On a recent night, a sheet of ice covered the ground. The only sound was the thumping of cars passing overhead on the elevated Harlem River Drive, above the eastern edge of the yard that abuts the river.
Three men lurked in the shadows, but they were not there to do harm. Former NYPD Sgt. Robert Barrow and ex-NYPD Detectives Ike Ilklw and Jose Estrada are part of a new NYC Transit squad waiting for vandals who routinely cut holes in the fences to spray paint their tags on trains.
"This is cat and mouse," Barrow said.
More like cat and eagle.
Barrow, Ilklw and Estrada are members of the Eagle Team, an anti-graffiti surveillance squad quietly formed three months ago. Two other members of the team also were in the Harlem railyard: a former U.S. Marine and another ex-cop who had taken up posts inside a parked train.
In and around railyards all across the city, other members of the unit, almost exclusively former police detectives and sergeants, are on the prowl.
In addition to the yards, they check sections of tunnels where trains are regularly stored – and defaced.
Rows of steel subway trains, dark and silent, sit idle on parallel sets of tracks in the rail-yard tucked in a corner of Manhattan and encircled by barbed-wire fences.
Vandals engrossed in the graffiti subculture will spend hours, sometimes days, scouting a yard before striking, watching the patterns of police and transit workers and searching for vulnerabilities to exploit.
They plan in advance how they will enter, escape and flee if suddenly interrupted.
"Every 'i' is dotted, every 't' is crossed," Barrow said. "It's almost like 'Mission: Impossible' for them."
After one vandal raid, authorities found a grappling hook and rope dangling to the ground on the outside of a 20-foot-high perimeter wall.
The Eagle Team, which began operating in September, was formed to supplement the efforts of the police, said Vincent DeMarino, NYC Transit vice president of security.
It has yet to catch its first vandal, spray-paint can in hand, tagging a train, but the teams are out there every night, talking to train cleaners, dispatchers, track workers and others who could alert them to security breaches.