10 Secrets of Subway Conductors

Chris Hondros, Getty Images
Chris Hondros, Getty Images

Despite listening to their announcements every day, there’s a lot the average rider doesn’t know about being a subway conductor. The men and women at the front of the train are the eyes and ears of the subway system, and they often act as the only line of communication between passengers and the greater transit authority. We spoke with conductors who work for two of the country’s busiest transit systems to learn more about what it's like on the rails—including the real meanings behind the phrases they use, how dirty trains really get, and the one thing they wish more riders would do.

1. IT CAN TAKE A WHILE TO GET A JOB ...

Aspiring transit employees often have to be patient. Candidates must first complete a written exam, and if they pass, their name is added to a list of people waiting to fill whatever jobs open up. The time it takes to reach the top of the list varies: Joe Benton, who's worked for Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) in San Francisco for 10 years, tells Mental Floss he was hired a year after first submitting his application. Tramell Thompson, a New York City subway conductor since 2013, says he waited nearly four years after taking his civil service exam to secure the job. Once hired, subway conductors must undergo a training process that can take two to three months. This involves riding real trains in the yards, and learning the various signals, regulations, and procedures.

2. ... BUT STAYING IN THE POSITION PAYS OFF.

The typical base salary for a New York subway conductor is $67,000, Thompson says, but both pay and benefits become more appealing the longer a conductor works for the transit authority. As Victor Almodovar, a New York City subway conductor for 15 years, tells Mental Floss, "seniority is everything." After 12 years, he was able to get weekends off, and he now has the freedom to choose which train line he works on—something most conductors just starting out aren't allowed to do.

3. THEY MIGHT TALK ABOUT THINGS BLOWING UP—BUT DON'T PANIC.

If you could eavesdrop on the private conversations between subway personnel, you probably wouldn’t understand them. All transit conductors speak in shorthand specific to the systems they work for: “BART has literally its own language,” Benton says. That language includes a lot of numbers, like track numbers, platform numbers, and train IDs. But other bits of lingo are more colorful—and could potentially cause panic if they were ever broadcast over the wrong intercom. As an example, Thompson notes they sometimes might say "the railroad blew up." While it may sound terrifying, he explains that it means the trains aren't running on their proper schedule.

4. THERE'S A GOOD REASON THEY'RE ALWAYS POINTING.

If you live in New York City, pay close attention next time you’re waiting on a subway platform: When the train pulls in, you should see the conductor pointing a finger out the car window. The object they’re pointing at is a black-and-white strip of wood called a zebra board. It hangs above the center of every subway platform, and when the train pulls into the station correctly, it will line up perfectly with the subway conductor’s window. If the conductor notices the board is a little too far behind or ahead of them when they point their finger, they know it’s not safe to open the doors. The gesture is also a good indicator that your conductor is paying attention.

5. THEY WORD ANNOUNCEMENTS CAREFULLY.

There are a few phrases regular subway riders are used to hearing—“sick passenger,” “police investigation,” and the standard “we are experiencing delays,” to name a few. These may sound like obvious euphemisms, but Thompson promises that using carefully worded language is in the passengers’ best interests. A police investigation, for instance, could refer to someone causing a scene on a train, but in some cases it’s a lot more serious. “If God forbid there’s a terrorism or a bomb scare, that’s not something you want to put over the public address system,” Almodovar says. “It becomes self-preservation and you don’t want that on a packed rush hour train. So instead you say, ‘We have a police investigation,’ which is basically the truth but you’re not telling them the whole truth.”

“A passenger seeking medical attention” is another example of masking something that’s potentially disturbing without being dishonest. Thompson says, “I’m not going to say, ‘Attention passengers, somebody jumped in front of the train and it’s causing delays.’ I would say, ‘There’s an injured passenger on the train ahead of us,’ or ‘There’s a passenger seeking medical attention ahead of us.’” However, with the MTA now pushing its employees to be more transparent, riders may occasionally get conductors who make no effort to mince words.

6. SOMETIMES PASSENGERS KNOW MORE THAN THEY DO.

Passengers aren’t the only ones who are kept in the dark during delays. When a conductor doesn’t give a specific reason for the delay in their announcements, it may be because he or she doesn’t know why the train stopped in the first place. “In that case, I would tell them we’re investigating the issue,” Thompson says. Usually the control center—the hub that keeps New York City’s subways moving—will inform conductors of the problem before too much time passes, but in some cases transit news travels faster by phone. “The information will get to passengers through all these MTA apps before it’s even relayed to us,” Thompson says. “So sometimes I ask them, ‘Hey, can you check your phone and see what’s on the [MTA] website?’” (Conductors are forbidden from using their phones for personal reasons on the job, but the MTA is experimenting with giving employees work iPhones to better keep them up-to-date.)

7. MOST DELAYS AREN’T THEIR FAULT.

For better or worse, subway conductors are the face of city transit systems: That means they’re usually the first people to receive complaints and abuse from passengers when a train isn’t moving fast enough. But if your train has been stuck underground for what feels like forever, there’s only a small chance one of the system's employees is to blame; the much more likely cause is faulty equipment. According to WNYC, signal problems account for 36 percent of extended subway delays (eight minutes or more) in New York City, followed by mechanical problems at 31 percent, and rail and track issues at 19 percent. “When you get mad you have to understand that we are not the ones who made the schedules; we’re ones who have to work with the tracks and the signals which are over 100 years old and they break down,” Almodovar says. “We have to work with what we have."

8. THEY HATE DELAYS MORE THAN YOU DO.

A signal malfunction might mess up the average passenger's morning commute, but it can ruin a subway conductor's whole day—so despite being blamed for them constantly, it’s possible that no one hates train delays more than subway conductors. “I didn’t really have a lunch today,” Almodovar says, recalling how he fell behind schedule when the automatic brakes were activated on the train ahead of his. “I had enough time to run downstairs, get a slice of pizza, then I’m right back on the train.”

On some days, conductors are lucky if they get to eat at all. “With all these signal issues, track issues, and all types of other issues, it’s hard for the schedules to work,” Thompson says. “Sometimes we gotta choose between using the bathroom and eating.”

9. SOME WON’T LET THEIR FAMILIES RIDE.

Staying on schedule is a priority for most subway systems. That means employees might rush through jobs where they would ideally take their time—like cleaning a subway car that a passenger has been sick in, for instance. Thompson says the lax sanitation procedures he sees up-close have convinced him to never let his son ride the subway. “It’s like working in a restaurant—you know the other-end stuff that the customers don’t know,” he says.

10. THEY WISH YOU’D LEAVE THE HOUSE EARLIER.

If you want your commute to go smoothly, subway employees will tell you the best thing to do is plan ahead. This means finding out how delays or construction might impact your preferred route before stepping outside the house. Almodovar recommends downloading a navigation app called Citymapper, which integrates the latest data from city transit systems into one spot. Official transit system websites and Twitter accounts are also good places to go for service updates.

But regardless of what your apps tell you, it’s always safer to assume your train will be behind schedule. “We all know that the transit authority isn’t the most punctual service,” Thompson says. “Leave an extra five to 10 minutes earlier from your house, because things are always happening.”

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10 Secrets of Epidemiologists

Epidemiologists are fans of charts.
Epidemiologists are fans of charts.
metamorworks/iStock via Getty Images

Unless you know an epidemiologist or are one yourself, those “disease detectives” might not have occupied a very large portion of your brain. Last year, that is. Now, with the coronavirus pandemic at the top of mind—and at the top of so many headlines—there’s a good chance you’re at least aware that epidemiologists study diseases.

To be more specific, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) defines epidemiology as “the study of the distribution and determinants of health-related states or events in specified populations, and the application of this study to the control of health problems.” So what exactly does this mean? Mental Floss spoke with a few epidemiologists to shed light on what they do, how they do it, and which germ-friendly foods they avoid at the buffet.

1. People often mistake epidemiologists for skin doctors.

Since the word epidemiologist sounds like it might have something to do with epidermis (the outer layer of skin), people often think epidemiology is some offshoot of dermatology. At least, until the coronavirus pandemic.

“Prior to that, no one knew what I did. Everyone was like ‘Oh you’re an epidemiologist—do you work with skin?’” Sarah Perramant, an epidemiologist at the Passaic County Department of Health Services in New Jersey, tells Mental Floss. “I would be rich if I had a dollar for every time I got asked if I work with dermatologists.”

2. Epidemiologists don’t discover a new disease every day.

Though some epidemiologists do look for unknown diseases—certain zoonotic epidemiologists, for example, surveil wildlife for animal pathogens that might jump to humans—most are dealing with diseases that we’re already familiar with. So what do they do every day? It varies … a lot.

Epidemiologists who work at academic or research institutions undertake research projects that help determine how a disease spreads, which behaviors put you at risk for it, and other unknowns about anything from common colds to cancer. But it’s not just about devising experiments and studying patient data.

“I like to tell my friends and family that my job is about four different jobs in one,” Dr. Lauren McCullough, an assistant professor in the department of epidemiology at Emory University’s Rollins School of Public Health, tells Mental Floss.

Writing, she says, is “the most important part.” It includes requesting grants, devising lectures and assignments, grading her students’ work, writing about her research, and more. She also sits on admissions committees, reviews other epidemiologists’ studies, and oversees the many people—project managers, data analysts, technicians, trainees, etc.—working on her own research projects.

Those who work in the public health sphere are often monitoring local outbreaks of diseases like the flu, Lyme disease, salmonellosis, measles, and more. If you test positive for a nationally notifiable disease (any of about 120 diseases that could cause a public health issue), the CDC or your state health department sends your electronic lab report to the epidemiologist in your area, who’s responsible for contacting you, finding out how you got sick, and telling local officials what steps to take in order to prevent it from causing an outbreak.

3. Epidemiologists have to make some uncomfortable phone calls.

At least the person on the other end can't see your expression of consternation.Andrea Piacquadio, Pexels

Epidemiologists sometimes have to ask pretty personal questions about drug use and sexual activity when trying to figure out how someone got infected, and not everyone is happy to answer them. “I’ve gotten hung up on many a time,” Dr. Krys Johnson, an assistant professor in Temple University’s department of epidemiology and biostatistics, tells Mental Floss.

Some simply aren’t willing to accept that they might have been exposed to a disease without knowing it. After several employees at a certain company tested positive for COVID-19, for example, Perramant started calling the rest of the workers to tell them to go into quarantine; this way, she could prevent sick people who weren't yet showing symptoms from spreading the disease without knowing it. But not everybody was open to her advice. “They would just swear up and down, ‘I haven’t been in touch with anybody who’s positive, please don’t call me again,’” Perramant says.

But there are plenty of cooperative people, too, especially victims of foodborne or diarrheal illnesses. “They really want to know where they got sick because they’re so miserable that they never, ever want to deal with that again,” Johnson explains. Parents of sick kids are also generally forthcoming, since they want to keep their kids healthy in the future. And then there are those who don’t have any problem spilling their secrets to a stranger.

“There was one woman who was very memorable,” Johnson says. “I called her about her Hepatitis C, and she was like, ‘Oh, honey, I did drugs back in the ’80s. That’s where I got my Hepatitis C. I pop positive every time!’”

4. Epidemiologists deal with a lot of rejection.

Public health epidemiologists have to learn to just shrug off all the rude tones and dial tones, and epidemiologists in academic settings need thick skin for different reasons.

“There’s just a lot of rejection,” McCullough says. “‘That idea isn’t good enough; this paper isn’t good enough; you’re not good enough.’ That is just a resounding thing. There’s a high bar for science; there’s a high bar for federal funding; and it takes a lot to cross that bar. So in the academic setting at these top-tier institutions, you really just have to have a thick skin.”

5. Just because epidemiologists' guidelines change doesn't mean they're wrong.

Sometimes, McCullough explains, the story of a disease can change over the course of one study. When you look at the first 100 people in a 10,000-person study, you’ll see one story emerge. By the time you’ve seen 1000 people, that story looks different. And after you’ve seen the data from all 10,000 people, the original story might not be accurate at all.

Usually, epidemiologists can complete the whole study of a disease and draw conclusions without the world clamoring for half-baked answers. But with a brand-new, highly infectious disease like COVID-19, epidemiologists don’t have that luxury. As they’ve learned more about how the pathogens spread, how long they can survive on surfaces, and other factors, they’ve changed their recommendations for safety precautions. Everyone else in the world of epidemiology expected this to happen, but the general public did not.

“If we say something this week that contradicts what we said last week, it’s not that we were wrong,” Johnson says. “It’s that we learned something between those two time points.”

6. Being an epidemiologist would be easier if people kept better track of their behavior.

Often, people omit vital information about how they got exposed to an illness because they just don’t remember all the details. You could easily recall devouring a few slices of the decadent chocolate cake your mom baked for your birthday last Friday, but you might not be able to name every bite of food you ate on a random Thursday three weeks ago.

“People aren’t telling us the whole truth, but it’s not that they’re being intentionally obtuse,” Johnson explains. “With recall bias, unless there’s a reason for us to really remember, we’re not going to remember everything we actually ate.”

This has made it especially difficult to trace an aerosolized disease like COVID-19.

“All my friends going into the Fourth of July were like, ‘Should we have a get-together?’” Perramant says. “And I said, ‘You can have people over, but you better take an attendance list. You better have a little spreadsheet on Google Drive that has every person’s name and their phone number, so that when one person tests positive and gets sick this week, when I call you, you will be able to give me that information like that.’”

7. Epidemiologists have reason to be wary of buffets, cruise ships, mayonnaise, and cubed ham.

It's all fun and games until someone eats warm egg salad.Tim Meyer, Unsplash

Infectious disease epidemiologists may have accepted that germs are a part of life, but they also know where those germs like to congregate.

“I don’t go to buffets, I have never been on a cruise ship and I don’t intend to, I’m super conscientious when I fly,” Johnson says. “And I’m really aware of whenever mayonnaise-based things are put out at family functions. If you’re ever at a potluck and people come down sick, the first thing people say [they ate] is potato salad or egg salad, because mayonnaise can spoil so quickly.”

“[Cubed ham] is one particular microbe’s very favorite thing to multiply on, so if you’re gonna have ham, make it a whole ham,” she says.

8. Teaching people is a really rewarding part of being an epidemiologist.

In addition to actually leading lectures in the classroom, academic epidemiologists also work extremely closely with their students on research projects; McCullough estimates that she’s in contact with hers at least once a day when they’re collaborating on a study.

“To work with someone so closely, and to watch them progress as a scientist and as a person, and then to have to let them go and send them out into the world, I find that very rewarding,” McCullough says of her trainees. “As a scientist in an academic institution, there’s not a whole lot of immediate gratification. Our papers get rejected, our grants don’t get funded, but the trainees are always a source of immediate gratification for me, so I hold them close to my heart.”

Epidemiologists in other spheres have teaching opportunities, too. When a community experiences a disease outbreak, public health epidemiologists like Perramant are responsible for helping the general public understand what they can do to prevent the spread.

“I like to teach kids about infectious disease and infection prevention for what’s relevant to them. We’ve had a couple of large outbreaks at summer camps, and last summer I put together a training for camp counselors,” Perramant says. “That’s always a part of my job that I really love.”

9. Epidemiologists have a unique understanding of racial disparities.

At this point, it's exceptionally clear that COVID-19 is disproportionately affecting people of color in the U.S. They're more likely to be exposed to it, they have less access to testing, and the preexisting conditions that place them at a higher risk can be the result of systemic racism. When these trends started to become apparent, McCullough got flooded with phone calls asking why. Her answer? This isn’t new. As she’s seen in her work as a breast cancer researcher, Black women are more likely to die of that disease than their white counterparts, and similar health disparities exist across the board.

McCullough explains that the general public is finally realizing what epidemiologists already knew: That poor disease outcomes in minority, low-income, and rural populations aren’t because of anything those people are doing on an individual level. Instead, it’s a result of systemic issues that keep them from leading financially comfortable, healthy lifestyles with access to healthcare and other resources.

“It’s not just COVID—it’s almost every single chronic and infection ailment that’s out there,” McCullough explains. “So this is a real opportunity for people to step back and take an assessment of where we are in terms of our healthcare system, and what we’re doing so that everybody has equitable outcomes. Because people shouldn’t die just because they live in a rural area, or just because they’re poor, or just because they’re Black or Hispanic.”

10. They've had to deal with a lot of “armchair epidemiologists” lately.

Until this year, epidemiologists had to suffer through people mistaking them for dermatologists. Now, during the coronavirus pandemic, people finally know at least a little about their jobs. In fact, people are so confident in their newfound epidemiological knowledge that many are fancying themselves experts on the subject.

“At the beginning of 2020, there were like 500 epidemiologists, and now there are about 5 million. Everybody thinks they’re an epidemiologist,” McCullough says. “There’s a science to it, and it’s a science that requires training. We went to school for a really long time to be doctorally trained epidemiologists.”

It’s not just about advanced degrees, either. Beyond that, you need years of firsthand experience to grasp all the nuances of understanding methods, interpreting data, translating your findings into recommendations for the general public, and so much more. In short, you can’t just decide you’re an epidemiologist.

Perramant has her own analogy for the recent influx of self-proclaimed epidemiologists: “It’s like armchair psychology. Poolside epidemiology now is a thing.”