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Homeward bound on poker express

After four months of riding the train in and out of Manhattan every day from our corner of cosy suburbia in coastal Connecticut, I have to confess almost to enjoying the experience.

The service, operated by the Metro-North railway, is both efficient and surprisingly relaxed. You might even call it quirky.

For a start, there is my local station, a timber structure that should be in a national park in the Rockies or in Bavaria. There is hot coffee inside in the morning and a retired gent selling papers behind a trestle table. But there is nowhere to buy tickets. That happens on the train, though most of us in the morning have monthly passes.

When I forgot recently to get my new pass the conductor did nothing more than to tick me off.I have also grown fond of the driver of the 7.57 express. As we draw through the Manhattan tunnels towards Grand Central he announces our impending arrival with a toot-toot that he plays - I assume with a toy-train whistle - over the intercom.

The homeward journey can almost qualify as fun, on condition you take an express and particularly if it leaves at 10 minutes past the hour of five, six or seven. Those are the trains that have bars, where the suburbanites decompress after a heavy day earning too much money on Wall Street by drinking, gossiping and, above all, playing cards. Some play propped up at the bar, others repair to the seating carriages, where they carefully remove advertising posters from their metal frames and use them as card- tables, balanced on their knees. When the time comes to disembark, the posters are simply popped back into place.

But it is on the subject of cards that Metro-North and some of its clientele recently had a falling-out following an incident last October. Four commuters, in suits and ties like everyone else, had settled for a game of poker when they were arrested by a plainclothes police officer. The men were handcuffed and frogmarched off the train and through the concourse of Grand Central Station to a police holding-cell, where they were fingerprinted and photographed. Their crime: possession on the train of a "gambling device", more commonly called a deck of cards. What had worried the officer, though, was the neat pile of 141 dollar bills prepared for the game.

The arrest of the commuters - immediately dubbed the "Poker Gang" by New York's tabloids - became a press fiasco for the railway, which even then was running radio commercials featuring card-playing as one of the pleasures of commuting by train. The "gambling-device" charge was dropped after it was found that public gambling when no other party is taking a profit - in other words playing just between friends - is not a crime. The Gang, not impressed, sued Metro-North for $4m (pounds 2.6m), claiming undeserved public humiliation on Platform 15. An out-of-court settlement for undisclosed sums was announced last week.

Generally not fun, meanwhile, are the trains that run later than 7.10pm. Because they stop at every station, they are much slower. And because some of the stations are in Harlem and the Bronx, they can occasionally become a little threatening. A neighbour recently admitted rather dreading the doors opening at 125th Street for fear of who might board.

With the murderous rampage of Colin Ferguson on the Long Island line in mind, he observed: "Think what a tempting target we must all make on our way to Connecticut."

So far, my journeys have all been peaceful except for once, when the conductor discovered two black girls hiding in the lavatory without tickets. The train made a special stop and they were evicted, but only after a verbal exchange that was a vignette of racial division in America, the girls accusing every white in the carriage of victimising them and some of the whites eventually shouting abuse. Wishing I had got an earlier train, I buried my head in my paper.

David Usborne