The bustling underground train system that is the lifeblood of New York City goes by many names to locals and tourists alike. With hundreds of miles of tracks and 472 stations, the New York City subway transports over 5 million passengers each weekday across the five boroughs.

If you’re short on time, here’s a quick answer to your question: New Yorkers commonly refer to the subway using slang terms like ‘the train’ or ‘the metro’, but its official name is the New York City Subway.

In this comprehensive guide, we’ll explore the history behind the New York City subway system, its many nicknames used by locals, how subways are referenced in pop culture, and the experience of riding the rails as a quintessential part of New York culture.

The Birth of the New York Subway System

The New York subway system, known to locals simply as “the subway,” is a vital part of the city’s infrastructure. It is one of the oldest and largest public transportation systems in the world, with millions of people relying on it every day to get around the city.

The history of the New York subway system dates back to the late 19th century when the first underground railways were constructed.

The Beginning of the Interborough Rapid Transit Company

In 1900, the Interborough Rapid Transit Company (IRT) was formed to build and operate the city’s first subway line. The groundbreaking for the subway took place on March 24, 1900, and the first section of the line, known as the “IRT Lexington Avenue Line,” opened to the public on October 27, 1904.

This line ran from City Hall in Manhattan to 145th Street in Harlem.

The construction of the subway system was a massive engineering feat. Workers had to dig deep underground and navigate the complex network of utilities and tunnels already present beneath the city streets.

The subway tunnels were constructed using a method known as “cut and cover,” where a trench was dug, the tunnel was built, and then the street was restored on top. This method allowed for the rapid construction of the subway system.

Unifying Competing Underground Railways

Prior to the construction of the subway, New York City had a number of competing underground railway systems, known as “els” or “elevated railways.” These systems were elevated above the city streets and operated on tracks supported by steel structures.

The construction of the subway system aimed to unify these competing railways and provide a more efficient and convenient mode of transportation for New Yorkers.

One of the major challenges faced during the unification process was the integration of the different railway systems. The IRT, which operated the first subway line, had to negotiate with the owners of the elevated railways to ensure a smooth transition.

Eventually, the elevated railways were phased out, and their tracks were incorporated into the subway system.

Expansion and Growth Throughout the 1900s

Following the success of the initial subway line, the New York City subway system continued to expand throughout the 1900s. The construction of new lines and extensions was driven by the growing population and the need for improved transportation options.

The subway system became a symbol of progress and modernity for the city, and its expansion was met with enthusiasm from New Yorkers.

By the mid-20th century, the subway system had become an integral part of New York City’s identity. It played a vital role in shaping the development of the city, allowing for the growth of new neighborhoods and the movement of people across the boroughs.

Today, the New York City subway system continues to evolve and adapt to the needs of its riders, remaining an essential mode of transportation for millions of people.

Beyond ‘the Subway’: What New Yorkers Actually Call It

When it comes to New York City’s iconic transportation system, commonly referred to as “the subway,” New Yorkers have their own unique names for it. While visitors may be familiar with the term “subway,” locals have developed a variety of colloquialisms to describe their daily means of getting around the city.

Here are some of the most commonly used terms:

The Train

In the hustle and bustle of New York City, it’s not uncommon to hear someone say, “I’m taking the train.” This phrase is often used interchangeably with “the subway” and is a popular way for New Yorkers to refer to their daily mode of transportation.

Whether they’re heading uptown or downtown, New Yorkers know that “the train” will get them where they need to go.

The Metro

Another term frequently heard in the Big Apple is “the metro.” This term is derived from the full name of the system, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA). New Yorkers may say things like, “I’ll meet you at the metro station” or “I’m hopping on the metro.”

It’s a shorthand way of referring to the subway system while incorporating the official name.

Going Underground

For some New Yorkers, “going underground” is their preferred way of talking about using the subway. This phrase emphasizes the fact that the subway is located below street level and requires descending into the underground tunnels to catch a train.

It’s a descriptive phrase that captures the unique aspect of traveling through the city’s subway system.

It’s important to note that while these terms are commonly used by New Yorkers, they are not exclusive to the city. Similar phrases can be found in other urban areas with subway systems. So, the next time you find yourself in New York City, don’t be surprised if you hear locals referring to “the train,” “the metro,” or even “going underground” when talking about their beloved subway system.

The Subway in Movies, TV, and Music

Classic Films Like The Warriors and Spiderman

The New York City subway system has been featured in numerous movies, adding to its iconic status. One such classic film is “The Warriors,” released in 1979. This cult favorite follows a gang as they navigate through different subway lines to make their way back to their home turf.

The movie showcases the gritty atmosphere and unique characters that can be found underground.

Another notable film that prominently features the subway is “Spiderman” (2002). In one memorable scene, Spiderman battles the Green Goblin on top of a moving subway train, showcasing the fast-paced and dynamic nature of New York City’s transportation system.

These films not only highlight the subway as a setting but also capture the energy and diversity of the city itself.

Seinfeld and Other Sitcoms

The subway has also made its way into popular sitcoms, providing comedic moments and unique storylines. One such example is the hit show “Seinfeld.” In an episode titled “The Subway,” the main characters find themselves stuck underground, dealing with various mishaps and humorous encounters with fellow passengers.

This episode, like many others, demonstrates the relatable and sometimes absurd situations that can arise during a subway ride in New York City. It serves as a reminder that the subway is not just a means of transportation, but also a source of entertainment and unexpected experiences.

Subway References in Music

The New York City subway has been a muse for many musicians, inspiring songs across different genres. From hip-hop to rock, artists have incorporated subway references into their lyrics to capture the essence of the city.

One notable example is Billy Joel’s song “New York State of Mind,” where he sings about riding the subway and being a part of the bustling city life. Jay-Z’s “Empire State of Mind” also mentions the subway, emphasizing its role as a symbol of New York City.

These songs, along with many others, showcase the subway as an integral part of the city’s identity and serve as a reminder of its cultural significance.

Riding the Rails as a New York Rite of Passage

For New Yorkers, the subway is not just a mode of transportation; it’s a way of life. With its extensive network of lines and stations, the subway is the backbone of the city’s public transportation system. But what do New Yorkers actually call the subway?

Well, it turns out they have a few different names for it, depending on who you ask.

Observing the Quirky Etiquette

One of the first things you’ll notice when riding the New York City subway is the unique etiquette that passengers adhere to. From giving up your seat for someone in need to standing clear of the closing doors, there are unwritten rules that every New Yorker knows.

It’s a fascinating sight to see the unspoken language of the subway in action, as people navigate the crowded platforms and packed trains with ease.

People Watching

The subway is a prime spot for people watching, as it provides a glimpse into the diverse tapestry of New York City. From businessmen in suits to artists with paint-stained hands, you’ll encounter people from all walks of life on the subway.

It’s a great opportunity to observe the city’s unique blend of cultures and personalities, and perhaps strike up a conversation with a fellow passenger who could become a lifelong friend.

Finding Hidden Gems

While the subway is primarily a means of getting from point A to point B, it also serves as a gateway to some of the city’s hidden gems. Whether it’s a hole-in-the-wall restaurant in Chinatown or a trendy boutique in Brooklyn, the subway can take you to places that you might not have discovered otherwise.

So next time you ride the rails, keep your eyes open for those hidden gems that make New York City so special.

Dealing with Delays

Of course, no discussion about the New York City subway would be complete without mentioning the dreaded delays. While the subway system is generally reliable, there are times when unforeseen circumstances can cause disruptions in service.

Whether it’s a signal problem or a sick passenger, delays can be frustrating. However, New Yorkers have developed a certain resilience when it comes to dealing with these setbacks. They know that delays are just a part of life in the city and they find ways to make the best of it, whether it’s catching up on their reading or striking up a conversation with a fellow stranded passenger.


The New York subway system has woven itself into the fabric of the city. While officially called the New York City Subway, locals have coined their own terms of endearment for the trains that connect the five boroughs.

Beyond transportation, the subway is part of NY culture. Generations of stories, experiences, and references in movies, TV, music, and art have celebrated this icon of New York life. For many, navigating the underground rail is a rite of passage of the NYC experience.

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