Train Commuting Pro-tips

Brendan Nelson has pretty much written the definitive account of the war you need to engage in to get a seat on the tube/train. I won’t repeat his advice here.

Observe and listen.

People are brilliant. Weird, but brilliant. Every day on my journey from Telford to work and back again I see fascinating & interesting people. Some of them are weirdos too but my initial response to them is one of fascination. They’re a regular part of my life now, having traveled with them for over two years since moving to Shropshire. I miss them when they’re not there and worry if I don’t see them for a really long time.

Example One: The Running Commuter- every day he sits in the same seat, stands at the same station and waits two stops and then as soon as the doors of the train open- he runs to his car. He sprints from carriage to car and God help you if you get in his way.

Example Two: The Lady With Lego Hair

Listening in on conversations. Yes, I know it’s rude, we shouldn’t do it but it’s good fun. Joe Orton did it on buses (some of the bus conversations captured in his diaries are sublime), Alan Bennett captures the cadences of speech in his works. I aim for a similar clarity and exact capture of things people say and report them via twitter. Normally these things would become fudgey conversations once you got home “Oh, this bloke said such-and-such. LOL”.

The people who really catch my attention are the ones who have conversations that really aren’t appropriate for the train. HR staff discussing who will and won’t get a pay rise because they do/don’t like someone. Managers discussing who they will or won’t hire because of their skin colour. Just because you’re on your blackberry doesn’t mean your conversation happens within a cone of silence.


You’ve no excuse not to. There are some really good books available as digital downloads, audio books and even, *gasp*, traditional paperback book. (There’s also some tripe out there. Reader beware!) When I’m not being distracted by awesome people (or really tricksy games on my iphone- Tiny Tower & Temple Run, I’m looking at you) I love reading on my kindle or my iphone. Reading little chunks twice a day helps me consume the stupidly large amounts of books I read. Short story collections can become your best friend on a regular commute. (I still don’t understand some of the pride that some people have saying “I don’t read” or “I hate books”.)

Commute Gamification.

You can either aim to collect all the stations on your commute on FourSquare (and completely annoy your friends on 4sq in the process, sorry guys!) or invent little games on each journey. Chromaroma uses your Oyster card stats to create a game played out across London. Count the number of women wearing red. How many Daily Mail readers can you see? How many people catch your eye when you’re looking at them?

According to @crispeater he and I were trapped on a train journey in Leeds and I was bored/low blood sugar levels/something like that so launched into an attempt to get them to move without actually physically touching them or swearing. My solution to this particular game: talk about holding an exhibition of the objects associated with serial killers. An Atrocity Exhibition if you will. Mundane objects elevated by the association with someone notorious. Memory prevents me knowing if it worked or not. I assume it did.

Prepare for the worst.

Every commute I prepare as if current civilisation will collapse part way through my journey. Bottled water, medication, snacks, tissues, wet wipes. I carry enough to know that if I were delayed significantly en route I won’t be one of the commuters whining about being hungry, plus if civilisation does collapse I’ve got some good stuff to start bartering with.

Please, please, please…

Keep yourself to yourself. I don’t want your shopping bags in my lap, your germs in my face or your feet on mine.

Avoid snoring on the train. (It’s why I try to stay awake at all times on my commute)

Don’t use your commute to discover which ringtone on your phone best matches your shoes or your personality. I don’t want to hear it.

Other things I don’t want to hear:

You break up with your boyfriend/girlfriend/significant other.

Your music on your mobile phone/iphone/etc.

Your HR issues at work.

You yelling at your bank/mobile phone operator/child etc.

A suggestion

Would it be possible to have small knowledge exchanges/lessons established on certain commutes (mine please). The h2g2 talks about the Vancouver Brain Train and I like this idea. I’d love to learn something on my regular commute home-  knitting? Spanish? How to draw.

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9 Responses to Train Commuting Pro-tips

  1. Sipech says:

    You have missed off one of the worst sins of the Train Amateur, which is sitting on an aisle seat when there’s an empty (if it weren’t for their bag!) seat next to the window. If there’s a window seat to be had, use it!

  2. Ben, this is fantastic. Hope you don’t mind but I’m going to reblog as many of my readers, and particularly twitter followers, will recognise my own issues in here! In particular I love the Brain Train – my career as an academic could well continue if we could found something like this. Rob

  3. Reblogged this on Reclaiming the AbandonedBicycle and commented:
    Many of my readers and particularly Twitter followers will see why I have reposted this. Who knew there was such beauty in writing and thinking about commuting

  4. Renee says:

    It’s a shame Wolves-Brum is so short – I wonder if I’d have the patience to teach some knitting, or Dutch. Teaching cycling would a bit tricky on the train.

    Re brain train (forgive me – I’ve not yet read the article you link to) would it be people that are physically on the same train or some sort of online community of people who learn simultaneously? Intriguing idea!

    One thing or tip I’d like to add is to make conversation. I’ve had some lovely encounters on the train and although most of them are superficial I always feel so happy after a chat! Maybe it’s because being from a village I miss bumping into people as this rarely happens in a city?

    • Ben W says:

      Brain Train- you’re physically in the same place at the same time.

      I like that SXSW are running start up buses where a group of various experts get together on a bus and are driven 12 hours & when they reach the conference they have to pitch the idea they’ve created. They’re running several buses from several locations this year. Best idea get funding.

      Nothing like being trapped somewhere with people you don’t know and money for the best idea to force creativity out of people.

  5. b12simon says:

    If you want to learn Spanish, I recommend the (free!) Coffee Break Spanish podcast. Admittedly I had the advantage of learning it in the car – so could repeat all the words without looking like a narna – though on a train you could read the (not free) accompanying written materials.

    I don’t work for them, I’m just a fan.

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