10 other-worldly photos that capture the surprisingly complicated process of turning New York subway cars into coral reefs

Photo by Robert Martore Courtesy of South Carolina Department of Natural ResourcesA New York City subway car turned into a coral reef.
  • Photographer Stephen Mallon captured the complicated process of turning New York City subway cars into coral reefs.
  • Mallon photographed the MTA stripping and cleaning the subway cars at a special shop.
  • His favourite part of the process was the moment each subway car hit the water and settled at the bottom of the ocean floor.
  • Today, many species of fish live inside the cars.
  • Visit INSIDER’s homepage for more stories.

For many, subway cars are a means of transportation, but for some fish, subway cars are home.

In 2001, the MTA launched a decade-long initiative to repurpose old, unused subway cars into coral reefs. The idea was that the cars would serve as intricate surface areas where ocean life could grow. At the end of the lengthy process, the agency dropped over 2,000 subway cars into the bottom of the ocean off the eastern coast of the US.

INSIDER spoke with photographer Stephen Mallon, who photographed the entire process. His photos, which are featured in an exhibit at the New York Transit Museum, show the before and after pictures of this environmental reimagining of the subway.


Though the project began in 2001, Mallon began photographing the lengthy process in 2008.

Courtesy of the New York Transit MuseumMallon calls this one ‘Abbey Road.’

He was reading The New York Times one day and stumbled across an article about the repurposing of subway cars.

“I was already working on a project about space and material repurposing in America. I felt this was a great project to include,” Mallon told INSIDER.


For the next two years, Mallon photographed every step of the coral reefing project.

Courtesy of the New York Transit MuseumMallon calls this one ‘Redbird Reefing.’

“Stephen Mallon sees these familiar subway cars and highlights the beauty of their design, the patina of their metal bodies, and the intricacies of their engineering,” Amy Hausmann, the New York Transit Museum’s senior curator and deputy director for collections and exhibition, said in a statement. “His work is abstract in many instances, and it is only when we see these stripped-down machines juxtaposed against the sweep of the Atlantic Ocean that we understand he is celebrating both their past and their future as a new home to thriving marine life.”


In the beginning, the MTA only used Redbird train cars, which operated on subway lines from 1963 to 2003.

Courtesy of the New York Transit MuseumMallon calls this one ‘Redbird Reefing.’

At one time, there were 1,400 Redbirds in operation, and they were known for their distinctive red colour. These models eventually became obsolete as more advanced cars were made. The project gave 1,269 unused Redbirds a second life.


Towards the end of the program, the MTA started using Brightliner subway cars, which are still in operation today.

Courtesy of the New York Transit MuseumMallon calls this one ‘Mind the Gap.’

The Brightliner was first introduced in 1964 and can still be seen on the A and C lines today. However, the MTA recycled 1,311 Brightliners to become coral reefs.


Mallon was able to photograph the first step of the process, which starts at the New York City Transit’s 207th Street Overhaul Shop where the cars are stripped down and prepped for coral reefing.

Courtesy of the New York Transit MuseumMallon calls this one ‘Transfer.’

The US Environmental Protection Agency set up rigorous protocols and standards for this process, which each subway car must adhere to, according to the New York Transit Museum.


Once prepped, the cars were loaded onto barges and sent to Maryland, Delaware, Virginia, and South Carolina.

Courtesy of the New York Transit MuseumMallon calls this one ‘Weeks 297.’

In all, subway cars were placed on the ocean floor near New Jersey, Delaware, Maryland, Virginia, South Carolina, and Georgia.


By 2010, the MTA placed 2,580 subway cars at the bottom of the ocean.

Courtesy of the New York Transit MuseumMallon calls this one ‘The End.’

“The violent recycling of these mass transit machines hitting the ocean sends an emotional charge that is captured in some of the images,” Mallon told INSIDER.


The project was a success, helping the MTA save $US30 million.

Photo by Robert Martore Courtesy of South Carolina Department of Natural ResourcesRedbird train turned into a reef near South Carolina.

The subway cars now act as habitats for a wide array of fish, including flounder, tuna, sea bass, and balance, according to the New York Transit Museum.


But the largest impact of the project is its positive effects on the ocean.

Photo by Robert Martore Courtesy of South Carolina Department of Natural ResourcesRedbird train turned into a reef near South Carolina.

The artificial coral reef helps fish expand the population, giving them larger habitats and a place to escape overfishing.


Once packed with New Yorkers and tourists, the subway cars are now filled with sea life.

Photo by Robert Martore Courtesy of South Carolina Department of Natural ResourcesRedbird train turned into a reef near South Carolina.

“I am grateful to have been invited to capture the moments of the next evolution of these subway cars’ existence,” said Mallon. “I do feel an emotional connection to these cars after sometimes being jammed in like a sardine so it’s good to see the fish now getting their turn.”

Business Insider Emails & Alerts

Site highlights each day to your inbox.

Follow Business Insider Australia on Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, and Instagram.