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Catch a ride on the 'Nostalgia Train'

  • Story Highlights
  • Some 1930s-era subway cars are back in service this month in New York
  • Some feature wicker seats, overhead fans and old advertising posters
  • Rehabilitated subway cars from 1930s to 1970s go from Manhattan to Queens
  • Transit official: Old cars make riders smile, talk with each other
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By Philip Rosenbaum and Jonathan O'Beirne
CNN
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NEW YORK (CNN) -- The Great Depression is in full swing. Gangster Al Capone is sentenced to 11 years behind bars for tax evasion. Dick Tracy debuts in the comics. The George Washington Bridge opens.

Vintage subway ads for everything from bras to war bonds make for interesting reading.

The old subway cars have concrete floors, overhead fans and open windows.

The year is 1931. And New Yorkers are stepping onto the brand new R-1 model subway car, built by the American Car & Foundry factory in Berwick, Pennsylvania.

Fast-forward 77 years. New Yorkers and tourists are once again boarding these 84,000-pound, 60-foot-long behemoths constructed of riveted steel, with some featuring wicker seats, dangling emergency brake cords, incandescent light bulbs, big exposed overhead fans, and open windows.

"I really thought I was getting on the wrong train until the conductor told me it's going to 23rd [Street], exactly where I'm going,'' said Joseph Salmond, who had never seen a subway car quite this old. "It was like, what's that movie, 'Back to the Future'?" Video Watch the ride back in time »

A legendary workhorse of the transit system until the model was put out to pasture in 1977, the R-1 is temporarily back in action as part of New York City Transit's holiday "Nostalgia Train'' on Sundays in December.

The R-1 and other rehabilitated subway cars from the 1930s to the 1970s are making the rounds from Manhattan's Lower East Side to the borough of Queens along the "V" line.

Passengers love to ride on this special occasion, even though the ride is bumpier and noisier than they have grown accustomed to on today's gleaming stainless steel subways.

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  • Nostalgia Train schedule

Would New Yorkers want to ride these trains on a daily basis?

"Absolutely not,'' says Chuck Falkowitz, who remembers the R-1 from his childhood in the 1950s. He prefers today's cleaner seats, improved lighting, heating and air conditioning. "But it is fun to ride them,'' Falkowitz says. "Once a year's more than enough''

Bill Wall, a New York City Transit service supervisor working aboard the R-1 on a recent Sunday, said the train has a special effect on riders and subway employees alike.

"You come on a New York City subway, people are there, they read their papers, they're going about their business," he said. "On this train, you see people smiling and talking to one another and saying, 'Oh, God, this is a great thing,' '' said Wall, proudly calling it "transportainment."

Built like a battleship with steel body and concrete floors, the R-1 was simple and reliable. State of the art in its day, each car cost just under $40,000, according to Wall. Today's subway cars run the city about $1.5 million apiece.

In the 1930s, the R-1's ceiling fans were a major improvement over relying solely on the motion of the train and open windows to move air around.

But as time went on, people thought, ''Overhead fans that close to people's heads -- that may not be such a great idea,'' Wall said. In the 1940s, the system began switching to enclosed fans. Later, cooling and heating systems became the norm, which is why today's subway cars have lower ceilings.

The R-1s were also the first trains in New York to have four sets of doors on the sides for rapid loading and unloading, a big boost to New York City subways' ability to accommodate the growing post-World War I population.

With the R-1 in mind, Billy Strayhorn composed his 1939 classic tune, "Take the A Train."

Given its historical legacy, what's an R-1 worth now? "It's what you make it to be in terms of worth," Wall said. "Some people look at it and say it's an old train worth whatever the scrap value is. Some people will look at it and say it's an heirloom."

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"You really can't even put a price on something like this," he says. To put things into perspective: In the 1970s the R-1s were being sold to scrap dealers for less than $1,000 each.

If you think you'll get one for that price today, someone in Brooklyn has a bridge to sell you.

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