How does that little paper the train conductor leaves in place of your ticket work?

As I was riding the NJ Transit train (one of the brand-spanking-new double decker ones) home from a day in the city, I was again puzzled by those little slips that the conductors use to track who paid work. Google failed me.

No funny business here, mind you — I go to New York infrequently, and I always pay my way.

Here’s the deal: you hand the conductor your ticket or show him your pass and he produces a little slip of paper which he shoves under a metal tab on the seat in front of you.

The paper is about four inches long by an inch wide, with “E | W” at the top and then two columns of numbers: “2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7” on the left and “8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13” on the right (IIRC).

They occasionally punch holes in certain places, and occasionally they tear the end, straight down the center an inch or so.

What’s the code here?

I can’t answer with complete accuracy, but I can hazard a few guesses. IAATC (I am a train conductor) but obviously not with NJT.

The slips of paper I’m familiar with are the same dimensions as the ones you describe, though I’ve only ever seen the backs of them used - on long-distance trains. The conductor or one of the assistant conductors comes by, takes the ticket, and then writes the station code of your destination in black magic marker on the (blank) back side of the slip, then sticks it under the metal tab above your seat that displays the seat number. So, if you boarded in Dallas and were headed for Marshall, your slip would say “MHL.”

The slips come in different colors, with white, light red, and light blue being the ones I see most commonly. Whether the colors are part of the ‘code’ or not likely depends on the policies of NJT or perhaps that particular train crew.

On the ones you describe, it sounds to me like the E/W is meant to signify eastbound or westbound - the trains probably make several trips a day each way with the same crew. I should note that it’s traditional for passenger trains to be coded eastbound or westbound regardless of their geographic direction. Amtrak’s Texas Eagle, for instance, runs from Chicago to San Antonio. When the train is literally going south, it’s classified as a westbound train, and vice versa. Some of the commute trains on the old Southern Pacific were labeled eastbound when they actually traveled in a western direction. Just a quirk.

The numbers, if I had to hazard a guess, would be stations. Rather than print a set of slips specific to each train (which would have station names pre-printed) the railroad likely just gets all of the slips with these numbers and each train crew knows that stop 2 is “Doperville” or what have you. That would explain why there’s no 1 - it’s impossible for your destination to be the initial terminal.

As to why they sometimes tear the slip or punch holes in it, that too would be up to either the railroad policy or the particular train crew. Again, if I had to guess, I’d say that the Lead Conductor just puts the slip up, while the assistant conductor punches one hole in a certain spot, and so on. I’d imagine on a commuter train there would be several assistant conductors, but I don’t know that for sure. At any rate, that would let everyone know instantly who held that person’s ticket stub - each conductor has a pouch. That way if there’s some sort of problem, the conductor can see that a hole is punched, and he knows to call Assistant Conductor One on the radio to bring his pouch.

Those are just educated guesses, as I said. Unless we have a NJT Doper, I suppose the only way you’ll know for sure is to ask next time you’re on the train. The answer will probably be at least as mundane as my suggestions.

I’m guessing that the numbers are actually fare zones, not individual stations. (Since all stations within a zone would have the same fare, it would be pointless to track it to that level of detail.)

They use similar seat checks on Metro-North trains, but I’ve never tried to decipher them.

I recently asked an NJT conductor this exact question. He wasn’t the most coherent individual, but here’s what I gathered:

The numbers indicate the stops. Depending on the particular line, a tear is shorthand for either the second-to-last stop or an otherwise popular stop. Doing nothing indicates something, possibly end-of-line, but I don’t remember exactly.

That’s my help. This is on the NE Corridor line.

I think there is some variation between train line, direction and conductor, but frequently those tickets have numbers in boxes that indicate fare zones. I travel sometimes on NJ Transit, LIRR and Metro North, and they are each a bit different.

On an outbound train (from the City to the suburbs), the conductor might punch the box for the fare zone once for each passenger in the seat (some lines use a separate slip for each passenger). Some trains only go through one or two fare zones, so they might not punch the particular zone sometimes. On an inbound train, they might tear the top for passengers who are getting off at Newark, and not tear the top for passengers continuing on to New York (if that’s where the train is going), to make it easier to differentiate.

I think the conductors try to keep it a little obscure to minimize the number of people who might try to palm a slip and cheat on their next ride. I’ve also seen the slips in different colors to minimize cheating.

I have never figured out why American trains are like this (Amtrak etc.). In Europe, you show your ticket, it gets stamped/embossed with the date and the conductor just remembers you… no weird slips of paper on your seat. After crossing a border, new conductors will stamp the ticket again. Nobody cares if you change seats… but on Amtrak the conductor went balistic when I tried to change seats after a bunch of people got off.

Short hijack:

I have always wondered why the busses in NYC also suck in comparison to Europe. In Europe they have sometimes have periodic inspections by “conductors” to check the ticket. There are a lot of systems. In Spain you punch your clipcard and it beeps, or you pay the driver. It works a bit faster like this…I understand in NYC it would be a terrible job to go around and hassle people for tickets though.

But really, they gotta get rid of that stupid card-taking machine on the bus. It is SO SLOW! They should just make it like the subway where you swipe it though with a beep.

I’ve never been to Europe, so I’m not sure about their setup. In America, the train crew (engineer, assistant engineer, conductor, assistant conductor(s)) only work on their particular subdivision. Taking the Texas Eagle as an example again, an incoming train crew boards in Marshall, TX and operates the train to Ft. Worth, Texas - just a couple of hundred miles away. Due to train speeds over freight railroads, the trip usually takes six hours or so. Then a new train crew boards and takes the train farther south. All of them are subject to federal hours-of-service regulations (they can only be on duty for 12 hours before a mandatory 8 hour rest period - if their 12 hours expires en route, called “dead on the law,” they must stop the train and can do nothing else but wait for a new crew to be taxied to their location.)

The on-board service crew (porters, attendants, cooks, and the like) ride from terminal to terminal.

So, as you can see, if I was riding from Marshall to San Antonio, several conductors would rotate through. Without the slips above seats, they’d not know who just boarded the train, nor where people were headed. Generally if you fall asleep, a member of the crew can glance above your head and wake you up if he/she realizes that the destination is approaching.

Going the full length of the trip, from Chicago to San Antonio, there could be a dozen conductors, each with no prior knowledge of anybody on the train, except for a printed pax list. Since they’re changing crews during (sometimes very short) station stops, there’s not much time for the outgoing conductor to brief the incoming conductor.

A conductor getting irate about you wanting to move seats is just being crabby. When I’m on a high-density train and the opportunity to move into a better seat comes, I just do it - taking my slip with me and replacing the outgoing passenger’s with mine. Nobody’s ever noticed. The past ten years or so, I’ve noticed Amtrak crews in general have been much better than they were in about 1992 or so. I haven’t encountered a rude waiter or conductor in years, where they used to be the rule rather than the exception.

In Europe train crews are similar… on the ride from Zurich to Budapest (about 15 hours), one crew will work the (short) Swiss leg, another in Austria and finally a Hungarian crew. Your ticket will be checked 3 times, maybe 4, but not at every single stop… and there is no cumbersome system of little tabs of paper to keep track of people.

I’ve been on trains that have got through one or two conductors even just within England (the Norwich-Liverpool service almost always has a change at Nottingham). Two things I’ve noticed that them doing: counting heads as they go along and when they re-enter a carriage, and at many quieter stops they can identify new passengers as they board.