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January 01, 2007

"The Secrets of Riding Metro-North"

Each week, dozens of people ride Metro-North for the first time. This week’s column is to let those new, and veteran, commuters in on the secrets of a successful rail commute.

PARKING: You can’t take the train if you can’t get to the station, so invest in your commuting future by getting your name on your town’s (and neighboring towns’) waiting lists for annual permits. In four or five years, when your name rises to the top of the list, you’ll thank yourself. Meantime, opt for legal day-parking or find a friend to ride to the station with.

PLATFORM POSITIONING: There’s a science to deciding where on the platform to wait for your train. Many commuters position themselves at the front or rear of the train for a quick get-away when they arrive in Grand Central. Contrarian that I am, I tend toward the center of the train because that’s where there’s a better chance of getting a seat.

FINDING A SEAT: Believe me… your commute will be a lot better seated than standing. Seats are in short supply, so here’s the strategy. As your train pulls in, scan the cars that pass you and see how the passenger load looks. As the doors open, move quickly inside, eye-ball your target seat and get there fast. Put your carry-ons in the overhead rack and sit down. If you hesitate, you’re toast and will be a standee.

On trains leaving Grand Central you may be able to get onboard up to 20 minutes before departure. Take a window or aisle seat on the three seat side. The middle seat next to you will be the last to be filled.

STANDEE STRATEGY: If you didn’t get a seat on boarding, don’t give up. A few people on most trains get off in Stamford, so look for them and position yourself to get their seat before it gets cold. Here’s the secret: intermediate passengers have seat checks with a tear down the middle or a torn corner. Look for them and just before Stamford, position yourself near their row and, bingo, you’ve got a seat!

TICKETS: Do not make the mistake of boarding a train without a ticket, or you’ll get hit with up to $5 penalty for buying a ticket on the train with cash. But if you’re thrifty, don’t buy a ticket from a ticket window or ticket machine. No, the cheapest tickets are only available online at http://www.mta.info/ . Go for the ten-trip tickets for an additional discount.

LAPTOP LOSERS: A piece of advice for those who travel with laptop computers. Never, ever plug in your laptop to the AC plug found on the three and two-seat combo seats near the vestibule. Clever commuters often stake out these seats just for the privilege of accessing the plug, but at their peril. Those plugs are for maintenance workers cleaning the cars in the yards, not for the sensitive electronics of your computer. The power from those plugs is uneven in voltage and often spikes when the train power changes from overhead to third-rail. That can fry your motherboard. Play it safe and carry back-up batteries, but never plug in!

ON-BOARD ETIQUETTE: On this topic I could write a book! Suffice it to say, train time is not “your own time”, but shared time. So be considerate of your fellow commuters. Don’t hog empty seats… use the overhead racks. Keep your feet off the seats. If you must use your cellphone, go to the vestibule. Be a good scout: anything you carry onto the train (including newspapers, coffee cups, etc.) carry off the train and dispose of properly.

If you’ve got your own “secrets” for a successful commute, send them along and I’ll include them in upcoming columns. Just e-mail me at TRAINS@CAMCOMM.COM

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JIM CAMERON has been a Darien resident, transit activist and Metro-North commuter for 15 years. You can reach him at trains@camcomm.com or at www.trainweb.org/ct