They begin to roll into South Station a little past 1, their puffy winter coats stuffed under the proud, blue Tom Brady and Tedy Bruschi jerseys. Taking a seat, they shovel down Chinese food and Big Macs from cardboard containers until the announcement comes: The 2 p.m. Patriots train is on Track 2. Like a quarterback pursued by Rosevelt Colvin, they scramble for choice seats.
''It's the only way I would do it," says Randy Shulkin, a fan from Swampscott with tickets to see the Patriots play the New York Jets at 4:15 p.m. last Sunday.
Shulkin is talking about the MBTA's train from South Station to Foxborough. The hourlong shuttle, which costs $10 and stops in Back Bay, Dedham, and Norwood, has become a popular and traffic-free way for Patriots fans to get to Gillette Stadium.
''It's just such a hassle to get in and out of there, not to mention what it costs [around $35] to park the car," says Joe Graham, 37.
The MBTA started running the special Patriots train in the early '70s, when Jim Plunkett and Randy Vataha starred on the turf at the newly minted Schaefer Stadium. These days, about 1,000 people a week shuttle from South Station, with another 600 riding from Providence. If there is a downside, riders say, it is the schedule. The train arrives about an hour before game time, making it impossible to tailgate, that weekly ritual of consuming beer and sausages in the parking lot.
Julie Schiller, 22, doesn't mind missing that part of the day.
''Ten bucks round trip and you can drink at the game," she says.
A game at Gillette is one of the few experiences that is actually like an Oliver Stone movie. Heavy metal pumps out of the loudspeakers. Cannons blast when the home team scores. Men woozy from beer and subfreezing temperatures shout profanities, pause to apologize to the young family sitting nearby, and then launch into another string of expletives.
But the Patriots shuttle, to steal a phrase from the team's unofficial theme song, is no crazy train.
Riders play cards, snack, or read the newspaper. Any drinking takes place after furtive glances down the car to make sure no MBTA workers are watching. That's when Graham takes a quick swig of his Bud Light.
''You just go in with a couple in your pocket," says Graham. ''If nobody's acting up, it doesn't seem to bother anybody."
The train has its own host of characters. Chuck Leinberry, for example, is a Patriots season-ticket holder who lives in Virginia. For 20 years, he has commuted -- flying up and taking the train to Foxborough. He brings a pair of garbage bags with multiple changes of clothing. Leinberry has only one complaint: The Patriots shuttle has but a single restroom.
''This train is going to take more than an hour and the one thing you can't control is when nature calls," he says. ''It becomes an exercise in physical endurance."
One man, learning of the restroom situation, has his own solution a few minutes after the Patriots' 16-3 victory over the hapless Jets. Before the train pulls out of Foxborough, he relieves himself on a tree at the station. The rest of the riders sink into their seats. On this Sunday night, it's a slow ride back. That frustrates two passengers.
At 9:03 p.m., Kathy Greaney's husband calls her from South Station. Where is she? According to the schedule, the shuttle should have arrived a good 20 minutes earlier.
''I hate this train," Greaney tells him.
Her friend, Judith Ives, is angry because it is forcing her to miss ''Desperate Housewives."
In another car, Catharine Wilson, 21, doesn't mind the wait. She curls up against the window, using her Patriots blanket as a pillow.
''These seats are so comfortable," she says, before closing her eyes. ''It was so cold and you're shivering for hours. It's so nice and warm in here."
Contact Geoff Edgers at email@example.com.