"Cheers" on a train: What's the deal with Maryland Commuter Rail?
July 19, 2016 4:27 PM   Subscribe

I recently began taking Maryland's MARC commuter rail to and from work (Rockville-DC), and I'm noticing something I've never observed before in my years as a commuter. It seems that a lot (really, a very high percentage) of these passengers have come to know one another, and have formed little communities throughout the rail cars. From what I can gather, these people don't work together, and few if any of them socialize outside of their daily commute, but they are simply thrilled to see one another every day, and they swap stories, jokes, and affectionate barbs with one another in a way that reminds me of nothing so much as a cadre of barflies who've been regulars at the same watering hole for years (today, actually, several passengers passed around a bottle of wine). I hadn't taken regional commuter rail until recently; my commuting experiences have been limited to bus and city subway systems. At any rate, I HAVE SOME QUESTIONS!

  • Regional commuter rail riders: Is this a thing on other commuter rail systems? Have you seen it? Are you part of a cohort like this? How did it start? Do you ever hang out outside of your commute?
  • MARC riders specifically: I'm not wrong, am I? This is a thing? Is it a thing on other MARC lines other than the Brunswick line?
  • Everyone else: I am generally fascinated by this dynamic, and would love to read/watch anything I can get my hands on about "communities of commuters": books, articles, essays, local TV segments, podcasts, you name it. I don't know if this is a "thing" that has been written about all that much, but I'd love to know more about it.
Yes, of course, I could just approach someone and ask them. I probably will--I'm not ordinarily a shy person--but for now, I find myself oddly intimidated by their easy intimacy!
posted by duffell to Human Relations (49 answers total) 57 users marked this as a favorite
The Metro North bar car was quite the social scene.

More than one marriage (and divorce) happened within its silver walls.

Alas, it has apparently passed into history.
posted by madajb at 4:37 PM on July 19, 2016 [3 favorites]

I used to take SEPTA regional rail to work in Philadelphia in the 1980s and it was like that. I sat with the same bunch of women everyday and we did the jumble in the paper and gossiped. We mostly met on the train but there was one woman I knew from high school.
posted by interplanetjanet at 4:38 PM on July 19, 2016 [1 favorite]

I occasionally take the commuter rail in Boston, and I've noticed a camaraderie among regulars too. Seems natural if you see one another every day for years.
posted by redlines at 4:39 PM on July 19, 2016 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Article re: Metro North Bar Car
posted by gyusan at 4:44 PM on July 19, 2016 [4 favorites]

Best answer: I am generally fascinated by this dynamic, and would love to read/watch anything I can get my hands on about "communities of commuters"

A Canadian improv soap opera based on a train, about the same group of people who see each other every day: Train 48

It's exactly as high-production as you think it is.

Edit: oh crap. It's coming back to TV.
posted by randomination at 4:48 PM on July 19, 2016 [12 favorites]

Best answer: This is definitely a thing on Caltrain, the regional heavy rail in the San Francisco Bay Area. At least it is in the bike car, which is the car I was always in. You get to know the folks who are always in your car, you notice when someone misses their usual train, you share beers and jokes and stories, you help each other out ("Watch my stuff while I pee" or "Does anyone have a tire lever or a spare tube?" or "I just read on Twitter there's a major delay down the line, you might want to consider getting off the train early"). It's a neat little community, and always welcoming to new folks, too. There's a lot I don't miss about taking Caltrain now that I've moved, but I do miss that.

It's somewhat formalized by one particular group of commuters, but not by any means limited to them.
posted by rhiannonstone at 4:51 PM on July 19, 2016 [5 favorites]

I can't turn up the article I remember reading but this is a thing on one of the long commutes from the Blue Mountains to Sydney.

I know on my long commute I know who will be standing where on the platform and there are a bunch of people I know well enough now to say hello to. I sit in the quiet carriage though so no talking.
posted by kitten magic at 4:52 PM on July 19, 2016

This is a thing on the Amtrack train running from Oakland to San Jose - I haven't ridden it, but I have a friend who did, and have now met many of his "train friends"
posted by Jaclyn at 4:53 PM on July 19, 2016

This is a thing on the San Francisco Bay area ferries. On preview, maybe it's a SF thing.. except no one does anything but glare or stare at their phones on BART commutes.
posted by bradbane at 4:57 PM on July 19, 2016

A friend of mine retired from working at UNC a while ago. She had regularly taken a 10-15-minute (maybe more, I'm not sure) bus ride from a park-and-ride lot to campus, for the past year or so after she moved to her most recent residence. She made sure to have a final ride to say goodbye to her bus friends, including the driver.
posted by amtho at 5:02 PM on July 19, 2016 [4 favorites]

Jaclyn, yes, I used to take the Capitol Corridor train from Berkeley to Santa Clara some 15 years ago. Train friends were a thing. I've heard there's also a Friday evening drinking thing on Caltrain.
posted by ryanrs at 5:05 PM on July 19, 2016

Bradbane, I think subways have too many passengers and too many trains to develop communities. The commuter trains often have just one train every 30 minutes, so you're much more likely to ride with the same people every day. (Also BART is too fucking loud to chat.)
posted by ryanrs at 5:08 PM on July 19, 2016 [3 favorites]

Around Metra and Metro North/nj transit/LIRR, many folks get tall boy beers from convenience store ice chests/coolers. Check them out at Union Station..
posted by sandmanwv at 5:09 PM on July 19, 2016

Response by poster: I mean, Cheers references aside, I'm not asking specifically asking about the drinking, but that's an interesting aspect too.
posted by duffell at 5:14 PM on July 19, 2016

This is a thing on my (Denver) local bus, though not to anything like the extent of passing around a bottle of wine. We've been having short amiable chats about our jobs and lives for years. Also occasionally on our light rail, though that's mostly among the bike commuters. Probably since we have to cram in close to each other at the ends of the cars, and bikes are a ready-made conversation-starter. Strava helps cement the bike-commuter relationships -- a lot of us who have no relationship beyond similar commutes follow each other there.

The longer and more regular the ride, the more likely these connections are to happen. I really like having these sorts of low-key relationships with people I don't work with or spend real social time with.

I've also seen it in evidence on NJ Transit trains, though I never took those on the same schedule regularly enough to make train-friends that way.
posted by asperity at 5:16 PM on July 19, 2016 [1 favorite]

There was a group like this on the Buffalo City bus I used to ride every day. Recipe swapping and everything.
posted by The Underpants Monster at 5:18 PM on July 19, 2016

TV shows have been made about it.
posted by kjs4 at 5:21 PM on July 19, 2016 [2 favorites]

Best answer: I had NJT train friends and SEPTA friends when I commuted from Philly to NYC. I also had an engineer friend on the NJT train I took from Trenton-NYP.

I even had two subway friends when I took the 1 train in NYC from end to end for an early morning commute. One lived near me, actually, and the other I met when I told him to use a rubberband on his dry cleaning to keep it from sliding back and forth on the pole above his head.

My SEPTA friends and I actually came under scrutiny when there was a heightened level of terror alert - we came in late to Trenton and thus all missed our connection and were talking in the station when some form of police came and questioned us about how we knew one another. The police totally didn't know about train friends and were both confused and quite suspicious.
posted by sciencegeek at 5:21 PM on July 19, 2016 [15 favorites]

Best answer: Anecdotally, a former colleague once told me about her commute to work in Delaware. (I can't remember if she lived in Maryland and commuted by bus to Dover, or if she had recently moved from Maryland to Delaware...)

Anyway, I remember being fascinated by her telling me that nearly 3/4 of the riders on her usual bus were commuting buddies that would take turns hosting themed days, bringing snacks, having baby showers and birthday parties, you name it. This group of strangers was celebrating things like Cinco de Mayo together, but beyond their commute, had nothing in common. I don't believe they socialized together outside of the bus.

She was sad because she was attending a conference and missing one of the party bus events. As an avid transit user, I've never experienced anything like this.
posted by Juniper Toast at 5:37 PM on July 19, 2016 [16 favorites]

Metra in Chicago shut down their last bar car in 2008.

Metra also runs a private car and I can tell you that at least some of the people who ride it would chat to each other waiting for the train. However, I suspect the primary attraction of the private car is increasingly knowing you'll have a seat on a crowded train.
posted by hoyland at 5:38 PM on July 19, 2016 [2 favorites]

At a concert at Chicago's Wrigley Field one night, I thought my friend kept nodding to people, randomly. Nope they were all "from the train." There were a few folks who shocked in their non-train attire.
posted by Lil Bit of Pepper at 5:41 PM on July 19, 2016 [4 favorites]

Best answer: My boss used to take that same MARC route to a job he left more than ten years ago and has often regaled us with tales of how great that train ride party was. I can't say anything about it happening elsewhere, but can confirm: that commute has been partying together for a loooong time. You are not wrong.
posted by AliceBlue at 5:45 PM on July 19, 2016 [8 favorites]

I had a friend who commuted into Chicago on Metra from the northern suburbs (about an hour train ride or so) and she talked about her various train friends; as recently as a few years ago. I dunno I have had long commutes, on all different train systems in different parts of the country, taking the same trains every day, riding in the same cars, but never saw the same people twice. If other people didn't say it existed I wouldn't believe it either.
posted by bleep at 5:46 PM on July 19, 2016

Same deal on Amtrak Cascades running south from Portland OR to Oregon City, Salem, Albany, Eugene. Mostly in the lounge car and mostly between the downtown Portland stop to Oregon City; things quiet down the farther from the city you get. There are several regular riders (2-5x weekly) who sit in the regular coaches instead as they're not the social types. The train crews get in on it as well as the conductor and assistant will usually keep a reserved table for their stuff (snacks, carry-on bag, etc).
posted by frontmn23 at 6:24 PM on July 19, 2016 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I distinctly remember reading about this in the Washington Post... ... ... ...and I found it!
posted by CatastropheWaitress at 6:24 PM on July 19, 2016 [6 favorites]

This is definitely a thing on Metra (into Chicago). I noticed it more in the mornings, but only because I took the same morning train in every day but took different evening trains (depending on how late I stayed at work, which bus I took to the train station, traffic, etc.) I didn't have a particular group I sat with in the morning - I generally sat in a single seat on the top level and slept during the morning commute. I did have a group of friends I sat with in the evening if we all made it onto the same train. My boyfriend now takes the train in and has his groups of train buddies.
posted by SisterHavana at 6:26 PM on July 19, 2016 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: That Post article is wonderful! Yay friends on trains!
posted by duffell at 6:27 PM on July 19, 2016 [1 favorite]

My brother and sister-in-law met on MARTA in Atlanta, they took the same train every day. Been married for more than 20 years!

Be grateful you ride commuter rail instead of the DC Metro, it sounds like a lot more fun!
posted by bessiemae at 6:34 PM on July 19, 2016 [4 favorites]

I marveled at this phenomenon on the Metrolink to/from LA. I saw a Secret Santa exchange one year, train potlucks, hugs goodbye... And they seemingly didn't work together. Fascinating.
posted by cecic at 7:03 PM on July 19, 2016

I experienced this on my MARC days back in the 90s. There's something about getting up at the ass-crack of dawn to take a train whose conductors have unrepentent Baltimore accents (Boo-wee State!) that brings folks together.

My mother did the MARC thing in the 2000s and made many friendships the same way.
posted by tafetta, darling! at 7:30 PM on July 19, 2016

I've been riding the MARC Camden line daily since 2001 (starting the day before 9/11, actually). I have a regular group of friends with whom I hang out with on the platform (less so on the train itself, because the Camden line is very quiet in the mornings and I ride in the quiet car on the way home). There are a few folks I've met that way that I've ended up emailing with or even having lunch with occasionally. But mostly people just come and go -- and when they disappear, it's usually hard to figure out what happened to them. At one point I was chatting every day on the platform to an elderly paleontologist who worked at the Smithsonian, but I haven't seen him for a long time and I'm sort of afraid he's dead. I also miss Chris, who worked in IT and knew a lot about various commuting options; Susan, who did something important at the Library of Congress and once gave me a ride home from Greenbelt when the trains were blocked; and Rachel, who worked for a non-profit, had awesome red curly hair, and was on the fence about having children.

I've also had some funny experiences with people who recognize me from the train but whom I have never noticed. Once when I was in a DC-area airport early in the morning a woman came bounding up to me and said, "I see we're commuting together again today!" I had no clue (although I did go on to become pretty friendly with her back on the platform). And once when I was waiting for the Metro at Union Station just after getting off the train a woman came up to me and told me that she had been watching me on the MARC for *years* and that I would look better if I did my hair differently. Uh, thanks?
posted by leslieporter at 7:46 PM on July 19, 2016 [3 favorites]

My aunt has taken the same bus from the North Shore in Massachusetts into Cambridge for years and I know that she has a group of regulars she talks with.
posted by bendy at 8:17 PM on July 19, 2016

I'm on my phone so I can't hunt around for a link right now , but I remember watching a video (might have been something akin to a 60 Minutes - style profile) about a group of commute buddies on the Staten Island ferry. They had been commuting together for something like 10 years, and had been through each other's life milestones, but never saw each other outside of the ferry. It was pretty cool, would be worth looking online to see if it's up somewhere.
posted by DrGirlfriend at 8:27 PM on July 19, 2016

There are at least two bus routes in Seattle that seem to have groups of friends, although I'm not a regular on either and they might just have *really reliably friendly* people. The 9 and... it was the 28? and is now a lettered route?
posted by clew at 8:31 PM on July 19, 2016

Oh, yes, this is a thing, or at least was when I was commuting from Columbia, MD to DC. I alternated between taking the Camden MARC line and taking the Columbia commuter buses--I made "bus friends" in the 12 years I made that commute.
posted by apartment dweller at 8:53 PM on July 19, 2016

Train 48 mentioned above was based on a short-lived Australian TV show called "Going Home" https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Going_Home_(TV_series). Glad to hear the Canadian one lasted a bit longer it's an interesting concept..!

Scripted, filmed, edited and broadcast on the same day, Going Home was set in a nightly inter-urban commuter train. A group of regular train travelers are featured on their daily commute in a blend of up-to-the-minute commentary on the news and events of the day, together with the unfolding dramas in their lives. Viewer feedback was encouraged, including plot and character suggestions that were regularly incorporated into subsequent episodes.

Definitely a thing on some long Australian commutes to Central Sydney. I had friend who took a temporary job in central Sydney but kept living in Newcastle which is a 2.5 hour daily commute each way (yup- each way! Commuter train though so quite cheap and her rent was about 1/3 of the price of inner Sydney rent). She'd bring a pillow in the morning and sleep. Between the knowledge that they see her sleep and she wakes up to them daily and bonding over their horror commute, her and "the regulars" became pretty tight pretty quickly.
posted by hotcoroner at 11:24 PM on July 19, 2016 [2 favorites]

This is a thing I've heard of in the U.K. as well. One of my collegues talks about a well established train friendship group (they all commute in on one of the rural stopping services to Leeds). I know that they all meet up for drinks at Christmas, but apart from that I think they just interact on the train.
posted by Ned G at 2:32 AM on July 20, 2016

I definitely noticed this on the MBTA Commuter Rail.
posted by woodvine at 5:26 AM on July 20, 2016

I ride the CDOT bus from Fort Collins to Denver and it's definitely a thing. I rode it on its first day but didn't start riding regularly for another two or three months after that, by which time a little bit of a Bus Friends Circle had already started on my usual route. It's been neat to see it grow over time from the beginning (though most of the 6:30 regulars aren't here today...).
posted by jackflaps at 5:44 AM on July 20, 2016 [2 favorites]

I took a 5:42 train everyday for about 5 years. I stood (long story) in the same place and there were other regular standers that has sort of reserved spots. We all respected each other's spots and would tell a newbie that that spot was occupied if the regular had not gotten on yet. I talked to these guys everyday about all sorts of things and knew about their jobs, wives, kids, buddies, etc. Now, 10 years on, I still occassionally bump into one at Grand Central or on the subway and say hello. I have no idea what anyone's name is beyond their stop. "Oh, there is Valhalla Station guy" is the thought that goes through my head.

I also have friends in town who ride the same car, same seats and play cards everyday with train buddies. They sit in the seats that face each other, pull down an ad cardboard "table" from the wall and play cards everyday on the same train, same car, same seats.
posted by AugustWest at 7:38 AM on July 20, 2016 [1 favorite]

You (and others in this thread) might be interested in the private club-car that still operates on the commuter rail system in Chicago! (On preview, sorry missed that someone already posted).
posted by Mid at 7:44 AM on July 20, 2016

Best answer: I've been riding suburban Chicago's Metra train system for a decade, and it's been fascinating to watch these groups. On my current line, there are several different groups who sit together every evening, from the same pairings to large, multi-row chat groups. One is particularly elaborate, sprawling over the same dozen or so seats. They even have a sign-up sheet they use to determine who buys the case of beer each day. A few weeks ago, when I walked through, they had set up a baby shower (streamers, balloons) for one of their regulars.

On the flip side, if you unknowingly sit in one of their seats, you may very well be asked to move.

I've observed that most of these tend to be the riders with the really long rides - an hour or more, which is plenty of time to make friends.

I actually wrote a very bad draft of a very bad novel about this very phenomenon.
posted by writermcwriterson at 8:31 AM on July 20, 2016 [8 favorites]

In Washington state, I ride the ferry for an hour each way every week day (Bremerton-Seattle, and reverse). This is definitely a thing on the boat, especially in the galley, and *especially* in the afternoon, when they serve (overpriced) beer and wine.
I've socialized regularly with a number of groups in the 15 years I've been doing this - people come and go, and a few folks I realized were just "not my people", so I switched.
I've seen birthdays celebrated a lot, and groups have raised money (vie GoFundMe) for fellow passengers/galley staff with cancer and such.
There is a sense of 'reserved' seating, but we just grumble under our breath and sit somewhere else when tourists take 'our' spot.
posted by dbmcd at 8:53 AM on July 20, 2016 [1 favorite]

Common in the UK too. People have carriage parties and stuff like that.
posted by tinkletown at 4:26 PM on July 20, 2016 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Yes! I take a commuter line and have ridden that same route with the same people twice a day for a decade--I know some of them very well. We invite each other to weddings, check up on the kids, you know when someone's on vacation, and once when someone was very ill they passed a collection around on the bus. Some days I'm not up for the party (I had a bad day, I just want to read, I don't want to talk!) but mostly I really enjoy it. I met some of my closest friends there and sometimes I think I wouldn't have any friends at all if I didn't take that line. I miss it when there are schedule variations and we aren't all there.

Nice to find out this is a thing elsewhere. I find it kind of charming:)
posted by epanalepsis at 6:00 AM on July 21, 2016 [4 favorites]

Oh, and about "do you ever hang out outside of your commute" -- yes to that as well. One person I met on the commute has turned into a close confidante and we have lunch every few weeks together. And once I got a job offer from a fellow rider! It didn't work out (the company folded right after I interviewed), but it's neat that it happened at all.
posted by epanalepsis at 7:45 AM on July 21, 2016 [1 favorite]

I noticed this too while riding MARC when I took a seminar in DC! I always thought it was charming and still wish I could have commute buddies.
posted by apricot at 8:53 PM on July 21, 2016

I've been catching trains and consistent times in the AM and PM in Brisbane, Sydney and Melbourne for about the past 16 years and at most I see one group of maybe 3 people who seem to not be related, who are catching up in a familiar-seeming fashion, so this seems a pretty non-Australian phenomenon, at least.
posted by turbid dahlia at 6:04 PM on July 25, 2016

I am (now, years later) Facebook friends with one of the guys I used to commute with every morning on an early MAX from downtown Portland to Beaverton. When you see the same people every day in a confined space eventually you start chatting, although I'm guessing smart phones will eventually kill this off...
posted by togdon at 6:04 PM on July 26, 2016

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