Train safety tips

Beware of pickpockets (Photo by Cory Doctorow)
Beware of pickpockets

Sleeping on an overnight train is a relatively safe endeavor, but take a few sensible precautions to avoid pickpockets and thieves and sleep more soundly

As with all safety tips, keep in mind that this is all worst-case-scenario stuff. The odds are against anything bad happening to you. 

However, if you follow a few dull but easy safety rules and routines, you can tip those odds even more in your favor.

The main rules

  • Don’t flash your valuables. You’re sharing a cabin a with a stranger. My philosophy is one of pragmatic optimism: always assume the best of other people...but prepare for the worst. (Also: Simply don't pack any valuables. Or at least, only pack those strictly necessary: cameracellphone, etc. Leave the Rolex and the family jewels at home.)
  • Keep your stuff where you can see it. Don't use the luggage bins by the door vestibules of some trains. Haul everything to your seat and either muscle it into the overhead bin or, of there's plenty of room, plop it in the seat next to you. (I give my pack the window seat and take the aisle; that way, no thief trolling the aisles can grab my bags while I doze and jump off just as the doors close and the train pulls away—yes, this sometimes happens.)
  • Most train stations are fairly safe, but because they are central clearinghouses for bewildered tourists overwhelmed by a new city and probably not paying close attention to what's going on around them, pickpockets abound. Be careful, never abandon your bags, and don't be distracted by any hotel touts offering you rooms.

Overnight trains

  • Make sure the cabin door is locked. Sleeper cabin doors lock from the inside and can only be unlocked from the outside by a special key the conductor carries. If you are traveling alone and get the standard double, feel free to underscore the importance of this to your bunkmate so that, if he or she gets up in the middle of the night to visit the bathroom, they'll remember to lock up when they re-enter (the conductor usually emphasizes this, but be a nerd and do it yourself, too).
  • Wear your money belt while you sleep. Do not take it off. After you’ve taken care of tickets with the conductor, you may want to excuse yourself to the bathroom and strap that moneybelt around your upper thigh instead. This sounds incredibly creepy, but thieves with light touches do sometimes unzip your pants and deftly empty the money belt while it’s still on your sleeping person—but if it’s around your thigh, there’s no way they can get to it without you noticing.
  • You might want to make a pillow out of your valuables. It’s not the most comfortable way to sleep, but if you wrap things in your sweater and poke it in a stuff sack, it may be soft enough to lay your head on.

Remember: You're sharing a room with a stranger, so don't flash anything valuable. You should be fine. After 30 years and many, many overnight train rides, I have witnessed only one train robbery only a few years ago (while we were both sleeping, the stranger who shared my couchette had his bag stolen from where it was hanging next to his head in the middle bunk. The door was unlocked when I awoke, but neither he nor I nor the conductor could figure out how it happened, unless the victim unlocked it in the middle of the night to nip out to the bathroom, forgotten to re-lock it, and was now stonewalling to cover his shame, or simple bleary forgetfulness).

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