A barge carrying decommissioned subway cars to be deployed into the ocean, where they would become coral reefs.
Photo: Stephen Mallon

Stunning New Photo Exhibit Documents Subway Cars Transformed into Reefs

Industrial photographer Stephen Mallon documented the initiative by the MTA to repurpose old trains into thriving artificial reefs

Photographer Stephen Mallon spent over three years documenting an incredible, though little-known, initiative: the dumping of thousands of New York City subway cars into the Atlantic Ocean. The project was taken on by the Metropolitan Transit Authority more than a decade ago, with the goal of creating artificial reefs that would support sea life along the Eastern seaboard.

The results, diligently photographed by Mallon, are nearly unbelievable. The decommissioned trains, which once carried thousands of city dwellers throughout New York, are now covered in seaweed, algae, and barnacles, with schools of fish zooming in and out. Mallon’s photographs will finally get a large-scale exhibition courtesy of the New York Transit Museum. Opening on March 20 at the museum’s Grand Central Gallery, the show features 19 large-format photographs that capture the iconic subway cars dropped like toy trains from hulking barges as they’re deployed as sea-life-sustaining artificial reefs.

Redbird Reef, made of old subway trains, off the coast of South Carolina. Photo: Photo by Robert Martore, Courtesy of South Carolina Department of Natural Resources.

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While plunging subway cars into the ocean might not seem like the greenest of efforts, it’s actually an ingenious way of creating a healthier habitat for sea life, as marine organisms attach themselves to the hard metal surfaces, resulting in an artificial reef that acts as a thriving home for varied sea life, including sea bass, tuna, mackerel, flounder, blue mussels, sponges, barnacle, and coral in what were once barren deserts. From August 2001 to April 2010, the MTA deployed close to 3,000 deaccessioned train cars into the ocean off the coasts of New Jersey, Delaware, Maryland, Virginia, South Carolina, and Georgia.

Trains being stripped before they’re dropped into the ocean. Photo: Stephen Mallon

Called “Sea Train: Subway Reef Photos,” the exhibition will chronicle the last group of stainless-steel trains that were deployed for the project, in 2008. His images follow the cars as they are cleaned and prepped, then moved onto barges in the Harlem River and deployed using GPS.

A train being dropped into the sea. Photo: Stephen Mallon

“ ‘Sea Train’ is the largest show of my career, and I am thrilled beyond words to be working with the New York Transit Museum,” Mallon said in a statement. “In organizing this exhibit, we chose an intimate selection to provide a fresh look at one of my all-time favorite projects.”

“Sea Train: Subway Reef Photos by Stephen Mallon” opens to the public on Wednesday, March 20, at the New York Transit Museum Gallery & Store at Grand Central Terminal.

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