MTA Substation #13

I got to the MTA’s Substation #13 through the New York Transit Museum recently. The substation converts high voltage AC electricity from the grid and converts it to a lower voltage DC electricity that is used to operate subway trains via the third rail. The substation was originally built in 1904, and it fits into the category of “they don’t build them the way they used to.” The outside looks like a nice neighborhood building, and it has architectural aspects that I really wouldn’t expect from a substation. For example, an interior staircase has lovely decorative balusters.

Exterior of the Substation #13

Exterior of the Substation #13

Gorgeous stairwell inside the substation

Gorgeous stairwell inside the substation

Inside the substation are large rotary converters, specifically Westinghouse 1,500 kilowatt Rotary Converters. The rotary converters are what used to transform the AC electricity to DC electricity. Now modern solid state rectifiers are used to transform the electricity, and they are much more compact. The old rotary converters were used until 1999, when this substation was switched to the new equipment.

Convertor

Westinghouse 1,500 kilowatt Rotary Converter

Convertor

Westinghouse 1,500 kilowatt Rotary Converter

Convertor

Positive and negative brush arms of Westinghouse 1,500 kilowatt Rotary Converter

Our guide was retired general superintendent Robert Lobenstein, who showed us around. He also showed us how workers used to have to do normal work, like changing switches and listening for crackling to make sure a wire was not live.

How workers used to change switches

How workers used to change switches

We got to go into the basement which had all sorts of old equipment.

I have no idea what this is, but it is cool looking

I have no idea what this is, but it is cool looking

We even got to go into a vault under the street where cables left the substation to go to the subway. The vault can be accessed through a door in the basement or through a manhole in the street. Normally this type of vault could only be accessed through a manhole. The cables go through conduits that are buried under the street. The cables are tagged, but it still looks like it would be difficult to find the right one if needed.

Cables leave the substation through the vault under the street with manhole access

Cables leave the substation through the vault under the street with manhole access

Inside a manhole. The manhole access is visible in the center of the ceiling.

Inside a manhole. The manhole access is visible in the center of the ceiling.

Back inside the basement, some of the equipment was still being used, but some was no longer needed, like some massive cables that were cut.

Old cut cables

Old cut cables

Branching cables

Cables come in from the ground from the grid and are then split before going upstairs to the transformation equipment.

We then went upstairs were the new equipment was, including the solid state rectifiers and the biggest breakers I have ever seen. The breakers are in the circuit with the third rail. They detect surges in the third rail and cut off power before a fire or some other damage can occur. There is a lot of redundancy with the circuit breakers. Our guide turned one off, so we could hear how loud it is, but because of redundancy, it had no effect on the subway.

Circuits connecting to breakers

Circuits connecting to breakers

Breakers for the third rail

Breakers for the third rail. The copper plates are the third rail.

The solid state rectifiers are very different in appearance, at least, from the rotary converters. [I understood very little about this.] What amazed me during the tour, was when I finally understood I was actually staring at the third rail. The long copper plates in the photos are the third rail, which leave the substation and go to the subway. The positive rail is the equivalent of the black or red wire in a house’s wiring. The negative is the equivalent of the white wire in a house’s wiring.

Third rail leaves converters

Third rail leaves the rectifiers. The positive rail “POS” goes to the subway. The negative rail “NEG” goes to a central location to complete the circuit.

Also upstairs was this amazing old series of electrical switches, dials, and gauges. None of this stuff is used anymore, but it really cool looking. I liked how everything was tagged out, never to have the tags removed again and be turned on again.

Old switches that are no longer used

Old switches that are no longer used

Gauges

Gauges

Finally at the end of the tour, they turned on the rotary converter for us. Below is a video if you want to see it in action. It is almost hypnotic. During a portion of the video, you will see five lightbulbs on a wooden board sitting on the floor. They are being powered by the converter. After it is turned off and slowly slows down, the lights dim and then turn off.

 

Treasure in the Trash

Last week, I finally got the chance to tour Treasure in the Trash, a collection I had heard about a few years back and was obsessed with touring ever since. Treasure in the Trash is a collection of items that former Department of Sanitation of New York worker Nelson Molina found in the trash as he worked his route picking up trash. Only a very small percentage of items in the collection were found by someone else. Also, Mr. Molina worked in the same garage, the M11, during his career, so almost all the items are from the same area in east Manhattan. The collection is housed on the second floor of the M11 garage, which for structural reasons can no longer be used for vehicles (vehicles on only park on the first floor now), so the collection has expanded in the void.

Framed posters and art

Framed posters and art

Glass, metal, rocking horses, etc.

Glass, metal, rocking horses, etc.

Once trash is put on the curb, it is property of the city. Mr. Molina picked items out of the trash, but as the items were kept in the garage, he never kept them, so he never violated any rules. He would have had to have stopped his habit of picking items out of the trash if it had ever slowed him down on his route. However he clearly is fast in his work, and he is also seriously skilled at knowing which bags might contain items of interest for the collection. He was present during our tour, and he told us that his picking habit started when he was a child, and it clearly is a skill. While it would be easy to find the larger items to pick, we were all amazed at how he found some of the small items that were in bags.

Nelson Molina created and curates the collection

Nelson Molina created and curates the collection

Mr. Molina not only created the collection, but he curates it. The items were all arranged in collections of sorts. He retired from DSNY, but he still comes by the garage often to curate the collection. The collections are well done and arranged. I also enjoyed how he prominently displayed a poster for Open House New York, which arranged the tour, and a poster from the City of New York telling people to “Recycle More, Waste Less!”

Lots and lots of posters, including one for Open House New York, which arranged the tour

Lots and lots of posters, including one for Open House New York, which arranged the tour

The collection is amazing in its diversity, but it is really a statement about what we as a society throw away. So many things we buy now are “disposable” with the resources used to make them then just put into the trash when no longer desirable or useful. However with so many items, there are still resources that could be saved from the discarded item, if the item was discarded correctly. However in most places, it is difficult to discard of an item in a way that the resources could be retrieved from them. For example, metal recycling exists, but it is not always easy to get an item to a metal recycler. If you can though, you can actually make money from getting the metal to a recycler, like I did when I was renovating my house. [Side note: I don’t know the precise amount, but a decent amount of New York trash goes to Covanta Waste to Energy incinerators. After the trash is burned, Covanta’s process does capture metals to then send for scrap. However burning metals lowers the efficiency of the incinerator.]

Metal, mainly brass, collection

Metal, mainly brass, collection

Metal collectibles

Metal collectibles

Collectible metal home accessories, some of which look rather valuable

Collectible metal home accessories, some of which look rather valuable

Some of the metal in the collection though, like many other items in the collection, look like something, that someone else would eagerly buy. Some of the jewelry, china, and glass looked if not really valuable, good enough that someone would happily buy at a thrift store or on eBay.

White china collection, how all of it is unbroken was amazing to me

White china collection, how all of it is unbroken was amazing to me

Colored glass collection that was amazingly unbroken

Colored glass collection that was amazingly unbroken

Jewelry

Jewelry

A set of old seltzer bottles donated by another sanitation worker

A set of old seltzer bottles donated by another sanitation worker

Seriously, much of the collection features items that are the reason eBay was created and continues to thrive.

All the collectible comic book, movie, etc. action figures are her

All the collectible comic book, movie, etc. action figures are here

Trolls

Trolls

Pez dispensers

Pez dispensers

All types of Furby's

All types of Furby’s

Then there are other collections that feature items that would be right at home in a museum of some type.

The still and motion picture collection

The still and motion picture collection

Old cameras

Old cameras

Old typewriters

Old typewriters

Then there were the items like old televisions, phones, and other electronics, that not only contain valuable resources like rare earth metals but also contain material, including those same rare earth metals, that are hazardous if they get into the environment. With most modern technology hardware, retrieving those valuable resources is difficult because of the way the items are constructed. Further, often the items are sent to developing nations, where people retrieve the valuable material to sell, but they work in ways that is dangerous to their own health.

Old cell phones

Old cell phones

Other items are funny, random, and weird. Some items made me wonder why someone had the item to begin with. Other items made me sad, like a cross stitch that featured what was clearly a bride and groom and said “Yvette and Lance – March 16, 2007.” I am just guessing Yvette and Lance’s marriage did not make it.

This was one of my favorite collection with the fighting preying mantises and wooden "rubber" chicken

This was one of my favorite collection with the fighting praying mantises and wooden “rubber” chicken. On the left is a ThighMaster.

Art including many Mona Lisa's

Art including many Mona Lisa’s

I believe they said someone else found the Moon and saved it for Mr. Molina

I believe they said someone else found the Moon and saved it for Mr. Molina

Then there was this gem that welcomes you as you walk up the stairs to Treasure in the Trash.

Rat behind a fence in a hole in the wall in the stairwell leading to Trash in the Treasure

Rat behind a fence in a hole in the wall in the stairwell leading to Trash in the Treasure

The place was amazing. If you ever get the chance, go tour it. Also, many thanks to Open House New York for arranging the tour, DSNY for letting us in, Nelson Molina for talking about the collection, and Robin Nagle, DSNY’s anthropologist in residence, for her introduction to the collection and whose book “Picking Up” about DSNY is well worth the read.

Lowlife Lab

Many people are familiar with New York City’s Highline, which has become a really popular spot with tourists and residents. It it is really cool, and beautiful all year round, in the dead of winter and in bloom. Because of the Highline’s success, some people came up with the idea of the Lowline. The Lowline would make use of of the abandoned Williamsburg Bridge trolley terminal under Delancey Street, which is right next to the Essex Street subway station. However, the somewhat radical idea for the Lowline is that it would make use of sunlight to light the space, which is completely underground. To help design and work out issues with this idea, the Lowline Lab was created. It is now closed, but luckily about a month ago I got to tour it.

I encourage your to click the hyperlink to my photos of the Williamsburg Bridge trolley terminal under Delancey Street because in order to comprehend the challenge of this project, you really need to see the space as it is now.

Delancey Street with Williamsburg Bridge in background. Essex Street subway station entrance can be seen on left. Abandoned trolley terminal is right below street.

Delancey Street with Williamsburg Bridge in background. Essex Street subway station entrance can be seen on left. Abandoned trolley terminal is right below street.

Sunlight collectors on roof

Sunlight collectors on roof

Sunlight brought in from smaller vertical tube and reflected into sideways tube

Sunlight brought in from smaller vertical tube and reflected into sideways tube

Sunlight brought in vertically from roof collector and then reflected in sideways tube

Sunlight brought in vertically from roof collector and then reflected in sideways tube

Ceiling with tubes outputting sunlight and reflectors below

Ceiling with tubes outputting sunlight and reflectors below

Display of plants and ceiling reflecting sunlight

Display of plants and ceiling reflecting sunlight

Display of plants, including vertical plant elements, and ceiling reflecting sunlight

Display of plants, including vertical plant elements, and ceiling reflecting sunlight

Display of plants and ceiling reflecting sunlight

Display of plants and ceiling reflecting sunlight

Plants that may be used

Plants that may be used

Nostalgia Ride

During the summer, the New York Transit Museum offers Nostalgia Rides, when they put some of their vintage subway cars back into service and bring a train full of passengers to some fun destination. Today I went on the Nostalgia Ride to Rockaway Beach. The train we rode on was two types of 1910’s and 1920’s BMT cars. The cars were complete with wicker seats, ceiling fans that “are machetes” according to the numerous warnings we got from MTA employees, and normal looking lightbulbs that are evidently powered straight from the third rail, which we were also warned not to touch. The ride is generally more exciting than the destination, and once we got to our destination, they offered some more rides back and forth for those who didn’t want to get off.

One of my favorite parts of nostalgia rides are the people in the stations we pass. They can generally be described in four different groups. The first, a small group, are those that see the train coming through but don’t seem anything abnormal about an antique train passing through. The second group, possibly the most common, are the ones that start smiling and waving, and grab their camera and start taking photos. The third group are those that just stare open mouthed or with a look that can only say, what the heck is that? The fourth and tiniest group are those that know we are coming and already set with photo and video cameras, sometimes with tripods. I once asked a Transit Museum employee about them, and she said they seem to know the route that the nostalgia ride will take before the museum does. Clearly there are transit fanatics spies about.

Another great part of these rides and a reason why I love New Yorkers, is when the nostalgia ride is ending. We all get on at the same location, but at the end, they stop at several large subway stations, so you can get off wherever is easiest. The train pulls into a station and stops. Normal subway riders start lining up to get on because a vintage 1920s subway train running on the A line is evidently a completely normal thing to New Yorkers.  [To be clear, you don’t have to be a subway aficionado to know that these trains look very different from the regular modern trains running.] New Yorkers are just so nonchalant about it. A subway train, of some sort, has arrived at the platform. They must get on. They have places to go, and a train has arrived to take them there. MTA employees have to stand in front of each door and say “off loading only”. Some of waiting passengers will ask why. Some waiting passengers start peering in, and normally either MTA employees or nostalgia ride passengers will have to explain. This part of the ride always makes me laugh.

One final note about the nostalgia ride, the train runs wonderfully. My sincere compliments to the MTA employees who keep the vintage cars maintained. Maybe they don’t run like they were built yesterday, but the ones we were on were 100 years old. To me it is amazing that they are still running at all.

Vintage BRT train used for this nostalgia ride in station

Vintage BRT train used for this nostalgia ride in station

Signs on the vintage cars

Signs on the vintage cars

In between rides, MTA employees cleaned the windows

In between rides, MTA employees cleaned the windows

While at the Rockaway Station, the train was in the station long enough for everyone to take photos, including a few police officers who boarded to check it out.

While at the Rockaway Station, the train was in the station long enough for everyone to take photos, including a few police officers who boarded to check it out.

Swing bridge to Rockaway open during one of our trips

Swing bridge to Rockaway open during one of our trips

Going over the swing bridge that was previously open

Going over the swing bridge that was previously open

One of the bridges to Rockaway

One of the bridges to Rockaway

View from train of Jamaica Bay with JFK Airport in background

View from train of Jamaica Bay with JFK Airport in background

Coast side of Rockaway Beach

Coast side of Rockaway Beach

View from bay side of Rockaway

View from bay side of Rockaway

Freshkills Landfill Turned Park

This past weekend, I got to check an item off my bucket list when I got a tour of Freshkills, the former landfill that is being turned into a park. This is probably not an item on most people’s bucket list, but I have heard so much about the landfill that when I found out New York City Parks Department gives tours, I jumped to sign up. The vast majority of the landfill has been fully capped and vegetated. The mounds are dotted by the landfill gas collection system with gas wells popping up from the high grass at regular intervals. The wildlife has already moved in. There were butterflies flying everywhere in the grass, and birds were everywhere. We also saw a family of deer. The wetlands are lovely and evidently filled with wildlife. Also, the view from the top of the mounds is spectacular. It will be a while before the area will be completely converted to a park and open to the public, but the transformation already is incredible. As an environmental engineer, I am incredibly happy to see it and proud of my profession that did it.

View of the last mound that has not been fully vegetated

View of the last mound that has not been fully vegetated

Amazing views with landfill gas well in foreground

Amazing views with landfill gas well in foreground

Landfill gas well

Landfill gas well

Bad photo of a family of deer

Bad photo of a family of deer

Osprey family

Osprey family

View of Manhattan

View of Manhattan

Landfill gas wells popping up in grass

Landfill gas wells popping up in grass

Wetlands in between mounds

Wetlands in between mounds

Coney Island Creek

I went on a hike along Coney Island Creek with Atlas Obscura and Underwater New York to see its virtual ship graveyard. The tour did not disappoint. There were a multitude of shipwrecks, including the famous yellow submarine. We walked along the shore during high tide. The shore was quite mucky, and I was thankful for my waterproof hiking boots, while trying not to think about what was in that muck. There was lots of algae and seaweed of some type. We spotted a few fishermen and men who appeared to be hunting for oysters or clams or sometime of shellfish (are they called fishermen also?). I have serious doubts the fish are safe to eat on a regular basis, simply based on the history of pollution in that area. I can only hope I am wrong for their sake.

Metal shipwreck

Metal shipwreck

Seaweed and barnacles on piers

Seaweed and barnacles on piers

Inside a metal shipwreck

Inside a metal shipwreck, Coney Island Parachute Jump tower can be seen in left background

Horseshoe crab remains

Horseshoe crab remains

Wooden shipwreck

Wooden shipwreck

Famous yellow submarine

Famous yellow submarine

Metal nails in a wooden shipwreck

Metal nails in a wooden shipwreck

Wooden shipwreck with large modern tanker ship in background

Wooden shipwreck with large modern tanker ship in background

Wooden ship remains

Wooden ship remains

Old pier

Old pier

Metal shipwreck that is now a giant planter

Metal shipwreck that is now a giant planter

Coney Island Overhaul Shop

This past weekend, I got to tour the MTA Coney Island Overhaul Shop with the NY Transit Museum. The complex in which it is located is the largest rapid transit yard in North America. They overhaul subway cars with a scheduled maintenance system and also scheduled maintenance that is too intensive for the maintenance shops. They do maintenance on all parts of the subway cars including the electric motor, air brakes, compressors, and wheels and axles.

Newly cut wheels in cars

Newly cut wheels in cars

Wheels and axles lined up

Wheels and axles lined up

Overhauled axles

Overhauled axles

Wheels lined up

Wheels lined up

More axles

More axles

I think this is part of generator

I think this is part of electric motor

I think this is part of generator

I think this is part of electric motor

Rail service car

Rail service car

Inspection train, aka the geometry train

Inspection train, aka the geometry train

Car in shop

Car in shop

Old trains in the yard

Old trains in the yard

Snowblower

Snowblower

Tracks leading to overhaul shop and maintenance shop

Tracks leading to overhaul shop and maintenance shop

Old inspection train

Old inspection train

Trains in the yard

Trains in the yard

Grand Avenue Central Maintenance Facility

On the level above the Grand Avenue Bus Depot is the Grand Avenue Central Maintenance Facility, which can do repairs, overhauls, and painting of buses. It can also handle compressed natural gas (CNG) buses, which are not allowed in the bus depot below for safety reasons. The facility has storage of parts galore, two huge paint booths, and numerous bays for repairing buses. Also, at the time I was there, it had a vintage bus in for repair, which was really cool to see. There were also all these cool looking parts for the buses, none of which I could identify.

Buses in maintenance bays

Buses in maintenance bays

Bus in for maintenance

Bus in for maintenance

Back of the bus with all the stuff that makes it run

Back of the bus with all the stuff that makes it run

Fans for bus mechanical parts

Fans for bus mechanical parts

Engine pulled out from bus

Engine pulled out from bus

Wheel parts

Wheel parts

Methane sensors in ceiling of facility. Facility handles CNG buses, so special sensors needed.

Methane sensors in ceiling of facility. Facility handles CNG buses, so special sensors needed.

Bus paint booth

Bus paint booth

Bus in paint booth. Machine on wall is a platform with spray gun for a painter to paint from.

Bus in paint booth. Machine on wall is a platform with spray gun for a painter to paint from.

Vintage bus

Vintage bus

Vintage bus with poor man's lock out tag out "Do not start bus"

Vintage bus with poor man’s lock out tag out “Do not start bus”

Grand Avenue Bus Depot

I toured the New York MTA’s Grand Avenue Bus Depot with the New York Transit Museum. The depot is relatively new, which is evident when you are inside. I don’t know much about bus depot design, but I was astounded by the amount of ventilation in the building. Considering the number of vehicles going and in and out every day, the ventilation is needed, but still I was surprised by the amount of it. The bus depot occupies the first level of this huge building, and the second level holds the Central Maintenance facility. They are considered to be different facilities. The bus depot is, well, a depot, or parking area for when the buses are not in use. The depot also where regular maintenance is performed and everyday activities like fueling, money removal, and washing.

Multiple bays for maintenance

Multiple bays for maintenance

Regular maintenance performed on buses

Regular maintenance performed on buses

Hoses needed for normal maintenance hang from ceiling

Hoses needed for normal maintenance hang from ceiling

Lane to maintenance bays

Lanes for parking and to maintenance bays

Buses parked closely until needed

Buses parked closely until needed

I asked the facility manager what this garage style door was for. He looked at it and me and said he had never been asked that and wasn't actually sure. Leave it to me to be able to stump people.

I asked the facility manager what this garage style door was for. He looked at it and me and said he had never been asked that and wasn’t actually sure. Leave it to me to be able to stump people.

Confession: Other people in the group asked the depot manager to please let us go through bus wash, so he granted their wishes, and we all boarded a bus and went through a wash.

Bus wash

Bus wash

The ceilings and walls were almost completely filled with ventilation ducts, pipes, and conduits.

Ventilation everywhere

Ventilation everywhere

Ventilation, pipes, and conduit everywhere.

Ventilation, pipes, and conduit everywhere.

I couldn't get over the amount of conduit.

I couldn’t get over the amount of conduit.

One of my favorite parts of the tour was learning that they vacuum money out of the fare box. MTA buses only accept coin and not bills. They hook up a hose to outlet at the bottom of the fare box, and the money is vacuumed out to secure boxes where it falls into bags or some other movable containers. The staff of the facility never touches the money. Then the money is removed from the boxes on a regular basis by armed staff. I think it is because I have a B.S. in chemical engineering that I found this so fascinating. We learned about pipes and other conduits and pump design for fluids. Coins are obviously not fluids. I am intrigued by the design that would be needed by items that are going to bounce around and not flow the way a fluid does. Also the pressure needed to pull coins out must be interesting.

The outlet at the bottom of the fare box is where a hose is inserted to vacuum out the money. They vacuum the money to a secure box.

The outlet at the bottom of the fare box is where a hose is inserted to vacuum out the money. They vacuum the money to a secure box.

Hoses and vacuum pump used to vacuum money out of fare boxes.

Hoses and vacuum pump used to vacuum money out of fare boxes.

NY 240th Street Yard

My most recent nerd trip to New York was to tour the New York City Transit Authority’s 240th Street Yard, also known as Van Cortlandt Yard. The train yard is completely elevated, which in my opinion makes for impressive structural engineering. It is a small shop, so it cannot hold all the trains that are out of service. The do regular maintenance as well as repair. I was impressed with all the safety mechanisms and protocols they have to make sure no one gets hurt.

Entrance to the elevated 240th Street Train Yard

Entrance to the elevated 240th Street Train Yard

Below the elevated 240th Street Train Yard

Below the elevated 240th Street Train Yard

The underside of the completely elevated 240th Street Train Yard

The underside of the completely elevated 240th Street Train Yard

The lavish office of the yard supervisor

The lavish office of the yard supervisor

Train in for maintenance

Train in for maintenance

Stacked and organized supplies

Stacked and organized supplies

I have no idea what these are, but the shop has really cool looking parts

I have no idea what these are, but the shop has really cool looking parts

Contact shoes (how the train makes contact with the 3rd rail). The one of the left is a snow shoe, the ridges cut the snow and ice, and the one on the right is a regular shoe.

Contact shoes (how the train makes contact with the 3rd rail). The one of the left is a snow shoe, the ridges cut the snow and ice, and the one on the right is a regular shoe.

Basket full of contact shoes. The yellow one is a snow shoe.

Basket full of contact shoes. The yellow one is a snow shoe.

Trains in the 240th Street Train Yard shed

Trains in the 240th Street Train Yard shed

Cables hanging in front of the car are "bugs". The ones with more cable and a 2nd box are little bugs because the have less voltage. The other one on the left is a big bug because it has more voltage and power the entire train.

Cables hanging in front of the car are “bugs”. The one with more cable and a 2nd box is a little bug because it has less voltage. The other one on the left is a big bug because it has more voltage and power the entire train.

A stick is used to make sure the contact shoe is at the right height. A maintenance worker is carrying another stick used to measure the height of the car above the rail.

A stick is used to make sure the contact shoe is at the right height. A maintenance worker is carrying another stick used to measure the height of the car above the rail.

Unclose view of the 3rd rail that ends at the entrance to the shop.

Unclose view of the 3rd rail that ends at the entrance to the shop.

Cool looking thing on a train the shop. I think it is a device that tests the doors and opening and closing.

Cool looking thing on a train the shop. I think it is a device that tests the doors and opening and closing.

240th Street Train Yard entrance to the shop

240th Street Train Yard entrance to the shop

Signals at the entrance to the 240th Street Train Yard shop

Signals at the entrance to the 240th Street Train Yard shop