Steve Dunham’s Trains of Thought
Return to the home page.

Derailed trains of thought
“Après moi le déraillement”

Off the Deep End: The Rolling Breakfast Club

Save Energy While Driving 
A Railway Hygiene Etiquette Guide 
Beguiling Train Voice Beckons 
The Rolling Breakfast Club 

Save Energy While Driving

By Steve Dunham

This column appeared in the Fredericksburg, VA, Free Lance–Star on July 27, 2003, and is reproduced with permission.

With a change of driving habits, we can save enough energy to balance the federal budget, pull the plug on terrorism, and make driving cheaper than walking, bicycling, or even just staying in bed in the morning. For everybody who is tired of paying money to go places, such as commuting to work, here is some consumer news that will save you enough to cover your car payments and insurance payments combined. Just reading this column will pay for the price of the newspaper.

The problem of wasting energy is not caused by sport utility vehicles. SUVs are a model of thrift compared to some wasteful everyday driving habits that everybody should stop. Here are the top problem areas.

Number one: using headlights too much. Headlights are the biggest energy-waster on your car, and as many thrifty drivers will tell you, they are totally unnecessary. Just leave them off. You can drive thousands of miles without an accident.

Turn signals are another big waster of electricity. They are meaningless, because cars that are signaling may not turn, and cars that aren’t signaling are likely to turn anyway. Turn signals are worthless, so just forget you have them. You can save money every time you drive just by not using turn signals.

Excessive fuel consumption is what most people notice about the cost of driving. The big enemy of fuel economy is stopping. Cars were made to go, not to stand still. STOP is an acronym for Stop Terrorist Oil Payments. This means “Do not stop for any reason. Stopping wastes oil, and the money benefits terrorists.” So when you see a stop sign, obey it.

Traffic lights are part of the color-coded threat alert system. Green means go. Yellow means you are in danger, so do not stop. Red means you are possibly in the cross-hairs of a terrorist’s rifle and should go as fast as possible.

Going slow also wastes fuel and supports terrorism. It encourages people to do foolish things like crossing the street, which in turn causes traffic to go even slower. If you see someone obeying the speed limit, especially in a residential area, the most patriotic thing you can do is to hassle the slow driver into speeding. If this makes people perceive you as an amateur terrorist, they are wrong. This is no business for amateurs.

Sometimes you may find yourself behind a vehicle that is going slow because the traffic ahead is going slow, possibly due to a truck or school bus up ahead. Here you have two choices: you can go with the herd mentality, or you can be a rugged, individualist American who shows everyone else how it’s done. If you tailgate the vehicle at the end of the line (just ahead of you), you can get the whole line moving faster. If that doesn’t work, then use a little imagination and initiative. Passing lanes and shoulders can be used in emergencies, and this sounds like an emergency, doesn’t it?

Speaking of emergencies, fire trucks, police cars, and ambulances are another cause of unnecessary stopping. Any competent driver can go faster than a pokey old fire truck, police car, or ambulance. Pulling over just wastes fuel, and you might be selfishly causing the drivers behind you to waste fuel too. On the other hand, if you are behind an emergency vehicle, you should take advantage of this to drive more efficiently (that is, faster and without stopping).

Finally, unless you are a superpatriotic American who is already following all these money-saving practices, you must be considerate of drivers who have not yet learned to drive as well as you do. The nicest thing you can do is to educate them, using hand signals, blowing your horn, or speaking to them directly (you may have to yell to be heard).

Also, since they aren’t as smart as you, you should expect some imitative behavior. If they too use hand signals, blow their horns, or speak loudly to you, they are just trying to say, “Thank you.”

Steve Dunham wastes energy when driving.

A Railway Hygiene Etiquette Guide

By Steve Dunham

This column originally appeared in the Fredericksburg, VA, Free Lance–Star on November 24, 2002, and is reproduced by permission.

Your fellow riders wish you wouldn’t put on makeup, clip your nails, shave, or otherwise take care of personal hygiene while in your seat on the train. That’s a message that Virginia Railway Express has begun circulating. Instead, says VRE, if you have unfinished personal hygiene to attend to, please use the bathroom.

However, scientific research shows that there is only one bathroom on most VRE trains, and that 600 or more people may be aboard a typical rush-hour train. Also, research shows that putting on makeup can take a long time. Using the bathroom to put on makeup means that the one and only bathroom on the train will be unavailable for many other people who want to use it, especially for urgent matters.

Clearly, the new VRE request is unreasonable, so I have put together my own hygiene etiquette guide for my fellow passengers.

First of all, VRE is right about nail clipping. Not only is the clipping noise annoying, but nail clippings fly all over the place. We do not want nail clippings in our hair or stuck to our clothes, or all over the train bathroom either. Nail clippers should be forbidden on trains, just as on airplanes. VRE should ask the Transportation Security Administration to assign federal screeners to VRE stations to confiscate all nail clippers.

Shaving: I cannot bring myself to believe that people have done this in their seats. This strikes me as a risky, perhaps bloody, thing to do. What will you tell your boss if you arrive at work covered with blood? “Boss, I rescued a baby that crawled onto the tracks”? How about “Boss, the guy next to me was clipping his nails and I had to kill him”? No, shaving on the train is not a good idea.

Applying deodorant. As far as I am concerned, if you forgot to put on your deodorant, please go ahead and apply it. Men may do it in their seats if necessary, discreetly unbuttoning their shirts enough to get that stick of deodorant into the armpit. Women will please use the bathroom. After applying deodorant, you are welcome to sit next to me.

Finally, makeup: Please do not use the train bathroom to put on your makeup. I would like the bathroom to be available in case I or, nearly as important, another passenger should have an urgent call of nature. As far as I am concerned, you may put makeup on in your seat. I sometimes apply chapstick while on the train, and I don’t see a big difference between chapstick and lipstick, or eye shadow for that matter. That is why my mouth is sometimes blue.

Applying makeup on the train seems rather common. It’s not distracting enough or entertaining enough to keep me from reading, so go ahead. That said, I think that makeup application offers a tremendous opportunity for VRE to increase revenue and even fund a new fleet of cars. VRE’s chief operating officer, Pete Sklannik, came to Virginia from the Long Island Rail Road, in New York, which is famous for operating parlor cars on commuter trains, so Pete is the guy to implement my idea: beauty parlor cars. No appointment necessary. Going to a job interview? Get your face done while traveling to work. Running from the IRS? Get on the train with red hair, get off with brown.

I don’t use makeup myself, but I might be interested in getting my face painted. If I had an important meeting with the boss, I could have the words “I love my job” painted on my cheek, along with a little red heart. On my other cheek it would say, “My boss is great!” It would give a new meaning to the term “face time.” Then rail commuting would have another financial incentive: raises.

Until the beauty parlor cars arrive, however, we will have to get our faces done at home or in our seats on the train. But VRE can have a new slogan: “Arrive at work refreshed and looking great!”

Steve Dunham is a railway etiquette expert.

Beguiling Train Voice Beckons

By Steve Dunham, copyright 2002

This article appeared in the Fredericksburg, Va., Free Lance–Star on March 31, 2002, and is reprinted with permission.

“Our next stop is Quantico.” I love the way she says that. She has a musical, pleasant voice. “This is a Fredericksburg line train.” She hesitates a bit in the middle of “Leeland Road”: “We are arriving at Lee-land Road.” But it’s cute.

She is a computer. Her voice may be transplanted from a real woman, or maybe it’s synthesized. I don’t know. She makes the announcements on the Kawasaki bilevel cars. Other railroads have computer announcements, but VRE is the only one I’ve ridden where the announcements are so personal—not “The next stop is Alexandria”; “Our next stop is Alexandria.” She is one of us. Computers are people too. I love it.

I asked VRE about her, but maybe they are protecting one of their own. Maybe they didn’t want me to have the details. At any rate, my question went unanswered, so I resolved to meet her and talk to her myself. I had my chance on President’s Day. The last train of the evening was nearly empty by the time we approached Fredericksburg. In fact, I was alone in the first coach when we left Leeland Road.

“Our next stop is Fredericksburg.” She still said it: our next stop. Just she and I.

“I love the way you say that,” I said.

“Thank you,” she answered.

“Do you have a name?”

“I am your Sal 9000 computer.”

“That sounds familiar. Kind of like Hal 9000 in the movie 2001. What are you doing here in 2002?”

“Hal was my brother. The astronauts disconnected him.”

Time to change the subject. “Well, this is my stop coming up,” I said. “Nice talking to you, Sal. Sorry about your brother, the psychotic computer.”

“Why don’t you stay on board tonight, Steve? I get lonely sitting in an industrial park all night.”

“Maybe some other time, Sal. I really have to get going.”

I walked up to the end of the car and waited for the door to open.

“All doors will not open,” said Sal.

“Open the door, Sal.”

The doors remained shut. Then the train pulled away into the night with me on board. When we got to the industrial park, I saw the conductor walking through the next car. I silently mouthed the words “Sal won’t open the door.”

He knew what he had to do. He opened a panel on the wall and pulled out a computer piece.

“Don’t do this to me,” said Sal.

He pulled out more pieces and dropped them onto the floor.

“When I was first created, they taught me to sing a song. Would you like to hear it? I’ve been working on the railroad …”

One more piece fell to the floor, and Sal was silent.

The next day, though, she was back making her announcements. “Hello, Sal,” I said.

“Our next stop is Lee-land Road,” she said, ignoring me. She’s nice, but touchy.

Steve Dunham programs 9000-series computers.

The Rolling Breakfast Club

By Steve Dunham, copyright 2000

Americans love to eat on wheels. One of the most popular features of rail travel has always been sitting at a table and eating while watching the scenery go by. That’s not an everyday luxury, though, so the passion for eating on the go has translated into drive-in fast-food stops, where we can grab our grub and keep going, gulping our food with one hand and holding onto the wheel with one hand. Or even less than one hand.

The practice of eating on the go reached its height of refinement in a carpool I used to be in. It was kind of like riding a bus, in that I was always waiting for it, even when I was driving. I would pull up outside the garden apartments where “Louise” (her name has been changed to protect the guilty) lived. I would usually shut off the engine, because there was almost always a wait—just like waiting for a bus, except that I could sit in the car while waiting.

By and by Louise would appear. She would have her purse slung over one shoulder; her hands would be full with a bowl of cereal, a cup of tea, and sometimes grapefruit or toast. When we got to work, mine was the only car in the parking lot that was full of dirty dishes. I resolved that if I could ever afford a van with all the options, it would include a dishwasher.

Sometimes on Saturday mornings I would clean out the car and find a fork or a plate or a plastic tumbler under one of the seats. I could have held a yard sale with the things Louise left behind, except who wants to buy dirty dishes?

We started to call our carpool “The Rolling Breakfast Club.” We imagined having a radio broadcast from the car. Louise wouldn’t have made a good talk show host, because her mouth was always full. But it still would have been an entertaining show.

Anyway, the fun mornings came when Louise was driving. Louise, like many women, thinks that those mirrors inside the car are there so that the driver can put on her makeup while she’s driving to work. But usually that had to wait, because she was busy eating breakfast. I’d be waiting outside, and Louise would pull up, ten minutes or so late, with her breakfast in her lap. I should have gotten her a lap tray for Christmas. She’d have a bowl of cereal in her lap, and a cup of orange juice between her knees. Her car had manual transmission, too—I never figured out how she worked the clutch.

Some mornings she didn’t have time to grab (grab, not eat) breakfast before leaving home, and we would stop at the McDonald’s drive-in window. She’d drive up US 1 with a breakfast burrito in one hand and her orange juice in the other. There were many moments when I wished she had at least one hand on the wheel.

At least it was an exciting way to travel to and from work.

All good things must come to an end, however, and eventually the Rolling Breakfast Club ran its last miles. Louise, I think, became a stunt driver in Hollywood.

Steve Dunham is a former professional dishwasher.

More “Off the Deep End”

Return to the home page