New York's MTA Tried To Turn Subway Cars Into Reefs. It Didn't Go As Planned

The cars started to disintegrate almost immediate, which is not great

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Photo: MTA via Wikimedia Commons

When New York’s Metropolitan Transit Authority retired its old “Brightliner” subway cars, it sent over 1,000 of them off to coastal areas in Delaware, New Jersey and Georgia and dropped them to the ocean floor. It was all part of an artificial reef program. This all happened around 10 years ago. Back then, artificial reefs were made to host recreational fishing, which generated about $15 billion in state and federal taxes at that time.

The program made sense for all parties involved, according to Fast Company. The subway cars were welcomed with open arms by the scuba diving and fishing industries —and the MTA saved millions because it didn’t have to scrap the trains.


The Brighliners were supposed to last underwater for over 25 years, but there was a bit of an issue. They started to disintegrate only a few months after they were put in place. This came as a bit of a surprise to the MTA. A few years earlier, they had done a similar program with an older model of subway car, called the Redbird. Those cars are still on the ocean floor to this day.

But why did the Redbirds thrive where the Brighliners died? Well, it’s for one very good reason: Building materials. Redheads are made of carbon steel, which helps to prevent corrosion. The Brightliners, by comparison, are made of stainless steel. That may have been better for the cars on tracks but proved disastrous for their underwater survival.


Daniel Sheehy, an environmental consultant, told Fast Company the project failed for two reasons, the first being how the trains were welded. They created the opportunity for corrosion to form. The second issue was the corrugated pattern on the outside of the cars, which made it easier for undercurrent waves to “grab on to” and pull the trains apart.

Sheehy explained that there are a few things necessary for keeping an artificial reef successful. Surface area is super important because it provides more room for corals and sponges to grow. That eventually forms habitats for marine life. Weight is also paramount; the heavier something is, the less likely it is to be turned over or moved by an undercurrent.


In terms of materials, Fast Company says anything from concrete rubble to reclaimed cultivators and damaged telephone poles may be the grounds for a good reef.

So like many other of my beloved home, New York City’s, programs there may have been good intentions, but the followthrough and execution leaves a helluva lot to be desired.