The Secret Express Subway That Doesn’t Exist

Standing at Bergen Street station on a weekday morning, Blank Street coffee in hand, headed to your finance job in a sleek Manhattan skyscraper, you hear a train rumble into the station. Finally, you think. But, as you glance up from your phone to board the F, there’s no train. Huh? You settle back to your instagram feed, puzzled as to whether you were just in the presence of a ghost train or if the drugs from last night’s party just haven’t worn off yet.

The answer to that question depends on the year. The subway track between Jay Street-Metrotech and Church Av in Brooklyn, currently served by the F and G trains, can actually support express service. There’s a pair of tracks which bypass six stations along this stretch – all but 7th Avenue station. In a couple areas, these additional tracks are quite obvious. For example, at the 4 Av-9 St and Smith-9 Sts stations, the tracks are four wide, with the station platforms only serving the two outer ones. But, in a couple areas the extra tracks are not obvious. For example, the express tracks completely bypass 15 St-Prospect Park, utilizing a separate tunnel that makes for a slightly shorter trip. And, at Bergen Street and Fort Hamilton Parkway stations, which are both underground, small, and clearly just two tracks wide, the express tracks are actually underneath the local ones — allowing an express train to pass by these stations unseen. See the full trackmap for these details.

This section of the subway was constructed in the 1930s under the purview of the Independent Subway System (IND). A map from 1939 shows service between Bergen St and Church Av with, notably, Bergen, Carroll, Smith-9 St, 7 av, and Church Av stations designated as express, an indication that this line was originally constructed with the intent of express service (not to mention the complexity of the express track station bypasses, which seem unlikely to have been built for any reason other than providing express service). The 1939 map designation of Bergen, Carroll, and Smith-9 St as express stops could have been due to the service provided by the G crosstown train, which was created around this time as well and originally terminated at Smith-9 St, although this scheme doesn’t align with how local and express stations are designated now. The 1948 map agrees with this theory, as Carroll and Smith-9 St have lost their express designation and, interestingly, the tunnel bypassing 15 St-Prospect Park is actually depicted on the map. As an aside, both of these maps also show the connection between the BMT and IND systems at Ditmas Ave, a result of the early subway unification efforts by the City. This connection was removed in the early 1970s.

The next map, from 1951, appears to lose the express F service in Brooklyn, with all stations along this section being designated as local. However, the 15 St-Prospect Park tunnel bypass is still shown, so perhaps express service was still being offered at specific times. The Wikipedia about the F line provides only a record of express service from 1968 to 1972, which is reflected in the 1969 service map. Here, Bergen, 7 Av, and Church Av are designated express, and the G is extended to Church Av as a dotted line, indicating part-time service, likely during the hours that the F was running as express (which was rush hours in both directions, according to the Wikipedia). But, as part of system wide service cuts in the mid 1970s, the express service was discontinued. South of Church Av, express service was still offered until the 1980s by an F train which terminated at Kings Highway and skipped the previous four stops but was local for all stops north of Church Av (see this 1987 map).

Since the early 2000s, there has been support for restoring F express service between Church Av and Jay Street-Metrotech. Some pushback has come from residents near the would-be local stops, which would see reduced “one-seat” service to Manhattan (they would either have to take a local F train – which would inevitably be less frequent with the addition of express service – or take a G train and transfer at Hoyt-Schermerhorn). This seems a flimsy argument as, for example, the 6 and 7 lines offer rush hour express service despite the same service frequency trade-off for the local stops.

Lo and behold, the MTA began offering F express service in Brooklyn in 2019 in the form of two northbound AM rush hour trains and two southbound PM rush hour trains. Now, this is where my interest was piqued; a limited hours express service operating on special tracks and not marked on the subway map. To me, this seemed like an exciting opportunity to catch a ride on an unusual service trip that came with some history. The same wikipedia page linked to previously said that the service was paused during the pandemic but had resumed in 2021. Great, now that I live in Brooklyn I need to go check this out, I thought.

So, this morning, a warm but cloudy spring day, I head out early for my run. I take a nice route through Prospect Park to the Church Avenue station and arrive at 7:15am, well in time for the supposed 7:28 am express train. I head to the platform and am encouraged by the service sign on the inner side of the platform; a diamond shaped F bullet with the description, “AM Rush hours: Trains arriving on this track run express to Jay St. Other times use opposite track.” Great, exactly what I’m looking for. I stand around a bit as a couple G and F local trains go past. Then, as 7:30 approaches, I check a couple transit apps: Google Maps and Underway both indicate an F express train just a few minutes away. And, the live service screen in the station indicates an arriving F train with a diamond bullet, except that it would be arriving on the outer (local) side of the platform. Slightly confused but having faith in the MTA (probably never a good thing to have), I excitedly get on the referenced F train, but quickly note that the conductor and the live stop-sequence board on the train indicate that this is certainly a local F train, with the next stop being at Fort Hamilton Parkway. Probably looking like a confused tourist (crossed with a fanatical runner in my short running shorts), I hop off this train before it departs. Now, I’m feeling a bit had and a bit confused. I check the MTA website and am briefly encouraged by the designation of the next F train arriving at Church Av with a diamond bullet. Ah, of course, the transit apps had it wrong but the MTA website is certainly correct, I think, I just have to wait a couple more minutes. But, strangely, this bullet switches to a regular circle when I refresh the page. It was now about 7:40 and, seeing no indication on the arrivals board or in transit apps of the second of the two supposed express trains (this one being scheduled for 7:50 am at Church Av), I admit defeat and ride the lowly F local train to Jay St-Metrotech.

So, these supposed F express trains were either horribly off-schedule (which just as well makes them useless, as a commuter wouldn’t be able to plan on their arrival time), or this service is not currently in effect, at least with any daily regularity. Interestingly, though, the express service is still prominently noted on the MTA’s timetable for the F line, albeit with one irregularity; an arrival time for 4 Av-9 St station is listed for the four express trains despite this being a station that the express service should skip. Okay, perhaps the timetable is outdated and the express service has been discontinued. But, as evidenced by the live station board and the transit apps all showing an incoming train with the diamond F bullet, MTA’s internal system is clearly a little confused. From what I could tell, the internal system had this express designated train stopping at all the local stops which likely means that the F trip that was once express has been changed back to being local with some express “flag” never getting updated in the routing software. Or, perhaps I just got unlucky this morning.

As I transfer to the A at Jay St-Metrotech on my way home, at least I still get to ride one express train today, I think.