Train Etiquette

3 Apr

It’s interesting to speculate how manners and social norms come into being. The English, like every other culture, have these in abundance. But I think I’ve discovered a different culture within our culture where the etiquette is different.

Train users.

In this fair country of ours, we love to queue. It is expected that you will queue, and even that you will form the most efficient queue possible. So, for example, when there are three cashiers’ desks, we will instinctively form one queue serving all three, for the sake of greater fairness and efficiency. When there is a sheep gate to be negotiated and a queue of people on both sides, we will take it in turns to pass through, one from each side at a time, in turn. (I actually saw this being done in Oxford one summer and was amazed.)

But, when you want to get on a train, it is, for some reason, every man for himself. You are allowed to form multiple queues to get through the same door. You are allowed to push in.

However, despite this apparent freeforall, there is one unwritten rule of train etiquette that you must not breach – you must let people off before you try to get on. People who don’t do this attract looks of disgust, angry muttering, and sometimes outright confrontation. These people are clearly either selfish egotists, or rookie train travellers.

Poor rookie train travellers. Commuters start to assume that everyone understands their culture, and can be really quite aggressive about upholding Train Etiquette. So if you’re a train rookie, let me try to explain some of the other sacred rules…

1) Aisle Walkers. Don’t get on the train and walk all the way through three carriages looking for a seat. Now, I myself sometimes do this, but it is greatly frowned upon by the commuting masses. I know why you do it – you are afraid that the train is going to leave without you so you leap on through the nearest door, and then have to walk the length of the the train to get to where you actually want to sit. But the train is in fact very unlikely to leave without you if somebody has seen you running down the platform. Chill out.

Especially do not to this if you are carring a large bag, cello or massive cardboard box. Nobody wants to be smacked in the head as you squeeze your way along the aisle.

2) Aisle Salmon. In the Metro this week I read somebody complaining about ‘aisle walkers’ becoming ‘aisle salmon’ – ie, when they turn around and try to go against the flow. Oh, this happens all too often. Look, if there are twenty other people standing in the aisle who have just come through the carriage behind and failed to find a spare seat, there is absolutely no point in you trying to push past all of them, smacking your bag into their groin and causing them to stick their bum into the face of the people seated around them, just so that you can go and have a look for a seat down there. How would you find a seat if nobody else has, Ms Aisle Salmon? Do you have magical seat-producing powers? No. So for goodness’ sake, give it up and stay still and save us all injury. I usually tell aisle salmon that there is nowhere to go, but they usually ignore me and struggle on regardless. Baffling.

3) The Quiet Carriage. Rookie train travellers often mistakenly think that the rules of the quiet carriage are to be upheld religiously. But most people are sitting in the quiet carriage not because they want to be quiet, but because there was nowhere else to sit. So don’t tell someone off for using their phone in there. Not cool.

4) Getting up early. This is the one that really cheeses me off. When the train arrives at your station, it will wait there for quite some time. There will be a man who checks when everybody has got off and on. Only then will he blow the whistle to let the train depart again. The doors do not automatically close after ten seconds. So, you are not going to miss your stop.

Therefore, train travellers, please stop getting up ten minutes before you reach your stop. This is just not necessary. In particular, please stop forcing me to get up and let you out of your seat ten minutes before your stop just so that you can stand in the aisle for ten minutes. Even when I say, ‘I’m getting off there too – we’re not there yet,’ this generally falls on deaf ears. They want to get up anyway. Do they think that I am going to miss the stop?

Please be assured that you do not need to get up until the train has actually stopped at the station. I don’t, and I have never been locked on a train. Why oh why do you want to stand up for longer than is necessary? Please stop it. Thank you.

5) Newspapers. It’s nice to share your newspaper. When you have finished with it, leave it on the train for the next person to read. This is mostly how I get to read the Metro in the morning, but I consider it a good day if I find an abandoned Times. It’s especially fun if there’s a half-done crossword for you to finish off. Thank you, those people, you cheer up my mornings.

6) Bags. All train users would rather be left alone. On a non-crowded train this is achieved by leaving your bag on the seat next to you – we all understand this and it’s generally tolerated. But on a crowded train where people are standing up, this is scandalously rude. Be warned – if you do this, you are likely to get a very self-righteous commuter asking you acidly, ‘Is anyone sitting there?’ and giving you the glaring of your life. Or, and this does actually happen, someone angrily sitting down on your bag to make a point.

7) Didcot Parkway. It’s easy to spot a train rookie on lines that pass through Didcot Parkway. Anyone who gets up or tries to sip their drink at this point is obviously unfamiliar with the dreadful points system here which makes this minute of the trip feel a bit like riding a horse. Result – train rookies have sprained ankles or coffee spilt all down their shirts. Commuters are still sitting smugly with the lid on their drink.

8) Tickets. Find your ticket as you are getting off the train or going down the escalator and have it ready in your right hand, in the correct orientation, as you approach the ticket gates. In the morning rush, nobody likes the person who stops right in front of them to empty out their handbag, causing a six-commuter pile-up. That’s bad form.

9) And finally… You may try to make yourself believe that you are all alone on the train, but you aren’t, and there are some things that everybody will judge you for doing. These include: Raucous phone calls, varnishing your fingernails, varnishing your toenails, doing your makeup, eating something disgusting. On the other hand, some things will amuse and provide great anecdotes later. At Christmas I sat on the train next to a boy of about sixteen who was doing some knitting. The thought of it still makes me smile.

Here ends your cross-cultural orientation. Go forth and use the railways.

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9 Responses to “Train Etiquette”

  1. Colin 03/04/2011 at 7:45 pm #

    5) I am glad. I have frequently left some or all of my Times behind, never quite sure how people will respond (I once saw a sign on a bus telling people not to leave their Metro behind, as it was litter. I can understand that from a journalistic standpoint).
    Of course, when it’s the Appointments section of the Sunday Times, which surely no one reads, I’m probablly better off binning it.

  2. Simon T 03/04/2011 at 10:35 pm #

    We’re obviously on opposite sides of this commuter/non-commuter (totally not rookie) divide – but I don’t care whether or not people *wanted* to be in the quiet carriage; the fact is that they are, so they should get off their phone. Some people are in there because they did want to be there – don’t ruin the trip for them. Saying “Can you hear me? Can you hear me? Hi – hi, hello – can you hear me?” only makes me want to kill you. Your oh-aren’t-I-impressive impromptu business phone-call can also wait til the journey is over, thanks. If you were that impressive you’d be in first class.

    Oh, and I totally get up before my stop. I know there’s no need, but… it makes me happier, and doesn’t make anyone else less happy, so I’m gonna keep doing it.

    With you on aisle salmon though. Maybe they’re hoping you’ll offer them your seat?

    • Colin 03/04/2011 at 11:09 pm #

      It’s true, Simon does get up ridiculously early, despite my protestations (when I’m there…). But I agree with him about the quiet zone – it is what it is, and if you want to talk on your phone you can stand outside the toilet with the mugs. Although I must admit I tend to ignore the ‘no headphones’ rule, because it’s silly.

  3. Simon T 03/04/2011 at 10:36 pm #

    (Btw, ‘you’ here is mostly the general ‘you’, rather than specific ‘you’… I don’t know why I changed from ‘they’ halfway through…)

  4. Simon T 03/04/2011 at 10:38 pm #

    p.s. I’m guessing you *have* been told to get off your phone in a quiet carriage, and this is your belated, distant revenge? ;) I’m afraid I do always silently cheer on the tellers-off… or, even more so, the amazing old lady who just said pointedly to her friend “I thought this was the quiet carriage”, at which point teenage girl in front of them said incredibly audibly “Someone behind me is saying it’s the quiet carriage, huh, so, I guess, like, I’d better get off the phone.” THAT’S the British way of communicating with strangers. I like.

  5. thepygmygiant 03/04/2011 at 11:02 pm #

    Getting up before your stop DOES make me less happy if you are sitting in the window seat next to me and force me to get up so that you can UNECESSARILY get out! Especially when I am getting off at the same stop. Grrrrrrrrr.

    PS no I haven’t been told off in the quiet carriage. I just think it’s a weird idea that the railway companies had and foisted on the general public without them asking for it. Practically speaking, you can hardly ever control where you end up sitting. But when I’ve been there, I have still gone into the vestibule to use my phone, if that cheers you up.

  6. Susan in TX 04/04/2011 at 6:08 pm #

    I may have to save this for future travel reference. Last spring we had such a “horrifying” incident on the DC Metro (2 children nearly getting left on the train because of the automatically closing doors and me wedging myself in said doors to force them open, all the time screaming like a banshee — yes, go ahead and laugh – I can laugh about it now because it was about a year ago and my blood pressure has finally returned to normal :) – And, yes, let’s go ahead and throw in the stress of all the people I’m sure that we ticked off in our Friday morning rush hour commuting ignorance :) ). Okay, that parenthetical comment got out of hand, so I’m going to start the sentence over. Mommy (me) was so scarred by that experience that when we got to NYC, I said NO WAY are we getting on a subway! NO WAY! By the time we got to Boston, I was calm enough again to ride their Metro.
    It sounds like to me that despite the “mob entrance,” y’all may have at least a civilized amount of time to embark and debark the train. But, I have to admit it would take a lot of self-control for me to not point out to loud people that they were on the quiet car. ;) I’m right there with you on the people hopping up early, though. (Shame on Simon.)
    Thank you for the entertaining (and informative) post.
    Lest I sound like a total country bumpkin, I did grow up in a huge metropolis, we just didn’t have public transportation other than buses, which I never had a reason to use. Thank you, Lord, for my Suburban! :)

    • thepygmygiant 04/04/2011 at 8:51 pm #

      To be fair, on the London Underground the doors do close automatically, so you’re justified in hurrying, scrabbling and barging on that. Ugh, that’s a whole other horrific experience!

  7. Sarah B/D 05/04/2011 at 11:13 am #

    Mel, I’m sorry, but I love the quiet carriage! I go there every time if there’s a seat so I can read my book in peace without annoying business men who want everybody to hear their business(so we all know how very important they are) yelling in my ear! Sadly, despite your disapproval, I am one of those people who tell them to shut up so that I can carry on reading.
    My only exception to this rule is teenage girls on the phone because their conversations are generally hilarious to eavesdrop on and snigger to myself!

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