During peak commuter hours, on the Friday night train from Long Beach, N.Y., to Manhattan’s Penn Station, it might just be easier to grab a Solo cup of beer from a stranger than it is to find a seat on the crowded train.
Chuck, an independent bartender from Manhattan who prefers to not share his last name, is traveling home from a gig on a recent such July evening. He pulls a bottle of Riazul Añejo tequila from a slim yellow backpack, showing the minimalist label to a woman sitting opposite him. After pouring a splash into his own plastic cup, he offers it to others.
By the looks of New York commuter cars on any given weekend, Chuck isn’t alone. Pre-gaming on the Long Island Rail Road (LIRR) is practically a right of electric-powered, standard-gauge passage for those traveling through the eastern end of the state. And why wouldn’t it be? It’s a cheaper alternative to starting the night in Manhattan bars, a more enjoyable way to spend a lengthy commute, and an easy way to make pals.
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But is it legal, strictly speaking? Well, that’s harder to tell. Despite commuter train travel’s close history with booze, it’s not exactly within the LIRR or Metro-North’s code of conduct.
Both the Metro North, which operates several routes running from Grand Central Station to upstate N.Y. and nearby Connecticut, and the LIRR, which stretches from Penn Station to as far east as Montauk on the tip of Long Island, discourage drinking on the trains.
Metro North operations are shared between New York’s Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) and Connecticut’s Department of Transportation. The LIRR is under the MTA’s control, which oversees the over 301,000 daily customers who board on weekdays.
“Existing Railroad rules permitted consumption of alcoholic beverages and carrying open alcoholic beverage containers on trains, platforms, terminals and stations,” the MTA notes of Metro-North’s 2020 alcohol policy on its website. “Amended to remove specific areas where consumption of alcoholic beverages is permitted and instead gives the Railroads discretion to determine where and when to allow such activities.”
Confused by the legal jargon? That might just be the point. The commonly skirted and loosely enforced open container rule on commuter trains is famously hazy. There are bans on alcohol during hectic SantaCon weekends and throughout the end-of-the-year holiday season, which implies it’s normally permitted. But whether technically allowed or not, that doesn’t stop tipsy commuters.
“It’s so good, you can drink it neat,” Chuck says of his tequila, motioning toward his cup as his LIRR train speeds through Queens. The ice in his glass melted a few train stops ago.
A newfound friend, who didn’t share her name, is heading to her sister’s birthday bash in the city. She sips from a clear tumbler, pulling out her phone to snag a photo of the bartender’s prized bottle.
It’s a rare tequila, Chuck boasts, adding that he purchased it for $15 more than the liquor’s roughly $70 retail value. His enthusiasm shines through a pair of dark round sunglasses, while his tequila is free for anyone who sits beside him long enough to hear about the spirit’s double distillation and Cognac barrel aging.
Sitting there spinning yarns in an outfit that suggests he loved vinyl before it became cool again, Chuck’s hospitality harks back to the original bar cars of the state’s commuter trains. Until 2014, drinks were shaken, stirred, and served up in a designated bar car on the Metro North New Haven Line. By the time it shuttered service due to tightening budgets, it was the last commuter bar car in the country.
Up until 2018, mid-commute tall boys were also permitted by the other MTA commuter train lines. At stations, bartenders handed off beer and mixed drinks to riders at platform bar carts. The commissary carts at Metro North’s Grand Central Station were the first to go, after a 2016 probe into missing funds halted sales and, consequently, 18 carts disappeared seemingly overnight.
It’s never been officially disclosed what the probe found, but sources say that three employees were disciplined for the incident, which was prompted by a vendor complaint. Either way, the investigation into the matter gave way to permanent closure of the beverage carts and some 24 furloughed employees.
In 2018, the LIRR halted platform sales of alcohol in a similarly brisk fashion. There were formerly eight bar carts along the LIRR lines, including five at Penn Station, one at Jamaica Station, one at Atlantic Terminal, and another at Hunterspoint Avenue.
While designated bar cars are no longer part of the commuting experience, alcohol sales continue in Grand Central Station’s dining hall and at Penn Station. To save a little cash — or while boarding at other stations — passengers might also elect to bring their own booze onboard.
Middle-aged Glen and Karen giggle over red plastic cups of beer as their Long Beach train speeds along from Jamaica to Penn Station on that same Friday evening. They’ll eventually get off at Woodside, where they’re looking forward to attending a Dead & Company concert (no relation to the world famous cocktail bar). It’s a band that Glen has long enjoyed — long enough, at least, for the couple to take the tipsy 45-minute train ride from the beginning of the line.
A younger, redheaded woman across the aisle chats with them. If she has her own glass, they say, she can share in the booze, too.
As the sun sinks below the upper Manhattan skyline later in the evening, a Hudson-bound Metro North train is nearly empty. The Yankees game has already started, but a few jersey-clad fans are running a bit late.
The eight-minute trip from Harlem doesn’t lend itself to full-blown Solo cup action, so on the ride to the 138 Street stop by the stadium, the handful of 20-something adults sip slim cans of seltzer. No beer koozies for cooling; no scrunched brown paper bags to conceal the White Claw and Truly logos.
As the young Yankees fans head toward the Metro North train’s doors, they throw back the last of the liquid in their seltzer cans before tossing them in the trash after exiting the train. Yankee Stadium is not a BYOB affair — not all N.Y. institutions run as loose with their drinking policies as New York’s commuter trains.