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Traveling By Train Alone

Lenore Skenazy is no stranger to criticism over allowing her son independence. Earlier this year, Skenazy started an entire Web site and movement for free-range kids after critics pounded her for allowing her then 9-year-old son, Izzy, to ride the subway alone.

Skenazy's movement is back in the forefront this week. Her current faux pas? Letting that same boy, who is now 10, take a train solo on a half-hour route he's done dozens of times.

Appalled to find a 10-year-old alone on the Long Island Railroad, a conductor refused to talk to Skenazy on the phone and held up the train at Izzy's destination until the police arrived. Skenazy writes of her fear that the confrontation with the police could have gone either way; thankfully, the police thought it perfectly reasonable that Izzy rode solo, to be picked up by a responsible adult at his destination.

Like Skenazy's New York, Washington has plenty of trains available for us to send our kids on. So, how likely is it that one of our kids could get stopped for riding solo?

Not likely at all, based on the area transit systems policies.

The Washington Area Metro Transit Authority reports that the agency has no rules on unaccompanied minors. In fact, Metro, is a mode of transport for many D.C. public schoolchildren. That same lack of a written rule goes for the MARC train. Both Metro and MARC, by the way, allow two young children to travel for free with an adult. For Metro, the free-ride age is 4 and under. For MARC, riders age 6 and under are free.

Amtrak, meanwhile, allows unaccompanied minors between the ages of 8 and 14 so long as they and their families follow a list of rules that includes an interview to make sure the child is capable of traveling alone.

What maturation signs do you look for to decide when your children are old enough to ride on a train alone? Is it different for a subway ride versus a longer trip?

By Stacey Garfinkle |  January 2, 2009; 7:00 AM ET  | Category:  Child Development , Elementary Schoolers , Tweens
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I think that it's dependent on a child's personality and temperment. If a child is independent and responsible I see no problem with it. Isn't that independence, confidence and self-reliance what we are working towards as parents? I think it just comes for different kids at different times.

If a child had grown up using a public transportation system, is familiar with the routes, able to know who and when to ask for help, then I think they are ready.

Posted by: thosewilsongirls | January 2, 2009 7:48 AM | Report abuse

I do think that each child's maturity level is dependent on the child and not an arbitrary age. That said, what is the rush? Why are we so anxious to put young children in a situation where they could be harmed or not really ready (regardless of emotional maturity) for a serious situation should it occur? My children could have ridden (and changed) trains alone when they were 8, but if something untoward happened, they would NOT have been prepared. While there may be one or two 10yos who are ready to ride a train alone if something unusual happened, the majority of them are not ready. The ridiculous argument of establishing independence, confidence and self-reliance, is just that - ridiculous. You don't discourage your child from those qualities because you don't let them do things which they are simply not capable of handling at such a young age.

Most children, when things go well, can handle all sorts of situations. The reason parents are with them is because situations do not always go well and there needs to be a more mature head involved. This isn't coddling our children, it's doing our JOB - the one we signed up for when we CHOSE to have children.

Posted by: Stormy1 | January 2, 2009 8:17 AM | Report abuse

About two months ago I took the train to Boston. My husband was to pick me up at our (very small) train station. I had called him in Deleware to say we were running late, but apparently there was still another train head of us. When the other train pulled in he was waiting at the platform, and the conductors asked if he was waiting for someone someone on the train. He said yes and gave my name. Before he could stop them, one of the conductors took off looking for a little girl who fell alseep. He did stop them and said it was his 35-year-old wife, not a young child. Turned out, I was on the train 10 minutes behind them.

My point - it must not be unheard of for unaccompanied minors to ride alone, and these conductors wanted to help, not chastize.

Posted by: rubytuesday | January 2, 2009 9:43 AM | Report abuse

Sheesh. I used to ride San Francisco MUNI trains and buses alone when I was 10, to go to school. Because the school was a magnet arts school 1/2 away, the train/bus ride was pretty lengthy at times. I was not the only kid on the bus alone--in fact, probably 20% of the riders were kids going to school. Is this different than riding hundreds of miles on something like Amtrak--of course it is. But, my mother prepared me for taking public transportation, and kids in cities vs. suburbs like Fairfax where public transportation is not the norm are much more savvy than you think.

Posted by: charlottes_b | January 2, 2009 9:56 AM | Report abuse

I rode the train alone from DC to Vermont several times from the ages of 10-12. And despite my youth managed to handle the straightforward trips to the problem ones with few problems.

Once there was a train malfunction and I had to transfer to a bus in Boston and ride that to a station in Vermont that was not my actual stop. Another time I arrived at the correct train station at 4:30am and found no one waiting for me. It was cold and nothing was open, but I waited until I saw some cars going into a nearby lumberyard an hour later. Then I went over and asked to use the phone.

The only impact my youth had was it made people more willing to help me.

Posted by: MLHVA1 | January 2, 2009 10:32 AM | Report abuse

I'm surprised this is an issue for anyone--and I'm especially surprised Amtrak actually has a policy on it, interviewing kids up to age 14--wow! I'd draw the line somewhere around 9. By the time I was 14 I was taking the Greyhound across the border with my kid brother in tow and all our backpacking gear, to meet our dad for hiking trips. I don't recall being questioned or having any issues at all--and this wasn't all that long ago.

I don't support parents forcing their kids to go solo at a young age to "build independence". But if you have a naturally independent and responsible kid, why stifle that? Why make a big deal out of things that are really easy to do? Why try to instill fear that "something will happen" when 99% of the time, nothing happens?

You're living in a nation of fear, people... it's not healthy, and the best thing you can do for your kids is try to avoid passing on to them all your weird paranoias.

Posted by: pollyesther1 | January 2, 2009 10:34 AM | Report abuse

In Maryland you must be at least 8 to be left alone, so I'd say no kids by themselves on bus/train before that.

From what I see on the DC Metro I think a younger kid by themselves is just fine. If a kid is used to the subway, knows to not lose their ticket and is sure about which station to use, and can navigate the variety of creeps that are around then I wouldn't worry. I think if you have a commuting situation with a child that age that it's entirely appropriate for them to carry a cell phone in case something odd turns up.

It's kids in groups that are a problem!

Once your kid is in a pack all bets are off on how safe they are. If they're aren't loud and horsing around to the point where someone will end up off the platform and on the tracks then someone else will be bullying them.

So I think save your anxiety for those Middle school years and let your older elementary kid go by themselves.

Posted by: RedBird27 | January 2, 2009 11:37 AM | Report abuse

I've been riding Metro for as long as I can remember. Sometimes I was by myself, other times I was with my parents or other relatives that live in DC...and I'm only 22. There are some parts of the Metro system I wouldn't go in by myself (and sill won't today) and as long as I know that the MTPD is willing to help, I would feel fine alone on the system.

Amtrak and MARC are the same way. As long as the employees are helpful (and 90% of the time they are) I don't see a problem with it. This is partly why I pay have a safe support structure for the public transit systems I ride.

Posted by: WxDude | January 2, 2009 11:48 AM | Report abuse

When my family lived in New York City my parents didn't give it a second thought that me (6 years old) and my sister rode the subway to a private school some distance away. Nothing changed when my brother a year younger joined us. However, those same parents would freak if I allowed my daughter 6 to do the same here in Washington. The funny thing is that I know that there were circumstances that enabled my parents to do then what they would never think of now. They were immigrants (legal) and both worked two jobs. My grandmother lived with us when we first arrived in this country but had to return home to her husband. We had babysitters - and it was because one of them forgot to pick us up from school (and we walked home from the subway) that showed us capable of traveling on our own. Did we grow up faster? Were we more mature ? I don't know I just know we did it and much more, and I don't see me giving my daughter those same responsibilities for a while.

Posted by: wilsona1 | January 2, 2009 12:08 PM | Report abuse

Back in 1993, when my daughter was 11, we wanted her to travel to visit her aunt and uncle and young cousin her age, who lived near DC - we were in NJ. She was going to stay there for a week. It seemed natural for her to take the Amtrak train: it was a direct route with only a few intervening stops, my sister was going to meet the train, and my daughter had taken airplane trips unaccompanied at a younger age. At that time we found that Amtrak wanted to interview anyone younger than 12. Since my daughter was very responsible and had a good sense of what to do in case of things going wrong, we thought she would be fine... we skipped the interview part because they wanted to do it in downtown NYC the same day as the trip, which was just not going to work. So I told her to just tell anyone who asked, that she was 12. Everything worked fine so I have no regrets about it, although introducing your kid to the idea of lying about their age for convenience sake is not that great I admit (although not the biggest transgression in the world, either!).

I guess I can see why they have somewhat stricter rules for the train than an airplane, because the entry and exit from a train is less controlled. But I think that a kid of 10 or so, depending on their personal maturity, should be able to handle it fine.

Posted by: catherine3 | January 2, 2009 12:27 PM | Report abuse

Either of the boys would be fine to use BART - *IF* DH or I ever used it. But we don't, because AC Transit buses are cleaner, less expensive, wa-a-a-ay less crowded, much more convenient to our home and the places we want to go, and the drivers are absolutely the best.

Why anyone in the SF Bay Area chooses to spend more money to stand (or if one gets a seat, it smells like a homeless person used it for a toilet, and may still be damp if the toileting was recent!) during a BART ride, when they could spend less and always get a *clean* seat on a bus, completely baffles me. If forced to travel farther than I can walk in SF, I will choose BART over SF Muni, but only because Muni operators are often more dangerously crazy misanthropes than the other passengers. If my boys are going to be in SF, they're going to be with a parent, not alone. But in Oakland they're fine to go solo.

Posted by: SueMc | January 2, 2009 2:44 PM | Report abuse

fr catherine3:

>...we skipped the interview part because they wanted to do it in downtown NYC the same day as the trip, which was just not going to work. So I told her to just tell anyone who asked, that she was 12. Everything worked fine so I have no regrets about it, although introducing your kid to the idea of lying about their age for convenience sake is not that great I admit (although not the biggest transgression in the world, either!).

I'm HOPING that you meant well, but teaching a kid to LIE about their age could well get them into serious trouble, either with authorities or someone you wouldn't want them to meet at all.

Posted by: Alex511 | January 6, 2009 9:50 AM | Report abuse

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