The Right Track

ISOBEL PRITCHARD on public transport etiquette.

bike Cambridge etiquette London Underground National Rail public transport stephen hawking Train

So, you left your bone-shaking bicycle behind. You guiltily hid it in the darkest corner of the bike shed for the holidays. Whilst a lucky few of us returned to flash motor cars over the holidays, the rest of us had to face the grim reality of public transport.

Now, I take no issue with the lack of hygiene, the excessive delays or the ridiculously high prices that public transport forces me to face. These are issues to be taken up in another (far more boring) article. The cause of my unhappiness is that, as I am thrust into the armpit of a stranger on the Tube as it jerks to a halt, or I find myself pinioned against the crotch of a man who seems to be enjoying the crowded environment a little too much, no one says anything. Nothing at all.

‘Well it’s a short journey, just grin and bear it,’ I hear you say. Fair point. But, it’s not just the London Underground: my complaint extends to National Rail services.  The hours I have spent traveling across the country in stony silence weigh down on me, as heavy as a passenger carriage in the midst of an obesity crisis, just don’t bear thinking about. During the holidays, I long wistfully for my bicycle. I find myself longing to be part of that idyllic image of a Cambridge student cycling over Magdalene bridge, a basket filled with flowers, admired from every angle by Japanese tourists…

And, whilst eavesdropping does undoubtedly have its merits, I want more. I seek conversation.  This may sound a little desperate, but I don’t want to give up my dream of meeting someone who will provide me life-enriching conversation. I’d even settle for witty banter. Unfortunately, I have yet to meet this person. And, believe you me; it’s not for lack of trying. 

There was Stephen Hawking’s former nurse, who now lives an entirely isolated existence in the Outer Hebrides. There was the student from Aberdeen who tried to convince me that their nightlife there was better than ours in Cambridge. His story of one ‘wild night’, however, failed to convince. ‘We got soooo wasted, and woke up the next morning in Berlin!’ I know that everyone tires of another night at [insert tried-and-tested clubnight here], but I have yet to meet someone who has been forced to flee the country as a result of this.

Then, there was the Christian couple who tried to evangelize me on the way to Hull. At first this merely irritated me, but then I realized that I was heading to Hull, and they were probably right in assuming that only God could save me in such circumstances. They were swiftly followed by the pimply youth in trackies who tried to chat me up. Inevitably you get the odd creep, but that’s life; that’s the public.  

Encouraged by these experiences, I have devised a foolhardy guide, which, if followed, will ensure that you get on the right track with train chat.

1) Present yourself well: make sure you look approachable; remove sunglasses, iPods etc. But, be clean, folks. No one wants to sit next to the smelly tramp. A bit of deodorant doesn’t go amiss. 

2) Pick your journey: commuter trains can be disappointing. Try heading up north; they’re more friendly there (as far as the border at least). And, avoid Welsh trains completely. It’s just not worth it.

3) Pick your seat wisely: We all secretly cherish the idea of finding true love on a train. It’s a romantic notion, and not totally unheard of. My friend found her true love on a train. Oh no, it was actually her friend who found the true love on the train, only to be displaced by my friend upon introduction. Oops. Anyway, be realistic. If you sit opposite the really good-looking guy/girl, are you really going to be brave enough to open your mouth? Or, will you just ogle at them longingly and slightly creep them out? Choose a sensible target. The elderly are good and if you can bear it, people with small children always have good snacks.

4) Timing is crucial: It’s easier if you start the conversation as soon as you sit down. Good openers are: a comment about the delay, the crowd or the weather. But, pace yourself. If it’s a five-hour journey and you get Dave started on his athlete’s foot at the start, it might just last the whole way.  

5) Props are useful: an interesting book may attract intellectual types, whereas a pretty bag always works well with middle-aged women. The more outlandish the better. I’ve also heard that knitting works wonders. Apparently, people are very impressed if you try to knit a sock (it requires four needles you see). An interesting pet should also elicit a response. Although, do bear in mind that dogs require tickets these days. Maybe opt for a parrot. Or a micro pig.

Above all, smile. 

Yes, you could sit there in silence, stare out the window and long for a Porsche to take you out of the situation. You could bitterly judge your fellow passengers and begrudge them the extra foot room their suitcase is taking up. 

Or, you could just embrace the man whose armpit is all over your face. He’s human too. Albeit, one who is a little challenged in the personal hygiene department. But, let’s be honest: you’re already most of the way there anyway.