Under Chinatown, there’s a stretch of mostly disused subway tunnel unlike any other in NYC. It is relatively poorly documented, not appearing on any publicly available subways maps.
1966 ‘pre-Chrystie’ subway service map showing ‘part time’ service to Chambers street off of the Manhattan Bridge
This tunnel was ‘abandoned’ in 1968, with the opening of the Chrystie Street Connection. The Chrystie connection allowed the new 6th avenue express service (currently operating as the B and D trains) to run over the north side of Manhattan Bridge out into Brooklyn. Prior to this, the north side tracks were connected the Broadway express tracks, and the tracks on the south side of the bridge went downtown to Chambers and Broad streets, ultimately returning to Brooklyn via the Montague tunnel (present day R train – the connection to this tunnel is currently unused, last seeing regular service for the M train before it was rerouted north in 2010). Part of the Chyrstie project also entailed connecting the tracks on the south side of the bridge to the Broadway line via a new underground connection.
Here is a look at track maps of this area, before and after the opening of the Chrystie street connection:
Each line represents a track – as you can see, the 2 tracks from the north side of Manhattan Bridge used to connected to the present day N/Q Canal street station. (Map courtesy nycsubway.org)
As you can see in this modified track map, after the connection was opened, the tracks were re-aligned. The tracks from the north side of Manhattan bridge became the present day B and D tracks north towards Grand Street, while the southern bridge tracks were connected to the N & Q Canal street station. The tracks running west, then south to Chambers street became ‘tail’ storage tracks, while the tunnel in between the N/Q and B/D became the trackless ‘dust tunnel’.
The naming of these tunnels is both obvious and obscure. The tail tracks obviously refer to the two storage tracks connected to chambers street, forming a tail-like dead end. Railroads often refer to such long dead end tracks as ‘tail tracks’ as well. The ‘dust’ tunnel segment’s name is a bit shrouded in mystery. It seems to be rooted in old MTA worker or graffiti artist slang. It lives up to it’s name, as the floor is covered in old ballast rock for keeping tracks in place. This rock also traps steel dust blowing in from the other nearby tunnels. Thus, it’s a pretty dusty, dirty tunnel.
Finding both without trespassing:
If you’re taking the J or Z train towards Brooklyn from Chambers street, you’ll notice the train crosses a few switches and takes a ‘middle’ track on the west side of the tunnel. The two tracks to the right of it are the tail tracks. Just south of Canal street, these tracks take a sharp curve east towards Manhattan Bridge. On the N/Q, look very closely as the train travels through the tunnel – roughly halfway between the station and the bridge there is a short curve in the track. On the right side you’ll two two trackways (tunnels without tracks) merge in.
There are also two locations where you can see ‘the dust tunnel’: On Manhattan bound B and D trains – you’ll notice a wide opening into darkness off to the left of the train as you enter the tunnel from the bridge. On Brooklyn bound trains, you’ll see this huge save even clearer, off to the right side of the train just before the bridge. On Manhattan bound N and Q trains, you’ll again see two trackways merge in from the right before you get to Canal street. You’ll know you’re at the right spot as the train curves and there is a plethora of graffiti outside.
Wandering this tunnel on foot is obviously ‘illegal’ and always dangerous. To view the full length of tunnel – tail tracks and dust tunnel, requires crossing the busy N/Q tracks. There’s plenty of space between the tracks, making this crossing a little less dangerous, though you would also easily be seen by passing trains. These days, being spotted and causing a service disruption might get to strangled by angry straphangers already dealing with bad service every day. Much simpler to just check out the photos below…
The Dust Tunnel
We begin at the North/East end of the tunnel, at Manhattan Bridge, on the edge of the Dust tunnel.
Here we see a D train heading Bronx bound. The Manhattan Bridge is directly ahead, while ‘dust tunnel’ is behind me in this photo.
At the junction where the N & Q trains bifurcate the old tunnel, a utility bunker has been built on the former Chambers street bound trackway.
This mysterious, tiny door is found on the side of the bunker. Unfortunately we didn’t get to open it and see if it leads to Malkovich’s brain.
An old work table is set up on the Brooklyn bound trackway.
N and Q trains zip through here constantly.
The Tail Tracks
Opposite the N & Q tracks, the ‘tail tracks’ begin.
Looking towards Chambers street
The view, facing the N/Q tracks, is much the same as you’d see from the opposite side near the bunker.
The tunnel takes a sharp curve south, where the tracks run parallel to the present day J line. Here we see a Brooklyn Bound J train pulling into the Canal Street station.
Further down the track there is a utility room on the west wall, and eventually the set of switches North of Chambers street.
Chambers street, of course is home to some disused platforms and today seems like a massively overbuilt station. Pre-Chyrstie street connection, the station served additional routes and was significantly more important than it is today.
in conclusion, this set of tunnels is fairly unique to the NYC subway system. Nowhere else was an existing, in service tunnel cut in half for a major service re-alignment. Likewise, the dust tunnel represents one of very few subway tunnels that are devoid of track – an honor currently shared by the Winfield Spur, the Suicide tunnel and 1970s Harlem and Chinatown sections of the second avenue subway.