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Composite (New York City Subway car)

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Title: Composite (New York City Subway car)  
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Subject: New York City Subway rolling stock, 1903 introductions, New York City Subway passenger equipment, NYCS rolling stock, C-type (New York City Subway car)
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Composite (New York City Subway car)

1904 Rendering of an IRT Composite
Manufacturer Jewett Car Company
St. Louis Car Company
Wason Manufacturing Company
John Stephenson Company
Replaced 1950
Constructed 1903-1904
Entered service 1903-1950
Refurbishment 1916
Scrapped 1953
Number built 500
Number preserved 0
Number scrapped 500
Fleet numbers 2000-2059 (Jewett trailers)
2060-2119 (St. Louis Car trailers)
2120-2159 (Wason trailers)
3000-3039 (Jewett motors)
3040-3139 (Stephenson motors)
3140-3279 (St. Louis Car motors)
3280-3339 (Wason motors)
Capacity Before 1909-1912: 162: 52 (seated) 110 (standing)
After: 162: 44 (seated) 118 (standing)
Operator(s) Interborough Rapid Transit Company
NYC Board of Transportation
Car body construction Wood with Copper Skin
Car length 51 feet 1.5 inches (15.58 m)
Width 8 feet 11.375 inches (2,727 mm)
Height 12 feet 1.375 inches (3,693 mm)
Floor height 3 ft 2.5 in (0.98 m)
Doors Before 1909-1912: 4
After: 6
Maximum speed 55 mph (89 km/h)
Weight Motor car (before 1916):
~81,600 lb (37,000 kg)
(after): 73,788 lb (33,470 kg)
Trailer car (before 1916):
~60,000 lb (27,000 kg) (Note all trailer cars were converted to motor cars in 1916)
Traction system Motor car (before 1916): Westinghouse Type 'M' switch group, using GE 69 or Westinghouse 86 motors (200 hp or 150 kW each). Two motors per car (both on motor truck, trailer truck not motorized).
Motor car (after 1916): GE PC type switch group, using GE 259 motors (120 hp or 89 kW each). Two motors per car (both on motor truck, trailer truck not motorized).
Trailer car (before 1916): None (Note all trailer cars were converted to motor cars in 1916)
Power output Before 1916: 200 hp (149 kW) per traction motor
After 1916: 120 hp (89 kW) per traction motor
Electric system(s) 600 V DC Third rail
Current collection method Top running Contact shoe
Braking system(s) Before 1910: WABCO Schedule AM(P) with 'P' type triple valve and M-2 brake stand
1910-1916: WABCO Schedule AMRE with 'R' type triple valve and ME-21 brake stand
After 1916: WABCO Schedule AMUE with UE-5 universal valve and ME-23 brake stand
Coupling system Before 1910: Van Dorn
After 1910: WABCO J
Track gauge 4 ft 8 12 in (1,435 mm)

The Composite is a New York City Subway car class built in 1903 and in 1904[1] for the Interborough Rapid Transit Company and its successor, the NYC Board of Transportation.

The Composite derived its name from its build as a "protected wooden car." The car frame was made of steel, while the car body itself was made from wood encased in a layer of copper sheathing. The copper skin was intended to protect the car in the event of a fire in the subway. Therefore the result was a body composed of several materials (as in a Composite material) and became known simply as a "Composite."[2]

Because of the Composites' copper sheathing, IRT crews and shop personnel coined the nickname for the cars: Copper Sides.[3]


  • Background 1
  • Prototype construction 2
  • Service history 3
    • Prototypes 3.1
    • Production cars 3.2
  • Description 4
    • Design 4.1
    • Interior 4.2
    • Propulsion 4.3
    • Braking 4.4
  • References 5



However, car manufacturers of the time were unwilling to undertake such an experimental proposition. Steel was deemed too heavy for any practical applications. Conventional wisdom of the day (since proven to be false) held that an all steel car would vibrate itself to pieces, claiming wood was "necessary" for its damping effects on the car's vibration. It was also widely believed that a steel car would be very loud, and poorly insulated from temperature extremes such as heat and cold. With a large backlog of orders for wooden cars, manufacturers had no incentive to explore the new technology as there was still plenty of demand for wooden railcars. The IRT knew that the October 27, 1904 opening of the new subway route was fast approaching, and that rolling stock had to be designed and built soon or the line would not be ready. With time running short to order rolling stock, a wood-based alternative had been proposed - a protected wooden car to be known as a Composite.[3]

Prototype construction

A photo of IRT Composite Prototypes. This photo is in black and white, and shows two wooden railcars, built circa 1902, on some railroad tracks.
1902 Scientific American photograph of the IRT Composite Prototypes. August Belmont is in the foreground, while John B. McDonald is visible in the distance.

Engineering work began on the protected wooden cars, and two Composite prototypes were ordered from [4]

The IRT was not finished visiting the all-steel car idea, however. In 1903, George Gibbs used his influence to contract with the [4]

Service history


The two Composite prototypes (cars 1 and 2 - the [3]

Production cars

The mainline fleet of Composites began arriving in New York as early as 1903, and were tested on the IRT's elevated lines shortly thereafter as work continued on the IRT subway. They proved suitable for use. Along with the [4]

Not counting the two Composite prototypes, the IRT received 500 Composites: 340 motor cars and 160 trailers. Estimates by IRT engineers required a 3:1 ratio of motor cars to trailer cars. Therefore, when the 300 [4]

By 1909 it was determined that improvements needed to be made to the fleet. Since the design of the Composites was heavily influenced by both elevated equipment and railroad coaches of the time, the cars featured only two doors at the extreme ends of the subway car. It was determined that adding a center door for improved passenger flow would be a good idea. This required removing the transverse seats which faced each other in the center of the car. After the modification, passenger seating would be in the longitudinal direction (along the sides of the car) only. This created more room for standees. This modification was completed on the cars by 1912.[3][4]

Despite their copper sheathing, it was found that the subway cars were not that well "protected" from fire for service in the subway, as 23 Composites had been retired from service due to fire or minor accidents by 1916. They were outlawed from the subway by order of the Public Service Commission. In addition, since subsequent car orders for the IRT were all-steel, concerns had grown about the effects of running the wooden equipment alongside steel equipment, should a collision occur. Thankfully, one never did, save for a test done to see how the cars would fare. The Composite was badly crushed while the all-steel car suffered considerably less damage, proving the superior strength of the steel cars. As a result of these two fears - fire and collision - the 477 remaining Composites were transferred during 1916 to serve on the elevated division of the IRT. Doing so also meant modifying their weight accordingly so as to reduce the stress on the weaker elevated structures. On January 17, 1916 the first elevated trains of Composite cars were in service on the IRT Third Avenue and Second Avenue Lines, sharing tracks with the subway. Because of their added weight even with the lighter trucks, the Composites had to run without passengers in the anti-peak direction of their rush hour trips. The entire Composite car fleet had been transferred to the elevated lines in Manhattan by December of 1916. The Composites remained on the elevated until their retirement in 1950.[3][4]

Following their retirement, no Composites have been preserved. All of the cars were scrapped following their removal from service, culminating when the last cars were scrapped in 1953.[3]



Because of the concerns over wooden construction, the Composites employed a number of vintage, turn-of-the-20th-century mechanisms to reduce the risk of fire. Most commonly, this involved the use of [3]


1904 Rendering of the interior arrangement of an IRT Composite.

As originally delivered, the cars came only with two doors on each side of the car, located at the end vestibules. The original seating configuration was what was known as "Manhattan Style", a name given because the seating arrangement originated on the cars that ran on the [3]

The cars as delivered featured rattan seats and incandescent lighting, staples of most pre-[3]

As originally delivered, the cars featured manual "Armstrong" doors, a reference to the "strong arm" that would be needed by trainmen to open them. Near each door, a large lever could be thrown by trainmen to open or close the doors. This meant that each train of Composites required a number of trainmen to operate doors at each station stop.[3]

Route destinations and service patterns were indicated to riders by means of steel signs placed in holders along the side of the cars, near the doors. These signs could be physically removed and changed when a train was assigned to a different service pattern. Marker lights at the front and rear of each car also indicated the routes to crews en route, as well as astute riders who came to recognize their trains' marker light patterns over time.[3]

Tunnel lighting was accomplished by means of kerosene lanterns hung on the front and rear of each train. Red was to be displayed in the rear of the train, and white was to be displayed at the front. At each terminal turnaround, lanterns would be changed to reflect the train's new direction of travel. Kerosene lamps were chosen because of their reliability. Even in the event of failure of subway third rail power, the kerosene lamps would remain lit.[3]


All of the cars, as originally built, featured high voltage propulsion control equipment, which sent 600 volts through the motorman's control stand as well as through the train via the use of jumpers between cars. This had to be the case to make the electrical contacts to allow all of the motor cars of a train to draw power in a synchronized effort from the [3]

Additionally, like all of the old high voltage equipment, the cars featured a ten point brass controller with manual acceleration, which required motormen to notch up gradually as the train came up to speed. Should a motorman advance too quickly with the controller handle, however, a device would actually prevent the car's propulsion system from notching up at too rapid a rate. Mounted on the top of the controller handle was a button which had to be depressed at all times, acting as a [3]

When it had been determined to transfer the Composites to the elevated division of the IRT in 1916, several changes were made to the equipment. As subway cars, the Composite motor cars were simply too heavy to run on elevated structures. Therefore, they were lightened. The [3]

One other notable change occurred during the 1916 modifications. The high voltage propulsion control was replaced with a safer low voltage propulsion control, which utilized battery voltage (32 volts) to control the train's motors. This battery voltage was what would pass through the motorman's control stand and between cars. Tractive effort throughout the train was synchronized by the battery voltage in this way. Meanwhile, each car would respond individually to the battery voltage, by moving its own 600 volt contacts to direct power obtained locally by each car directly from the third rail toward the motors. Using 32 volts to control the propulsion in this way was a much safer proposition for trainmen and shop personnel than the 600 volts associated with the older high voltage setup.[3]


1904 Rendering of the electric and pneumatic equipment underneath an IRT Composite.

The cars, as built, featured an old style of [3]

By 1910, an improved braking schedule had been introduced, known as AMRE. This setup, and all others to come after, permitted graduated release of the brakes for finer control of brake applications. Additionally, AMRE allowed for the electric synchronization of braking throughout an entire train, causing all brakes on all cars of the train to apply uniformly and simultaneously. This created a smoother braking effort throughout the train. In order for the electric synchronization to work, it was necessary to insert an electric brake key to activate the feature. All of the older IRT cars, including the Composites, were refitted with the new AMRE system circa 1910.[3]

When it had been decided to transfer the Composites to the elevated division of the IRT in 1916, the cars' braking was modernized further. In AMRE schedule braking, the electric brake must be activated at all times by use of the electric brake key to synchronize the train's braking effort electrically. If it was not "cut in" or failed en route, the system could still be manipulated to apply the brakes pneumatically. This would still allow the train to stop, but deceleration would take longer such as on the older AM(P) schedule braking. However, in AMRE, the notches in the brake stand to cause this pneumatic application are completely separate from the notches to cause an electric application. Therefore, if a motorman with a defective or inactive electric AMRE brake were to electrically apply the brakes, nothing would happen! Valuable seconds would be lost while he realized his electric brake was inactive, before he could move to the pneumatic apply notch to begin slowing his train down (which would still take longer than usual without electric synchronization of the brakes). In a serious scenario, this could cause him to overshoot a station or an important stopping point, or overspeed. In a new braking schedule known as AMUE, however, the electric and pneumatic notches are joined together on the motorman's brake stand. Therefore, even if the electric brake is defective or inactive, his moving the brake handle to the apply position would still begin setting up a pneumatic application of the brakes, creating a much quicker response to the condition than possible under any other previous system. As part of the modifications for elevated service, the Composites were equipped with AMUE schedule braking from 1916 until their retirement.[3]


  1. ^ Sansone, Gene (2004). New York Subways: An Illustrated History of New York City's Transit Cars. JHU Press. p. 61.  
  2. ^ Cunningham, Joe (1997). Interborough Fleet. Xplorer Press. pp. 3–13.  
  3. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o p q r s t u v w x—Chapter 2, The IRT Subway
  4. ^ a b c d e f—The Interborough Fleet, 1900-1939 (Composites, Hi-V, Low-V)
  5. ^ Interborough Rapid Transit Company (1904). The New York Subway: Its Construction and Equipment. Arno Press. pp. 117–120, 125–134. 
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