Monday, February 4, 2008

The Amtrak Quiet Car: Where Silence Sells

By Karl Vilacoba

My Tuesday morning train ride felt like it broke new ground for the rudeness of fellow passengers. At one point, there must have been a half-dozen cell phone conversations going on in my direct comfort zone, a maddening feeling for a guy who depends on that extra hour of pre-work shuteye.

On my train, people who loudly subject the rest of us to the unimportant details of their lives are usually scorned. I’ve seen out-of-hand cell phone talkers heckled, confronted and, in one case, even given a round of applause by a whole car full of riders once his conversation was done. But on this morning, it seemed the rules of commuter etiquette were collectively thrown out the vestibule.

My wife warns me I shouldn’t hold in my anger so much because it gets pent up, and one day it will blow. But my fantasies of meting out vigilante commuter justice aside, I’m too mild-mannered to turn around and tell someone to put a sock in it. I just wish a conductor would do it for me.

Out of curiosity, I searched around the Web the other day to see if any companies or transit agencies had come up with any interesting rules regarding cell phone abuse, and I came across a very novel approach being taken by Amtrak. In late 1999, a group of frustrated regular riders of the Philadelphia to Washington, D.C., morning train banded together and requested a car be set aside as a sanctuary from the beeps, blabbing and Beethoven symphonies. The Quiet Car soon became a reality and a patented concept.

The Quiet Car’s success shows not only that silence is a virtue, but silence sells.

“It has been popular enough that we’ve extended the Quiet Car to several Amtrak trains,” said Tracy Connell, a spokesperson for Amtrak. “I don’t have any stats on it, but I know the response has been very positive and we’ve had a lot of compliments on it.”

Quiet Car rules state that riders may not use any noise-making devices such as cell phones, pagers, laptops with audible features enabled, or handheld games and music players without headphones. Conversation must be kept in quiet, subdued tones. Conductors are instructed to ask anyone who disregards these rules to leave the car, Connell said.

The Quiet Car seems like a sensible way for Amtrak to balance the needs of riders seeking peace and quiet with those of business travelers who have work to do that requires their being in touch with the outside world. It also addresses a problem that will only get worse. At the time those passengers first took a stand in 1999, about 86 million people had cell phone subscriptions in the U.S., according to CTIA-The Wireless Association, an organization representing members of the wireless telecommunications industry. That number has since nearly tripled to about 254 million subscribers today.

So what’s the lesson here? If you’re looking for some peace and quiet on your commute, your best bet may be to gather up some friends and ask for it. Just please don’t do it over your cell phone, sitting next to me.

No comments: