Ask Engine Bob: Should Conductors Hold the Door?

Q: Some fellow LIRR travelers say that the conductors won’t hold the doors for a passenger who’s boarding in the morning with a cup of coffee in his or her hand, because that suggests they’re lackadaisical about making the train. But if you’re free-handed and running, they’ll be far more accommodating. Is that true, or is it merely an urban myth? 


A: This one’s hard to debunk fully, for one reason. I don’t think that the door-holding decision is a matter of policy or indoctrination; nor some practice commonly shared as a matter of tradition, conformity, or fraternalism. It’s personal, variable, and mutable. 

Which is to say: Yeah, it’s probably true. 

But it’s complicated, too—yes, I am actually saying that the issue of a coffee-clutching commuter is possessed of nuance. I can’t stick with a flat answer on this one. Let’s peel back a few lattes—I mean layers—and look more closely, shall we? 

When it comes to a conductor holding open doors, we’re talking about what is essentially a discretionary act. Technically, the doors are supposed to stay open only as long as it takes to disembark passengers and board new ones—ones that are ALREADY waiting on the platform. 

But here comes the exception right now: The inevitable she-idiot who’s 500 feet away, clopping across the parking lot on her stiletto heels, waving her knockoff Prada bag over her peroxided coif and yelling, “Wait! Waaaait! Hold that traaaaain!” 

You hate her. I hate her. And, I suspect, conductors hate her, too. But while you or I have fantasies of The Nassau Nag falling (Lee press-on nails and all) into a nice cozy nest of concertina wire, the conductor has a choice to make. 

If he holds the doors open a few more seconds, it probably won’t matter much in a railroading sense. If the train runs a pinch late as a result, the motorman can most likely make up the time on the straightaways or on the schedule-padded final few miles of the run. (See previous Engine Bob installment for the full explanation of schedule padding.)


However, there are significant limits to the conductor’s charity. Consider that there are bound to be runners at most station stops during the morning rush. Were the conductor to hold up the train for, say, 30 seconds each time he had a runner on his hands, now we’re looking at pulling into Penn Station 10 or more minutes late—not good. (Yes, I know what you’re thinking: “Dude, this is the Long Island Railroad; they don’t CARE about on-time performance.”


Point taken. But no conductor wants to be directly responsible for a late train, okay?)  

Remember, too, that during rush hour, you’ve got more trains sharing the tracks—schedules are tighter. Holding the door open on a lazy Sunday afternoon doesn’t matter much; holding it open on a Manhattan-bound express at 8:40 a.m. on a Monday DOES matter. 

So a conductor has a limited amount of door-holding indulgence he can mete out on a given run, and that means the issue comes down not only to a quantitative analysis, but a qualitative one, too: Some passengers will receive his graces, some will not. And only his subjectivity will determine who gets a seat and who gets the door. 

Based on my many years of riding the commuter lines and watching these scenarios all the time, I can say one thing for certain: pity counts. For a guy in a wheelchair: Door stays open. For a lone mother with four kids in tow: Door stays open. For an elderly couple teetering on their four-footed canes up the icy platform ramp: (Um, duh. Yes, the door stays open.) 

But for able-bodied commuters, the rules get tougher. And this is just the shadowy ground onto which your question falls. I hold that the conductor’s decision breaks along two considerations: If the would-be passenger is reasonably close to the platform (the 7-Eleven parking lot across the road is too far); and if the would-be passengers is making a visibly strident effort to reach the train. That means running. Show a little perspiration and a lot of desperation, and you’ll probably receive the conductor’s charity. 

Now, I personally don’t think that, considered by itself, the presence of absence of a cup of coffee in the tardy commuter’s hand is going to sway the decision very much in either direction. However, it does seem uncannily common that a Venti Starbucks splashing its soy-milk foam into the breeze just so very often happens to be in the hands of a perfumed and pretentious commuter who—whether because of the designer brew or not—is not the type to hurry up for anybody. He’s got a bad case of ’Tude, and let me ask you this: If you were a conductor and had the choice, would you reward it? 

In conclusion, then, I submit that the issue comes down to effort, whether or not java is part of the mix. The commuter who’s worried about spilling his $4 latte on his Bruno Maglis? The man who expects the train to wait but is barely quickening his step? The presumptuous lout who won’t move his ass a little faster for the sake of a thousand fellow commuters already aboard? The commuter who is—to use your term—lackadaisical?


In those instances, sir, I would put ten bucks on many a conductor thinking: “No way, bud. Learn to get here on time.” Then his key turns, the door shuts, and Mr. so-and-so can sip his espresso while he waits 32 minutes on a freezing platform for the next train. 

And don’t even try to tell me that that doesn’t look just a little bit like justice. 

This entry was posted in Ask Engine Bob, Engine Bob, LIRR, Schedule-padding. Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to Ask Engine Bob: Should Conductors Hold the Door?

  1. Pingback: Straight From the Engineer's Cab « Trainjotting

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