Wednesday, May 15, 2024

We Are Pack Animals: Train Behavior


An Amtrak Keystone train at Lancaster Station       

Since 1994, the Amtrak Keystone trains between Lancaster to Philadelphia have been my primary commute method to work at several jobs and volunteer work after I retired.  Since I travel on trains to other places and in other countries, I have probably taken more than 4,000 train trips in the last two decades.  

Which means I see a lot of passengers on the train and on the platform.  

Watching my fellow passengers for two decades confirmed for me that people are pack animals.  Everywhere. 

Almost anywhere long trains pick up passengers, one or two stairways lead down to the tracks.  At the base of the stairway passengers cluster, even on very long platforms.  If I could take an aerial photo of passengers on a platform it would look like a normal distribution curve--the "pig-in-the-snake" curve  or Bell Curve that describes how members of a population act.

Trains vary in length. But Keystone trains always have five cars unless there is a maintenance problem.  Each car is 85 feet long and seats 82 passengers. When the trains are nearly full people walk to the ends looking for seats.

On a mid-day or late-night train when fewer than 100 passengers ride the train, the middle car will have nearly half the passengers. Those passengers move from being clustered in the middle of the platform to clustering in the middle of the train.

I am aware of this because I have always walked to the end of the train.  I like to read on the train and the car at the far end of the train is most likely to be nearly empty.  

Before Covid, I simply thought of this behavior as what people do. And it was fun to think a statistics teacher could use the train and the platform to illustrate the Bell Curve. 

But since Covid, the pack behavior has some strange dimensions.  I was traveling back and forth to Philadelphia on the train in 2020 when the trains stated running again in July.  We were all masked. There were few passengers. Sometimes a dozen of us would board the train in Lancaster, the busiest station on the line where 200 might board a peak commuter train before Covid.  

Of that dozen passengers, nine would sit in the middle car. I would walk to the end of the train and often have an entire car to myself. 

Since the end of the pandemic, there are still people masking.  Whatever their reason for masking, it would seem they would want to be away from other people. Last week, I boarded a train in Lancaster and walked to the end car. The middle car had one passenger in every seat and two in many others.  I counted four people who were masked out of the 50 passengers.  When I got the the last car, I sat at the end of the car. Only six people sat in that car.  Why would someone wearing a mask sit among 50 passengers instead of six?  
Pack behavior pervades life. Soldiers, airline passengers, concert goers, wherever we are we cluster.  The behavior that helped us to survive as hunter gatherers persists on trains, planes and automobiles.

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