What’s the Same in 2008 as in 1958?

Back in October, I identified two things in our lives today which, against all odds, are unchanged in the last fifty years. Here’s another.

Intercity train conductors.

And thank God for them.

In this day and age, a system which requires a human to walk through a train car and physically take tickets—then put stubs into slots above the seats in order to signify who has produced a ticket, where he got on, and where he’s getting off—then walk through at each new stop to check the stubs and collect tickets from new passengers who don’t have stubs yet—then remove stubs from above the seats where previously-boarded passengers have detrained—seems antiquated. Surely there must be a “better” way! But can you think of one? I can’t.

Not only that; I can’t think of any other solution that would work at all, if railroads are not to let passengers ride free at will.

A typical Amtrak run—say, the one that starts in Washington and ends in Boston, with stops in Baltimore, Wilmington, Philadelphia, New York, and Stamford—during which any given car contains a mix of passengers who boarded in any of these several cities and who are destined for any of them—creates the possibility for no other solution than the train conductor. He is unchanged since 1958. Essentially, he is unchanged since 1858!

And every Amtrak train conductor I’ve ever met has been a thorough professional, well-trained in his work, friendly and helpful to passengers. In 2008, how remarkable is that? He, or she, provides one remaining contact with humanity in this increasingly dehumanized world.

Someday, someone may invent an electronic way to do what the train conductor does today. I hope that day does not come until after I’m dead.

When it comes to train conductors, I am “all aboard.”

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2 Comments on “What’s the Same in 2008 as in 1958?”

  1. Steve says:

    When I was still in high school (in 1966?) the Illinois Central introduced a system on its Chicago commuter trains (the DC Metro has the same system as does Paris and any number of other places), where each ticket has a magnetic stripe on the back that is coded to match the destination (or zone) that corresponds with the value of the ticket. At the time I was very concerned that my father’s job as a LIRR conductor wouldn’t outlast the Sixties. The LIRR even went so far as to set up the system at one of its stations, probably as much as a threat to the trainman’s union as anything else. So I am as surprised as anyone that there is still a place for ticket takers on passenger trains. About a year and a half ago SEPTA got rid of its ticket machines at the Philadelphia airport, and decided just to let the conductors sell the tickets on board the trains. The machines were broken down too often.

    What’s really neat about the old fashioned system is that each conductor’s punch makes a uniquely patterned hole. So depending on what holes he punches in each ticket, and without anyone having to write anything down, the ticket tells you how much money he collected, where each passenger is going (or at least what fare zone he’s paid for), and the identity of the person who sold each ticket. From that it’s pretty easy to tell how much money each conductor has to turn in at the end of each day.

  2. tnaron says:

    Steve, thanks for your expertise!


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