crop up whenever rollsigns are ordered.” A rollsign, I learned, is the industry term for the big letter or number on the front of the subway car.
Our historian also suggested that a certain group of decision-makers at the MTA, on a rollsign splurge, had stockpiled every letter that is not yet in use.
“Well, there are some common sense issues. O would be difficult because of zero. We don’t want to choose letters that would be confused with something else.” So, we can confidently say that there will be no O train. But still nothing concrete on the W or V.
Despite the anticlimax of the rollsign discovery, I took comfort in the logic of the anti-O elective and pressed on.
I consulted nycsubway.org, a web-site that academically chronicles the minutiae of the subway system. Here, among other things, I learned that there was a T train servicing Broadway in the mid ’60’s, and briefly, a K had a glory run on the 8th Avenue line which ended in 1988. These letters, which I had previously perceived as forsaken, had experienced life! There was hope!
I wrote to Wayne Whitehorne, a contributor described as “a subway fan, trainspotter, and all around fan of the Canarsie Line.”
Notably, Wayne oversaw the fastidious chronicling of the band color, border color, and height of tile subway signs at 111 stations, the results of which are posted, in Excel-like grids, on the web site. If anyone would understand my need for a reason more satisfying than rollsigns for the selections of the W and V, it was he. I decided that Wayne would be the final word.
He replied to my query: “There really wasn’t any rhyme or reason for using ‘V’ other than it was a letter which had NEVER been used before. Same for ‘W’ when it came into existence last year, and ‘Z’ when it was introduced back in 1988. ‘V’ had been on sign rolls, with its current orange bullet, going back to the mid 1980s, but it was never used until last year.”
His obsession with the subway notwithstanding, in the end, Wayne nodded to the bureaucrats. On the upside, with the narrowing options and the improbability of the O making the cut, there are only eight letters left to shock our daily routines, eight more completely arbitrary choices to be made. Until then, Hikptuxy will languish in their cardboard boxes, waiting for their turns to be illuminated by the subway light.