April 09, 2007

"Commuters Cry Out for Quiet Cars!"

It takes a tough man to be President of Metro-North, and Peter Cannito fits the bill. A long-time “railroad man,” Cannito offers commuters a chance each year to face him with their questions, comments and, occasionally, compliments.

But guess what was the hot topic at this year’s “President’s Forum”? Not dirty bathrooms, fare increases or lack of seats… but obnoxious cellphone users.

Metro-North used to market “train time (as) your own time.” You could read, nap or work on your laptop. But these days, train time means sharing your space with a lot of newbie riders who are more selfish than courteous.

For several years now, I’ve been suggesting we give commuters a break… not by segregating the abusive cell-phonies into one car where they could yell over each others’ conversations, but by doing the opposite: dedicating one car to a cell-free zone.

Years ago, Amtrak offered passengers such an alternative: The Quiet Car ®… a car which, as conductors remind passengers, offers a “library like atmosphere” free of loud conversations, especially on cell-phones. The Commuter Council’s 2004 requests for tests of Quiet Cars® were rejected outright by Mr. Cannito who similarly rebuffed renewed commuter requests at this year’s meeting.

He argues that the railroad can’t ask conductors to “play cop” and enforce passenger behavior… and that trains are so full, doing anything to segregate passengers will only compound the problem.

He’s right. Trains are so crowded there aren’t enough seats for all ticketed passengers. But overcrowding makes it all the harder to put up with some noisy blowhard who insists on yapping the entire trip in a voice loud enough to be heard several rows away. And enough with the customized ring-tones already! Can’t you just set the phone to “vibrate”?

One commuter tells me she witnessed the following example of “cell rage”: A male passenger asked a cell caller to “keep it down”. He didn’t. He asked the conductor to instruct the passenger to be considerate. The conductor wouldn’t. So, this distraught vigilante grabbed the caller’s cellphone and threw it against a wall, smashing it to pieces. A quiet car would avoid such violence.

Amtrak says its Quiet Cars ® have been a marketing success, so much so they have trademarked the name. The service has attracted new passengers and brought in much-needed revenue.

Metro-North, apparently feeling it owns the market of commuters, doesn’t try to compete by attracting passengers. It has more than it can handle. Instead it has undertaken a timid PR campaign asking passengers to be considerate and keep their calls brief and in a low volume.

Admittedly, this has helped a bit. I sometimes see passengers get out of their seats and move to the vestibule for longer calls. Others cup their hands around the mouthpiece and speak in subdued tones. Blackberries and similar text messaging equipment have also reduced the drone. This is a good start.

But if Amtrak can enforce a separate car for those seeking a quiet journey, why can’t Metro-North? The Commuter Council has found other US commuter lines, both rail and bus, that have been successful, so why not at least give the idea a trial-run on Metro-North?
JIM CAMERON has been a commuter out of Darien for 14 years. He is Vice Chairman of the CT Metro-North / Shore Line East Rail Commuter Council, and a member of the Coastal Corridor TIA and the Darien RTM. You can reach him at jim@camcomm.com or www.trainweb.org/ct . For a full collection of “Talking Transportation” columns, see www.talkingtransportation.blogspot.com


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