T rolls out ‘quiet cars’ on all commuter lines

Program in effect during rush hour

By Martine Powers
Globe Correspondent / June 28, 2011

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After a successful test run of a proposed “quiet car’’ program earlier this year, the MBTA and the Massachusetts Bay Commuter Railroad Co. began implementing quiet zones on all 13 commuter rail lines yesterday.

The quiet cars, where passengers are asked to refrain from cellphone use or conversations above a whisper, are located nearest the locomotive. The mandatory quiet will be imposed during peak commuting hours, from 6 to 9 a.m. and 4 to 7 p.m. on weekdays.

Richard Davey, general manager of the MBTA, said he believes the program will bring “civility and sereneness’’ to the daily grind.

“We saw this as a way to improve the customer experience without spending a lot of money — or actually, any money,’’ Davey said.

The program received rave reviews by passengers during a trial on the Fitchburg and Franklin line between January and April. When the MBTA surveyed commuters, about 90 percent said they hoped the program would become permanent.

Yesterday afternoon, many commuter rail line passengers were unaware of the quiet cars’ existence, but MBTA officials were looking to fix that: Announcements on the speakers notified commuters in North and South stations that each commuter train now has a quiet zone, while mimes distributed cards outlining the do’s and don’ts of quiet-car decorum.

But quiet is in the ear of the beholder. Davey defined it as “a library volume.’’

“I mean, having a newspaper in your hands and the noise that comes from turning the pages is acceptable,’’ he said.

Davey said the program was inspired by similar initiatives, such as the Metra Rail line in Chicago. Amtrak has had a quiet car program for more than 10 years.

Beginning in April, conductors received training on how to implement the quiet zones, said Davey. They will make regular announcements to notify passengers that cellphone use and noisy conversations are banned on the first car. And if passengers fail to follow the guidelines, a conductor will hand them cards reminding them to keep quiet.

If problems arise with passengers unwilling to adhere to the quiet car guidelines, those cases will be handled by MBTA Transit Police, said Scott Farmelant, spokesman for the Massachusetts Bay Commuter Railroad Co.

“Conductors are not, by any means, supposed to be enforcers on these trains,’’ he said.

Davey is also relying on a certain Bostonian chutzpah to help enforce the rules. Peer pressure, he said, will probably be enough to keep cellphone users in check.

Commuters in South Station yesterday afternoon said they are accustomed to enduring transgressions of public transportation decorum on trains — blaring iPod earbuds, boisterous conversations, howls of laughter from a commuter watching a sitcom on a laptop, and cellphone calls conducted at a bellow.

“People are so loud on their phone calls, you can’t even hear your own conversation,’’ said Verna Augustine, 50, of Dedham. “Sometimes I have to move to another car to finish making my call.’’

“You’d be surprised by what you hear,’’ said Alec Westerlind, 55, of Sutton. He commutes daily on the Grafton line to his job at MassHealth. “Some of it’s business. But you also hear stuff about doctor’s appointments and issues with their husband — it’s pretty annoying. And they know that other people will hear them.’’

Depending on the popularity of the quiet cars, Davey said, the MBTA and the Massachusetts Bay Commuter Railroad Co. might expand the program to include more than one car per commuter train.

Still, many commuters said they were uncertain that they would become quiet regulars.

“I’m not the person for the quiet car,’’ said Ken Blaney, 42, of Franklin. “I think most people think the quiet cars are a little humorous and funny.’’

For most regular commuters, Blaney explained, cellphone calls, loud iPods, and blaring conversations are normal parts of the background noise of public transportation. Rarely do those sounds become really disruptive, he said.

“Especially in the morning, most cars are pretty quiet anyway,’’ Blaney said.

But even in the early morning, Rebecca Crimmins, 41, of Canton, has encountered people gabbing on their phones in the midst snoozing commuters.

“I want to ask, ‘Who are you talking to at this ungodly hour?’ ’’ Crimmins said, chuckling.

In the case of Ken Croke, an auditor, location trumps noise level: He likes to nab a spot at the back of the train because it makes him one of the first passengers out of the station when he disembarks. A quieter car might be desirable, but not at the expense of giving up prime train real estate.

And for Niron Conrad, 57, of Paxton, a quiet car would mean missing interactions with his neighbors. He has train buddies, commuters who go home on his same train every weekday. They sit in the same car, exchange pleasantries, discuss topics in the news. It’s part of the public transportation experience.

Martine Powers can be reached at