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What I have learnt from six months of commuting

After six months of commuting to work three days a week, there remain few happier sights than the lights of the Melbourne-bound train rounding the bend as I stand on the platform on a cold, drizzly morning.

My love affair with commuting has continued since I first wrote about the unexpected joy of the one-and-a-quarter hour train journey from Ballarat. For one thing, it has given me the chance to read – there has been Jane Eyre, The Underground Railroad, Regeneration, The Husband’s Secret, The Sellout, The Museum of Modern Love, The Way to Paradise and many more. I have ploughed through books that I have wanted to read for years, and discovered exciting new books not long after their release. I continue to relish the precious time of quiet and forced stillness that regional train travel offers.

However, the experience of being a regular commuter has not been without its teething problems, and there are some lessons I have picked up on the way.

The battle of the seats

When I started commuting, I was surprised to see that people lined up at specific points along the platform from quite early. These people, I was to learn, were seasoned commuters. They knew exactly where the train would pull up, and in which carriage they wanted to sit. I am now one of these commuters, lining up at exactly the spot where my favourite (yes, I have one) carriage stops. And while it is wise to take your cue on where to stand from the regulars, try not to emulate their bloodthirsty rush into the carriage. You’ll get a seat without elbowing a granny out of the way, at least on my line.

You’ll also be able to spot a regular commuter from the speed at which they can pinpoint and avoid the source of a cough or sneeze. This has been a lesson that I have only learnt after enduring an excessive number of winter colds during the past six months. Now, I’m like an airport sniffer dog, detecting a virus from 100 feet. The cunning regular can use this skill to their own advantage and a short, sharp cough on boarding will be enough to gain them their own seat for the journey. (This is not a recommendation, but an observation. Use it as you will.)

Food etiquette

Along with those infected with the latest cold going around, there are some commuters it is wise to avoid. I’d rather stand for the whole trip than sit next to anyone eating a burger or kebab. There is little that is worse than the trapped reek of a burger at 6.45am … or at 6.45pm, for that matter. Even if you are rows away, you will smell it, so it’s best to avoid that carriage altogether. I hope there is a special kind of hell for the people who choose to eat hot food on a commuter train. Or tram. Or bus.

Sleep etiquette

On some journeys, given the young age of my children and their unpredictable sleeping patterns, I have found myself nodding off on the journey to make up for lost or broken sleep. If you plan on doing the same, my one piece of advice is to ensure your head is tilted away from the passenger sitting beside you. No one wants to be jolted awake as their head rests on a stranger’s shoulder. Similarly, no one wants to be that stranger. Ideally, if you want to sleep, you’ll have a window seat and a solid, impersonal surface to lean on.

Words of warning

Beware the late platform change. I have only once made the mistake of boarding the train on the usual platform, only to find myself stranded in Melton, then having to catch another train to Bacchus Marsh, and finally, another to Ballarat. A mistake once made, it is one that I hope will never be repeated.

It also pays to take notice of the designated ‘quiet carriages’, as I have made the mistake of boarding with a friend and being told off in no uncertain terms, then sitting for the rest of the trip in chastened silence. And fair enough, too.

On the whole, I avoid the quiet carriage. Who would want to miss out on the chance to overhear a passenger’s dilemma over whether she still wants to marry her sweetheart, who she fears might not be quite as sweet as she remembers after serving his jail term? Unfortunately, the speaker didn’t give the eavesdropper any clue as to what her paramour had done to warrant incarceration, and I resisted asking.

Train staff etiquette

Be courteous to the staff moving along the carriage, checking tickets. I’ve found them to be consistently cheerful, patient and helpful, in the face of bitterly cold mornings and rude or dismissive commuters.  They at least deserve a smile (and think of the battering their immune systems must take, handling all of those germ-ridden Mykis).

Escalator etiquette

When you arrive at the station, never stand still on the right hand side of the escalator – it is infuriating for those who want to walk up. Almost every day, I see novices jolted out of their reveries by a surge of angry commuters behind them.

This is my list of lessons, but I’m sure other commuters will have their own. Some have a more social start to the day, swearing by the friends they have met on their commute and travel to work with every day. Others love their daily podcasts or catch-up tv.

I am still relishing the time to read all of those books on my to-read list, or the chance to look out the window at the passing countryside; it can be hard to look away from a sun rising through the mist on a foggy winter morning.

Not everyone has the luxury of a seat or a warm carriage on their morning commute; they might rage at the traffic banked up for kilometres, or stand in the aisles of cold, old rickety suburban trains for almost as long as my regional commute. But for me, six months on, I am yet to tire of the daily commute.

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