Bring Back Train Robberies

Locomotives used to have a reputation for never arriving on time. But no one complained.

Library of Congress

Most people who have considered robbing a train in recent years have faced a frustrating dearth of information on the topic. Manuals associated with locomotive heists are largely outdated. And word of mouth knowledge has dwindled, as the most respected train robbers have been dead more than a century, many having succumbed to poor dental hygiene or Most Wanted poster bounties.

The main difference in train robbery, now as opposed to 200 years ago, is that no one robs trains anymore, which has resulted in citizens taking public transportation for granted.

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The late 1800s marked the heyday of train robbery. Trains had a reputation of never arriving on time due to derailments, mid-trip engine explosions, or robberies. But passengers never complained about late arrivals or poor service, or anything else for that matter.

If 85 percent or so of the passengers were alive and equipped with all appendages when the train reached its destination, and there were no run-ins with armed bandits, even if the train was two or three or 14 hours late, then everyone was relatively satisfied. They often hugged conductors as they exited the train, content to have survived the trip without being robbed or blown up.

Dismemberment and armed robbery have been lost in today’s commuting experience. Every car is heated in the winter and air-conditioned in the summer. Due to communal impatience, passengers know exactly when trains are arriving, to the minute, as illustrated on digital clocks over platforms.

Passenger satisfaction today has nothing to do with reaching the destination without being robbed. Instead, dissatisfaction resides in the details: If the train is three minutes late, if the train is crowded, if the train smells like sweat, if a passenger has to step around another passenger, the train is too hot, the train is too cold, if someone sneezes, if someone yawns, if a child is present, if the WiFi signal is weak, if someone bumps them, if someone looks at them wrong, if someone has the audacity to hang onto the same pole.

A good train robbery now and again would remind passengers to appreciate the complexity of public transportation. It would also encourage them to listen more closely to the announcements: “The Brooklyn-bound three-train is delayed due to a train robbery in progress. Probably the Lower East Side Girls again, their second heist this month. Consider instead a shuttle bus, or a walk.”

The beauty of today’s public transportation is that no one is paying attention. Passengers are playing video gamesCandy Crush, Temple Run, Angry Birdsand so engaged in imaginary victory they wouldn’t even notice a robbery. Centuries ago, the only in-train entertainment was to stare out at the landscape, hoping not to see approaching bandits and then cringing as the conductor races to head them off at the pass. Today’s passengers are barely aware that trains have windows.

(“The pass” was always a tricky portion of the train’s voyage through mountains, which made it difficult for horseback riders to board the vessel. If the train reached the pass before the robbers, it was safe for passengers to hug and celebrate, and heckle the failed gang from the caboose. Today’s passes that thieves should avoid would be the Upper West Side or Park Slope, train stops so littered with families and baggage that cars are too crowded to efficiently burgle. A few do-gooders offering to haul a Bugaboo stroller up the stairs sideways might hamper any getaway.)

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A few train robberies would do wonders for commuter attitude. Instead of insisting the city clean up all the snow as opposed to just most of it; instead of complaining that the Citi Bike seats are too long or short, too hard or squishy; instead of issuing eye rolls when a passenger shoves in ahead of closing doors, disrupting their Candy Crush level—a train heist would remind folks that any arrival, even a tardy one, is a blessing.

Of course, there’s such a thing as too much train robbery. After a month or so of appreciating the commute again, passengers will expect officials to put a stop to the nonsense.