Such gaggles are not uncommon on commuter rail lines like MARC. The trains’ predictable schedules make it more likely that riders will see the same faces each day, and the sometimes long distances the passengers travel give them ample opportunity to chat. Often, these conversations evolve into a kind of clique. Some, such as the one Lonas and Collins are part of, are organized enough to have their own Facebook group.
For the people who run MARC, the cliques add to the appeal of riding the rail line.
“We encourage it,” said Dave Johnson, MARC’s chief customer relations officer. “We have people that come from southern New Jersey all the way to D.C., so, of course, some will say hello to others. It just happens naturally.”
It’s difficult to measure exactly how many MARC passengers consider themselves part of such groups, but Johnson says the phenomenon occurs on all three of MARC’s lines, which serve 32,500 passengers each day. The Camden Line, which runs between Washington and Baltimore, carries about 4,500 of those.
Whether they started riding MARC a decade ago or just a few months back, Lonas, Collins, and most of their friends started out as solo travelers. But for extroverts such as them, perhaps the greatest thing about commuting by train is that you don’t have to be alone for long.
Today, they rarely are solo, with up to 12 at a time clustered around as many seats. Although some can only make it in the morning or the evening, Lonas and Collins and other core members tend to ride together both ways.
The recruiting of new members is informal. “One of these guys said ‘hello’ one morning, and it just kind of went from there,” said Lisa Reed, a financial officer at the Art Institute of Washington.
Some passengers try to wile their way in.
“They creep,” Collins said of such aspirants. “We call those people creepers, because they creep up the rows toward us. That’s what I did.”
“We don’t say no to anybody who wants to join us,” said Lonas, 58, an executive assistant at a lobbying firm and the Camden clique’s mother hen.
But this inclusiveness is not absolute, according to Collins.
“It depends on how mean you want to be,” Collins said. “If someone’s real annoying, we’ll just ignore them altogether.”
Frank Vallee, 49, who moved to Maryland from Boston last year to take a job with the Veterans Benefits Administration, was subjected to this selectivity as he made his move to join.
“I actually feel honored to be in this group,” Vallee said. “It was like hitting the lottery when we walked by these guys.”