Transportation officials in New York City first began seeing broken windows on subway cars, mostly on the 2, 3 and 7 lines, in April. On one day in mid-July, nearly 50 windows across three 7 trains were smashed. Then this week, the problem seemed to have intensified again: about 60 windows on several 7 trains were found shattered with what officials said was a “blunt instrument.”
Vandalized subway trains have in the past been associated with a period of financial hardship in New York City that was marked by increased violence and crime. Now, the spate of smashed windows has presented transit officials with a worrisome crime trend, as both the city and the Metropolitan Transportation Authority face staggering economic challenges because of the coronavirus pandemic.
The authority, which runs the city’s subway, buses and two commuter rails, has braced for possible steep cuts to staffing and service as it faces a $16 billion deficit.
Overall, the damage from the smashed windows this year has totaled about $300,000, said Patrick Warren, the chief safety and security officer of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority. That is double the amount the agency had allocated for such repairs through late August, said Tim Minton, a spokesman for the authority.
“We’re not exactly flush with cash right now,” said Mr. Warren, who is also acting chief operating officer of New York City Transit. “Every dollar matters.”
It was not clear if one person or several people were involved in the damage to the train car windows. Earlier this month, the Police Department said they were looking for a man in connection with dozens of separate incidents between May and August.
The Police Department on Sunday said it could not immediately provide an update on its investigation. Mr. Warren referred all questions about the investigation to the police.
No injuries have been reported as a result of the broken windows.
“We can’t ignore these kinds of behaviors,” Mr. Warren said. “We need to make sure that we as a city, we as a police force, we as the M.T.A. are watching out for the safety and security of everyone.”
Mr. Warren said the window smashing was not representative of the problems with graffiti the subway faced in the 1970s and ‘80s, when many correlated defaced subway cars with urban decay, and linked vandalized trains and stations with the perception that the city was unsafe.
With fewer riders as a result of the city shutdown during the pandemic, there have been fewer reported felony crimes overall and fewer reports of certain crimes, like thefts, on the subway, according to statistics compiled by the Police Department. Robberies, however, are up significantly compared with last year.
As of last week, there had been 395 robbery complaints this year, compared with 299 the same time last year, according to data from the Police Department’s transit bureau.
“We don’t have an explanation,” Mr. Minton said. “It’s not good, and the police are responsible for policing the subways, and have assured the M.T.A. that they have strategies to address it.”
Mr. Warren said the subway was still safe to ride and that the agency and the Police Department had stepped up surveillance of train cars. He did not provide specifics.
“Our riders do not deserve to be nervous about being in the system at all, so security and safety are just paramount,” he said.
The damage to the windows has also drawn the attention of transportation workers. One posted a video on Twitter on Wednesday of a 7 train with several smashed windows that was sent to him by a co-worker, saying the problem was “getting out of control.”
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A union representing transportation workers did not immediately have a comment on Sunday evening.
Even though the Metropolitan Transportation Authority declared victory over graffiti artists in 1989, transit officials still to this day find defaced trains. They also regularly encounter vandalized ticket-dispensing machines, fires in trash cans and the occasional smashed window.
But Mr. Warren said he could not recall hearing about a window-smashing spree like the one that has occurred during the pandemic.
“There is nobody that has recent memory of it that’s currently at the M.T.A.,” he said.
The damage compounds the economic crisis faced by the agency amid the pandemic as ridership on the subways hovers around a quarter of what it was last year.
Faced with the multibillion-dollar deficit, the agency is eyeing a number of cost-cutting measures that could drastically alter how the city runs its subways, including reducing service, cutting the transit work force, scrapping infrastructure improvements and taking on more debt.
The windows on the subways are made of a special type of glass that is designed to withstand most damage from natural causes, Mr. Minton said. When the agency discovers a smashed window in a car, he said, it blocks the window off from passengers until it can be replaced at a train yard.
But because of the uptick this year, the agency has used up its entire reserve stock of windows. That means that the agency is now facing the possibility of taking trains offline while it orders replacement windows.
That could lead to more people crowding into fewer trains or train cars during the pandemic, Mr. Warren said.
Danny Pearlstein, a spokesman for the Riders Alliance, a grass-roots organization of transit riders, said the smashed windows were indicative of the need for federal aid for the agency.
“The M.T.A. is in a very difficult position in many respects right now,” he said. “For one, because ridership is down, there are more opportunities for vandalism like this, and in another sense, because ridership is down, the M.T.A. has less money on hand than ever before.”