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Unleash your inner librarian: the MBTA rolls out quiet cars

Posted by Alan Wirzbicki  January 11, 2011 02:30 PM

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PX00146_9.JPGIn response to rider demand, the MBTA instituted a quiet car last week on peak trains on the Franklin and Fitchburg commuter rail lines. The agency is claiming success so far, though some early reviews are negative.

The rules of the quiet car are simple: no loud talking, no beeping gizmos, and absolutely, positively no cell phone conversations. Quiet cars have been wildly popular on Amtrak, where they were first introduced in 1999.

But the cars have also become a flashpoint for conflict, occasionally bordering on train-rage. The New York Times reported Sunday on a spike of passenger confrontations on the quiet cars on New Jersey Transit, where they were introduced last year. "The quiet cars have now become some of the noisiest, as passengers trying to read or sleep are constantly hushing and shushing others," the Times reports.

The basic problem is that conductors — who are often busy with such minor matters as running the train — have little time or desire to police the manners of their passengers.

So, with no authority figure on hand, enforcement is effectively left to the mob. New Jersey Transit's director admitted as much last year, saying the agency was relying on "peer pressure" to keep the quiet car quiet. This has made them a kind of rolling psychology experiment, a test of instilling and then upholding a brand new social norm.

If experience on Amtrak is any indication, the MBTA's quiet car violators will fall into several categories. A small minority of passengers yakking on cell phones are genuinely unaware of the rules. A much greater number, though, fully realize they are breaking the code of the quiet car, but have rationalized why, just this once, the rules shouldn't apply to them. (It'll only be a minute! I'm practically whispering into the phone! Everyone will enjoy my ringtone!)

Some shushers, meanwhile, are zealots who seem to take a perverse pleasure in the task. In a 2008 essay, the writer Christopher Buckley calls these vigilantes the "Nazis of the Quiet Car." (Buckley himself boasts of once asking former FBI director Louis Freeh to hush.) Others riders merely glare, hoping to convey their disapproval, well, quietly.

And then there's the largest group of all: the free-riders who enjoy the silence of the quiet car, but don't share the burden of confronting violators.

Navigating this charged ecosystem on Amtrak caused at least one rider to give up entirely. In a memorable essay, Beth Greenfield wrote that she eventually concluded that the stress caused by the constant tension in the quiet car outweighed its benefits. She moved back to the regular cars, accepted the noise, and never looked back.

"Sometimes the best rules are no rules at all," she wrote.

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ABOUT THE ANGLE Online commentary and news analysis from the Boston Globe. The Angle is produced by Rob Anderson and Alan Wirzbicki. You can follow Rob on Twitter at @rcand.

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