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September 18, 2011

Quiet Cars Come (Finally!) To Metro-North

It’s been more than five years since I first wrote about the idea of “Quiet Cars” on Metro-North.  It looks like my persistence has paid off, as the railroad is about to start an experiment with such cars this fall.  The first trains offering a "quiet CALM-mute" will be on the Danbury branch line starting in mid-October when the new timetable takes effect.
The “Quiet Car” idea originated at riders’ suggestions on Amtrak way back in 2001 on the early morning express from Philly to NYC.  Passengers wanted a place to enjoy a peaceful ride (and maybe a nap) without obnoxious cell phone chatter or loud conversations.  The idea was so successful that it was quickly rolled out on other routes.
Conductors remind boarding passengers that the “Quiet Car” maintains a “library-like” atmosphere.  Cell phones, computers, radios and CD players should be muted.  If you need to take or make a call, step out to another car.
For the most part, the rules are self-enforced by passengers.  Those whose phones start ringing are quickly reminded they are in the wrong car and they usually move.  There have been exceptions, including a celebrated case this spring when a woman was arrested for yacking for 16 hours on her cell phone and refusing to move from the Quiet Car.
Most commuter rail lines in the east and west have picked up on Amtrak’s success, offering the Quiet Car concept, usually to passenger acclaim.  But not Metro-North.  When the CT Rail Commuter Council suggested the concept, Metro-North refused, offering a number of excuses. 
First, they said it would be hard for conductors to enforce.  That’s strange, as the conductors have no trouble enforcing other rules like no smoking, no bags or feet on the seats.  Then the railroad said it might violate free speech, never mind other passengers’ rights to a peaceful, enjoyable ride.
But the real reason for Metro-North’s opposition was crowding.  Without enough seats for all paying passengers, how could those seeking solace be sure they could find a seat?  It seems that the railroad assumed that a handful of peace-freaks who couldn’t fill a Quiet Car would force standees in other cars.
In fact, it will be just the opposite.  I’d predict that the Quiet Cars on Metro-North trains will be jammed.  And there’s certainly precedence.
Remember the old days of “smoking cars”?  It used to be that every other car on a train allowed smoking.  Those who wanted to avoid the blue haze sat in the non-smoking cars.  Those clean-air cars soon became so popular that fewer cars were designated for smokers.  Eventually, the smoking cars were eliminated.  Now, in NY State, you can’t even smoke on the train station platform!
Nobody is suggesting that cell phones be banned from the trains.  Rather, those of us looking for a quiet commute just want our fellow riders to be more considerate.  The railroad’s attempt to educate cell phone users to step into the vestibule to make their calls has had some success, but the issue goes beyond cell phones.

Have you ever been on a train where a gaggle of teens has carried on in a loud voice, oblivious to the impact of their chatter on others?  Or how about the recent case where a “well educated” young lady was kicked off a train for loud profanity? 

When the members of the “me generation” take public transportation they forget that they are sharing the ride with others.  The behavior they can get away with at home or in the car just doesn’t cut it on the train.  To them I say, “Grow up”.  It’s about “we”, not “me”.
So kudos to Metro-North for finally getting the message.  Let’s all do what we can to make this experiment a success.



UPDATE: The Quiet Car experiment was supposed to begin in October, but only on Danbury line trains. The CDOT correctly feels that a wider test on mainline trains is best, so while the Hudson & Harlem line tests begin in October, CT's will start in November.


A comment from commuter CARL M:

I am normally in agreement 100% with your column but this week I'm not.

I am a monthly ticket holder on metro north out of NH and have been for 13+ years. I also ride amtrak on a regular basis. Right now most riders on metro north do not abuse their phone use. We respect each other and when you have a long call everyone knows to go into the vestibule. When phone use does get abused it is usually by someone unfamiliar with the unwritten rules and normally a fellow rider will let them know where to take their call.

The reason people don't use their phone for extended periods in their seat is because they know it is not accepted by their fellow riders. If/when quiet cars are introduced the influence, rider to rider, is gone on the remaining cars and phone use will be abused. It happens on Amtrak now. I see people having to ask the conductors to ask phone users to please stop shouting down their phone.

The train is a peaceful place to read, do work and have a quiet conversation. By opening it up to phone use because there are quiet cars is going to change the environment and not for the better.

Carl M