How Train Stations Help to Explain a Public Health Approach to Violence Prevention

What does it mean to say one favors the public health approach to gun violence? How is the public health approach different from a traditional approach focused on regulations and law enforcement? If you are a frequent train passenger in the United States, you may have noticed that Amtrak train stations use different strategies to manage passenger behavior. If so, you already know something about the public health approach.


Imagine two Amtrak conductors meeting while waiting for trains in Philadelphia. They discover they do the same job in different cities. They manage passenger foot traffic in terminals where people gather to board trains traveling up and down the East Coast of the United States.

One agent, let’s call him Tony, works in Penn Station in New York City. His companion, Vic, works in Washington, D.C.’s Union Station. Vic and Tony compare stories about their experiences with train passengers.


Vic from DC says his job at Union Station is fairly peaceful. Passengers walk into the terminal, quickly learn where their departure gate will be, and then gather nearby. They wait quietly. Sometimes he sees them chatting with one another while they stand in line. His only job is to open the door to the platform when it’s time for passengers to board. He makes sure the passengers get to the correct train. Sometimes, they ask if they are expected to arrive on time. Everything is pretty civil.

Get outta here!–shouts Tony. Amtrak passengers are horrible, he says. They don’t line up nicely. They push and shove. They crowd around stairs and escalators to the gate area. It’s like somebody is giving away free beer and they don’t want to miss out. They may complain and roll their eyes about the rudeness of other people, but they don’t seem to be aware of their own rudeness.

My job, says Tony, is to control an unruly mob. I wish Amtrak would do something to make Penn Station more manageable.


Wow, Vic says. I had no idea it was that bad. What should the station managers do? If you were in charge, how would you fix it?

Tony doesn’t hesitate. Oh, believe me, I’ve thought about this a lot. My brother works in security at Penn Station and he says we should learn from how the police control crime.

First, I would bring in more uniformed security staff to let passengers know they are being watched. They have to know they will be held accountable because we’re watching them at all times.

Next, I would hire some psychologists and counselors to talk with the passengers who seem most likely to engage in rude, obnoxious, or aggressive behavior. The counselors would teach passengers how to control their behavior and how to avoid getting into situations that cause conflict. They would learn how to think differently so that waiting in line for a train wouldn’t bring out their worst behavior.

Finally, I would hire statisticians to identify troublemakers. As soon as passengers buy tickets, a screening tool would check their names in a database to see if they have been reported for causing trouble on other trains. We would never be able to track them all, but we could control the worst of them.

Wow, that sounds incredible, Vic observes. But, why do people behave so badly in New York? It’s a shame that you would have to do those things to have an orderly station.

Yeah, Tony replies, but that’s how people are, I guess. It’s understandable. Good seats on Amtrak trains can be scarce. People want to board quickly so they get their pick of locations, sit with their families, and avoid sitting by a bathroom. During the summer, passengers want to sit on the shady side. It’s competitive, and I guess people in New York are just more rude and less considerate than DC people.

That’s what I don’t understand, Vic says. I’ve been working train lines between New York and DC for many years. The people are the same. Union Station is always full of New Yorkers and Penn Station passengers are not all from New York. So, why do passengers in Penn Station act like jerks when they don’t act that way in Union Station?

Maybe it’s not about the innate characteristics of the passengers, Vic muses. Maybe it’s about context. Tell me more about the boarding process. How do passengers in Penn Station line up for boarding?


Line up?!! Oh wow, Tony laughs, so you’ve never been there? Let me tell you, it’s pretty wild. You see, the Station never knows which specific track an incoming train will use until the last minute. Trains come through the tunnels from New Jersey or down from Connecticut and they enter the enormous switching areas around Penn Station. Only then are they assigned to a particular track and gate.

Departing Amtrak passengers stand around Penn Station, eyeing the notification boards. About 15 minutes before a train’s departure time, a gate number suddenly appears on notification boards all over the terminal, like 9 East, 12 West, 15 East, etc.

Keep in mind, the passengers are scattered all over the station when their gate is announced. At one moment, about 15 minutes before the train is scheduled to leave, several hundred people go running toward one gate at the same time. They crowd around the entrance to the down escalator where I’m standing. I do my best to control the crowd.


Vic is incredulous. Everyone boards that way, he asks? Yeah, Tony answers. Well, except the First Class passengers and the frequent travelers who qualify to use the Acela Lounge. They get to sneak onto the train early.

So, Vic asks, the elites are spared the worst parts of the experience while regular folks have to battle their way onto the train? Uh, well, yeah, Tony admits.

Vic adds with a squint, and so I’m guessing those elite travelers will not have to participate in your counseling program and they won’t be watched by uniformed security staff?

Yeah, they don’t need that stuff, Tony answers. Why, how do people board Amtrak trains in DC?

Well, it’s pretty different, Vic replies. First, gates are announced well in advance. People have more time to plan. They know their gate number when they’re buying snacks and making their last visits to the restroom. They know they can choose to line up early or take a seat and wait until later.

Also, Vic adds, every gate has one of those back-and-forth rope line things. There’s no crowding around a door. When people arrive at their gate, they can immediately see how many people are already in line. It’s clear in what order everyone got in line. Nobody tries to cut in line or sneak to the front.

And because the rope-line thing might be 5 or 6 layers deep, the passengers have been standing together for some time when the boarding process begins. They have been making eye contact with one another, maybe even chatting or exchanging casual observations about the station announcements or things like that. It’s like they know each other a little. When boarding begins and the line starts to move toward the door, I’ve heard strangers chuckling about their luggage and offering to help one another. It’s actually kind of nice.

So, Vic concludes, maybe passengers in New York are not really so different, and if the Penn Station boarding process could be set up like our process in Union Station, maybe the structure would help to shape people’s behavior. Then you wouldn’t need to hire a bunch of security guards and psychologists.

My cousin works in violence prevention, adds Vic. He says this way of managing potential conflict is called the public health approach.

Whoa, Tony realizes, my brother is a security guard at Penn Station. His union sure wouldn’t want a bunch of train stations to adopt the public health approach.