New York City Subway nomenclature

2007 Schools Wikipedia Selection. Related subjects: Railway transport

Entrance to the IRT Lexington Avenue Line at Wall Street, leading to the southbound ("Downtown & Brooklyn") platform
Entrance to the IRT Lexington Avenue Line at Wall Street, leading to the southbound ("Downtown & Brooklyn") platform

New York City Subway nomenclature describes terminology used on the New York City Subway system as derived from railroading practice, historical origins of the system, and engineering, publicity, and legal usage. These include line names, which refer to individual sections of subway, like the BMT Brighton Line; service labels, like the B, which is a single train route along several lines; and station names, like Coney Island–Stillwell Avenue.

Current status

Trunk line Service bullets
Broadway (BMT) Line
IRT Broadway-Seventh Avenue Line
Canarsie Line
Crosstown Line
Eighth Avenue Line
Flushing Line
Lexington Avenue Line
Nassau Street Line
Sixth Avenue

Each section of subway has three identifying characteristics, line, service and colour. The most constant is the line, the physical structure and tracks that trains run over. Each section of the system is assigned a unique line name, usually paired with the division ( Brooklyn-Manhattan Transit Corporation (BMT), Interborough Rapid Transit Company (IRT), Independent Subway System (IND)). For example, the line under Eighth Avenue is the IND Eighth Avenue Line. Some lines have changed names (and even divisions), but this happens relatively infrequently.

Public usage of the line names varies widely. Internally, the MTA uses the names, both for legal reasons and to describe lines, services and locations without ambiguity. Even the terms BMT, IRT and IND are still used in line, structure and building descriptions and capital contract specifications.

Each operating service or route is assigned a letter or number. This is a path that the train service uses along the various lines. These are the most familiar names among the public, but may change frequently during construction or as services are rerouted to make best use of the network. Former IRT services (now known as Division A) are assigned numbers, and former BMT and IND services (now known as Division B) are assigned letters. IRT trains and tunnels are narrower, so the two do not mix in revenue service.

Each service is also assigned a colour, corresponding to the downtown Manhattan trunk line it uses; the Crosstown Line, which doesn't carry services to Manhattan, is colored light green, and all shuttles are colored dark gray.

Stations usually bear street names, but may also be named after neighborhoods or prominent locations (e.g., " Brighton Beach", " Cypress Hills") or combinations of these (e.g., " Times Square–42nd Street", " 47th–50th Streets–Rockefeller Centre"). Many stations share names, so to uniquely identify a station, the line name or cross street must be specified. (For example, there are three stations at Kings Highway in Brooklyn.) Usually, identifying the service is also sufficient, but as services are transient, this is not a permanent label.

A rollsign reading on a R68A car. The sign reads:Midtown57 St/7 Av----- Coney Island
A rollsign reading on a R68A car. The sign reads:

57 St/7 Av
Coney Island

In addition to the typical street or location names assigned to most stations, terminals (the ends of lines and/or services) also usually bear the name of the local community (e.g., " Middle Village–Metropolitan Avenue"), especially on maps and signs.

Diamond services

Normal and diamond 7 bullets.
Normal and diamond 7 bullets.

Despite its efforts toward single identifiers for each service, the MTA has adopted a variation of a signage practice that began with street railways, in which a variant service is identified with a special colour or symbol on the route number signs. For example, if a service was designated 10, a short-line of the service might have a diagonal stroke through the number. This informed boarding riders that the car would not travel all the way to its usual destination.

This has been implemented on the subway by use of diamond services. Since a route letter or number is ordinarily presented inside a circle, variants of the same service are shown as the same letter or number inside a diamond shape.

Current diamond services are:

  • 6 regular service all local; daytime directional diamond service express in the Bronx (with local service in the same direction cut back to Parkchester)
  • 7 regular service all local; daytime directional diamond service express in Queens

Until the end of May 2005, 5 rush hour trips to 238th Street Bronx were marked with a diamond, with regular service to Dyre Avenue. Both services run express in the Bronx between East 180th Street and 3rd Avenue/149th Street during rush hours in the peak direction.

Current rollsigns include several unused options to replace these. To replace the green 5 and 6 diamond services are green 8, 10 and 12 circles, and a purple 11 circle is present for a replacement of the 7 diamond. The rollsigns also have the regular diamonds, but with the word "Express" under the bullet.

On the other hand, the rush-hour only skip-stop service that complements the J is designated Z rather than with diamonds. Similarly the 9 ran skip-stop with the 1 until May 2005. Diamond service was also introduced on the BMT Brighton Line during the Manhattan Bridge closure, with Brooklyn locals being the Circle Q and expresses being the Diamond Q. Other services have also used the diamond before and during the closure; at least one (the diamond R) dated from a BMT special service using the same number (2) as the main service that became the R.

Describing directions

Public information

Directions along a line in Manhattan or the Bronx are usually described as uptown and downtown, roughly corresponding to compass north and south. Uptown and downtown are not always meaningful on lines in the other boroughs or on the crosstown IRT Flushing and BMT Canarsie Lines or the downtown-only BMT Nassau Street Line.

On the BMT system, most in-station signage specified To City and From City. Currently signs typically read To Manhattan and To Coney Island, To Flushing, or any other outer borough destination. If the train is headed to a different borough, it is described as Borough-bound, for example, Manhattan-bound or Brooklyn-bound. If its terminus is in the same borough, it will be described as Terminus-bound, for example, 8th Avenue-bound or Canarsie-bound. An exception is the BMT Fourth Avenue Line in Brooklyn, where uptown means toward 95th Street in Bay Ridge, which is compass south, and downtown means to Downtown Brooklyn, which is compass north.

Internal usage

In the U.S., most railroads have only two railroad directions. In this vein, all New York City subway lines are deemed to run north-south. In many cases, this is close to the related compass direction, but this is not always possible. Any line that enters Manhattan from the Bronx or Queens heads south into Manhattan; any line entering Manhattan from Brooklyn goes north into Manhattan. Directions of other lines are determined by following the services that run over them; except for the BMT Eastern Division services (over the Williamsburg Bridge), which change direction at Chambers Street, every service has one north end and one south end. On the 42nd Street Shuttle, railroad north is compass west, due to the line's former status as part of the main line.

In fact, very few track connections exist to allow a train to reverse railroad direction without running around a loop or literally reversing direction by backing up. The IND system (except on the ex- LIRR Rockaway Line) has none of these; this philosophy may explain the lack of track connections between parallel IND lines at Seventh Avenue and Hoyt–Schermerhorn Streets.

Before unification, all BMT lines ran east-west, west being towards Manhattan. After Unification, west became north and east became south.


This nomenclature has been complicated by the differing systems and cultures of the former private companies that operated parts of the system, by the need for non-ambiguous names in a city where there are stations with the same name on different lines in different locations and even different Boroughs, and by changing perceptions of the best way to communicate information to a diverse public.

Up until 1940, there were three major operators of New York subway and elevated lines, the Brooklyn-Manhattan Transit Corporation (BMT), the Interborough Rapid Transit Company (IRT) and the Independent Subway System (ISS or ICOS before 1940, now IND).

Service labels have always been assigned based on their outer line (Brooklyn on the BMT, Bronx on the IRT and IND) and then by the Manhattan trunk if necessary to distinguish multiple services on the same line.


BMT numbers, 1924–1967
Line Division
1 Brighton Beach Line Southern Division (subway)
2 Fourth Avenue Line
3 West End Line
4 Sea Beach Line
5 Culver Line Southern Division (elevated)
6 Fifth Avenue–Bay Ridge Line
7 Brighton–Franklin Line
8 Astoria Line Queens Division (elevated)
9 Flushing Line
10 Myrtle Avenue–Chambers Street Line Eastern Division (elevated)
11 Myrtle Avenue Line
12 Lexington Avenue Line
13 Fulton Street Line
14 Broadway–Brooklyn Line
15 Jamaica Line
16 14th Street–Canarsie Line Eastern Division (subway)
Typical pre-1967 BMT rollsign number
Typical pre-1967 BMT rollsign number

The BMT was the inheritor of subway, elevated and surface rapid transit lines that had been built in Brooklyn by a variety of previous operators, mainly surface steam railroads to Coney Island and elevated railroads in more populated areas. The BMT identified most of its lines by the common names given to them, often going well back into the 19th century. Services on these lines usually had the same name as the branch line they ran on; for example, the line that the current F service runs on in Brooklyn was (and is) the Culver Line, and the BMT signed these trains Culver Local or Culver Express.

Partly as a result of its steam railroad history, BMT terminals were far more likely to be named after neighborhoods or towns, rather than streets, so trains were signed for Coney Island, Canarsie and Jamaica rather than Stillwell Avenue, Rockaway Parkway and 168th Street. Stations also tended to use local names, but this gradually changed, especially as lines were upgraded, so that stations like Bath Junction on the Sea Beach Line became New Utrecht Avenue and Manhattan Terrace on the Brighton Line became Avenue J.

The BMT introduced numbers for all its services in 1924 but these were mostly for map purposes, since none of equipment displayed line numbers until the D-type Triplex cars were introduced in 1927, and these only on the front of the trains (but later also on the sides ). In 1931 these numbers were also used on 16 IND R1 cars when they were tested by the City on BMT lines.


Early IRT numbers
Uptown branch Manhattan trunk line
1 Broadway-Seventh Avenue Line Broadway–Seventh Avenue Line
2 White Plains Road Line
3 Lenox Avenue Line
4 IRT Jerome Avenue Line Lexington Avenue Line
5 White Plains Road Line
6 Pelham Line
7 Flushing Line Queensborough Line
8 Astoria Line
9 Dyre Avenue Shuttle (non-Manhattan service)
Typical pre-1967 IRT rollsign number
Typical pre-1967 IRT rollsign number

The IRT was the contractor with the City of New York to operate the first subway lines; by that time it was already leasing all the elevated railways in Manhattan. Unlike the BMT, the IRT had multiple long mainlines (eventually six of them) from which several branch lines extended into the Bronx, Queens and Brooklyn. The IRT therefore named their services for these mainlines rather than their branches. The branch lines were mentioned on the destination signs instead, to that typical signage read Lexington Avenue Express to Woodlawn - Jerome and Utica Avenue - Brooklyn, meaning Woodlawn on the Jerome Avenue Line and Utica Avenue on the Brooklyn Line. Where a service ended in downtown Manhattan, it simply carried the destination name, for example South Ferry or Chatham Square.

The IRT subways used a logical numbering system, but the numbers were not used publicly until the R12 cars were introduced in 1948, under City management. Due to the lack of new IRT construction, this system has largely stayed intact to this day, with the only major changes being at the Brooklyn end.


Early IND letters
Uptown branch Manhattan trunk line
A Washington Heights Line Eighth Avenue Line
B Sixth Avenue Line
C Concourse Line Eighth Avenue Line
D Sixth Avenue Line
E Queens Boulevard Line Eighth Avenue Line
F Sixth Avenue Line
G Brooklyn–Queens Crosstown Line (non-Manhattan service)
H Fulton Street Line (non-Manhattan service)
S Specials (no consistent usage)
Typical pre-1967 IND rollsign letter
Typical pre-1967 IND rollsign letter

The IND adopted the IRT system whole but reversed the terminal and line name on the destination signs: Queens - 179th St. for 179th Street terminal on the Queens Boulevard Line. The IND also adopted a similar logical labeling system, but used them publicly on trains and maps. Single letters were used to indicate an express service and double letters indicates locals. For example, the CC ran local and the C ran express on the Concourse and Eighth Avenue Lines.

Unlike the IRT labels, the IND letters no longer follow the original pattern; the uptown branches of the B and C services have been switched via a complex process that involved the former AA eventually becoming the C and the B moving to the Concourse Line. Again, major changes have been made at the Brooklyn end (and in downtown Manhattan), but the system was designed for flexibility on that end.

Unification and BMT/IND service integration

When all three systems came under city ownership in 1940, essentially nothing was done to regularize signage for two decades. Stations on the IRT and BMT still said INTERBOROUGH or BMT LINES or sometimes older designations. Services continued to be signed by their traditional methods for each system. IND and post- Second World War ("R-type") equipment used BMT numbers when operating on BMT services. With the introduction of R12 equipment on the IRT in 1948, IRT subway services (except for the 42nd Street Shuttle) began using the route numbers still used today, which had been used internally but not on trains or maps. Astoria Line trains were only signed as 8 for a year, after which the line, which had been shared with the BMT, was converted for BMT operation only (and the Flushing Line carried only IRT trains).

BMT letters and old numbers, 1960 mapping
Letter Old number Line
J 15 Jamaica Line (express)
K 14 Broadway–Brooklyn Line to Canarsie Line or Jamaica Line (local)
L 16 Canarsie Line via 14th Street
M 10 Myrtle Avenue Line from Lower Manhattan
MJ 11 Myrtle Avenue Line from Downtown Brooklyn
N 4 Sea Beach Line
Q 1 Brighton Beach Line
R 2 Fourth Avenue Line
T 3 West End Line
SS 5 Culver Line
S 7 Brighton–Franklin Line

In 1960, with the delivery of the first R27 class cars for the BMT, the New York City Transit Authority (TA), which had become the operator of the combined system in 1953, began the introduction of letters for BMT services in anticipation of integrating the BMT and IND operationally. The last IND letter used was H, and the letter I was skipped as being too similar to the number 1. The BMT Eastern Division services got the letters J, K, L and M. The BMT Southern Division services were designated N, Q, R and T. P was for some reason skipped over, and while one theory says this was because it might lend itself to bathroom humor, the letter's unusability for this reason would seem to be disproven by the fact that the letter was later proposed for an emergency line that would replace Long Island Rail Road service to Penn station in the event of a strike, and the fact that other cities like San Francisco use the letter. A more likely theory suggests that it was originally planned for the last segment of Culver service to Manhattan, which was cut back to a shuttle permanently, right before the letters were introduced. S was still reserved for "Special" and SS began to be used for shuttles. Since the BMT was not amenable to the neat IND system, the TA had to make some compromises. They tried to follow the IND system of single-letter expresses and double-letter locals, but the system began to break down under the complex BMT routings. Where on the IND a local simply doubled the express letter ( A Eighth Avenue Express, AA Eighth Avenue Local), some lines had multiple local services with different routings. For instance the two Brighton Local services, one via the Manhattan Bridge and the other via the Montague Street Tunnel, were designated QB and QT respectively. The TA had no specific lettering plan for the two Wall Street special rush-hour services, so it just designated these M (Nassau Street Express) temporarily, a letter reserved for use on the BMT Myrtle Avenue Line's Nassau Street service.

During this period, the TA did not change sign rolls on BMT equipment (the D-types and R16s) that carried numbers, so that on the Brighton Line, the R27-operated locals were signed QB or QT but the D-type-operated expresses continued to carry the number 1.

1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8
SS 145 St
135 St
SS Dyre Av
E 180 St
SS Bowling Green
South Ferry
SS Grand Central
Times Square
SS Prospect Park
Franklin Av
SS 9 Av
Ditmas Av
Former service colors, 1967-1979
(shuttles all became green in 1968)
A typical post-1967 side rollsign
A typical post-1967 side rollsign

In anticipation of the 1967 opening of the Chrystie Street Connection, which combined two major BMT and IND services as single routes and resulted in numerous other changes (especially on the 14 and 15), the TA decided to adopt universal systems of signage and nomenclature. The rationale was that this would make the system more consistent and more understandable for newcomers to the city and tourists, who were presumed to be uninterested or even confused in historic or community names, or might not be native English speakers.

  1. Branch line names would be eliminated from signage and maps; all services that had Manhattan mainlines would be identified by those names only.
  2. Services would be identified only by letters or numbers wherever possible, even when announcing reroutings.
  3. Terminals would be identified by street names rather than community names where that existed. This had actually begun with the introduction of R-type equipment, when destinations such as Woodlawn and Canarsie were changed to read Woodlawn Road (which is no longer the name of a road) and Rockaway Parkway.
  4. All services would be colour-coded for map and rollsign purposes. This proved a daunting task, since the TA wanted to ensure that no two services with the exact same color would operate over the same line. With a lot of imagination and a lot of colour variations, this goal was achieved but proved unwieldy. The colors didn't have any particular logic and still produced ambiguity; notably the A service and the E service shared miles of line between Midtown Manhattan and the Rockaway Line in Queens, one as an express, the other as a local. But the A was assigned dark blue and the E light blue, not always easily distinguishable.

The 8 designation was brought back for the only remaining IRT elevated service, the IRT Third Avenue Line in the Bronx but trains never displayed the number. When the Lo-V cars (which did not have front signs) were replaced by R12 cars the front roll signs in use did not contain the number 8 and instead diplayed the word SHUTTLE. For map and sign purposes MJ was assigned to the last old-style elevated line, standing for "Myrtle Avenue Line to Jay Street", while the "Myrtle Avenue line to Chambers St." subway service would finally receive its M designation. The short-lived new Sea Beach Line super-express service was made NX. The Q, QT and T disappeared when the Chrystie Street Connection opened; thus they never had colors (until after the elimination of double letters, when the Q came back; by that time the current colour system was in place). By 1968, all shuttles (SS) were green. For a short time, the off-hour shuttle between Metropolitan Avenue and Myrtle Avenue was added in 1969 when the MJ service to Jay St. was discontinued, and that part of the line abandoned. The shuttle was soon renamed "M", however, as it only ran when the M to Manhattan didn't run.

After Chrystie Street

The system immediately showed evidence of problems for various reasons:

  1. Different services at common stations shared common destinations by different routes. N, B and QJ services arriving at DeKalb Avenue, for example, all had Coney Island as a destination, but had no mention of the widely separated routes ( Sea Beach Line, West End Line, Brighton Line) used to get there.
  2. Service labels are ephemeral. The TA has frequently shifted lettered routes from one branch line to another, and introduced, changed or deleted letters, making a description like "the D Line" meaningless. The D service has been on three completely different Brooklyn branch lines since 1954. K was introduced for a service on the Broadway-Brooklyn Line but was later used for the IND Eighth Avenue Line local which had formerly been AA.
  3. The same lettered or numbered lines may have different destinations by time of day, despite a largely successful effort to minimize this problem.
  4. Newcomers to New York City have recently shown more interest in their neighborhoods and city history, as have long-term residents. Some people feel that the emphasis on letters and numbers for routes and street names instead of communities is dehumanizing.

Elimination of double letters

In June 1979 the former color scheme was scrapped, and the TA settled on the more coherent policy of assigning the same color to every service on each Manhattan mainline, plus different colors for lines not entering Manhattan, the colors still used today. Nevertheless, no New York subway line is referred to by its colour – e.g., BMT Broadway Line services as the "Yellow Line." While this practice tends to be used amongst visitors to New York City, it is strongly discouraged, and sometimes frowned upon by native New Yorkers. There are simply too many such services on too many different lines and destinations for the colors to be meaningful as line names, as in other cities.

The JFK Express, started in 1978 and discontinued in 1990, used a turquoise bullet; this stayed through the colour change.

AA K 8 Avenue Local
CC C 8 Avenue Local (rush hour "diamond" service)
CC/ A H Rockaway Shuttle
GG G Brooklyn-Queens Crosstown
LL L 14 Street-Canarsie Local
QB Q Broadway Express (had been rush hour "diamond" service)
RR R Broadway Local
RR R Nassau Street Local (rush hour "diamond" service)
1986 letter changes

On May 5, 1986, the last significant change in route identification policy was made after the TA had decided in 1981 that the single and double letter system of the original IND was no longer meaningful, given that there were many services that were express for part of their route and local for other parts. In most cases, this was accomplished by simply eliminating the second letter in route designations. There is no longer a letter designation for specials (formerly S).

A current sign reading indicating that the train runs express on the Eastern Parkway Line.
A current sign reading indicating that the train runs express on the Eastern Parkway Line.

In the last decade the TA has moved steadily toward using traditional line names on maps and especially on signage. All of the southern Brooklyn subway lines now show the traditional line names. On BMT/IND equipment branch line names frequently appear on operating trains, in addition the route letter. R32 equipment with rollsigns, for example, may read:

A | Washington Heights-8 Avenue-Fulton
N | Astoria-Broadway-Sea Beach
Q | Broadway Brighton

One change which exceeds the pre-Unification practice has to do with the use of locality names. Where these were discouraged during the 1960s where they had been inherited from private operators, virtually all terminal stations are described by both a community and a street name; i.e., Inwood-207th Street for the northern destination of the A service; Wakefield-241st Street for the northern desination of the 2 service.

Route consistency

Since the unsuccessful attempts at applying the briefly popular schematic theory of diagrammatic maps, line-by-line colour coding, and exclusive use of numbers and letters for service and line descriptions, the MTA has moved steadily toward a more traditional approach, with more geographically correct maps and use of traditional line and community names on maps and public signage.

Concurrently, it has been refining its use of the number and letter system to try to achieve consistency across the system. One major push has been an attempt to have as many services as possible serve the same stations, routes and terminals at all times with the major exception for most services being the early morning hours of approximately midnight to 5 am (00:00-05:00). To this end, the MTA took advantage of the unavoidable service changes forced by the partial Manhattan Bridge closures to reroute some services when all bridge tracks reopened in 2004. Particularly, the Brooklyn branch lines of the B and D services were switched, with the B becoming the BMT Brighton Line express service and the D becoming the BMT West End Line express. This enabled the D, a full time service, to operate continuously on the same route and terminals from the Bronx to Coney Island, while the part-time B was meshed with the part-time Brighton Express service.

Operator codes

Train operators have a series of "12-" codes to describe incidents while on their run, including:

  • 12-1: Used as the first statement, to gain the attention of the dispatcher.
  • 12-2: Fire or smoke on the train or roadbed
  • 12-3: Flood or serious water condition
  • 12-4: Unused to avoid confusion with 10-4
  • 12-5: Stalled train
  • 12-6: Derailment
  • 12-7: Request for police or medical assistance
  • 12-8: Armed passenger
  • 12-9: Passenger under train
  • 12-10: Unauthorized person on track or catwalk
  • 12-11: Serious vandalism
  • 12-12: Disorderly passengers

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