The Politics of Train Commuting, Part II

Following on Wednesday’s post, we take another look at the everyday politics of commuter trains. Things get serious when trying to find a seat on the London Overground at rush hour–so much so that Brendan Nelson compares it to war.

Brendan Nelson classifies train commuters into three types and gives thorough advice for this "theater of conflict"

Brendan Nelson classifies train commuters into three types and gives thorough advice for this “theater of conflict”

Here’s a summary of Brendan’s advice:

Know your enemies. Train passengers come in several forms:

  • Aspirants – People standing who want to sit down. This includes you.
  • Civilians – People standing who don’t want to sit down, maybe because they’re not going far.
  • Occupants – People currently sitting down. Don’t be fooled though: they’re still in the game.

Don’t take the wrong turn.

When you first get on the train you might turn towards the divide in between two carriages. Don’t! This is an unforgiving quagmire. Much like Napoleon in Russia, your campaign will come to a crushing, drawn-out end if you venture here.

Get in position–but act casual.

Get yourself into the long aisle, where the seats are most abundant. This is the fertile valley of the Overground carriage.

But don’t push past people to get here. Try to act casual, like you don’t really want to sit down anyway. As Sun Tzu said, “All warfare is based on deception“. Seem too predatory and you’ll raise the suspicions of other Aspirants, losing the element of surprise. Let them think you’re a disinterested Civilian.

Other bits of Ian Fleming-worthy advice include:

  • Have the seat occupants only just sat down? If so it might be a while before they get off.
  • Can you guess where their occupants might be heading to? For example you can spot BBC people easily (branded building passes, reading Ariel, cooking up ways to irritate the Daily Mail). They’re going all the way to Shepherd’s Bush, so find a new spot.
  • Who else lurks in the same area? If there are pregnant or infirm Aspirants you should move elsewhere – unless, of course, the Overground has completely erased your sense of ethics.
  • Are the Occupants checking the station name or folding up their newspaper? If so then they may be close to departure.

Brendan then goes into highly detailed description of the end game–again with excellent graphics. The comments section of his post also has some interesting advice from other commuters who share their “tactics.” His original post is well worth your time if you have enjoyed this so far.

The Politics of Train Commuting, Part I

Brendan Nelson compares commuter behavior on two London commuter trains

Brendan Nelson compares commuter behavior on two London commuter trains

My favorite new blog find in a while is that of Brendan Nelson. Like your author here, he admits to “overanalysing mundane topics” but he does me one better–he draws detailed diagrams to accompany his analysis. Today and Friday I will share a couple of his posts about commuter trains to go with the longstanding interest of this blog in the politics of transportation.

Brendan explains how norms emerge among commuters on the same route due to their repeated interactions:

People who share a regular journey eventually form communities based around shared patterns of group behaviour rather than personal relationships. A well-known example from the Tube can be seen when people boarding the train stand aside to let others get off first – that’s a behavioural pattern that Tube travellers follow, and new travellers quickly learn. Lots of these little patterns exist among commuter communities which, despite being only temporary rush-hour formations, are communities nonetheless.

But these norms are different on the two routes Brendan takes–the Overground and the City train (in London):

On Overground trains an unspoken rule is, “move down the carriage”. Travellers follow this rule silently – as space appears further down the carriage, people move up to leave space nearer the doors. When the rule is ignored and an unnecessary crush develops, the offenders are loudly admonished – “can you move down please!” – and things soon right themselves.

But on the City commute things are different. A train pulls into the platform and there’s lots of space. But then you look at the  doorways, and it’s jammed solid – everyone has bunched up near the doors. You think, that’s not a problem; people will move. But this isn’t the Overground. The people in the doorways, already uncomfortably compressed, simply inhale sharply as you wedge yourself in next to them. The train is silent. No-one moves, and no-one is asked to move.

This community seems to have a different rule – “don’t rock the boat”. Shouting into the sheer silence would mark you as a lunatic. It’s a powerful rule: I’ve seen people abandon their attempts to board the train, choosing to wait ten minutes for the next one rather than cause a fuss by telling people to move into the empty space.

Brendan gives three reasons for these differences, but for that you will have to visit his post.