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.

September 05, 2011

9/11 and the Trains

A young reporter called me last week in a panic.  He was writing a big story on the tenth anniversary of 9/11 and had just realized that our trains are vulnerable to terrorist attacks.  Really?
I asked him where he’s been for the last nine years as I, and many others, have written over and over again about this issue.  “Well, don’t you think the tenth anniversary makes the trains an even more attractive target?” he asked breathlessly. “No,” I said.  “Timing’s not the issue.”
After 9/11 when airports were well secured, somebody noticed that we’d by then spent $11 billion improving aviation security, or $9.16 per passenger.  In the same time we’d only spent $115 million on mass transit, or $0.006 per passenger.  Why?  Because, as someone at Homeland Security so aptly put it, “Trains don’t fly into skyscrapers.”
Is it safe to ride Metro-North?  I don’t know.  But the constant public service announcements about “do-it-yourself security” (“If you see something, say something”) are hardly reassuring.
I seldom see cops on the trains.  When I do, it seems to be more for PR value than protection.  I have never seen a random bag check. I do see cameras at key stations, but wonder if anyone’s actively watching them. Or are the videotapes just for after-action analysis?
What can realistically be done to improve safety on our trains and subways?  In my view… not much.  There are hundreds of miles of track, scores of stations and 130,000 daily passengers to control.  But consider some of the possibilities:  
= ID checks before boarding?  For what purpose? Of what deterrence value?  And imagine the lines.  
= Airport style secure zones and screenings?  Can you imagine thousands of riders arriving 60 – 90 minutes before departure to queue for screenings twice each day?  They’d abandon the trains and be back in their cars in a flash.  
= A cop on every train? Be honest:  do you really think a determined suicide bomber would stop at his grizzly task if he saw a cop on the train?  And with a ten-car Metro-North train carrying more passengers than a 747, what good is a cop at the front of the train if something happens a quarter-mile behind him in the rear car?  
= Bomb-sniffing dogs on every train?  Maybe.  But we don’t have anywhere near enough trained canines to handle the hundreds of trains each day on Metro-North.  Governor Malloy just laid off 26 CT State Troopers.  The National Guard is busy in Afghanistan and cleaning up after Hurricane Irene.  That doesn’t leave much in the way of personnel to increase visible security.
The MTA PD will tell you there are all kinds of security measures you can’t see.  Maybe so.  Or maybe those secret efforts don’t exist.  I really don’t know.
Do I take the train into New York City?  Sure.  Do I feel safe?  Yes, when I don’t think too much about it.
But you won’t see me lingering in high traffic, attractive target areas for a suicide bomber.  And you won’t see me hesitate in calling 911 if I do see something suspicious.  Am I paranoid or just precautious?
One e-mailer this week criticized me for pointing out how vulnerable our trains really are.  He said I was just encouraging bad guys to attack us.  Believe me; I have given this some thought.
I think any Boy Scout, let alone a determined terrorist, would need just hours of observation to see how soft a target we are.  I’m not telling the bad guys anything they don’t already know and haven’t seen in past attack targets like Madrid and London.
But I am trying to alert you, dear reader, and our lawmakers while there’s still a chance to do something.  Let this tenth anniversary of that horrible day, September 11th, remind us all that terrorism can happen anywhere, anytime.  Yes, even on a train.


Stuck in bumper-to-bumper traffic the other day on I-95 I grumbled to myself “Where is all this traffic coming from?”   And then I remembere...