Subway FAQ: Letter, Number, and Color Designation Systems
Most people now refer to trains and even the lines the trains run on by the letters and numbers displayed prominently on the trains, on station signs, and on the official subway map. Years ago, it was more common to refer to subway lines by division-- IRT, BMT, IND-- and named route-- Lexington, Sea Beach, and so on. Use of letter codes first became popular with the IND lines that opened starting in 1932. Management began emphasizing the letters and numbers in 1967, when the BMT and IND divisions merged and caused establishment of several new routings. Many New Yorkers still use the older names in addition to the letters and numbers.
BMT Number Code
The first New York subway route code was the now-forgotten BMT code of about 1925. It was always in rather limited use, because most of the trains the BMT had never could display it-- not the steel "standards" of the subway, nor any of the elevated trains. It was not normally seen on maps or station signs either. New cars placed in service from 1927 to 1955 did show the numbers. Officially, the extended IND letter code replaced the numbers in 1960, but some trains displayed the numbers as late as 1967, as noted below.
In the number code, trains on the Broadway mainline were classified according to their Brooklyn route. Passengers also needed to notice whether the train was express or local, and whether it crossed "via bridge" or "via tunnel". Trains to Coney Island had to be distinguished by the number or by a route sign. Passengers for Queens needed to check the destination sign.
Trains on the elevated and other lines were designated simply by route and terminal for the most part.
|Code||Used||north end||main line||south end||notes
|1||*1927-1964||Astoria||Broadway exp||Brighton Beach exp|
|*1927-1949||Astoria||Broadway loc||Brighton Beach loc|
|1949-1964||Astoria||Broadway loc||Brighton Beach loc||
|2||(*1928-1949)||Queensb Plaza||Broadway loc||4th Ave loc|
|(1949-1961)||Astoria||Broadway loc||4th Ave loc|
|(1961-1964)||Queens loc||Broadway loc||4th Ave loc||
|3||(*1928-1964)||57th St.||Broadway exp||West End|
|(*1928-1931)||Chambers St||Nassau St.||West End||peak via bridge
|4||*1928-1964||57th St.||Broadway exp||Sea Beach||
|5||?||Bk. Bridge Term.||Brooklyn Bridge||5th Ave El - Culver|
|(*1931-1959)||Nassau St||Culver||peak via bridge
|6||Brooklyn Bridge||5th Ave El - Bay Ridge||
|7||*1934-1965||Franklin (- Brighton loc)||
|10||*1956-1967||Myrtle Ave El||Nassau St||
|11||Brooklyn Bridge||Myrtle Ave El||
|12||Brooklyn Bridge||Lexington Ave El||
|13||Brooklyn Bridge||Fulton St El|
|Brooklyn Bridge||Fulton St El exp||peak only|
|*1940-1956||14th St||Fulton St El||
|14||*1955-1967||Broadway El loc||Nassau St||peak only; some from Canarsie
|15||*1955-1967||Jamaica - Broadway El loc||Nassau St|
|*1955-1967||Jamaica - Broadway El exp||Nassau St||peak only
Notes:*Continues a route previously unmarked. Dates in () parentheses indicate routes rarely marked, because normally assigned cars did not display markers. Lines with no dates were never marked, but are included to show the complete numbering scheme. Marker 17 was reported someplace for 14th St--Fulton (Fulton east of East New York) but I've been told the train actually ran with 13 markers, as listed here.
IRT Number Code
The number code now in use for the former IRT lines was developed later than the letter code and was first seen on cars put in service in 1948. As a result the IRT elevated division never used the code (except for a late remnant of the Third Ave Elevated).
IRT trains had been classified by signs showing the main line, express or local, and destination, thus "7th Ave Express to 145th St". The north and south terminals of express trains were never closely correlated, but this did not matter as long as no route numbers were used. Generally, Lexington expresses ran express in Brooklyn to Atlantic or Utica Avenues, and 7th Ave expresses ran local in Brooklyn to the ends of the branches, but the routing in Brooklyn was quite flexible and some variant runs remain to this day.
When the number code came in, it designated main line and northern terminal. The same problem of favoring one side therefore exists, and riders in Brooklyn have seen changes in number codes that do not indicate any change in service, such as from 2 to 3 for the 7th Ave train from New Lots Ave to Manhattan.
The original code of 1948 is similar to what is now used, except for 8 and 9. A green 10 sign has been spotted on recent cars, but I don't know yet what it would designate. Nothing equivalent to the double letters for local was implemented, so some numbers designated both a local and express service.
|Code||Used||north end||main line||south end||notes
|1||*1956-||Broadway||7th Ave loc||South Ferry|
|1989-||Broadway||7th Ave loc||South Ferry||Skipstop pair with 9 during peak
|2||*1956-1959||Broadway||7th Ave exp||Brooklyn loc|
|*1959-1965||Dyre Ave||7th Ave exp||Brooklyn loc|
|1965-1983||White Plains Rd||7th Ave exp||New Lots Ave loc|
|1983-||White Plains Rd||7th Ave exp||Flatbush Ave loc||
|3||*1956-1959||Lenox Ave||7th Ave loc|
|1959-1965||Lenox Ave||7th Ave exp||Brooklyn loc|
|1965-1983||Lenox Ave||7th Ave exp||Flatbush Ave loc|
|1983-||Lenox Ave||7th Ave exp||New Lots Ave loc||
|4||*1962-1967||Jerome Ave||Lexington Ave exp||Brooklyn exp|
|1967-1983||Jerome Ave||Lexington Ave exp||Brooklyn (Flatbush Ave) exp|
|1983-||Jerome Ave||Lexington Ave exp||Brooklyn exp - Utica||Peak to New Lots
|5||*1962-||White Plains Rd exp||Lexington Ave||Brooklyn exp||peak only|
|*1962-1965||White Plains Rd||Lexington Ave exp||(Brooklyn exp)|
|1965-1983||Dyre Ave||Lexington Ave exp||(Brooklyn exp)|
|1983-||Dyre Ave||Lexington Ave||Brooklyn exp - Utica||Peak lcl to Flatbush
|6||*1955-||Pelham Bay loc||Lexington Ave loc||City Hall-Brooklyn Br|
|*1955-||Pelham Bay exp||Lexington Ave loc||City Hall-Brooklyn Br||peak dir exp in Bronx
|*1948-||Flushing exp||Queensborough||peak dir exp in Queens
|8||*1948-1949||Astoria||2nd Ave El|
|*1967-1973||Bronx 3d Ave El||
|9||Dyre Ave||Never seen on trains?|
|1989-5/27/2005||Broadway||7th Ave loc||peak only, skipstop pair with 1|
Notes:*Contination of a route previously unmarked. The designation "Brooklyn" here indicates trains went to various terminals.
IND/BMT Letter Code
The letter code used today for about two-thirds of the system dates from the opening of the Independent Subway and must have been planned from about 1930. The original code ran from A to H only.
The format of single letters for express, double for local, was used from the beginning until 1985. There were always some anomalies, notably the "express" E and F that were locals in Manhattan.
There is a bad flaw in this plan that has never been resolved. Most train routes run from an outer terminal through Manhattan to another outer terminal, but the letter designates a combination of the main line and only one of the outer terminals. For example, D indicates 6th Ave main line and Concourse branch, and thus the Concourse line has been consistently served by a D train since 1940. The IND plan may be said to favor the northern terminals: A B always Washington Heights, C D always Concourse, and E F always Queens. The southern terminals, by contrast, change markers in accordance with where the train's northern terminal is, something of little interest to most riders. Thus the Smith Street (Culver) line changed from D to F in 1967, signifying no difference at all in the service from Brooklyn to Manhattan. On the other hand, the letters used later for former BMT routes followed BMT practice of favoring the southern terminal for those lines. This has led to a close identification of one old IND letter, B, with the BMT West End route, shifting its meaning so that for most of the week it no longer designates Washington Heights as it once did.
Following is the original IND code used up to 1967, showing all the markers actually used. IND trains carried rollsigns for all possible single and double letters and some even differentiated "6th Ave" and "6th Ave--Houston".
|A||AA||8th Ave - Washington Heights|
|BB||6th Ave - Washington Heights|
|C||CC||8th Ave - Concourse|
|D||6th Ave - Concourse|
|E||8th Ave - Queens|
|F||6th Ave - Queens|
The code was extended in 1960 to BMT routes using letters from J to T, and until 1967, it co-existed with trains showing the BMT number code and trains showing neither number nor letter. One deviant pair of markers, QB and QT, was used instead of QQ to differentiate the two different Brighton local services via bridge and tunnel. Several other mixed-letter codes were used until 1973 to try to indicate pairings of north and south terminals, such as QJ for a train running to the Brighton Beach Q and Jamaica J branches, but this attempt at solving a problem was not applied consistently or well. The QJ for example ended up in use for a trainroute that never ran to the Brighton Beach line.
The new trainroutes starting in 1967 included several that were hard to characterize as express or local, being express in one place and local in another. For this reason, and to simplify clutter, all trains were designated with single letters beginning in 1985. The only letter change this forced was AA, first to K and then to C.
|Code||Used||north end||main line||south end||notes
|A||1932-1933||Washington Hts exp||8th Ave exp|
|1933-1936||Washington Hts exp||8th Ave exp||Smith St|
|1936-1956||Washington Hts exp||8th Ave exp||Fulton St|
|1956-1959||Washington Hts exp||8th Ave exp||Fulton St (exp) (- Far Rockaway)|
|1959-1967||Washington Hts exp||8th Ave exp||Fulton St loc (- Far Rockaway)|
|1967-1973||Washington Hts exp||8th Ave exp||Fulton St - Far Rockaway|
|1973-||Washington Hts exp||8th Ave exp||Fulton St (exp) - Far Rockaway|
|1985-||Washington Hts exp||8th Ave exp||Fulton St (exp) - Rockaway Park||peak only to Far Rockaway, local night time
|AA||1932-1985||Washington Hts loc||8th Ave loc||
|B||1967-1985||(Washington Hts loc)||6th Ave exp||West End|
|1985-1988||Washington Hts loc||6th Ave exp||34th St.||peak only during Manh Br constr|
|1985-1988||57th St.?||Broadway exp||West End||temporary during Manh Br constr|
|1988-1998||63d St||6th Ave exp||West End|
|1988-1998||(Washington Hts loc)||6th Ave exp||West End||peak only|
|1998-2001||(Concourse loc)||6th Ave exp||West End|
|2001-2004||(Concourse loc)||6th Ave exp||34th Street||Manhattan Bridge construction, split service with W on Broadway|
|2004-||(Concourse loc)||6th Ave exp||Brighton express - Brighton Beach||Switched Brooklyn routings with "D"-West End
|BB||1940-1967||Washington Hts loc||6th Ave||peak only
|C||1933-1940||Concourse (exp)||8th Ave exp|
|1985-1998||(Concourse loc)||8th Ave loc||(Fulton St loc)|
|1998-||Washington Hts loc||8th Ave loc||(Fulton St loc)||
|CC||1933-1976||Concourse loc||8th Ave loc||peak only|
|1976-1985||Concourse loc||8th Ave loc||Fulton St loc - Rockaway Park||peak only|
|D||1940-1954||Concourse (exp)||6th Ave|
|1954-1967||Concourse (exp)||6th Ave||Smith St - Culver|
|1967-1985||Concourse (exp)||6th Ave exp||Brighton Beach (exp)|
|1985-1988||Concourse (exp)||6th Ave exp||during Manh Br constr|
|1985-1988||Broadway exp||Brighton Beach (skipstop pair with Q)||during Manh Br constr|
|1988-2001||Concourse (exp)||6th Ave exp||Brighton Beach (loc)|
|2001-2004||Concourse (exp)||6th Ave exp||34th Street||Manhattan Bridge construction - split service with Q on Broadway|
|2004-||Concourse (exp)||6th Ave exp||West End||Swapped Brooklyn routings with B-Brighton
|DD||No known use, would have been a Concourse-6th Ave local service
|E||1936-1940||Queens exp||8th Ave loc||Smith St|
|1940-1949||Queens exp||8th Ave loc|
|1949-1956||Queens exp||8th Ave||(Fulton St exp - Far Rockaway)|
|1949-1956||Queens exp||8th Ave||(Fulton St exp - Rockaway Park)|
|1956-1959||Queens exp||8th Ave||(Fulton St loc - Far Rockaway)|
|1956-1959||Queens exp||8th Ave||(Fulton St loc - Rockaway Park)|
|1959-1973||Queens exp||8th Ave||(Fulton St exp - Far Rockaway)|
|1959-1973||Queens exp||8th Ave||(Fulton St exp - Rockaway Park)|
|1973-1976||Queens exp||8th Ave||(Fulton St loc - Far Rockaway)|
|1973-1976||Queens exp||8th Ave||(Fulton St loc - Rockaway Park)|
|1976-||Queens Blvd-179th St express||53rd St.-8th Ave local||Chambers/WTC|
|1988?||Queens Blvd-Archer Avenue express||53rd St.-8th Ave local||Chambers/WTC||
|EE||1967-1976||Queens loc||Broadway loc||Whitehall Street||
|F||1940-1954||Queens exp||6th Ave||Smith St|
|1954-1967||Queens exp||6th Ave|
|1967-2001||Queens Blvd-179th St Express||53rd St-6th Ave local||Coney Island via Culver|
|12/16/2001-||Queens Blvd-179th St Express||63rd Street-6th Ave local||Coney Island via Culver||
|FF||No known use; would have been a Queens-6th Ave local service
|G||1985-||Queens loc||Crosstown||Smith St||
|1937-1985||Queens loc||Crosstown||Smith St||
|H||1985-||Rockaway Park||Trains usually marked "S"
|HH||1936-1946||Fulton St||Shuttle to Court St|
|1956-1976||Rockaway Park||officially HH from 1962|
|1956-1967||Far Rockaway||officially HH from 1962
|J||1976-||Jamaica - Broadway El||Nassau St|
|1988-||Jamaica - Broadway El (exp)||Nassau St||peak only, skipstop pair with Z
|JJ||*1967-1973||Jamaica - Broadway El||Nassau St||parttime
|K||1973-1976||6th Ave loc||Broadway El|
|1985-1988||Washington Hts loc||8th Ave loc||
|KK||1968-1973||6th Ave loc||Broadway El||
|M||1964-1967||Nassau St||Culver or 4th Ave||peak only via bridge|
|*1967-1973||Myrtle Ave El (exp)||Nassau St|
|1973-1985||Myrtle Ave El (exp)||Nassau St||(Brighton Beach loc)|
|1985-2010||Myrtle Ave El (loc)||Nassau St||(West End)|
|1985-2010||Myrtle Ave El (loc)||Forest Hills||(6th Avenue)||
|MJ||*1967-1969||Myrtle Ave El||never marked on trains
|N||*1965-1967||Broadway exp||4th Ave exp/Sea Beach lcl|
|1967-1976||Astoria||Broadway exp||4th Ave exp/Sea Beach lcl|
|1976-1987||Queens loc||Broadway exp||4th Ave exp/Sea Beach lcl|
|1987-||Astoria local||Broadway local||4th Ave exp/Sea Beach local||via tunnel
|NX||1967-1968||Broadway exp||Sea Beach nonstop||to Brighton Beach sta
|Q||*1964-1967||Broadway exp||Brighton Beach exp|
|1985-1988||Broadway exp||Brighton Beach (skipstop pair with D)||via bridge|
|1988-2001||63d St||6th Ave exp||Brighton Beach loc||peak (temporarily off Broadway)|
|2001-2004||57th Street||Broadway exp||Brighton exp to Brighton Beach||Used "Diamond Q" sign; temporary during Manhattan Bridge construction|
|2001-||57th Street||Broadway exp||Brighton loc to Stillwell||Uses "Round Q" sign
|QB||*1960-1985||Broadway exp||Brighton Beach loc||via bridge
|QJ||1967-1973||Jamaica - Broadway El (exp)||Nassau St||(Brighton Beach loc)|
|1973-1976||Jamaica - Broadway El (exp)||Nassau St||
|QT||*1960-1967||Broadway loc||Brighton Beach loc||via tunnel
|R||1985-1987||Astoria||Broadway loc||4th Ave loc|
|1985-1987||Nassau St||4th Ave loc||peak only|
|1987-||Queens Blvd-Forest Hills local||Broadway local||4th Ave local||via tunnel|
|1987-1988||Nassau St||4th Ave loc||peak only; brown color
|RJ||1967-1968||Jamaica - Broadway El||Nassau St||4th Ave loc||peak only
|RR||*1961-1976||Queens loc||Broadway loc||4th Ave loc|
|1976-1985||Astoria||Broadway loc||4th Ave loc|
|1968-1985||Nassau St||4th Ave loc||peak only
|1985-||Franklin Ave||Franklin Shuttle||Prospect Park||shuttle|
|1985-||Times Square||42d St||Grand Central||shuttle|
|2001-2002||21st St-Queensbridge||6th Ave lcl||Broadway-Lafayette||Manhattan Bridge construction; shuttle (orange S)|
|2001-2004||West 4th Street||Grand Street||Manhattan Bridge construction; shuttle (grey/black S)
|T||*1965-1967||Broadway exp||West End exp||
|TT||*1960-1967||Broadway loc||West End loc||
|V||12/16/2001-June 2010||Queens Blvd-Forest Hills||53rd St-6th Ave Local||2nd Avenue||Merged with M
|W||2001-2010||57th St.||Broadway exp via bridge||4th Ave exp/West End lcl||Manhattan Bridge construction-split B service
|Z||1988-||Jamaica - Broadway El exp||Nassau St||peak only, skipstop pair with J
|JFK "Plane"||9/23/1978-4/15/1990||57th/6th (1978-1989); 21st St/Queensbridge (1989-1990)||6th Ave/8th Ave/Fulton IND||Howard Beach|
Notes: *Continuation of a route previously unmarked, or marked using the BMT number code.
Up to 1967, the subway map and signage had used the three old system names, IRT, BMT and IND, as the first-order division of the subway system.
With the merging of the BMT and IND routes in 1967, the three old system names were officially dropped, although they were still commonly used on existing signs and ordinary speech. Instead of divisions, only the route letters and numbers were used, and a multi-colored "spaghetti" map was put into use that proved difficult to comprehend because of the detail. A table of the route colors from the New York City Transit Authority Graphics Standards Manual, 1970 edition, follows, including the Pantone color matching system values.
|1||PMS 165 Orange||AA||PMS 239 Magenta||KK||PMS 300 Blue|
|2||PMS 185 Red||B||PMS Black||LL||PMS Black|
|3||PMS 312 Blue||CC||PMS 354 Green||M||PMS 312 Blue|
|4||PMS 239 Magenta||D||PMS 165 Orange||N||PMS 130 Yellow|
|5||PMS Black||E||PMS 312 Blue||QB||PMS 185 Red|
|6||PMS 130 Yellow||EE||PMS 165 Orange||QJ||PMS Black|
|7||PMS 165 Orange||F||PMS 239 Magenta||RR||PMS 354 Green|
|8||PMS 312 Blue||GG||PMS 354 Green||SS||PMS 354 Green|
|A||PMS 300 Blue||HH||PMS 185 Red|
In 1979, the current color code was introduced, grouping trains by main line. A new map was introduced, and new signage was rapidly installed using the colors as background for the number and letter circles on signs. The color code greatly simplified the map and groups the trains into logical families.
Unfortunately, the color code has yet to be used to full advantage. Lines are not referred to by color, as "the red line", nor by names corresponding to colors, as "the Seventh Ave line". Instead, signage and official announcements continue to identify lines by fussy details of train letters and numbers.
For example, an express station on the 7th Ave subway "red line" downtown is marked at the entrance with numbers 1, 2, 3 and 9 each in a red circle and would be referred to in announcements as the "1-2-3-9 line". This usage requires changes in maps and station signs for service changes entirely within one "line". For example, when the Brooklyn terminals of the 2 and 3 were swapped, if maps and station signs had used "Seventh Ave Line", no change would have been required, since all stations with "red line" service continued to have it.
|Color||Current train markers||Possible name|
|red||1 2 3 9||7th Avenue|
|green||4 5 6||Lexington|
|yellow||N R Q W||Broadway|
|brown||J M Z||Nassau St|
|dark blue||A C E||8th Avenue|
|orange||B D F V||6th Avenue|
Originally compiled and copyright 1994,1995,1996 by Joe Brennan.