New York City's secret subway line with antique cars is back in service — here's what it's like to ride it

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  • Every year, New York City offers people a chance to ride a subway from another era in the city’s past.
  • The line, dubbed the “Holiday Nostalgia” train line, costs the same $US2.75 as a normal subway ride.
  • We took the train and documented our experience below.
  • Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.

The New York City subway system is one of the most fascinating curiosities in a city full of mysteries. Miles of underground track shrouded in darkness, littered with abandoned stations and secret passageways – it’s an object of desire for the urban explorers among us.

And, occasionally, New York City acknowledges the delightful mystery surrounding its 24-hour transportation system. The annual “Holiday Nostalgia” train line, seen above, is a perfect example of this.

The train line, consisting of eight vintage New York subway cars from several different eras, runs for a few weekends each year – from the Sunday after Thanksgiving to the end of the year, only on Sundays. It costs the same $US2.75 as any subway ride.

So what’d we do? We got on the train and took a ride, of course! This is what it’s like.

I got on at the Second Avenue stop in Manhattan — when I snapped these photos in 2016, the train ran between the Second Avenue stop in Manhattan and the Queens Plaza stop in Queens.

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In 2019, the holiday train is running on the F line uptown starting at the 2nd Av station. It makes a handful of stops at major stations along the way – like Columbus Circle and Herald Square. It stops every two hours from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.

Additionally, the line will run downtown on the D line starting at 145th Street. It stops every two hours from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m.

As you can see from 2016’s schedule, the train ran throughout the day starting at 10 a.m. and concluding at about 5 p.m. It’s similar in 2019, but there are a few changes.

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You can also pick the line up at any of the stops it makes along the way – check out the full schedule right here.

Even though we arrived at 12:30, there were already a bunch of people waiting — some were clearly tourists; others were clearly New Yorkers.

Ben Gilbert/Business InsiderYou can tell the difference between tourists and New Yorkers pretty quickly after living here for a while.

A ton of people on the train were dressed in period-appropriate clothing. Of note, these are <b>not</b> paid actors.

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The gentleman here in the white hat told me that he and his crew were going to a party afterward at Webster Hall, an event space/concert hall in Manhattan’s East Village.

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But you’re here for the train, right? So was I! It arrived about 10 minutes ahead of its 1:03 p.m. departure time — plenty of time for photos!

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There’s no running to the train given that no one’s using the vintage subway line like an actual subway line. Subways in New York don’t usually stand in a station for longer than a minute or two, but this one stops to pose for photos for at least a few minutes.

Just like any New York subway, the “Holiday Nostalgia” line rolls into the station at high speed:

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Since the vintage subway line runs during the holidays, it’s festooned with Christmas wreaths on the back and front:

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While the train was stopped, people dressed in anachronistic clothing posed for photos next to the antique train cars:

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There are some amazing details on these old train cars:

Ben Gilbert/Business InsiderLike this whistle!

And these air vents!

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OK, enough is enough: It’s time to get on this train and take a ride through history!

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Right off the bat, the level of detail is stunning. Old advertisements run through each car:

Ben Gilbert/Business InsiderThe ‘Subway Sun’ was the name of the subway’s courtesy campaign in the 1940s. There are echoes of these courtesy signs in today’s subway, care of the MTA.

Many of the advertisements on the first train car were from the 1940s, such as this advertisement for war bonds:

Ben Gilbert/Business InsiderThe ‘Mighty 7th’ war loan ad ran shortly after the Allied victory on the Western front, in May 1945. It’s modelled on the Joe Rosenthal photograph of US soldiers raising an American flag in Iwo Jima.

The cars are near-perfectly restored, from the metal “straps” to the yellow-orange seats.

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The lightbulbs have all been replaced, and the ceiling fans are all running (pushing air out of the vents along the top of the car).

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This car was built in 1932 by the American Car and Foundry company, so it’s assuredly gotten some love in the past 80 years.

Ben Gilbert/Business InsiderThis car, and the rest of the cars on the vintage train line, are usually out of service and on display at the New York Transit Museum.

In addition to restoring the lighting and ventilation systems, the MTA also restored the station ID placard. Remember how there weren’t always screens everywhere?

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A lot of the fun is in the details. I couldn’t stop gawking at every old advert, like this adorable Wrigley’s ad:

Ben Gilbert/Business Insider‘Chew it after every meal!’

And this amazingly inexpensive soap. Just five cents!

Ben Gilbert/Business InsiderWho doesn’t want to glow with health?

There’s something inherently more classy about calling it the “City of New York” instead of just New York City, isn’t there?

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Nearly 100 years later, and the New York subway is still running ads for New Yorkers (and tourists!) to visit Coney Island.

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Some of the ads are for events long passed, like this “I Am An American — Citizenship Day” — an apparently free event in Central Park.

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And yes, Citizenship Day is a real American holiday that you’ve probably never heard of (I certainly hadn’t).

It takes place on September 17 every year and serves to commemorate the signing of the US Constitution (on September 17, 1787). The holiday was originally called “I Am An American Day,” which was celebrated during the 1940s; it became “Citizenship Day” in the early 1950s. Probably not a bad idea considering America’s history as a nation of immigrants.

To the next car! The line keeps the doors between cars open, so you can freely walk through its eight cars:

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The next car was even older, from 1930, also built by American Car and Foundry.

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This is <b>not</b> a bathroom — this is for subway operators, despite looking like some sort of nightmare prison:

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This MTA worker even dressed the part:

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The sliding doors were far less safe on these early trains. If you got caught in between, it felt as if two metal doors were closing on you!

Ben Gilbert/Business InsiderYou can even see where the doors slot into the train car walls.

Despite the subway car being from the 1930s, advertisements in this car started erring toward the 1960s:

Ben Gilbert/Business InsiderThis ad would have run after President John F. Kennedy’s assassination on November 22, 1963.

This older car looked a bit worse for wear — the metal “straps” were extra worn, and the fans were worryingly close to riders’ heads:

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The seats have clearly been replaced, but they still retain the same charm of their original form:

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And our friends dressed in vintage clothing made another appearance, classic photography gear in-hand:

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Stuff like emergency brakes are notoriously low-tech:

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There were some adorably bizarre seats on this first car:

Ben Gilbert/Business InsiderI didn’t have to ask whether it was OK to take this woman’s photo because she’s married to me.

It’s pretty delightful seeing modern fashion juxtaposed with these classic subway cars:

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Next car!

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The next car was far more modern, but that’s not because it was built much more recently than the other cars:

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The “straps” were much newer, as was the lighting and the seats. This looked the closest to the modern New York subway:

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Check out these <em>futuristic</em> oscillating fans!

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And these “modern” destination placards!

Ben Gilbert/Business InsiderWho among us doesn’t have an RCA television?

The subway map looked considerably different back when this train last ran:

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These cars ran through the 1970s — some of the riders were discussing when they used to ride on these trains in New York:

Ben Gilbert/Business InsiderCheck out this fantastic seat decoration!

For the final car, another throwback to the 1930s (though the decoration on the interior is from the 1940s):

Ben Gilbert/Business InsiderRather than opening a window (as is done now), the train’s conductor had to straight-up lean out in between train cars while stopping at stations.

Look at this tiny platform he’s standing on:

Ben Gilbert/Business InsiderThis is on a moving subway car, keep in mind.

The final car looked more like a train line than the modern subway system:

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It was full of the same adorably designed seats:

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And the placards on this one even lit up:

Ben Gilbert/Business InsiderPretty fancy.

My final look into the train was perfectly representative of the bizarre mash-up of antique train cars with modern life: a woman, dressed in antique clothes, listening to music on her smartphone.

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We arrived at the Queens Plaza stop not long after boarding at Second Avenue in Manhattan. Here’s the Holiday Nostalgia antique train line as it rides away, with one of the many passengers posing for a final pic:

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The Holiday Nostalgia train line runs every Sunday from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., starting on December 1 and ending on December 29.

Rides cost the same $US2.75 that all subway rides cost, and you can take the train as many times as you’d like. But hurry up and do it sooner rather than later! It’s only running for a limited time, after all. Check out more info straight from the MTA right here.

And if you miss it, don’t worry too much – the entire subway line is normally on display at the New York Transit Museum.

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