Home > Subway FAQ

Subway FAQ: Letter, Number, and Color Designation Systems

From nycsubway.org

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.

Contents

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)  


8   Astoria     shuttle


9   Flushing     shuttle


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


16 *1936-1956   14th St Canarsie  

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


7 *1948- Flushing loc Queensborough    
*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
  GG Brooklyn-Queens Crosstown
  HH Fulton St
S   Special

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
1976-1985     Rockaway Park  


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  


GG 1933-1937 Queens loc Crosstown    
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


I         Never used


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  


L 1985- Canarsie 14th St    


LL *1967-1985 Canarsie 14th St    


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


O         Never used


P         Never used


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


S 1932-1967       "Special" runs
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)


SS *1967-1975     Culver shuttle
*1967-1985     Franklin shuttle
*1967-1985   42d St   shuttle
*1967-1977     Bowling Green shuttle


T *1965-1967   Broadway exp West End exp  


TT *1960-1967   Broadway loc West End loc  


U         Never used


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


X         Never used


Y         Never used


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.

Color 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.

1967 Color Scheme
Route Color Route Color Route Color
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
purple 7 Flushing
yellow N R Q W Broadway
brown J M Z Nassau St
grey L 14th St
dark blue A C E 8th Avenue
orange B D F V 6th Avenue
light green G Crosstown
black S shuttles


Page Credits

Originally compiled and copyright 1994,1995,1996 by Joe Brennan.









http://www.nycsubway.org/wiki/Subway_FAQ:_Letter,_Number,_and_Color_Designation_Systems
Copyright © 1995-2012 www.nycsubway.org.
nycsubway.org is not affiliated with any transit agency or provider.