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

What is the public health approach to gun violence? How is a public health approach different from a traditional approach focused on regulations and law enforcement? Frequent train passengers in the United States may have noticed that Amtrak train stations use different strategies to manage passenger behavior, and those differences help to explain the public health approach.

Note: Since this was posted, New York City opened Amtrak’s Moynihan Train Hall, which greatly improved the experience of boarding trains out of Manhattan.


Imagine two Amtrak employees waiting for a train in Philadelphia. They start to chat, and soon discover they do the same job in different cities. They manage passenger foot traffic 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 New York City’s Penn Station. His companion, Vic, works in Union Station in Washington, D.C.

Vic and Tony compare stories about their experiences with train passengers.


Tony asks Vic how long he’s been on the job. It’s pretty exhausting, Tony says, right?

What do you mean, Vic asks? My job at Union Station is really peaceful. Passengers walk into the terminal, quickly learn where their departure gate will be, and then gather nearby. They wait quietly. Sometimes I see them chatting with one another while they stand in line.

My main job is to open the door to the platform when it’s time for passengers to board. I just have to make sure they 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 complain about the rudeness of other people, but behave like jerks themselves.

My main job, says Tony, is to control an unruly and potentially violent mob. I wish Amtrak could make Penn Station more peaceful and more manageable.


Wow, Vic says. I had no idea it was that bad. But, what could 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 security at Penn Station. He says we should learn from how the police control crime.

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

Next, I would hire some psychologists to talk with the passengers most likely to engage in aggressive behavior. They would teach passengers how to control their behavior and how to avoid getting into situations that cause conflict. Passengers would learn to think differently so that waiting in line 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 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 have to do those things to have an orderly station.

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

This means all departing Amtrak passengers stand around Penn Station, eyeing the notification boards, waiting to be told where to go to get their trains.

About 15 minutes before a train’s departure time, digital notification boards all over the terminal suddenly display the gate number, as in 9 East, 12 West, 15 East, etc. It’s like the starting gun at a stock car race.

Keep in mind, the passengers are scattered all over the station when their gate is announced. At that one moment, when the gate number appears on screens all around the station, several hundred people go running towards that gate at the same time. They end up crowded around the entrance to the down escalator where I’m standing. I do my best to control the crowd, but it can get pretty wild.


Vic is incredulous. Wow. That sounds chaotic. So, 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.

Vic smiles. Oh, so the privileged, elite travelers 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, 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?

Nah, they wouldn’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 right away. Even as 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.

Isn’t it possible, Vic wonders, that passengers in New York are not really so different? What if the Penn Station boarding process could be set up like our process in Union Station?

The structure alone would shape people’s behavior. If so, you wouldn’t need to hire a bunch of security guards and psychologists.

I have a cousin who works in violence prevention, adds Vic. He says this way of managing potential conflict is called the public health approach, or maybe situational crime prevention.

Whoa, Tony realizes, that really would change things. But, you know, my brother is a security guard at Penn Station. I bet his union would oppose that plan. They wouldn’t want a bunch of train stations to adopt a public health approach. A lot of security staff would probably be laid off.