Train Etiquette: 10 Rules of Riding the Rails

Being wedged close to strangers on a train means etiquette is more important than ever.
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If you ride a train at least sometimes, you know that you often get a show included for free. Someone might try to sell you something, preach to you, sing a song or carry on a very loud (and juicy) conversation. A lot of people don't seem to know or care that all these things are disturbing to other rail passengers. And etiquette counts for a lot more when you're jammed up close with total strangers.

This issue isn't new. A 1956 poster from the New York Transit Museum's archives features a woman whacking a man in the head with her purse. The man is standing in front of the car door and the text reads, "Hit him again, Lady! We don't like door-blockers either." In 1962, the city's transit authority unveiled "Etti-Cat," a manners mascot. The black-and-white feline appeared on numerous posters, gently urging polite behavior. Said Etti-Cat, in era-appropriate language, "It was real wild scribbling all over the subway walls and cars but ... I feel real dopey about it. I'm sorry and will never do it again" [source: Carlson]. The city's latest good-subway-behavior campaign was rolled out in January 2015 under the heading "Courtesy Counts" [source: Metropolitan Transportation Authority]. Alas, no cute animals or cartoons were included.


Of course, rude train travelers are found everywhere, not just in New York City, which is why most other transportation authorities have similar etiquette campaigns. But even without a campaign, there are a lot of things you can do to make the journey more pleasant for yourself and others. The first rule is for men only.

10: No 'Manspreading'

Dude, remember you only paid for one seat.
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The message is plastered all over New York City's subway cars on 46-inch (117-centimeter) or 72-inch (183-centimeter) placards: "Dude ... Stop the Spread, Please." The message refers to the dreaded "manspread," the practice many males have of sitting in a slouched position with their legs spread wide open in a "V." What's the big deal? When a guy manspreads, he typically takes up two seats -- and sometimes three -- as his knees and legs extend into the seating space on either side of him. That's rude. And gross. Further, the position is a bit of an intimate one, which makes some people uncomfortable. Women sometimes view manspreading as an aggressive posture, which can be a bit unnerving.

Interestingly, this was also a problem in the 1940s and '50s. The New York Transit Museum has a decades-old public service campaign poster that depicts a guy manspreading, although in the poster he's more politely dubbed a "space hog." So if a dude can't manspread, what's the alternative? One etiquette expert said the proper position is legs parallel, rather than in a V-shape. Or he can cross his legs at the ankle. The short train ride won't affect virility [source: Fitzsimmons].


9: Take the Pack Off Your Back

Large bags and backpacks can become inadvertent weapons on a train (like this one in Singapore). Be careful where you place them.
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No longer just the province of college students, you'll find backpacks on schoolkids, working adults and sometimes even elderly people. Problem is, people often forget they have them on. Or forget how much space they take up behind them.

If you're hopping on a crowded train with a backpack, make sure you don't whack somebody with it when you turn around or back up. Scored a seat? Place the pack on the floor, between your legs, and as close to your body as possible. If you leave it protruding into the aisle, someone's bound to stumble over it. And for heaven's sake, don't set it down in the center of the aisle, as convenient as this may be. Neither put it on the seat next to you, unless you paid for two seats or the train is empty. These rules, incidentally, also apply to other bulky items, such as strollers, suitcases, packages and large purses [source: Seid].


8: No Sermons, Even If It's Sunday

A preacher holds an impromptu service on a train going between Soweto and Johannesburg.
© Gideon Mendel/Corbis

On Atlanta's metro system (the MARTA) you might encounter a man who bills himself as the MARTA Rail Preacher. The good "reverend" preaches a sermon short enough to finish between stops, and then walks up and down the aisles taking up a "collection."

Chances are you have a similar character (or several) on your subway system: Someone is trying to spread the gospel, advocate for the ethical treatment of animals or rail against the government. This person will talk and talk and talk, secure in the knowledge that he's got a captive audience. This person may even be you. You may have the right to free speech, but others have the right not to hear it. Save your lectures for the park or the street, where people can walk away if they wish. If you decide to go ahead and preach to riders, be prepared for some pushback.


In January 2015, Rob Maiale, a Brooklyn voice actor, got fed up with a subway preacher who began haranguing a lesbian couple and their child. So he got up and began belting out "I've Got a Golden Ticket," a song from the film and stage production "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory." His warbling drowned out the preacher's words, much to the delight of the other riders.

7: Pack in, Pack Out

'Pack it out' doesn’t only refer to how many people you can fit on the subway. It's also a reminder to take any litter with you when you disembark.
Mario Tama/Getty Images

You (hopefully) do it in various parks and nature preserves, and you're expected to do it on trains, too -- take your garbage out with you. That includes the wrapper from your Burger King Whopper, the soda bottle with a sip or two left in it, even the newspaper you've finished reading. (You may offer the latter to your seatmate but if she declines, take it with you.)

Most of all, don't park your discarded chewing gum under your seat or on the back of the seat in front of you. Can we say "gross?" Gather all your trash when leaving the train and drop it in one of the garbage containers on the station platform.


6: Keep the Volume Down

Those tunes you're listening to may be slammin', but that doesn’t mean everyone wants to hear them.
Stewart Cohen/Jensen Walker/Blend Images/ Thinkstock

Picture this: Half of the people riding the train with you are having loud, animated conversations on their cell phones, laughing or arguing with the person on the other end. The other half of the riders are blasting tunes on their music devices. The thought of such a scenario is enough to give you a headache. Which is why loud music and loud chatter are no-no's on a train.

By all means, listen to your favorite tunes. Just use earbuds or headphones. And keep the volume moderate so the person next to you can't hear the music through the headset. (Despite that popular song, it's not all about that bass!)


And try to stay off your cell phone. As scintillating as you think your conversation may be, no one else wants to hear it. If you do need to make a call, make it quick and use your "inside voice." Many people seem to talk louder on the phone than they would in person. To find the right level, move your phone a fraction of an inch away from your ear. This helps you to hear your own voice more naturally without one ear blocked by the phone, and so find a reasonable level for talking. Put the phone back up to your ear when speaking [source: Seid]. Better yet, tell your caller you'll phone her back when you get off the train and set your cell to vibrate.

5: Poles Are for Safety, Not Fun

An acrobat busts some moves for subway riders in New York. As part of NYPD Police Commissioner Bill Bratton's crack-down on quality of life offenses, arrests of these performers quadrupled to 240 in July 2014, as compared to the same time in 2013.
© Richard Levine/Demotix/Corbis

You'll be sitting there on the subway, checking out Facebook on your smartphone, when all of a sudden someone yells, "Excuse me, Ladies and Gentlemen!" Then there's a whoosh as a guy (it's usually a guy) races past you, grabs a safety pole or handle bar and performs a short acrobatic routine -- sort of like breakdancing on a pole. Clearly, this is not a good thing to do on a train rocketing 30, 40 or however many miles per hour down the tracks, especially if it's loaded with passengers. Sure, some people might enjoy the show. But what if the performer slips and careens into other passengers, namely infants, the disabled or the elderly? What if the train suddenly stops and the performer smashes his skull into the pole? Pole tricks are so rampant that New York's transit authority came out with a poster stating, "Poles Are For Your Safety. Not Your Latest Routine." Here's hoping it helps.

A less dangerous, but equally obnoxious practice is hogging the pole. That's when you lean against the whole pole as if you own it, disallowing anyone else to grab a spot. The purpose of the train pole is not for performing acrobatic moves, nor providing a comfortable back support – it's for steadying yourself when standing on a moving vehicle. With that in mind, use your hand to hold on to one section of the pole and make room for others to do the same.


4: This Is Not a Dining Car

If you're going to eat en route, bring something that doesn’t smell or crumble.
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Some train or subway systems strictly prohibit any food or drink consumption. New York is one example. Others have exceptions. The Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority, for instance, allows noshing on light, small snacks as long as they're not made of cooked or prepared foods, which "don't mix with transit travel." You can also drink from a container with a sturdy, resealable lid, but you can't quench your thirst if your beverage is in an open container or can.

The reasons for these restrictions are pretty obvious. You may think your gyro, egg salad sandwich or steaming container of chicken curry is nothing but a delicious meal, but others may find the smell gross or stomach-churning. All the more so if you get jostled and the food tumbles onto them. Worse, if the train lurches and your Big Gulp dumps into your neighbor's lap. That person's not going to be very happy with you. In general, it's best to leave all food and drink at home. But if food is allowed, stick to items like water in a closed water bottle and non-messy, non-smelly snacks like grapes or an energy bar. (But only one that doesn't crumble.)


3: Back Away From the Doors

Two men force their way through the closing doors of a commuter train at Leningrad Station in Moscow in 1987.
© Roger Ressmeyer/CORBIS

Door etiquette on trains could be an entirely separate category. But it shouldn't be this hard, as everything is common courtesy. Standing on the platform and the doors open? Let those inside get off first before boarding. Don't try to smash in between those who are disembarking.

If you're approaching a car and the doors start to close, do not rush forward and push them open. Train doors are not like elevator doors – they won't open back when they sense an obstruction so your foot, briefcase or arm might just get stuck. In worst-case scenarios, the train operator can't get the door to reopen and close properly after an obstruction so all the passengers have to disembark and wait for the next carrier [source: Hedgepeth]. Imagine how popular you'll be, then. Just keep it simple and wait for the next train if you're running late.


Once inside, take a seat, grab a pole or find a spot to stand -- but not directly in front of the doors. The only exception is if you're going to get off at the very next stop. Getting off in two stops? Back away, especially if you have a suitcase or big bag with you. If you don't, you'll be blocking those trying to get on and off at the next stop. If the train is so crowded that you're forced to stand next to the door anyway, get off at the next stop to allow others to disembark and then reboard.

2: Offer Your Seat to the Elderly

A sign in a train in Bangkok, Thailand reminds riders to give priority seating to the elderly, pregnant women -- and monks.
Anders Blomqvist/Lonely Planet Images/Getty Images

Why is it that some people feel perfectly justified to occupy a seat while an elderly man or largely pregnant woman stands? Worse, this troll might be actually sitting in a seat beneath a sign that says "reserved for the elderly" and feel no compunction about it.

This is just bad karma. Imagine if it was you who was injured, pregnant or elderly, and no one offered you a seat? Granted, not everyone with these conditions wants to sit but you won't know unless you ask them. You'll feel so much better about yourself (and possibly earn a smile) if you do the right thing.


1: No Personal Grooming Allowed

Putting on makeup (or cutting your nails) while riding can be distracting -- or gross -- to other passengers.
© Yosuke Tanaka/Aflo/Corbis

You couldn't help it. You were running late. With good reason! The baby was screaming all night. You stayed up until 3 a.m. tending to your sick husband. You didn't hear your alarm. So clearly, you had no choice but to complete your grooming on the train.

Uh, not clearly. If you didn't have time to put on your makeup today, you'll have to go do without or apply it in your company's bathroom. And don't even think about shaving, flossing your teeth, plucking your eyebrows or clipping your nails en route. Those activities cause parts of your body, or items stuck in parts of your body, to go sailing into the air -- where they may possibly land on an unsuspecting victim. Beyond disgusting. Here's the simple truth: Grooming is for the bathroom or your own personal space. It's not something that's done in public. Or worse, on a sealed container with no way out, like a train.

Lots More Information

Author's Note: Train Etiquette: 10 Rules of Riding the Rails

All of these train etiquette rules are nothing more than common sense and good manners. It's sad how many people have neither.

Related Articles
More Great Links

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