Life’s busy. Trains can be crowded. People lose stuff. The news is full of scary headlines. It’s enough to make you want to bury your head in a pillow sometimes. But before you do that, keep in mind that paying attention to the environment around you—and helping serve as VRE’s eyes and ears—could make an enormous difference.

Thankfully, the day-to-day reasons for staying alert are fairly innocuous, but they could easily make you a hero. Noticing that someone left behind their memory stick may have saved their big presentation; returning a misplaced ticket or keyring surely saves its holder a lot of aggravation; and keeping on top of how the trains are operating goes a long way in helping VRE staff correct minor issues.

We can’t be everywhere all the time, so it’s always helpful having our passengers keep us posted every time they discover a problem. If a door sticks, if the heater is acting cranky, or if a bathroom needs servicing, we want to know about it so that we can fix it as soon as possible.

Of course, the other major reason to pay attention is for security reasons, particularly since transit systems have become a terrorist target. Trains in particular can be at risk, since they have no gates and checkpoints as airports do.

The first line of defense lies with the people who ride the train every day. VRE passengers know each other, and as people become familiar with regular passengers, they become familiar with that is typically carried on board. When a familiar face brings something different on board, that’s rarely cause of concern. But, when a strange face boards, it’s important to pay particular attention to them and what they’re bringing on to the train. We rely on the fact that the same people are on the same trains every day, for weeks, months, and years. Terrorists won’t ride hundreds of times merely to conduct surveillance, so it makes sense for the regulars to scrutinize the few people who are new and different until they, too, become regulars. It takes a village.

Another important step is to watch unusual packages to make sure they’re carried off by the same person who carried them on. If you ever see a package left behind by someone you know brought it onboard, bring it to their attention. If they say it isn’t theirs even though you know they brought it on, immediately contact a conductor and explain the situation fully so that the appropriate action is taken. At the stations, be alert for suspicious vehicles idling adjacent to station entrances and stairways.

And at any time, if something doesn’t “sit right,” passengers are urged to summon a conductor so that they can further investigate the situation. In the absence of a crew member, call 911 (calling VRE’s headquarters in Alexandria is the last thing you should do, because it won’t elicit an immediate emergency response like calling 911 or notifying a conductor would).

Collectively, we have an immense intelligence system. Together, we can work to safeguard our rail lines.