Taking the Train to work: Tips & Tricks
April 6, 2015 5:22 AM   Subscribe

I am going to start commuting via the Commuter Rail (train) to Boston next week after driving myself to work my entire career. The trip will take about 1 hour. What are some tips & tricks to taking the train to work? Boston specific tips (heading to North Station from North Shore and walking to work from there)? Best way to carry my computer & lunch (commuter luggage)? Which car should I sit in? Can I have conference calls on the train? Work on my computer? Best way to purchase monthly tickets? How to make sure I get a good seat on the train? Other stuff I haven't thought of yet but would be good to know? Thanks!
posted by GernBlandston to Work & Money (13 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
If you don't need your monthly pass to include a T pass, just put the MBTA app on your phone and buy your pass that way. If you do, but a paper ticket at North Station.

The double decker train cars each have 4 single seats, where no one can sit next to you. Based on your profile, I'm guessing you're boarding at the start of the line, and can snag one of these seats. All of the cars wind up full during commuting hours by the time you get to North Station, so if you don't love strangers, angle for this.

Working on your laptop is fine, and common. Calls are a huge violation of standard etiquette and will get you a host of dirty looks. Just don't talk on the train. No one wants to listen to strangers' conversations, basically ever.

Get a bike and ride to the station. Parking is breathtakingly expensive at the NBPT station.
posted by amelioration at 5:35 AM on April 6, 2015 [3 favorites]

General commuting tips, not specific to Boston:
•comfortable shoes, especially since you'll have a chunk of walking to do. (Leave dress shoes in your office or carry them.)
•have as few separate items to carry as possible: juggling lots of separate bags for lunch, shoes, computer, paperwork, a purse and/or a bag for miscellaneous stuff, means that at best it'll be awkward to haul it all; at worst you'll tick off fellow commuters (by using up seat space for your stuff or making a tripping hazard on the floor) or just plain lose things. The corollary: carry the minimum you'll actually NEED each day.
•constant and/or loud conversations in public just make people look like self-important jerks: hold the calls till you're in your office.
posted by easily confused at 6:02 AM on April 6, 2015 [2 favorites]

I spent a lot of time on Metra in Chicago as a kid. I've never been on commuter rail in Boston (the one time I planned to, service was suspended due to snow and we ended up on Amtrak). On Metra trains, the car at the end opposite the engine has a bell that goes whenever the train moves (or at least it does on newer cars). That gets old fast. Otherwise, I don't think car matters much. On the outbound trip, walking further down the platform gets you a less crowded car (they may all be crowded at rush hour).

I would aim for a "professional"-looking backpack with a computer slot that can also fit your lunch. Carrying one bag is much easier than two. (Or, if you have a computer case already, carry your lunch in a cloth tote bag and remember you need to be holding two things when you get off the train.) Anticipate needing to have your bag either on your lap or resting on your feet.

With a little practice, you know when to head to the doors as the train comes into your station. I imagine it can still take a while to get off the train at rush hour, but it's so much faster if you're standing early. (Also, if your stop isn't the end of the line, you get up when the train starts slowing down, not when it stops. You need time to get to the doors.)

Oh god no to conference calls. When I was in high school, the sort of calls that were acceptable would now be handled by text message (yes, I made the train, it's late, etc.).

I suppose it's worth finding out if Boston allows food on the train and whether this rule is enforced. (Metra allows everything, including alcohol except on certain days of the year, so...)
posted by hoyland at 6:04 AM on April 6, 2015 [1 favorite]

I commute from Salem to Boston, so I'm on your line. In the mornings, I recommend aiming for the second car in from the front of the train (front being the part of the train that is facing the direction you're going in). If you're in the very first car it can take forever to get off the train once you get into North Station because they don't let you exit out the front set of doors, so the entire car has to unload through the rear door. On the way home, choose a car that aligns you closest to where you want to be on the platform.

During rush hours our trains are really crowded, so don't try to take up a two-seater for yourself, that is super aggravating and you will have to move your stuff while you look like a jerk. If you don't want to rub elbows with someone your best bet is to sit in a window seat in the three-seaters, since you're riding the length of the line. People usually avoid the middle seat of the three-seaters unless it's looking like the train will be packed and they are the only hope for a seat. Oh god, no phone calls unless they are short and necessary.

My work is closer to South Station than North, the best way to walk to the financial district area is to exit North Station on the Causeway St side, cut down Haverhill/Canal Street, go through the Haymarket bus area, and then get onto the Greenway. Avoid walking through the Fanueil Hall area unless that's actually closer to where you work.

There's an app called T on Time (not the MBTA app) that tracks the trains on GPS and lets you know where the trains are and what time they'll get to your station. Probably not an issue if you're getting on at the very start of the line, but maybe worth downloading. Sign up for the T-alerts emails or texts, even though most of the time they alert us too late for them to be useful. I think there's planned work on the Beverly drawbridge for this summer that's going to be a huge pain for anyone north of Beverly, so keep an eye out for that.
posted by banjo_and_the_pork at 6:25 AM on April 6, 2015 [3 favorites]

Best answer: In no particular order:

It will take longer than an hour to get in from Newburyport. They say it's 56 minutes, but they are liars.

Sign up for T alerts. The Newburyport line is pretty fickle, even if you are at the starting end of the line. There is a drawbridge in Beverly that BREAKS EVERY SINGLE TIME IT OPENS IN BELOW FREEZING WEATHER. All it takes is one fisherman in a boat going out to check his traps and suddenly trains are late all morning. Look forward to the trains between Beverly and Salem turning into buses for 3 weeks in 2017 as they try to fix this.

It's best to try to get the earlier trains of a given rush hour block. That way if you miss it, the next won't be too long a wait. Still, have a Plan B. Leaving from North Station means your trains will split (Newburyport and Rockport lines) and take different tracks at Beverly, so you might consider getting on a Rockport train, hopping off in Salem/Beverly to grab dinner, then back on to a Newburyport train.

There is a quiet car (usually the first) that is only theoretically enforced. I've seen chatty people suffer consequences ranging from nothing at all to being kicked off the train in Swampscott, so err on the side of silence.

If you have conference call on the train, you consent to everyone around you imagining your grizzly demise. Sorry. Laptop work is pretty common, but you need to be aware of how full the train is and not have your stuff in the seat next to you as people will just put their ass straight down on it.

On the 3 person seats, mensroom urinal etiquette applies - avoid the middle seat unless there are no other options. People who star out by claiming the middle seat also consent to murderous fantasies. Move to the window or aisle. Put your extra stuff on the luggage rack above.

When waiting for the train at North Station, keep an eye on where people gather before the track is announced. Some folks are hip to Secret Knowledge and will know in advance where their train will be. I never figured out their trick, but I did learn to identify those in the Know so it was pretty much the same thing.

Check with your work to see if they have a T pass program. Most do - you get the cost of the pass taken out of your paycheck and mailed to you. Sometimes, this is done pre-tax depending on whatever program is currently active and depending on your work, they may do a little price matching. A Newburyport pass is crazy expensive so do not lose it. You may want to save your expired passes as they can give you a discount on insurance.

If you have a bike, you will be standing next to it for the entire trip, even if it's one of those fold-able commuter bikes. Sometimes the stars align and you will get a train car that has bike space, but do not count on it. If you leave your bike unattended, it will be knocked around. See also: mental murder.
posted by robocop is bleeding at 6:27 AM on April 6, 2015 [4 favorites]

I've been commuting by train for many years, though not in Boston. I agree that you should aim to carry your stuff in a single bag. Personally, I have a backpack, a messenger bag, and a tote bag, all of which can hold my 15" laptop. There are pros and cons to each style of bag, and a lot of it comes down to personal preference and what your train is like (i.e. does it make sense to hold your bag on your lap, or to set it on the floor between your legs, or put it on a luggage rack).

Where I live, people generally try to sit in the car that will end up closest to their preferred exit from their destination station. I usually head for the very front of the train because it's less crowded and I can usually get a seat (this is specific to my own commute, of course). After a few weeks, you'll be able to spot the trends and decide what you prefer.

I wouldn't take any phone calls other than brief ones while riding, though you could join a conference call if you know you'll mostly be listening and not talking. But please keep the phone's volume low, or use headphones.

I think working on your computer is fine as long as you don't block access to other seats; that is, don't make other people try to pass you without knocking it out of your lap. Depending on the type of work that you'll be doing, you might want to get a tablet; I know that for me, trying to use my laptop while sitting in a train seat is very uncomfortable.
posted by neushoorn at 6:28 AM on April 6, 2015

You might want to look into joining Hubway - depending of course on how far your office is from North Station and how close the nearest Hubway station is to your office. It's great for when you're too lazy/hurried to walk.

Mostly I just recommend that you pay attention to what your fellow travelers are doing! There is an unwritten code to the train, but you will learn it. Also you will notice people using little hacks and tricks and gadgets that make their lives easier and maybe some of those things will make your life easier as well!
posted by mskyle at 6:41 AM on April 6, 2015 [2 favorites]

Don't forget that if you're leaving North Station on nights when the Bruins or Celtics are playing it'll be somewhat more crowded than normal so it might be worth giving yourself 5 or 10 extra minutes to get to your train.
posted by bowmaniac at 6:57 AM on April 6, 2015 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I am also on your line.

I recommend sitting in one of the rear cars if you want a seat in the morning. Sitting at the front vs sitting in the back has never made a difference in the time it takes me to get off the train and into North Station. The difference is way more people getting off the front so getting off the train is slow but you get into the station fast vs getting off at the back with fewer people so getting off is fast but walking further to get into the station takes longer. To me, it's all the same in the end. I prefer to get off the train faster to having less of a walk into the station.

Do not have conference calls on your phone. I mean, yeah. You can make a phone call so long as you're not in the quiet car, but you will not be looked upon kindly by anyone. People are Grumpy McGrumpersons on the morning commute. And the earlier the train, the quieter it is expected to be.

The 5:15 and 5:40 pm trains to Newburyport are the most packed trains I experience. I will avoid them if I can, but you probably can't since you're other options are likely too early or too late. But I will say for those trains, if you are not at the station by 5 and 5:20 respectively, you are very likely to not get a seat. Be prepared to stand a good amount of the time.

I also highly recommend using the mobile ticketing app to buy your pass if you don't need to take the subway or bus once in Boston. I walk from North Station to work, so I use the ticketing app. I have a debit card preloaded with the amount. My job withdraws the funds in pre-tax and post-tax dollars and the company that handles the benefit uploads the funds to my card four or five days before the start of the new month. It's much better for convenience and there's less risk that I'd lose my phone than I'd lose the paper pass, which is considered cash.
posted by zizzle at 9:25 AM on April 6, 2015

Also, "front" and "rear" cars refer to the passengers cars in relation to the direction the train is traveling. So the front cars on the way in to Boston are the back cars on the way out of Boston and so forth.

The quiet car is the one closest to the locomotive. It's the last car on the way in and the front car on the way out.
posted by zizzle at 9:34 AM on April 6, 2015

Best answer: I used to do this same commute up until 2012. My car preference was the "first" in NBPT, aka last, because that's the quiet car. It is also usually the shittiest-maintained car, for some unfathomable reason, but I found that it was successful as a quiet car about 85% of the time.

Podcasts were my favorite way to while away the time. I now use Overcast to download them.

If you're walking or biking to the station, there's a shortcut through a couple of parking lots at the end of Hill Street. This has the advantage of letting you avoid walking or biking through the traffic circle, where there are no sidewalks. Hill Street is also a pleasant walk in all seasons, by an old cemetery in a leafy neighborhood.

Nthing what everyone said about the Beverly switch failing frequently. There are many good eating and drinking places within easy walking distance of the Salem station, making it a good place to get off for a pit stop if things are wrong up the line. The Beverly Depot also has its own bar and restaurant.

If you don't like to share, pick a 2-seater rather than a 3-seater bench. You won't have a seat neighbor unless it gets quite crowded (like it did all this winter). Also, ride in the seats facing in reverse. The others fill up faster.

My favorite spot these days is the downstairs of the 2-decker car. People line up for the 2-decker, but they tend to make a beeline for the seats with tables on the upper deck. They fill in the lower deck much more slowly, and early in the run you can almost always get your pick of seats.

Hand sanitizer.

Please do not do conference calls on the train. Or any calls. Your fellow riders are either just waking up/starting their day and have their own thoughts in their head to sort out, in which case your thoughts are painfully distracting, or have just gone through a workday and don't really want that atmopshere extended by overhearing someone else's workday. Boradcasting your work life is a douchey habit that some people can't or don't want to shake, but you probably don't want to be one of them.

I personally don't think the people lining up at North Station have secret knowledge; I think they're playing the averages - also, if you know the train numbers, you can see them when they come in and they switch the train number on the plaque. Most of the NBPT/Rockport trains from North Station leave from gates one through four - rarely other gates.

When I'm boarding from North Station, I get in the pack going through the doors but as soon as possible migrate to the outside of the platform, where you can move faster, and make for the farthest-away car. That's where the quiet car is, but it's also the least crowded, because most people pile into the first few cars.

Try to time your life to minimize time in North Station. It's about the worst public transport station of the scale I've ever seen - deadly boring, smells like fast food, no comfortable seating, poor services, nothing to browse (unless you like Bruins gear, a lot). If you end up with significant wait time ahead of you, it's worth it to step back outside (in summer) or a nearby bar or restaurant or coffee shop in inclement weather. You will likely get very, very tired of North Station, so avoid making yourself pass a lot of time there.
posted by Miko at 9:59 AM on April 6, 2015 [2 favorites]

From my year of the 3.5 hour commute (between Philly and NYC, not Boston, so YMMV):
A good pair of headphones is worth its weight in gold.
Bring a way to charge the thing you use to listen to music or podcasts on.
Bring some sort of energy bar (I like Larabars) so when your commute gets screwed up, you have something to eat.
As others have said, do not do noisy things on the train like have conference calls.
Figure out which side of the train has sun glare and you can avoid it.
If you end up watching movies or TV shows on your laptop, and your neighbor looks interested, offer to put on the subtitles.
Get to know your conductor if you have a regular conductor. This way if you forget your pass, they are likely to remember you and that you had it yesterday and that it was a monthly pass.
It may take a while for you to figure out a comfortable position to sit in - your back will likely hurt until you figure this out. Stretching can help.
posted by sciencegeek at 2:46 PM on April 6, 2015 [1 favorite]

We often recognize our regular engineer (one of the North Station tricks).

- Person in the know
posted by theredpen at 8:56 PM on July 11, 2015

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