Riding the Rails, Boston-style


While I generally admire the concept behind the “Not for Tourist” book series – i.e. “insider” information for the traveling hipster – the truth is that they’re still geared for tourists and they don’t always deliver on the “insider” information that you really need to survive and thrive in the little city with the big attitude.

To help out my friends at NFT, I’ve taken it upon myself to offer up some strategies for riding the rails in Boston. I’m going to focus on the subway and the commuter rails, as nothing I say here can help the bus riding experience. I’m a recovering rainy-day bus rider myself (the #55 from the West Fens) and as the song goes: “things went down we don’t understand but I think in time we will.” In other words, godspeed, bus riders.

The T

What we call the “T” is the combination subway-trolley line that covers a large chunk of the city. There are four lines. In descending order of quality/safety they are: red (weapon to avoid: calculator), green (weapon to avoid: backpack), blue (weapon to avoid: machete) and orange (weapon to avoid: handgun). If you look at a map of the T you will also see an exciting new 5th line – the silver line. Don’t believe the hype! The Silver line is really just a fancified bus line. Don’t talk to me about “dedicated tunnels” – it’s still a stinky bus.

The subway is fairly dependable, unless it’s late at night (it stops running around 1) or if you need to be somewhere at a specific time (i.e. trying to catch a train). But your biggest challenge on the T will be in avoiding the gropers. Apparently there’s a large contingent of men in Boston that like to grab tuchas on a crowded subway. Now, I’m not quite sure what the thrill is in briefly rubbing up against some stranger’s butt, but you can’t deny its popularity – there’s a new groper featured in the paper nearly every week.

Now, some gropers are easy to spot – they’re the ones that are actively fondling themselves on the train. Avoid these men at all costs. Other gropers are a little harder to identify. Look, I don’t want to racially profile people here, but you might just want to stay away from balding white guys in their mid 50s wearing Bruins hats. An anonymous survey of subway gropers revealed that they support the Bruins 2:1 over the Sox. (Something about the ‘stickhandling skills’.)

While waiting for the subway you may encounter people playing music for your entertainment. They are called buskers. I encourage you to give them money, but please don’t feel obliged to buy their crappy self-produced CDs. One exception is the hippy lady that likes to butcher old folk tunes. Nobody in the city has the heart to tell her that she sings just like Bobby Dylan (i.e. poorly).  Hearing her sing “The Times They Are a-Changing” makes me actively wish for war -  just out of spite – and I’m a pacifist! Please don’t encourage her with your spare change.

I do recommend that you seek out the homeless gentleman that croons a solid a capella “Ain’t Too Proud to Beg”, both for his vocal prowess and his embrace of irony. As you will quickly learn, he is indeed, not too proud to beg.

In summary, the T is a convenient way to get around the city, especially if you like creepy older men and bad folk music.

The Commuter Rail

The commuter rail, on the other hand, provides a very different level of service geared towards its high-falutin’ suburban ridership. You may encounter any combination of the following on the commuter rail (aka purple line): lights, heat, air conditioning and/or free wi-fi. Unfortunately, none of those things are guaranteed, so each ride is different and full of exciting surprises!

You’ll need to buy your ticket in advance of getting on the commuter rail or else you’ll get hit for a surcharge on board the train. Of course, since you’ll be running late for the train because of a T delay, you won’t have time to wait in the ticket line which will be 50 people deep and will only have 2 open windows during rush hour. Your best bet for avoiding the surcharge is to bust out the “sad puppy dog eyes” on the conductor. Like most things in life, this will almost always work if you are a hot chick and will almost never work if you are a fat guy. Such is life.

Once on board you’ll have to choose between the love seats or the couches. This can be a very difficult decision, but here’s the secret pecking order of seat preference (best to worst): couch window, loveseat window, couch aisle, loveseat aisle.

If the only available seat is the couch center, please stand up for the duration of the trip. Although the couch is allegedly designed for 3 people, it’s really not a comfortable fit. Be prepared to get some serious stink eye if you insist on squeezing into the middle.

You’ll always want to avoid anyone that is eating McDonald’s on the train. Once the train starts moving a chemical reaction will occur between the recycled train air and the fast food odor. While the eater is immune to this noxious combination, nearby passengers will experience mild SARS-like symptoms. I kid you not.

Cellphones talkers are risky as well. Before sitting down, try to gauge whether the call is a quick “I’ll be home at 6:35” call or if the blabbermouth is going to ruin your entire ride with inane chatter about their stupid job, kids or test results.

Always avoid teenagers and men wearing sports jerseys. Teenagers will annoy you with their mysterious slang and men wearing sports jerseys are always a throw-up risk, especially post-game.

If you’re like me, you’ll seek out the guy wearing the headphones and reading the Justice League of America comic book, because that guy won’t ever talk, eat or barf. Actually, if you seek that guy out you’ll probably wind up sitting next to me.


Public transportation is slightly better than hitchhiking but slightly worse than just walking the three blocks.


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