Strangers on Trains


I’m not the sort of person who starts conversations with strangers on trains. The usual extent of my dialogue is with the nice man who struggles up and down the aisle with his trolley of drinks and light refreshments. The conversation is minimalist in the extreme:-


Trolley Man : Any drinks or light refreshments?
Passenger 1 : Tea, please. *
Trolley Man : Milk and sugar?
Passenger 1 : Just milk please.

Passenger 1 hands £2.10 to Trolley Man as Trolley man passes tea, milk and a wooden stick to Passenger 1

Trolley Man : Would you like a pastry with that?
Passenger 1 : No thanks.

Passenger 1 returns to scrutinising his Blackberry. Trolley man exits carriage right.

End of Scene 1.

Passenger 1 was played by Me. Trolley Man was played by himself. Other parts were played by members of the cast.

* If I am feeling particularly talkative and trendy, I may vary my opening line to Can I get a tea please?


The thing is nobody in their right mind starts a conversation with a stranger on a train. And the scary thing about a train journey is that it throws you into close proximity with people you would never chose to be in close proximity with. And certainly not for several hours on end as you weave together through Leamington Spa and all stations to Southampton Airport Parkway. So the challenge is to keep as far away from other people as you can do (every inch counts) and avoid all unnecessary contact. This is a public health warning.

Thus we engage in the difficult but enjoyable game of Seat Strategy. My primary objective is to find a empty aisle seat next to an empty window seat, ideally with a table, and occupy them both. This is not only driven by the need to have personal space, but also so that I can put my bag on the window seat, plug in my laptop and use the adjacent flip-down table for assorted items and rubbish. Also to hang my jacket up on one of those convenient little hooks next to the window.

And to find this combination in the (so-called) Quiet coach. Whilst conversations with other passengers are not prohibited in the Quiet Coach – only the use of mobile phones is officially banned – they are simply discouraged by the silent majority.

Step One is to be first at the Quiet Coach door when the train pulls in. A working knowledge of train lengths, formations and direction of travel helps. If you find yourself staring at First Class you are at the wrong end of the train. Having alighted, Step Two is to find a seat which is not reserved, next to a seat which is not reserved, or is reserved by someone who isn’t going to bother to show up.

You may ask why I don’t reserve a seat myself. For the obvious reason that it gives me no choice of who is next to me.

The stipulation of the quiet coach makes the seat challenge 10 times more difficult. There is only ever one quiet coach – irrespective of the length of the train. 25% of the quiet coach is taken up by one of those ‘restrooms’ with an enormous sliding door and a further chunk is excluded by the luggage area. So the number of seats is restricted. If finding any seat on a train is level 1, we are now at level 5.

For those of you who have not travelled in the modern techno-enabled delight which is Cross-Country Trains, I need to explain that there is a small LED display above each pair of seats indicating the reservation status. If the pairing advertises “available” and “available”, I am in luck. It may say “reserved from Reading”. If we are beyond Reading, chances are the reservee has missed the train, sat in a different seat or sadly passed away this morning (my condolences).

If we are not yet at Reading, I could occupy it temporarily whilst plotting my next tactical manouvre through the carriage. I think this is called establishing a bulkhead. If I am unfortunate enough to get on at Reading, I look elsewhere as he may be queuing behind me. All well and good unless the LED system is broken. Then it is pot luck. And all the best games have a good mix of skill and luck.

The problem with “available” and “available” is that some unpredictable stranger may sit next to you. So, stage two of Seat Strategy is “avoiding have anyone sit next to you”. Sitting in the aisle seat is a good first move. Nobody can get to sit next to you without engaging in dialogue. And we have already established that is a significant deterrent. Having lots of things on the seat next to you and avoiding looking up when people get on board also help.

I have found that taking a seat at either end of the train tends to be better, as people will walk past, hoping for an easier seat to occupy further along the carriage. More drastic tactics include plugging yourself into your iPod so as not to hear them or feigning sleep or drunkenness. Or simply saying when asked “is that seat free” – “Yes – but I have a tendency to lash out uncontrollably”

From Derby to Birmingham, and often as far as Oxford, none of these tactic is likely to work. The train is full and I am up against other hardened commuters. They will always want a seat and will always get a seat, even if it means me shifting my tea, bags, jacket and rubbish and unplugging my laptop from the socket under the window. On the upside, we hardened commuters talk to nobody, preferring intercourse with our smart phones, computers, newspapers or alter egos.

And so we travel on – encapsulated in a metal box on wheels, rattling through the English countryside, an eclectic mix of commuters in suits, couples on a mini-break, kids going to school, a young woman going to be a bridesmaid at a wedding in Leeds, a cyclist heading for the ferry across the channel.

I only mention these last two as I broke my golden rule and actually talked to them, and found myself in the uncharted waters of having interesting conversations.

In my defence, the conversation with the cyclist was not with a stranger at all. I had sat in my seat from Derby – with nobody next to me and with a table (I am getting good at this). Up until Oxford I had tapped away at my laptop, exchanged my usual succinct dialogue and transaction with Trolley Man and plugged myself into some iTunes. I had successfully defended my territory at Burton and Coventry. As I emerged from my recluse, I overheard the two guys next to me talking. They were dressed as cyclists talking about cycling. I guessed they were cyclists. Call me Mr Holmes.

My attention was aroused – being a recent convert to this same activity. Like many obsessions, it has a jargon of its own and an unhealthy interest in the minutia (in this case) of gear ratios, pedal types and power to weight ratios. But more interesting than this was the fact that I immediately recognised the voice.

I hadn’t realised how unique and entirely distinctive voices are. Like our faces, all voices are fundamentally the same and yet entirely and very subtly different. There are endless cocktails of tone, volume, accent, speed, inflections, mannerisms, emphases and habitual expressions. This voice was a northern mid-pitch drawl with a little whine and an over-emphasis on the letter “t”. I hadn’t heard it for probably 15 years. But I knew who he was in an instant.

It reminded me of the time I was lying on Exmouth beach in 1984 when I heard my erstwhile French teacher speaking two meters behind me. Zut alors. Eh bien.

This man used to be a senior manager at Boots HQ. He once gave my boss a severe dressing down in the open office. He was noted for his temper and was moderately formidable. Now here he was, plucked out of history and deposited across the aisle from me, trapped in the window seat by his friend and seemingly oblivious to my presence. It took me a while to decide what to. I was slightly flustered and quite uncomfortable.

My daughter and I once agreed that the hardest people to deal with are not strangers, but people you sort of know, yet are not really friends with. Particularly when you bump into them unexpectedly. As a child, I would have crossed the street, in a mutual but unexpressed agreement by both parties to have not seen each other. Maybe cycle man was playing the same game.

After about 20 minutes of internal debate and further tapping on my laptop, his friend got up and went to the rest room (with the enormous sliding door).

I leaned over, offered my hand, smiled warmly; “I recognised your voice . . .”


Passenger 1 : I recognised your voice . . .

Passenger 1 smiles and offers his hand

Passenger 2 : . . . . . . . .

Passenger 1 states his name.

Passenger 2 : Oh yes, how are you?

Passenger 2 shakes the hand of passenger 1 and extensive interesting dialogue ensues. Passenger 1 alights at Southampton Airport Parkway unexpectedly bouyed and moderately enriched by an on-train conversation.


If you enjoyed this ramble, or wanted to share your own railway experiences, please leave a comment, like it or rate it. You may also like … on related themes:-

Dogs on Trains
Drunks on Trains
My Inner Tubes
The Joys of Cycling
I mean, You know

  6 comments for “Strangers on Trains

  1. Hannah B
    November 25, 2012 at 12:41 am

    I just came across this!
    The bus I get home from work is a busy bus, so you will inevitably have to sit next to someone. I find the best option is to get on about 3/4 of the way down the queue, as this way you still get a seat but you do get a small selection of options. Usually I would go for a clean, normal looking woman as they somehow seem the least threatening. Definitely one of the more judgmental points of my day!

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