What Train Travel Can Teach Us About Violence Reduction

Two Amtrak conductors meet while waiting for a train at the Amtrak station in Baltimore. They discover they have the same job in different Amtrak stations. They manage passenger foot traffic on the terminal floor where people wait to board trains traveling up and down the East Coast.

One agent, let’s call him Tony, works in New York City’s Penn Station. His companion, Vic, works in Union Station in Washington, DC.

They compare stories about their work experiences and their thoughts about train passengers.

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Vic from DC says that his job at Union Station is pretty peaceful. Passengers gather near the departure gate. 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 the train to board. Then he makes sure the passengers know where they’re going. Sometimes he chats with them about their destination or whether the train is expected to arrive on time. Everything is pretty civil.

Get outta here!–shouts Tony from New York. Amtrak passengers are horrible, he says. They don’t line up nicely. They push and shove. They crowd around the escalators going down to the gate area. It’s like somebody is giving away free beer down there and nobody wants to miss out. They complain and roll their eyes about the rudeness of other people. They’re all so anxious to get to the train as quickly as possible. It’s like a state of nature. My main job, says Tony, is to keep a lid on the situation. It could get violent.

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

Tony doesn’t hesitate. Oh, believe me, I’ve thought about this a lot. First, I would bring in more uniformed security staff just to let passengers know that they are being watched. They have to know they will be held accountable if they cause trouble. People need to know 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 screen the passengers on each train. They would identify troublemakers as soon as possible. When passengers buy tickets, a screening tool would be used to check their names in a database to see if they have been reported for causing trouble on other trains. Then, we would know which passengers to focus on because we would never be able to track them all. Instead, we would try to 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 have to do all those things just to have an orderly station.

Yeah, Tony replies, but that’s just how people are, I guess. And it’s understandable. Passengers know that good seats on the train are a scarce commodity. People want to board quickly so they can get their pick of locations, sit with their families, and avoid sitting right by a bathroom. During the summer, passengers often want to sit on the shady side of the train. It’s pretty competitive.

You’d think Amtrak would deal with this, Vic muses. Why don’t they try to equalize everyone’s access to desirable seats or at least make the process fair and transparent so passengers don’t feel compelled to fight for what they want and end up abusing other people in the process?

Oh, Amtrak understands the problem, Tony protests. Why do you think they offer passengers Business Class upgrades? And people can buy tickets on the high-speed Acela train if they really want a nicer, more civilized experience.

Well sure, Vic mutters under his breath, if they can afford it… What?, asks Tony. Never mind, Vic says dryly.

Vic continues, I guess people in New York are just more rude and less considerate.

But that’s what I don’t quite understand, Tony says. I’ve been working these train lines between New York and DC for many years and I can tell you the people are the same in both places. Lots of people go back and forth between DC and New York on a regular basis. Union Station is always full of New Yorkers and Penn Station passengers are not all from New York. They’re from all over. So, why do passengers in Penn Station act like jerks when they don’t act that way in Union Station?

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

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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 be on until the very 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 use a particular track and gate.

So, departing Amtrak passengers stand around the Penn Station terminal, 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 for a particular train are scattered all over the station at the moment a gate is announced. So, at one precise moment just before a train is scheduled to leave, all the passengers, or several hundred people, go running toward a gate at the same time. They crowd around the entrance to the down escalator, where I’m standing and doing my best to control the crowd.

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Vic is incredulous. Everyone boards that way, he asks? Yeah, Tony answers. Well, except the First Class passengers and the frequent travelers with enough points to qualify to wait in the Acela Lounge. They get advance notice and are allowed to sneak onto the train early.

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

Vic adds with a squint, so I’m guessing those elite travelers will not have to participate in your counseling program, and they won’t be watched by the uniform 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–often 30 to 45 minutes in advance. So, people have more time to plan. They know what their gate will be when they’re still 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, and 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, the structure itself would shape people’s behavior. Then you wouldn’t need to hire all those security guards and psychologists.

Oh yeah, Tony says, my cousin works in violence prevention. He says this is called the public health approach. Whoa, he suddenly realizes, my brother is a security guard at Penn Station. His union wouldn’t like that.