26 Jul 2022

The etiquette of train travel

As we contemplate a new round of strikes shutting down much of the British rail network, we have been pondering how – when trains are actually running – journeys can be immeasurably improved by good manners.

Overcrowded, over-heated, running late, not running at all – the myriad deficiencies of public transport are undeniably a daily challenge to good manners. Packed as tight as a sardine in a can, scarcely audible announcements crackling overhead, your neighbour’s sharp-edged briefcase barking your shin, shrill mobile phones trilling in your ear – whose temper wouldn’t get frayed?

Acknowledge that you are sharing a cramped, frequently uncomfortable, space with the general public, and don’t treat a railway carriage like your own home. The list of don’ts is, unsurprisingly, extensive.

Behave well when boarding the train. You will be understandably anxious to secure a seat, but this doesn’t entitle you to barge aboard, jostling and shoving anyone who stands between you and your objective. Clearly the first rule is to stand back and let passengers off before you get on – all too often people who are disembarking find themselves swept back on the train by a stampede of grim-faced, single-minded new passengers. Make it a rule never to push a fellow-passenger in your bid for a seat – accept defeat with good grace, and just hope that your good manners are infectious.

Be aware that space is always at a premium, and stow away your belongings. Other passengers should not have to request you to behave considerately. Never load your luggage on to a spare seat – you haven’t paid for it, and fellow passengers who are forced to stand because of your tendency to overspill will be understandably annoyed. Don’t hog the aisle seat, forcing other passengers to climb over you or ask you to move over. If you’re sitting next to the aisle make sure that you don’t encroach on the aisle space, making it difficult for other passengers to move down the train.

If you’ve got large bags that you are unwilling or unable to stow away, tuck them under your seat if possible – your luggage should never impinge on the legroom of the person sitting opposite; you should be the only person who is inconvenienced by it.

It is courteous to help anyone struggling to put luggage on the overhead rack and to help them with cases (or pushchairs) when getting on and off trains. Any help should of course be recognised with a smile and thanks.

The days when a carriage-full of men leapt to their feet at the sight of a standing woman are long gone, but certain courtesies are still a minimum requirement. Whether you are a man or woman, you should offer your seat to older people, to people with walking sticks/legs in plaster and other obvious signs that standing is painful, to mothers with babes in arms and to the pregnant. The latter poses a dilemma, because it is clearly deeply offensive to an overweight woman to be mistaken for an expectant mother. So look carefully before you commit yourself. If you belong to one of these categories and someone offers you a seat, accept it with good grace; it is embarrassing to be turned down, and might make the good Samaritan hesitant about behaving courteously in the future.

Don’t treat a hushed carriage-full of commuters to a loud, banal or private call on your mobile. Keep your calls short and to the point; tell incoming callers that you’ll ring back when you’re off the train. If you’re listening to music on headphones, or watching movies on a laptop, ensure that your headphones are adequate to the task, and that you’re not bombarding your neighbour with a maddening barrage of percussive sound. Always use headphones ­ – it is the worst sort of noise pollution to inflict your own private listening on other people.

If you’re travelling with companions keep your voices down; other people may be reading, working or dozing. Respect designated quiet carriages – these are intended for people who want to spend their journeys in serene contemplation or working on their laptops, and they won’t appreciate being forced to eavesdrop on loud conversations. Switch your phone to silent so that noisy alerts and ringtones don’t disturb the peace.

If you need to eat on your journey, don’t treat the entire carriage to the stench of fried chip fat and oily onions. Oppressive smells are a major hazard on long journeys, so choose inoffensive foods.  If you want to open the window, ask your fellow passengers first. Don’t treat the carriage like your own sitting room – taking your shoes off, putting your feet up on the opposite seat, plucking your eyebrows, doing your make-up. A brief moment of cosmetic repair is acceptable after a journey (a glance in the mirror, a dash of lipstick), but a full make-up routine (involving tweezes, eyelash curlers, manicures and the full cosmetic armoury) should be a private communication between yourself and the mirror, and may make your neighbours uncomfortable.

Finally, when you disembark the train make sure to take all your rubbish with you (there are generally bins available in the carriage; if not, you should dispose of it in the station). You should leave no trace of your occupancy (this includes wiping down table tops if you’ve spilt drink or crumbs), so that your seat is pristine and ready for the next passenger.


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