Flight of the Redbirds: Transit Museum celebrates the iconic subway car

“Reign of the Redbirds” celebrates 60 years of the iconic red subway cars, which traveled on New York City rails until 2003. (Photo by Jessica Parks)
There were nine different models of subway car known as Redbirds, all which experience with a new idea for the subway system. (Photo by Jessica Parks)

It’s a trip through time!

The iconic crimson subway cars that once dominated the subway system first launched 60 years ago, and the New York City Transit Museum is celebrating the anniversary with a new exhibit. “Reign of the Redbirds” takes visitors on a trip through the almost half-century during which the beloved red-painted subway cars were synonymous with New York City, according to the museum’s associate curator. 

“People have a very strong affection for the Redbirds,” said Jodi Shapiro. “To have something like this in your life for 40 or so years, they are sort of like an old friend.” 

“Redbirds” is the nickname for nine different models of subway car that were easily identified by their bright red paint. The boxy trains were first introduced in 1959, shortly after New York City’s three rail companies unified under the New York City Transit Authority. 

The fleet of 2,000 cars thundered along the subway tunnels prosperous years and times of fiscal crisis, until they were decommissioned in 2003. Shapiro likened the trains to a longtime resident of the Big Apple.  

“They have kind of seen it all,” she said. “They are sort of a surrogate for a person who has lived in New York… all that time.” 

One surprising fact about the Redbirds: they were not always red! When the fleet launched, the trains were painted blue, and they were — unsurprisingly — known as Bluebirds. The blue subway cars ferried riders to Flushing Meadows-Corona Park for the 1964 World’s Fair in Queens, and became well known because of that event. 

“There are a lot of photos in this show about people using the bluebirds to get to the World’s Fair and just showing how they became a big part of the culture back then,” Shapiro said. “All the wayfindings said ‘Follow the blue arrow to the World’s Fair,’ so it made it easy for people who had never been to Queens before to find their way.” 

In 1984, the entire fleet was painted red, and the Redbird name was retroactively applied to the train models. Redbirds were eventually phased out in the late ’90s by the New Technology Trains, the first to feature pre-recorded voices announcing subway stops. Redbirds finally stopped riding the rails 2003, but they have not entirely vanished, said Shapiro. Several are preserved at museums, while others were hauled into the ocean and scattered along the Eastern seaboard, to serve as makeshift coral reefs

“Fish really dig the Redbird reefs,” Shapiro said. “Other types of the subway cars that were reefed did not last as long as the Redbirds.” 

The exhibit features photographs of the trains throughout the decades – including the graffiti-covered 1970s, the refurbishment of the 1980s, and their new home under the sea. The museum also has several preserved Redbirds that visitors can step aboard while learning about the cars’ lengthy history. 

“So many people love the Redbirds, but some people may not know what they were before they became Redbirds, what happened to them after their useful service life, and some people may not know how long they were around,” Shapiro said. “It’s a good story about the resiliency of our subway system.” 

“The Reign of the Redbirds” at New York Transit Museum in Downtown Brooklyn [99 Schermerhorn St. at Boerum Place Downtown, www.nytransitmuseum.org, (718) 694–1600]. Open Tue–Fri, 10 am–4 pm; Sat-Sun, 11 am–5 pm through Sept. 13, 2020. $10.