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Take A Ride With The Subway's 'Happiest Conductor'

Kenneth Burton makes passengers feel welcome aboard his "choo choo."
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Kenneth Burton makes passengers feel welcome aboard his "choo choo." David "Dee" Delgado / Gothamist


“Let’s make some space, so the stroller can ride the choo choo with us,” announced Kenneth Burton, a subway conductor on the 1 train, his friendly but authoritative voice cutting through the crackle of the subway PA in Times Square.

Further uptown, as Burton’s train screeched to a stop on the Upper West Side, he spotted a toddler in a stroller near the cab window, and leaned out of the conductor’s cab to hand out a lollipop. “Usually, I have lollipops with me, in case I come across them in the strollers,” he mentioned nonchalantly in an interview with Gothamist. 

That ability to sweeten the bitter drudgery of a subway commute is what sets Burton apart from his peers. While most conductors make announcements with studied apathy, he makes passengers—imagine this—smile.  

“Kenneth just brightens the entire train up,” Chloe Li, a college student who travels from Staten Island to her internship at WNYC via the uptown 1, gushed to Gothamist. “Every time I hear his voice, I’m like, today is going to be a good day.”

On a recent Wednesday, Burton exuded that same cheerful charm. “I’m on the subway with the happiest conductor… The #MTA is sometimes redeemable,” a passenger had tweeted at 1:54 p.m. after Burton had asked riders to “let passengers in so everyone can ride the choo choo.”

Twenty minutes later, Burton pulled into South Ferry station at 2:15 p.m. (Although his train was three minutes late, the MTA considers trains “on time" when they arrive within five minutes and 59 seconds of their scheduled arrival.) 

Burton exited the train grinning, wearing aviator-style glasses and a conductor’s hat cocked at an angle. An avid basketball player in high school, he’s known by friends and family as “Happy.” “I used to always be smiling on the court,” he explained.

Burton, 65, has only been conducting for five years. He was previously a maintenance worker for NYCHA, but lost his job amidst a round of layoffs. “Then, lucky enough, transit called me,” reflected Burton, who had been on the waitlist for approximately 10 to 15 years after passing his civil service exam.

At 2:27 p.m., duty called again. Burton entered the conductor’s cab for his sixth and final trip of the day, shut the train doors (“I call myself a door slammer,” he said in an interview) and set off. 

As he chugged through the first few stops, Burton dove into his routine. Born and raised in Harlem, he’s a natural New York City tour guide. 

“This is Christopher Street. Sheridan Square. NYU. And the famous Stonewall Inn,” he enunciates with theatrical precision each time he enters Greenwich Village. He strings out the syllables of “Stonewall Inn” as if he were introducing a well-liked hoopster at Madison Square Garden.

Burton’s style—reminiscent of celebrated subway conductors like Harry Nugent—is a response to his dissatisfaction with other conductors’ garbles. “Sometimes when I ride the train to work, I can hear my coworkers. They be all fast. Now—I work with them, and I don’t understand what they’re saying,” he laughed.

When Burton switched three years ago from conducting on lines like the 2, 4, or 5 that have automated announcements to the 1, which runs older models of trains, he began to throw his personality into the PA to amuse passengers. “I make a little joke with it to brighten up their day,” he said. “Plus it makes my day go by faster.” 

Pre-rush hour crowds crammed onto the train as it rattled into midtown. In some cars, passengers’ brows gleamed with perspiration. Burton, stuck without AC, was also feeling the heat. “I’m burning up,” he said later in the ride. (The 1 line’s HVAC units break down with greater frequency because of its fleet’s age.)

At just after 3 p.m., a dense spatter of raindrops began to streak across the subway windows as Burton's train exited the tunnels to the elevated tracks above 125th Street.

He related the stormy weather to unaware commuters: “It’s raining hard out. Get those umbrellas ready, and you can hear the thunder and lightning!”

It's moments like these that charm passengers. “If you find that people who work for transit are playful and helpful, it makes the ride better,“ said Indy Smith, a Harlem resident who was on the train. 

In fact, Burton has received an official commendation from the MTA, meeting Andy Byford, president of New York City Transit, in person. It’s not uncommon for Byford to meet and recognize employees for their service, an MTA spokesperson explained to Gothamist.

Byford’s celebration of Burton’s improvisation, though, seems in direct conflict with the agency’s drafting of official by-the-books scripts for subway conductors. According to the same MTA spokesperson in an email, the agency allows some measure of flexibility: "No script can account for every possible scenario that happens on the rails each day, and we’re lucky to have outstanding employees like Kenneth who maintain such great rapport with our customers.” 

As Burton sped through Inwood, over Spuyten Duyvil Creek and into the Bronx, blue cracks of lightning split the sky. At 3:23, with rain still pouring down, his “choo choo” pulled into Van Cortlandt Park-242nd Street, the end of the line.

Clocking out, Burton drove home to his wife and four grandchildren, and then soaked his grease-covered uniform in OxiClean and set his yellow-striped vest aside. Inside his vest pocket was a piece of paper a commuter had gifted him three years ago. 

It read: "KEEP SMILING."

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