A few days ago, on an Overground train from Highbury to Kensington, I had a shocking experience – I failed to get a seat.
If you know how crowded the Overground can get at rush hour, this might not sound all that surprising. Believe me, though, I was good at getting seats. I’d learnt the ropes and tend to overanalyse behaviour on public transport, so it had never been a problem. But I’d been away for a few weeks and my seat-acquisition skills had gone beyond rusty – they were useless.
Overground trains never look like this during rush hour
So, as a form of therapy, I decided to try to work out the “rules” of the seat-acquisition game on the Overground. Here they are, in illustrated form.
The theatre of conflict
The Overground train arrives and dazed commuters spill on to the platform. Everyone stands aside to let them pass. But this act of kindness is the exception, not the rule. Once you all step into the carriage the competition for seats begins. You are now in a theatre of war.
The strategic theatre where war is waged
Know your enemies
You share the strategic space of the carriage with many other players. Here’s a brief rundown of who they are:
- Aspirants – People standing who want to sit down. This includes you.
- Civilians – People standing who don’t want to sit down, maybe because they’re not going far.
- Occupants – People currently sitting down. Don’t be fooled though: they’re still in the game.
In a typical combat situation (or “rush hour”) here’s how the players might be distributed across the theatre of conflict.
Stepping into the arena
Civilians linger near the doors while Aspirants occupy strategic positions nearer the seats. I’ll come to these later. First, here’s an ill-advised opening move that could undermine your whole campaign.
Don’t take the wrong turn
When you first get on the train you might turn towards the divide in between two carriages. Don’t! This is an unforgiving quagmire. Much like Napoleon in Russia, your campaign will come to a crushing, drawn-out end if you venture here.
There are few seats here so chances of victory are slim. On one side you’re bordered by the crowded doorway, on the other you’re hemmed in by the barren, seatless inter-carriage zone, so withdrawing to another region could prove impossible. Stay well away.
Get into position – but act casual
Get yourself into the long aisle, where the seats are most abundant. This is the fertile valley of the Overground carriage.
But don’t push past people to get here. Try to act casual, like you don’t really want to sit down anyway. As Sun Tzu said, “All warfare is based on deception“. Seem too predatory and you’ll raise the suspicions of other Aspirants, losing the element of surprise. Let them think you’re a disinterested Civilian.
Find a good place to lurk, but don't appear too keen
A well-chosen spot gives you a tactical advantage over three, maybe four, seats. Take care when picking your spot, and check for things like:
- Have the seat occupants only just sat down? If so it might be a while before they get off.
- Can you guess where their occupants might be heading to? For example you can spot BBC people easily (branded building passes, reading Ariel, cooking up ways to irritate the Daily Mail). They’re going all the way to Shepherd’s Bush, so find a new spot.
- Who else lurks in the same area? If there are pregnant or infirm Aspirants you should move elsewhere – unless, of course, the Overground has completely erased your sense of ethics.
- Are the Occupants checking the station name or folding up their newspaper? If so then they may be close to departure.
Having found your spot you’re now engaged in a tactical skirmish with other nearby Aspirants. This will play out in a smaller and more manageable space.
What it all comes down to - hold your position to capture the flag
Things might seem straightforward from now on – someone will get up, you’ll sit down, mission accomplished. But it’s still too soon for complacency.
Entering end game
This might be the end of your campaign if earlier strategic decisions were sound and luck’s on your side. Other passengers, however, play by their own rules, so there could be some surprises ahead. Here are some end-game scenarios and how to handle them.
1. The Occupant’s Deceit
The Occupant of a contested seat puts their book away. Suddenly you’re interested in nothing else, watching them like a hawk to be sure you’ll bag their seat.
Don't be misled by someone putting their book in their bag. They're not leaving the train - they're just messing with your mind
Distracted, you fail to notice a seat that is legitimately yours becoming empty. An opportunistic Aspirant sneaks in to grab it. Then, to compound your error, the Occupant you’re eyeballing just sits there looking like butter wouldn’t melt in their mouth and you’re stuck on your feet. You lose this round.
Don’t let any single Occupant claim your undivided attention – sometimes people put their books away because they’re bored of reading, they want to sleep, or they simply enjoy messing with your mind.
2. 360-degree Combat
It’s easy to get a kind of tunnel vision when staring at the same three or four people for so long. You can easily forget that there’s a whole other row of seats immediately behind you.
Overground veterans develop 360-degree perception of their surroundings, much like chameleons
So when a seat behind you becomes vacant, will you be quick to notice? If not then it’s a lost opportunity. The trick here is to somehow know what’s going on behind you without overtly gawping – remember your Sun Tzu. As always on the Overground, subtlety is essential.
Edit: A few people commenting after this was posted mentioned that they look in the window to see the reflections of people behind them. I didn’t know this trick. No wonder I’ve been spending so much time standing
3. The Art of Misdirection
Imagine two Aspirants have equal claim to a seat and the Occupant gets up. Who wins? Sometimes it’s about who acts smartest, not who acts first.
The Occupant's direction of departure can be influenced to your advantage
The departing Occupant decides which door to head towards. Sometimes it’s the nearest door, but on a crowded Overground carriage they’ll usually choose the path of least resistance.
Exploit this to your advantage by shifting your position to create an easy route for them. As they move past, do that “orbiting” kind of motion that people do in busy spaces, spinning around them so you switch places while gracefully intruding between the seat and your thwarted enemy.
Get it right and you’ll effortlessly drop into their seat while looking like a helpful and polite person, and not the scheming and conniving seat-fancier you are.
A final note – and a confession
This guide should help you achieve comfort on the Overground, but I must confess that my last few journeys have been spent standing up, so maybe I’m not the best teacher. Maybe I’ve lost the hunger, the brutality, the sharpness of wit that’s needed to compete on these trains. The truth is that I don’t need that hunger any more – my company is moving next weekend, to an office 20 minutes’ walk from my house. I’m pretty happy about this.
So while my days as an Overground commuter are over, yours may be only just beginning. If so, be careful out there – and don’t let the war for seats escalate any more than it has to. Enough blood has been shed.
Edit: There’s now a follow-up to this post, about the Geneva Convention of public transport – the sacrosanct, unspoken rules that we all must obey