Metra Conductors Share Stories of Their Trade

They are co-pilot, navigator, flight attendant and manager, all rolled into one. Metra conductors see great passengers, but they've also seen it all.

Did you hear the one about the man who rode the outside of the train, just to avoid paying his fare? 

"He had wedged himself in between the coaches. How he did it I don’t know, and how he stayed on I don’t know," says Metra conductor Demetrios Vatistas. "And he already had one prosthetic leg!" 

Get a group of Metra conductors together and ask them what they’ve seen, and you might not believe your ears. That’s exactly what NBC 5 did this week. All of them talked about the great people they meet on trains. But all had stories about some other, well, marginal passengers too. 

Like the ones who will go to great lengths not to pay. 

"Some run in between each car, each train," said conductor Clayton Starks. "I’ve seen them lay down on the upper level. Lots have hidden in the bathroom!"

"They’ve changed jackets, they’ll take hats and put 'em on," Vatistas added. "They’ll stare out the window, they’ll look right through you."

Others will even doctor their tickets.

"I’ve had tickets where they’ve punched the chad back into the ticket from behind it and taped it," Vatistas said, "so you don’t realize that it was punched from the weekend before."

"I’ve seen where they’ll take clear nail polish," adds Orlando Rojas, another Metra conductor. "And they’ll put it back in."

One popular option among passengers has been Metra’s mobile app, which has done a lot to cut down on fraud. When activated, the app features an animation of a train moving across the screen.

But that hasn’t stopped some fare evaders from trying to beat the system.

"They take a picture or a video of an old mobile app," said Starks. "And they’ll try to flash it!"

Even when people really pay, the conductors said sometimes, you don’t want to know where the money or ticket have been.

"Are they pulling it from their bra, are they pulling it from tucked under their underwear?" asked Don Kiesgen.  "Did they have it in their mouth when you were coming up to them?"

Then there’s the old trick of carrying a bill that some believe is just too big to break.

"The majority of us are used to that," said Tara O’Brien.  "So we carry enough change to break that hundred!"

Sex on the train? You bet. Especially at night.

"You tend to see more outrageous things after 10 p.m.,” Vatistas said. "Like people hiding in the bathroom, having relations."

Many passengers see their seat on a Metra train as their own private space.

"I’ll be walking by collecting tickets," O’Brien noted.  "And they will have pornographic videos playing on their cellphones while I’m walking by!"

Indeed, some are so possessive of that "private" space, they see the seats as their own, even though there are no assigned seats on Metra trains.

"People claim seats," Starks said.  "People actually claim a seat to be their own. I’ve seen them physically ask someone to get up!"

Most passengers are unaware that Metra conductors are effectively in charge of the trains, keeping track of speed limits, safety restrictions and hazards, and calling those out to the engineer.

"If you have men, equipment working, track construction, we have to notify the engineer," Starks says.  "You might be interacting with a passenger, you’re still responsible for notifying the engineer you have a restriction ahead."

Indeed, most said they can peg the speed of the train from feel alone.

"You’ll be in the middle of cutting a ticket, or (passengers) are asking you a question, and you have to stop what you’re doing, to make sure you talk to the engineer," said O’Brien, "and they’re not going through any restrictions."

The hours can be long -- 5 a.m. to 7 p.m. (with a break in the middle). There are constantly changing rules and regulations, and the conductors have to know them all.

And they say it’s the greatest job in the world.

"I’ve had passengers who ride the train and say, you know, this is the best part of my day," Starks said. "It’s another family!"

O’Brien said she’s seen plenty of passengers making their final run, at the end of their last day at work before retirement.

"They’ll come up and give you a hug," she said. "And say they will miss you."

"We enjoy what we do,” Kiesgen said.  "And it’s pretty nice every day to go to work enjoying what you do!"

Contact Us