Feature: Bye, Bye Redbird

Monday, February 09, 2004

By Don Sutherland

Some people hate the subways. During rush hours at least, bodies are crushed unwilling and unwelcome into an unwanted intimacy, violating a million years of biological and emotional evolution.

People utilize the subways, even appreciate the subways as the fastest way to get around. During non-rush hours, they're even attractive in their utilitarian way, and yes, there are subway fans and enthusiasts - the biggest concentration, perhaps, on the staff of the New York City Transit Authority itself.

But to the riding public at rush hour, they're the monument to alienation, to being alone in a crowd, to urban isolation. They're the archetype of doublethink - you imagine you're a free spirit, even in this claustrophobic crush. If existentialists are not born, surely here they are made.

And then, one day, everything is different. One day the train pulls in, you board, you look around - what's going on? Wrong colors, different seating, a new symphony of clatter - this train sounds different on its track, the conductor's voice from the ceiling is less squeaky. Oh, they must have bought some new cars. You take a seat, if you find one, unfurl your newspaper and take refuge behind it.

And now, left to yourself, you wonder what becomes of old subway cars? Are they converted to diners? Shipped off to rural railroads in Argentina? Sold as scrap metal? They say that the Japanese bought the Second Avenue El - not a subway, but close enough - by the pound in the 1930s, and shot it back at us in World War II. Ex-subway trains as weapons of mass destruction? You chuckle. You shrug. As long as you get where you're going on time.

Dispersing the Flock

"When I got word that MTA was scrapping the entire Redbird fleet," Mike Zacchea told us, "I did some research to see if there were more economical ways than we've used before." Mr. Zacchea is New York City Transit's Assistant Chief Operations Officer, Asset Recovery, whose job includes disposal of obsolete equipment in the New York City subway system. His inquiry was spurred by the sheer volume of Redbirds - 1,260 of them, each 51-ft. long, weighing 78,000 pounds apiece.

They arrived between 1957 and 1964, 1,410 of them altogether, officially designated SMEE. Although essentially identical, they were sub-grouped as R-26, R-28, R-33 and so on, based on details. Their so-called storm doors, the ones at both ends, had different styles of window, for example - first circular, then rectangular in two openable panes, then solid. The 424 R-36 type cars were the last of the lot, delivered in 1963 and '64, initially deployed on the No. 7 line from Times Square to Main Street, Flushing. Most of that line being elevated, they featured panoramic "picture windows" where small individual windows had been in earlier editions, touted for their view of the wonders of Queens to the millions bound for the 1964 World's Fair.

Those trains were painted a spiffy white and blue, in contrast to the drab dark green of the first of the breed. In between was a group painted red, but these were not the Redbirds. That name was created in 1985, when NYCTA president (now Amtrak CEO) David Gunn called for the new livery. "He believed the fleet should be a uniform color, and red is a standard color for passenger cars. They were painted in the new livery as they were rebuilt on schedule in our shops, and as we ridded the system of graffiti."

Forty years is a ripe age for mass-transit rolling stock, but "the Redbirds benefited from our scheduled maintenance service - a better maintenance program than any cars before them. An audit was made, and it was determined at what point a given component would fail." It would be replaced preemptively, before causing trouble in the tunnels. "In the early days we had breakdowns every 6000-7000 miles," said Mr. Zacchea, "but by the time the fleet was retired they were going 100,000 miles between breakdowns." So by some definitions, the Redbird fleet cold be called the most successful in New York history.

But from the outset, the SMEE cars were bold improvements over their groaning predecessors, brought into service from 1915 to 1925, generally known as Lo-V's. Their rapid acceleration improved service and even led to route changes as "high-speed locals" obviated the need for express trains on some lines.

How to Save $22 Million

Mr. Zacchea's research led to the Corps of Engineers "and their reef program. We got clearance to use these cars as ships and army tanks are used." And tugboats, and barges, and anything else that will last, submerged, long enough to become a habitat for marine life.

Automobiles and refrigerators won't do; their steel is too thin to give fish a stable neighborhood. Army tanks last a century or so; most of the towns on Long Island are less than that. The Redbirds are expected to last 25 to 30 years, or nearly as long under the water as they served under the city. Still, some have asked if it's long enough to be worthwhile? Mike Zacchea isn't worried. Marine society will have moved-in, mussels and other surface-growers forming what Mr. Zacchea describes as an "exoskeleton" - a living exterior to help support the dwindling substance of the rail car.

Each of the seaboard states administers its littoral waters, so each bargained individually for its share of the Redbirds. Delaware was the first to get a load, in August 2001. Poetically, it also got the last load in November 2003. "Delaware initially signed-up for 400 cars," Mr. Zacchea told us, "but when they found growth on the first group within 30 days, they were ready to sign-up for the entire allotment." But Mr. Zacchea sought the involvement of other states besides. Redbirds now reside offshore Georgia, South Carolina, Virginia, and New Jersey, as well as Delaware.

"It's a win-win situation for the states," Mr. Zacchea continued. "The enlarged populations of fish bring tourists to go fishing and diving, which supports charter and party boats, and the economies of coastal communities. Of course, local recreational fishermen are quite pleased with the conditions as well," as evidenced by the ardent purchase, by sport fishing groups, of almost any vessel that can be floated to the designated site. In the case of the states, there's an additional incentive in the form of Federal grants.

"Under the Wallop-Breaux program, the states are eligible for funds matching the value of the material they place on the reefs." The value of the subway cars, Mr. Zacchea said, is the cost to NYC Transit to prepare the cars for reefing, and transportation to their final destination.

And that cost is less than it would be if the cars were scrapped conventionally. At issue is asbestos, which was an ingredient of an "epoxy-like cement sprayed on the inside of the walls, as well as in the mastic used to hold the flooring down, and in some of the heaters." The nightmare stories about asbestos - and headline-making lawsuits - have centered on the stuff inhaled. It's harmless until airborne. Though contained within other materials, might it become airborne if broken-up ashore?

If broken-down in the ocean, gradually over time, it reverts to natural substance returning to the natural environment. "Experts at EPA were very much part of the process, and were with us every step of the way. They felt it was safe to deploy the cars underwater with the asbestos intact."

Safely removing the asbestos from the Redbirds on land and scrapping the cars conventionally, said Mr. Zacchea, would cost an estimated $35 million. Preparing and sinking the cars as reefs cost around $13 million. So about $13 million would accrue to the states that took the cars, while the Transit Authority saved $22 million or so on getting rid of them.

Some portion of the $13 million spent by the T.A. would have to go to someone to lift the cars from shore and place them on barges. Someone would have to get the barges to the designated sites as far as 750 nautical miles down the coast. Someone would have to push the Redbirds off the barges, for their plunge to their very last stop.

Resources for the Long Haul

A request for proposals was issued. Tom Weeks, Vice President, Heavy Lift Division of Weeks Marine, told us that five companies responded initially, two backing-out early in the game because the task was "not feasible."

There have probably been bigger tasks assigned to tugs and barges than mounting 27 to 52 subway-car bodies on a 250 x 75-ft. deck barge, and transporting the whole hundreds of miles down the Atlantic coast. But considering this would require 31 complete trips, beginning with some of the tightest waters in New York, its scale comes into better focus. Besides the equipment factor and the personnel factor, there was the time factor. Very uncertain in this case.

The idea was that the Redbirds would be retired as their replacements arrived, but would they arrive on-schedule? If everything worked perfectly, the job might be a wrap in one year. But for how long do you commit a tug and barge heading coastwise as far as Charleston with up to fifty fifty-one-ft., 39,000-pound tubular assemblies of steel stacked two levels high - suggesting a possible new meaning to the term "rolling stock" - drop them all in the ocean, and return light? How many days would that be? Tom Weeks mentions the two weeks a tug and barge were socked-in by weather, on Chesapeake Bay.

"Our contract specified a certain number of cars over a given time period," said Mr. Weeks. "If weather delayed a barge, it was up to us to provide another" at Weeks' expense.

And yes, there were delays in the program. "We had to halt a few times to test the new cars as they came in," said the TA's Mike Zacchea, "we didn't take delivery of a new group until those already received proved to be ok. To maintain service, we had to keep some of the Redbirds in service longer than planned, until the new cars passed muster."

"We worked around MTA's schedule," said George Wittich, senior vice-president of marine services for Weeks Marine. "Our flexibility with equipment and personnel gave us confidence we could adapt to their timetable as it unfolded." Mr. Wittich describes his site personnel as "multifaceted. They're marine guys, used to the normalcies of marine work. They know how to jump on and off the vessels."

It was a talent worth having, Weeks 297 having no crew accommodations aboard. The crew doing the dumping - including Capt. Rudy Wohl, Towing Operations Manager, Chuck Grabios, in-field utility supervisor for Weeks, and backhoe excavator operator Kevin McVicar - met the barge at each dump site, with whatever Nature had in store. Which sometimes meant jumping on and off very animated vessels.

"They used one-inch cable to tie things up," passing the line through the lengths and layers of the car bodies. "That's the most difficult part at the site at sea - two guys have to undo all the clips, pull the cable through - they spent almost as much time to unsecure the cars as to push them over the side."

A complex operation on an unpredictable timetable could be daunting in the best of times. The first load went to Delaware on August 16, 2001 and the operation was smooth enough. But another event came up, twenty-six days later.

"The World Trade Center cleanup set us back six months," said Mr. Wittich, as Weeks became the prime maritime contractor for the disposal of scrap and debris (see Maritime Reporter, December 2001), an arduous task thankfully completed far sooner than expected. But they were still months of emergency that drew everyone's attention away from old subway cars.

Flexibility indeed was a company virtue, in the deployment of tugs, barges, cranes, and people. The maybe-one-year project wound-up taking two and a quarter years.

Close Quarters

Stripped in the 207th street overhaul shop of almost everything beyond their steel shells - about 6000 pounds of windows, doors, seats, lamps, anything else not conducive to the new life and planned dissolution of the railcars - the cars were towed to a spur near the banks of the Harlem River by a diesel yard locomotive. Once in place, two-man crews boarded and swiftly extracted the last couplers holding the car bodies to their wheel trucks. Moments later the bodies were hoisted into the air, leaving dry land forever, and swung by Weeks 508, a 100-ton Dravo M28, over to barge 297, where they were laid-out in neat and orderly rows.

Then the 18,000-pound truck sets were hoisted into a separate hopper, to be delivered separately for sale as scrap - about $300 apiece for the trucks, motors $35 - altogether another three-quarters of a million for the city.

But between the Harlem river and Weeks' yard on the North River at Jersey City - the first leg of the Redbirds' final journey - there was Spuyten Duyvil creek. Dutch, for "spite the devil." Most people agree the slender waterway between Manhattan Island and the mainland comes by its name honestly.

And then there's the swing bridge that serves as the literal gateway to the Hudson. "The bridge opens only sometimes," said Tom Weeks, "not during rush hours, rarely on weekends," as it is part of the main line for Amtrak trains.

Fortunately, "MTA was able to help with earlier bridge openings, longer ones. Even so, scheduling was tricky. Because no matter what the bridge was able to work-out with us, we always had to run through when there was a fair tide."

Mr. Weeks describes the Coast Guard as "very understanding" about a barge 78 ft. wide including the tires, bringing such a load through a bridge opening 100 ft. wide. That averages an eleven ft. clearance on each side, which is plenty. All you have to be is a really good pilot who understands the creek's waters entering the river's. The single-screw Margot, subcontracted from Kosnac for assist work, nudged the barge to help keep tug Robert Weeks' precision steering precise.

Given the need to barge both wheel trucks and car bodies to their destinations, plus move equipment in and out according to the MTA's schedule, "we made about 150 transits through that bridge," said George Wittich, "with only two very minor allisions" - basically, just rubbing some tires against their fenders.

The Last Mile

MarineNews dropped-in on the preparations for reefing the Redbirds in the bitter months of December 2002 and January 2003, when everyone just bundled-up and got another load down the Hudson. The weather was more moderate the following October, when we joined Kosnac's June K. for the next-to-last train ride to the reef. It was a quick overnighter to a rendez-vous with the survey boat, designated meeting time 0700 about 12 miles offshore New Jersey.

The Coast Guard had noted a storm on its way, and predicted unpleasant sea conditions for later in the day. The morning sky was almost neon blue, with delicate wisps of clouds, sunny and cheerful. The only hint of anything stormlike was the water, getting frisky.

The survey boat was delayed, and the June's skipper grumbled. Tied to a barge with that particular cargo, he had a few things to weigh. How long before he doesn't want to be out there, tied even to a light barge? It was a time for backward-counting. Figuring-in the length of time to actually push the car bodies over, he declared a cutoff. If the survey boat wasn't here by then, we were heading back.

But the survey boat finally arrived, with a German TV news crew aboard. The exotic eco-friendliness of the Redbird reefing has made it news worldwide.

It probably was the approaching storm that caused the waters to well up around each of the cars as it struck the surface. But without knowing of the storm, at some primitive time before radios predicted storms and the superstitious mind ruled, it could have seemed that a hungry sea, having devoured the first of its sacrifices, rose up in a frenzy to feed on the rest.

"The reef coordinators choose the locations based on navigation and targeted fish species," said Mike Zacchea. "Some reefs, like Delaware's, are very large and support an extensive variety of life. In New Jersey, they wanted to get the cars at the top of a ledge because of the currents that would bring nutrients to support specific species of fish."

Toward this end an extent of precision-bombing was called for, the barge hovering close to three floats marking the intended new domiciles of these particular Redbirds.

Weeks prefers to turn the cars on their side before pushing off, there being less to hang-up or nick the barge. But once in the water, they quickly righted themselves. "There's not much drift at all. When the barge is brought over a particular spot, the ninety-or-so-ft. trip to the bottom is straight - they land straight and tend to land on their bottoms."

Once it was said that people were packed into the subway like sardines. Now, maybe someday, sardines will be packed-in like people.

The Business of Reefing

Subway cars, army tanks, and tugboats aren't the only contrivances used for building artificial habitats underwater. Tom Weeks discusses quantities of concrete similarly disposed of. Many objects support the low-end of the food chain, attracting the fish that eat the fish.

Still, there was a solemnity aboard the June K. as the cars went under. They may not have had names like old tugs, nor the personality, nor the adventure of a vehicle free to move in any direction, unhindered by tracks. Yet each was built for a purpose, and served that purpose long and well. Each marked the passing of an era and the uncertainty of a new tomorrow. Each shaped the life of a city and its residents for more than a generation. As the Atlantic bubbled over the spot where each sank, it would have seemed fitting if somebody broke the silence, even once, to call out, "thanks."

But despite a dramatic career-change, their lives of service are not over. And in an age where disposing of things has become as much an issue as creating them in the first place, where recycling has become as much an industry as invention has been, the epitaph of the Redbirds remains to be written. They continue serving new users, at new locations; they continue producing revenue. Their ongoing contribution is made possible by the sophisticated port infrastructure where they first plied their trades. It took tugs and barges to extract the final value of old New York subways.

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