Picture the scene. It’s not even 7am, you’re standing on the damp grey platform at Canterbury West as the sun struggles to get above the horizon. The Samaritans have just given you a teabag. You still have over an hour before you arrive in the office.
Your only saving grace is the knowledge that you can collapse in the seat, close your eyes and block out the world for 55 minutes until the train pulls into St Pancras.
But then something terrible happens. There’s a newbie beside you on the platform. Worse, it’s somebody you vaguely know and you’re going to have to acknowledge them. They don’t know the rules. They are about to commit a cardinal sin and break one of the ten incommutable laws of the commute.
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Don’t talk in the morning
There’s a system. Commuters aren’t all inherently horrible people – even at that time of day. If you sit next to somebody, a little light conversation is permitted – but only as far as Ashford. Anything after that, and you’re cutting into the vital, life-saving snooze time that we all need to make the mornings bearable.
Don’t push this rule unless there’s a clear and present risk to life. And even then, you’d better be polite about it.
Never have loud conversations on the phone
This rule is slightly more relaxed on the way home, but there’s a small railway shed just off a siding beside Stratford International, filled with the bodies of chirpy morning people who incorrectly assumed nobody would mind if they phoned their bestie to deconstruct last night’s episode of The Walking Dead.
If you have to telecommunicate with somebody, text. But you’d better tap quietly.
Avoid putting your elbow over the armrest
Some naïve or socially inept rail users sometimes labour under the misapprehension that the armrest is something to rest your arm on.
This myth must be urgently dispelled. The armrest exists solely to prevent your own body mass encroaching into the personal space of the person in the next seat. Your arm may go up to, but never beyond it.
If your fellow passenger’s arm touches yours and doesn’t immediately pull away, it’s a polite way of saying “get your elbow out of my space, I’m crying inside and plotting your imminent demise.”
Never speak to somebody you know from work about work
Nothing makes your heart sink like seeing a work colleague about to board the same train. You spend eight or more hours a day with these people, and you’re forced to be polite to them on pain of disciplinary action. Your precious, precious snooze time on the train must never, ever be sullied by insipid office chat.
Offer someone a seat who needs it, but don’t offer a pregnant lady a seat unless you’re really, really sure
Ok, this is a nightmare. There are no seats left in the carriage, and an exhausted, frazzled pregnant woman climbs aboard. But is she definitely pregnant?
There’s no ‘baby on board’ badge. She’s wearing thick baggy clothing. She’s a fairly slim build and there’s definitely evidence of a bump. But if she’s not clutching a copy of What to Expect When You’re Expecting or there’s no clear, irrefutable signal, you run the risk of committing probably the worst social faux pas known to man.
There may be a solution to this situation. If you know what it is, please share it.
Don’t put your bag on a seat
This is Southeastern we’re talking about. It is highly, highly unlikely there will be any spare seats. Don’t force somebody into the humiliation of asking if the seat is taken. Even worse, don’t then make the unfunny, stomach-churningly cringy commuter joke of replying “yes my invisible friend Dave.”
You’ll probably end up dead in the shed with the indefatigably happy mobile phone users.
Why would you eat hot food?
It doesn’t matter how hungry you are. Hot food smells awful to every single other person in the carriage. Possibly the whole train.
Loud headphones are a no-no
Unless your headphones are hermetically sealed to your head or cost more than your annual season ticket (£7,000 in 2018 money), your music is probably too loud. Get it to the exactly right volume for listening perfection then turn it down a few pegs. Just to the point where you can’t quite hear it properly. Congratulations, you’re now at the right volume.
We realise this is a physical impossibility if you haven’t yet taken your GCSEs, but then you probably won’t be on a commuter train so that’s ok.
Repeatedly sniffing is as irritating as it is unpleasant
This can be tricky as you don’t always realise when you’re doing it, but if you catch yourself repeatedly sniffing either blow your nose or hold your breath until you get to London. They are the only options.
There is a sub clause to this rule. If you’re standing on a platform in the freezing rain, the rule doesn’t apply until you get on the train. There is a grace period of up to 60 seconds after the doors close during which a couple of light sniffs are permitted to clear your airways.
Never, ever, wait until the gate to start looking for your ticket
As soon as you’re off the train, you’re in a hurry. In the morning it’s to get to the office. In the evening it’s to get home, or even more urgently to get to the pub. The ticket barriers are a bottleneck designed by Satan to prolong commuter suffering as long as demonically possible.
If you wait until you’re at the barrier before you begin rifling through your bag or your pockets, prepare to be trampled to death. You only have yourself to blame.
An additional note
I wrote this article while sitting on a commuter train home from London. I couldn’t help noticing a friendly-looking chap I regularly see on the same journey reading my screen. If that sounds familiar, then please know I wasn’t writing this article about you.
But maybe be a bit more subtle in future!