Commuter trains from hell: another morning of backpack warriors, office turtles and hamburgers with the lot

Common courtesy is not so common anymore. Certainly not on public transport. And as for trains – troughs on wheels – you will only find manners, courtesy and consideration if you google them on your mobile device.
Commuter travel has become intolerable. Any day now I expect some passengers – or “customers” as they are now known – to come on board with a couple of chooks and a kero stove to make fresh eggs for breakfast, and perhaps a goat for a lovely glass of organic milk afterwards.
At their worst, modern train travellers are (in alphabetical order) boorish, illmannered, inconsiderate, loud, vulgar, selfish and may or may not have their own teeth.
While the authorities can justify placing considerable effort and resources into apprehending fare evaders, the operator of Melbourne’s train system, Metro, appears helpless to stop the vandals, graffiti gangs and takeaway food-ferals from turning train carriages into aftermath scenes from Glastonbury.
Trains are crowded and clearly illdesigned and illequipped for the throngs they must carry.
Granted, the crush of public transport travel is simply a reality of a busy, growing urban population. Unfortunately, most of our fellow travellers choose not to observe certain norms of behaviour that would make travel as comfortable – or at least tolerable – as possible for all concerned. That’s where the public transport experience falls down. Most commuters couldn’t give a stuff about anyone else.
What makes public transport travel to and from work such an ordeal is not so much the overcrowding but the astonishing rudeness and lack of consideration that one daily encounters within the heaving, graffiti-laden walls of public conveyances.
The rudeness starts when the train stops at the platform. Instead of waiting for people to get off before boarding, unthinking passengers desperate to secure a space charge into the bulging carriage. The ensuing contest of opposing forces resembles a cross between the Battle of Beersheba and World Championship Wrestling.
Occasionally one will hear a warrior-passenger cry: “Would you mind moving down the carriage please, there’s plenty of room!”. Those on the train hanging on for dear life will be wondering exactly where that room might be.
But it’s also true that there is the territorial passenger who manages to occupy a strategic standing position, as near the door as possible, who will not move to make way for oncoming passengers come what may.
If there does happen to be an unoccupied seat, usually a corner island of torn, tattered and food-encrusted upholstery located within a heaving mass of humanity and their possessions, there will always be someone who makes it their mission to claim it. Usually it’s someone of considerable mass, carrying enough hand-held and strapped-on baggage to resemble a one-person Burke and Wills expedition, with the force, determination and rudeness to burrow through any throng. It’s the commuter equivalent of Taz the Warner Bros cartoon Tasmanian Devil getting from A to B with maximum disruption.
I have observed more than once somebody cause considerable mayhem and upset to claim a seat, only to alight one or two stops later.
Meet the Office Turtles
Once on board, the carriage is mostly populated by office turtles. They are instantly recognisable: business attire incongruously offset by backpacks, giant white sports shoes and a flurry of wires.
The office turtles are not a generational oddity, nor is the phenomenon defined by gender. One of the regular turtles I used to encounter was a woman of approximately 60 years, prim and proper in outwardly appearance, neatly attired in grey, lips pursed, most likely a secretary – she was almost a caricature of the no-nonsense PA: except for the giant white runners and a backpack the size of Townsville. Anyone who stood between a seat and Miss Daisy was about to have their morning ruined.
Despite the cramped conditions, office turtles generally keep their backpacks on, much to the discomfort of whoever happens to be standing behind them. More than once I have been in danger of being smothered by a burly backpack. When I dare to push them aside, it’s I who get the look for being rude.
And who knew that Chanel makes backpacks? The tossers who wear them still look like office turtles, but very posh turtles. And they don’t look as if they’re moving house because Chanel backpacks are very dainty. It’s only a matter of time before Chanel produces commuter sports shoes.
Office turtles behave as if they are the only ones on the train. They are not only a visual blight, but a risk to life and limb.
Those few who are considerate enough to remove their backpacks on the train show no such courtesy when, with great exaggeration, they swing their backpacks back on as the train reaches their stop. Many a time have I received a full-force blow by an airborne backpack – and never a murmur of apology. There is no such thing as backpack etiquette on public transport: it’s every turtle for himself.
Basic passenger etiquette is a thing of the past. It is no longer the norm, for example, for people to cover their mouths when yawning. Scores of passengers doing their best imitations of somnolent hippos are not a pretty sight. A young person once looked at me with some curiosity as I yawned, and then I realised that she had probably never seen somebody cover their mouth when yawning before.
Cracking one’s knuckles is another popular sport on trains. Few sounds are more disgusting than somebody methodically cracking their knuckles one by one. Some do it with a bit of a flourish, like that swipe of the keyboard that some pianists favour when they complete their bouncy number. But it’s still noisy and disgusting.
Feeling peckish for a peak-hour snack
More than any other breach of consideration for others is eating on the train. No matter how crowded and uncomfortable, there is always someone, morning or late afternoon, who feels the urge to tuck into a hamburger with the lot, a bucket of KFC or very often, by the sounds of it, bags of gravel.
I have stood next to someone on a crowded train, eyeball to eyeball, who munched away merrily on carrot sticks. The unseemly experience was not only noisy, but pungent. Somehow he was able to negotiate a bag of carrot sticks and a tub of exotic dipping sauce while maintaining his balance.
Construction workers enjoying takeaway curry, office girls with bottomless bags of nuts, university students and office workers with steaming bags of McDonald’s, and there’s always someone with a juicy, crunchy apple.
A few days ago an office worker got on the train and proceeded to pour milk and cereal into a bowl and crunched away for the next several stops, right down to the tap-tap-tapping of the bottom of her plastic bowl to ensure every last morsel was devoured. Unspeakable.
It ‘s now fashionable to come on board with cups of takeaway coffee. These people really can’t wait until they get to their destination to have a cup of coffee? Or have it at home? Apparently not. So, on crowded morning trains people are nursing cups of coffee, avoiding swinging backpacks as they take furtive sips. I know that one day I’m going to end up wearing somebody’s morning brew – sooner or latte.
Worse than passengers rude enough to eat on crowded trains is passengers who insist on devouring each other. I refer to young newbie lovers intent on demonstrating their undying love for each other, oblivious to the delicate constitutions of others, most notably mine.
One of these days some idiot is going to get on his knees and propose marriage to his one true love. He best not be too close as there is every chance he will find himself at the receiving end of a technicolour yawn (apologies to Barry McKenzie).
On top of these outrages against good taste is the scourge of interminable mobile phone conversations and the audio pollution of invasive “personal” music devices, which emit the dubious musical tastes of their owners.
All of this is not just about trains. The crowded trains are a microcosm of wider society and its preoccupation with self. Perhaps the lack of consideration for others and the primacy of individual comfort is a coping mechanism for the pressures of life in the new century.
Such onslaughts against civility – the overcrowding, the selfishness, the boorish excesses – will only get worse as populations climb. There’s always something to look forward to on public transport. And watch out for goats.

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2 thoughts on “Commuter trains from hell: another morning of backpack warriors, office turtles and hamburgers with the lot

  1. Leo, this made laugh and want to weep in equal measure. Everything you say rings true, but you forgot to mention the the transport officer thugs picking on minorities and teenagers, licking their lips as they seek out willing victims

  2. Great piece.

    I don’t use the train to commute to work anymore, just occasionally if I go to HQ or court to do a story. Train travel is so gross these days. You are right. The lack of manners is appalling. It just gets me so annoyed. If I travel during off peak times – say with my children during the day – it’s not as bad. However there are some strange and scary types who use the trains during the day.

    I lived in London for years and really miss the tube. There were unspoken rules and etiquettes. That’s what happens when people are reliant on a transport system rather than cars.

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