It was opening day at Yankee Stadium that spring afternoon when the MTA ran vintage train cars from the mid-1900s that roared into the South Bronx not just with fans of the Bronx Bombers, but also a group of middle and high schoolers from the neighborhood who cut class to follow the cars from Grand Central to 161st Street.
“Every kid here is skipping school to be here right now. This is like history,” said one of the teens.
Once the trains rolled off and fans packed in to watch the Yankees beat the Red Sox, the group of kids carefully donned masks, pulled their hoodies up and prepared to explore the city.
They climbed on top of trains and “surfed” them, walking up and down the length of the subway car while it’s in motion. They plunged into abandoned train stations and left graffiti in their wake.
They are part of a growing trend of teenagers subway surfing and posting the videos to social media, particularly TikTok.
Since 2020, the MTA has logged a disturbing 440% spike in reported subway surfing incidents. In the first seven months of this year there were 627 incidents, compared to 116 in 2020.
“Riding on top of a subway car is reckless, extremely dangerous and inconsiderate as it causes significant delays for other New Yorkers,” said Pat Warren, MTA Chief Safety and Security Officer. “Seeking a thrill that promises heartache for family and friends is foolhardy. Choose other avenues to have some fun, ones that demonstrate respect for those you care about.”
Product of pandemic
For this particular group, one of the first to start posting the videos to social media, their curiosity piqued in the late winter and spring of 2020 — when the COVID-19 pandemic forced the city to close parks and move schools to remote instruction.
They watched old YouTube videos of “urban explorers” standing on top of trains and decided to try it out themselves.
Videos surfaced of their feet hanging off zipping 4 trains or vaping electronic cigarettes on top of barreling number 7’s in the rain. They exchanged comments on TikTok and Instagram with their friends. The response was immediate.
“We were going viral. We’d post it, start to get 10,000 views, maybe more, then (the video) would get shut down.” said A-Dot, a 15-year-old member of the group who declined to give his real name out of fear of getting arrested. “Other kids wanted to be like us.”
What started as one group’s truant adventures, quickly turned into a city-wide trend. The practice became so popular that teenagers regularly got hurt.
In August, a 15-year-old’s arm was severed after he fell off an R train passing through the 74th Street-Roosevelt Avenue station in Queens. Another teenager bloodied his head in June after slamming into an overpass on a 7 train in North Corona.
TikTok did not directly respond to comment but a source contracted by the company said the videos violated Tik Tok community guidelines. They added that TikTok does not show videos of known dangerous behaviors in search results.
But a quick search on the platform by amNewYork Metro found a dozen videos related to subway surfing, including one with over 17,000 views.
The source couldn’t mention how many videos had been uploaded over the year, only that there were less than 10 videos per day over the past two weeks on the subject.
“It’s the result of kids not having to go to school or do anything for two years,” said Jim, a city employee who mentors the group of kids at a community center in the South Bronx.
The employee did not give his full name because the city would not let him speak freely about the kids, who he has known for a few years. He chalked up their devilish behavior to a lack of activities outside the classroom.
“What the city needs to do is provide outlets for people, these kids have nothing,’ said Jim. “New York is the finance capital of the country, finance capital of the Earth. And what do you have for kids to do? A bunch of rundown old s–t from 1973.”
Crime went up in the neighborhood and Jim was grateful the kids were not responding to their environment with violence or by joining gangs.
“They shouldn’t be riding on top of the trains, but it’s not like they got a whole bunch else,” he said. “I see a lot of bad kids coming in, it is saying something that they aren’t out there actually hurting people, doing real grimy kid stuff. There are some real badass kids out there.”
“It’s a fine line,” he added.
Perilous way to break the rut
Growing up inside the Bronx’s 44th Precinct — which has one of the highest crime rates in the city — the teens said riding on trains was an outlet from their bleak day-to-day.
“I got a lot of friends that are joining gangs right now. I don’t want to do that because everybody is dying young in New York, in the Bronx,” said A-Dot. “People dropout of school and are like, ‘oh, I regret dropping out of school.’ We aren’t like that. We go to school and are trying to go to college.”
One member of the group, Sans, 17, is applying to undergraduate programs in computer science. He says he has a good shot at getting into an ivy league school. “I do this to get out, have fun, and see the city,” he said. “I still want to get my diploma.”
Since the trend took hold of New York, the teenagers from the Bronx largely stopped surfing trains, though they still spend the most of their time exploring the city.
“We never thought it’d get like this,” said A-Dot. “We honestly haven’t surfed in weeks, it’s not that fun anymore now that everyone is doing it.”
In a recent social media post, A-Dot told other teenagers to stop subway surfing or risk getting seriously injured.
“Kids who urban explore, it’s usually born out of trauma,” said Gregory Berg, a professional photographer who got his start by photographing graffiti artists and skyscrapers in the tri-state area. “I just always liked climbing around and obviously, the troubled past that I had, it was an escape, it was a bliss. That manifested itself into quite a life.”
In 2014, Berg quit his job and began selling the images he made while exploring abandoned parts of New York or the tops of skyscrapers.
His first professional sale was an image of the original City Hall station, which is now defunct. The photo shows light bouncing off the intricate mosaic tiles laid in 1904.
“I don’t think they’re necessarily doing it to get a following on TikTok,” said Berg, referring to the teenagers from the South Bronx. “People have been going down there for quite some time. It’s like an honor. Because think of it, 5 million riders everyday and everybody is on the train. You’re seeing something that a lot of people don’t get to see.”
“For some reason these kids haven’t resonated with whatever services the city of New York provided them,” he added.
Feeding a desire
Many members of the group said their love for trains made them want to work for the MTA.
“After all we’ve done in the train system,” said Chronixz, 15. “We would remember that everyday.”
“I want to be the man that drives the trains,” said A-Dot. “I look at the conductor and I’m like, that looks like fun, waking up everyday and driving trains.”
Jim warns the kids of being harebrained.
“It’s like if you take your fascination and turn it into something cool, good for you, you did something, the MTA is a good job with good money and a pension.” he said. “But if you get killed on MTA trains you don’t get none of that.”
An MTA source encouraged the kids to join the MTA internship program. A look at the MTA jobs site shows multiple internships for college students but none for high school students.
The webpage says high schools that received Supplemental Internship Funding (SIF) can create internship programs for students by reaching out to the MTA directly.
“Make a program for kids who like trains and who want to work for the MTA. And every Saturday you go for a ride along with the conductor or you learn about the different cars and tunnels,” said Jim. “If you paid these kids $100 a month to intern, they’d go crazy versus what it’s like now.”
“You’ve got to come up with creative solutions,” he added. “It’s cool the city can support businesses for a tech bro to get off of work and throw hatchets. But what do you have for these kids?”
In July and after a hiatus from surfing, A-Dot made a rare trip to meet with a friend and surf over the Williamsburg Bridge. The friend was timid, barely sticking his head over the roof of the train. He hadn’t surfed before.
“I saw it online, kids doing it in the city and thought it looked cool,” he said. “I wanted to try it out.”
Editor’s note: Absolutely no one should be riding atop of, or in between train cars, due to the high risk of serious injury or death. This story aims not to glorify, but rather to expose the dangerous phenomenon of subway surfing, in the hope that all who read it will understand the horrific danger to themselves or their loved ones. We also hope parents and community leaders communicate with their children the importance of avoiding subway surfing, and perhaps offer greater outreach to programs that provide safer ways to explore and enjoy the city’s subway system.