Transit 101 – Episode 6 – Riding the train

Learn how to ride the train…

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In this episode of Transit 101, I will explain how to get from A to B via rail. If you’re riding a passenger rail system for the first time, you may be intimidated. Don’t worry though, it’s not as hard as you may think. However, there’s a few key things you’ll want to follow before heading out to the rail station.

  1. Have your origin & destination stops in mind. Or at least the closest landmarks or other points of interest that will help you get to where you need to go. Need to plan out your trip? Check out Episode 1.
  2. Allow enough time for departure & arrival. Ideally, you’ll want to get to your origin rail station no later than 10 minutes prior to the scheduled departure. If your transit agency has a real-time transit tracker application, this can certainly help with knowing approximately what time your train will arrive. Need help with understanding a transit schedule? Check out Episode 2.
  3. Have your fare ready. Unlike bus systems, rail systems will require that you have some form of purchased fare media ready – whether it be a pre-purchased mag-swipe card, tap-and-go card, or mobile fare payment application. Need to know more about transit fares? Check out Episode 3.
Just like a bus system, Google Maps can help you pinpoint the location of your nearest rail station.

Heading to the origin rail station

Once you’ve been able to locate your starting train route & where the nearest station for that route & direction are located, you’ll want to leave promptly when it is time to do so in order to allow enough time to catch the train. If you’re having to use a bus route or two to reach your respective rail station, you will need to account for the time needed to get to the origin bus stop, travel time, & any transfers you’ll need to make, as well as weather conditions.

Also be mindful that not all rail systems will allow you to bring your bike with you – especially during peak times, so be sure to check with your respective transit agency as to what their policy is regarding bringing your bike with you on the train. Just like getting to a bus stop, weather conditions & other unforseen circumstances may make your journey more difficult.

  • Bringing your bike with you? Check out Episode 3.
  • Need to use the bus to connect to your train? Check out Episode 4.

Just like a bus stop, rail stations take on many forms, so identifying your respective station may be a challenge.

Arriving at the rail station

Because many rail stations are uniquely constructed, identifying them can sometimes be more of a challenge than locating a bus stop. Even more confusing sometimes, is locating where the exact entrance is. Light rail, streetcar, commuter/suburban rail, intercity rail, & elevated subway/metro stations often have easily identifiable station entrances. With underground subway/metro stations though, some entrances can be obscured within existing buildings.

Once you’ve identified where the station entrance is, be sure to have your fare media ready to validate at the turnstile or validator machine. Virtually all subway/metro systems & some commuter/suburban rail systems have controlled access, where you must pass through traditional turnstiles with valid fare media before you can access the train platform. Other commuter/suburban rail systems, intercity rail systems, & streetcar/light rail systems typically have more of an open access protocol, where you are basically freely able to walk onto the train platform without encountering a turnstile or other gated access. However, you must still have valid fare media with you at all times – as transit agencies typically employ staff members who are required to check that your fare media is indeed valid.

While many rail stations have the option of purchasing fare media from a staffed booth on-site, many also have ticket vending machines where fare media can be purchased. Many transit agencies allow you to purchase transit passes/cards online & are also adopting mobile fare payment apps. Additionally, contactless bank cards are being adopted as an additional avenue to pay transit fares without having to have separate media in hand.

Once you’ve ensured that your valid fare media is ready, it’s time to proceed to the train platform. Just like riding the bus system, riding the train system can be challenging if you don’t know which platform your train will arrive on. Virtually all rail stations have signage of some sort to help lead you in the right direction – including which track & platform you’ll need to proceed to. If you’re traversing through a complex rail station with multiple lines & services, it’s extremely important that you follow the signs to the correct concourse by which your particular rail line will board at.


Be sure to locate the correct track…

Waiting for the train to arrive

Once you’ve located the correct platform and track by which your train is set to arrive at, be sure to stand clear of the platform edge, as failing to do so can result in serious injury or even death (that’s not a joke folks). The platform edge is typically indicated by some form of special surface that is brightly colored (either white or yellow). Most subway/metro stations will have some form of limited basic seating available, but you should be courteous & offer such seats to those with disabilities, the elderly, expectant mothers, & young children. If you must stand, please stand a reasonable distance away from the platform edge, while not brushing up against other commuters.

While many light rail, streetcar, commuter, & intercity rail lines are powered either by overhead electrical wiring (also known as catenary wire) – with some commuter & intercity rail lines using diesel-powered trains, many subway/metro systems are powered by what is known as a third rail. This special beam (indicated in the second photo above) carries the electrical current that is needed to power the subway/metro train & can carry deadly results should a person make contact with it in any way while it’s live.

Many subway/metro systems, as well as many commuter rail systems, have countdown clocks to inform customers of when the next train will arrive.

As you’re waiting for the train, you may notice some form of a countdown clock nearby to inform you of when the next train will arrive. Such clocks can come in the form of an LED display or LCD TV screen.

As the train approaches, please step away from the platform edge.

As the train approaches the station, you may hear an automated intercom announcement stating to step away from the platform edge & prepare to board the train. Please be sure to keep a reasonable distance from the train as it arrives, & wait until it has made a complete stop before attempting to board. Additionally, as a courtesy, you want to allow departing customers to exit the train first before attempting to board.


A very crowded subway train in New York City.

Once on board the train…

…find a seat & enjoy the ride! Keep in mind that there may be times where you will be standing – especially during peak hours. While many trains have ample seating, please always be mindful of any “Priority Seating” areas that are specifically designated for those with disabilities, the elderly, & expectant mothers. You’ll want want to offer these seats to such individuals if they board the train. Also, many subway/metro systems do not have special provisions – especially on older trains – so please be mindful to offer your seat to these individuals as trains become crowded.

Please be mindful of when your next stop will be. Unlike buses, there are no push buttons or cords to notify the operator as to when you wish to exit. You’ll want to have either a print or digital copy of the rail system map as reference for where to exit. Many newer trains have automated stop announcements & (in many cases as well) digital displays that show what the next stops are. Older trains should have static maps available. These tools will also help aid you in getting off at the right stop.

Handrails; when you’re able to reach onto one, hold tight, cause the train may travel fast.

Commuter/suburban rail & intercity rail systems are much different than urban systems like subways/metros, streetcars, & light rail.

Commuter/suburban & intercity rail trains are configured differently than subway/metro & light rail/streetcar trains. Many commuter & intercity rail cars have plush seating – with some seats having pull-down trays (like on commercial aircraft) or static tables (such as the ones pictured above). Many such trains also feature bar and/or dining cars available to add onto the customer experience. Again though, there are no special buttons or pull cords to indicate to the operator that you wish to exit, so it’s always helpful to have a map handy so that you know which stop to exit at. Also, be sure to have your valid fare media ready to show to on-board staff members in the event that they commence with a fare inspection (the latter also applies to many light rail/streetcar systems).


Once you’ve exited the train, step back from the platform edge & allow others to exit & enter.

Exiting the train

When you’ve reached your destination station, be sure to stand close to the nearest exit door so that you can exit as quickly as possible. For your own safety, as well as the safety of others, refrain from pushing your way out of the train, as such can risk injury to yourself & others. On some commuter rail & many intercity rail lines, the boarding/de-boarding process may be a bit more similar to commercial aviation, so please be extra patient in these situations because different rules may apply.

Once off the train, step a reasonable distance away from the platform edge & allow others to exit & board. If you need to make a transfer, please be sure to locate signage that will lead you to the correct concourse, platform, & track. If exiting the station, follow the respective signs to exit the station.


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