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April 23, 2016

The Quiet Car Conundrum

Sixteen years ago a group of regular commuters on Amtrak’s early morning train to DC had
a great idea: why not designate one car on the train as a “Quiet Car”, free from cell phone chatter and loud conversations? The railroad agreed and the experiment proved a great success.

But as early as 2006 when the same idea was suggested to Metro-North it was rejected outright. Then serving on the Commuter Council, I persisted and finally, in 2011 the railroad agreed to a trial with one car on each rush hour train dedicated to what it called a “Quiet CALMmute”.

Almost immediately the plan ran into trouble. Not because it wasn’t wanted, but because it wasn’t enforced.

There were no signs in the cars and only occasional PA announcements before departure reminding folks who sat in the car that a quiet, library-like environment that was expected. Most of all, conductors wouldn’t enforce the new rules. But why?

Conductors seem to have no trouble reminding passengers to keep their feet off the seats or put luggage in the overhead racks. 

But all that the railroad expected them to do to enforce the Quiet Car rules was to pass out bilingual “Shhh cards” to gabby violators.

It seemed left to passengers to remind fellow riders what a Quiet Car was for and confrontations resulted.

Then this spring the railroad surprised even me by announcing an expansion of the program: every weekday train, peak and off-peak, would now have two Quiet Cars! Sounds great, but without signage or education, the battles continued.

One commuter from Fairfield recently e-mailed me with a typical tale: riding in a Quiet Car he became annoyed when a fellow passenger was yakking on her cell phone. He tapped her on the shoulder and told her “we’re in a Quiet Car” and she freaked, telling him to “keep your @&%! hands off of me” and continuing her chatter by telling her caller that "some guy" just tried to tell her to get off her phone and what a fool he was to think this was some kind of quiet car.

Of course there was no conductor around (all tickets having been collected) and lacking any signage in the car to point to, the offended passenger was made to feel like some sort of jerk.

On Amtrak trains those violating Quiet Car rules have been thrown off the train and arrested. Even Chris Christie had to move his seat on an Acela once for yabbering with his staff in the wrong car.

Nobody wants these kinds of altercations on Metro-North. But why initiate and then expand such a passenger amenity as Quiet CALMmute without proper education and enforcement? A few signs and friendly reminders from conductors should make passengers aware that “train time may be your own time” (as the railroad’s marketing slogan says), but it’s also shared time. And I, for one, want a quiet commute.


Patrick Macaluso said...

The day that they implemented the 2 quiet car plan, there were small signs hanging at ends of the cars noting that they were quiet cars. Those signs were there for ONE day (Maybe it was even just the one ride). I haven't seen them since, and all that remains is a small Velcro strip which was used to holdup the signs. (Understandable to use Velcro, as the rearrangement of the equipment might prohibit any kind of permanent signage).

After 25 years on the railroad, I can't explain why the conductors seem so eager to boss people around with some issues, yet ignore this one, but all of the blame is not theirs. Passengers can clearly see and hear when they board a train that, excluding the mechanics of the train, there is utter silence. Common manners should dictate their behavior, and in most cases it does. But in a car with 100-plus people, it takes a mere 1% to annoy the other 99 (well, maybe not that many, but I'm sure you know what I mean.).

This isn't going to get solved any time soon. Conductors don't want to be baby sitters, and people are becoming less courteous all the time. I'm glad that we got out of the 2000's, when people seemed to enjoy making sure everyone around them knew how cool they were with their new phone. Those Nextel's were murder. My solution, in the meantime... Silicone earbuds.


Posted at the request of commuter who wishes to remain anonymous:

"Great idea and along with signage someone needs to tell Metro North that having the 2 last cars into NY and the 2 front cars out of Grand Central as quiet cars is a problem.


The packed 6:50 AM out of Greens Farms arrives on the so-called Upper Level track 11; only problem, upper level is reached by a stair case. If you were on the 6:50 and sat in the 2 last cars for piece and quiet, you’d be looking at 10-15 minutes to get to the terminal, due to the bottle neck at the staircase. (BTW, I have observed that the majority of the “real” upper level tracks (18,19,20,21…) are vacant when we arrive.).

Another example, sitting in the 2 head cars home at night puts you furthest from parking at a lot of stations, Greens Farms as an example, and again penalizes those of us that want a quiet commute.

Solution, designate the 2 end in the AM and the 2 head cars in the PM Talking Cars and make the rest of the cars Quiet Cars as most people do not talk anyway."


One more comment, received by e-mail and re-posted here with permission:

"I am extremely disturbed by the addition of a second quiet car on the hudson line. i feel like a second class commuter having to move further down the tracks to accommodate those who need silence. i pay close to 500/month plus parking - i work in a very busy office and have little communication during the day with friends or family. while i don't make/receive a lot of calls on the train, i feel i should have the right to make a call without having to move two or more cars back because some people want to have a space that seems more like a morgue than a commuter train. those people are highly aggressive with their quiet time and have insulted parents, children and the elderly with yelling and physical altercations and now metro north has decided to give them another car??? i think all quiet cars should be in the middle of the train. make those folks who demand special treatment walk down a bunch of cars instead of punishing those who require no special treatment.

I want a seat in the first car so i can have the luxury of being one of the first to my car and out of the parking lot. there are many perks with the first and second car - and we shouldn’t be forced to move further back on the train because others demand special treatment. they should get rid of the second quiet car and move any quiet cars to the middle of the train. i'm sure those who feel the need for total silence won't mind the walk in order to have it. the rest of us should be left alone to enjoy conversations and phone calls or silence if we choose to be silent. thank you."