getting around

The Subway Joy Riders

Rail fans who have moved from MTA obsession to breaking and entering.

An alleged joy ride in progress. Video: Joshua Needelman

Why are we moving away?” says a voice in the video in a sharp, high pitch. “Why are we moving backwards?” someone else asks as the train screeches to life. What appears to be four teenagers, masked and jumpy, are crowded into a train operator’s booth. The one at the gears, wearing a fluorescent orange vest, is calm. “I know what I’m doing,” he says. “I know what I’m doing.”

Train-jacking is subway surfing for indoor kids. These mini joy rides, in which teens attempt to drive out-of-service trains stored underground or in yards across the city, are just as dangerous and just as illegal. But the break-ins also require a level of transit obsession and technical acuity that can read a lot like love. “A lot of us had dreams of having a career with the MTA,” says a 21-year-old from Brooklyn who asked to be identified as Masseria. He never moved trains, but says he used to break into train yards with friends and watch them do it. Why? Simple, Masseria says. They “wanted to know how the subway system worked.”

Even as videos proliferate online, the subway joy ride isn’t exactly new. In 1981, a Queens native named Darius McCollum operated a packed E train for multiple stops. He was 15. In the years since, he has been arrested at least 30 times for nonviolent, transit-related offenses. “We had all kinds of toys, like trains and monorails, and different kinds of things when he was growing up,” his mother, who says McCollum is on the autism spectrum, told the New York Times in 2008, after McCollum was again arrested for impersonating a transit worker. “And he went on to bigger and better things.”

Today’s train-jackers share exploits and trade tips on Discord servers and WhatsApp groups. Some make bogus MTA badges, but the rest of the uniform is easy enough to rip off: orange safety vest, an MTA cap, dark clothes, sturdy shoes. Some people use the chats to buy and sell train keys, which are either stolen from distracted MTA workers, snagged from inside empty train yards, or carved.

In another video of a recent joy ride, a train comes to an abrupt stop as it clunks into the car ahead of it. “Perfect,” the person filming it says, laughing. In another, black-and-white security footage shows ghostly figures in backpacks walking the length of an empty train. One of them, a 16-year-old from Queens, was arrested this January for allegedly taking it for a brief spin. The trips captured in these videos are almost always short, often less than a minute, but that doesn’t make them less dangerous.

After the incident in Queens, MTA officials vowed to beef up security. They were aware of the break-ins and joy rides, about which there are currently no hard numbers, and disturbed by the trend. “The MTA is actively working with the NYPD to implement a solution to prevent individuals from entering conductor cabs,” MTA spokesperson Kayla Shults said in a statement. In the short term, transit officials told The City, the MTA will add second locks to conductor and operator cabs or reverse existing keyholes. The agency also said it planned to have cameras installed on every subway car by next year. They’re considering installing locks with biometric codes, too, Richard Davey, president of the New York City Transit Authority, told the publication. “This is yet another stupid thing that some kids probably think is a funny prank,” he said of the break-ins.

The kids doing these break-ins wouldn’t necessarily disagree. It’s a “flex,” Caox says. “Like, ‘Oh yeah, I did this. You didn’t.’” But they also say it’s about the trains. A young man from New Jersey was arrested and charged with petit larceny and trespassing last November after allegedly breaking into a train yard. His Facebook is classic rail fan: Photos show him posing in safety goggles and a fluorescent vest. The patch on his hat reads MTA. In one shot, he sits on the back of a train car from the city’s vintage fleet, flashing a peace sign and smiling.

The Subway Joy Riders