Amtrak Quiet Car Raises Etiquette Questions

So here’s a new travel etiquette issue for me, and I could use some advice from readers.

I got on Amtrak’s Northeast Regional train in Hartford yesterday and realized, after I sat down,that I was in the quiet car. (The signs were the tipoff: “Quiet Car. Please refrain from loud talking or using cell phones in this car.”)

Great! I was traveling alone and had a lot of work to do. Quiet would be excellent.

When the train stopped in New Haven en route to New York and Washington, a man came into the car, sat down and immediately started talking to a woman who had just seated herself across the aisle. Eventually, she moved into the seat next to him and the conversation continued, in a quieter tone.

I wouldn’t say they were talking loudly, but he was talking nonstop, so that I could still hear the steady drone of his voice over the ventilation system without being able to make out the words. He continued as a woman nearby got up, looking annoyed, and moved forward and away from him.

Eventually, I got up and moved farther ahead, too, so I could no longer hear him.

I was tempted to say something to him about his constant talking. It seemed to me that anybody who wanted to converse on the train could sit in any of the other cars, and ought to do that out of courtesy.

On  the other hand, he wasn’t talking all that loudly and the sign didn’t impose monastic silence. So I wasn’t sure of the protocol, having never ridden in an Amtrak quiet car before. Several people seated closer to him were not complaining — although I later noticed most of the nearby seats had cleared out.

Later, in Stamford, an older couple got on and began conversing, quietly but steadily. As the train filled up in New York,  a couple got on board with a little girl of about 3 years old. Cute, and very well-behaved, but like any small child, incapable of prolonged silence.

So I moved again.

As we were leaving New York, there was an announcement about the quiet car, reminding passengers that cell phones are not permitted and adding that  “if you want to have a conversation, make it a quiet one.” And then the announcer added that “loud electronic devices are forbidden.”

Well, I hope that didn’t mean my netbook. I had turned the sound off, and the keyboard is pretty quiet. I’d been typing on it for much of the trip, and other passengers were using laptop computers.

I did enjoy the relative quiet of the car, and even when it was nearly full it was still fairly peaceful. Several people were talking quietly by then though, and a few had short cell phone calls.

But I’m still wondering. Was I breaking the rules? Were the talkers? Do the rules stop applying when the cars fill up? Is there an established protocol here?


9 thoughts on “Amtrak Quiet Car Raises Etiquette Questions

  1. Scott L.

    Hi Jeanne-Great blog!
    I take Amtrak quite a bit and I think the enforcement will depend on the conductor. I’ll use the quiet car if I need to get things done, and generally it’s been pretty good. Conductors pay more attention to stopping cell phone conversations rather than conversations between passengers. I’ve also witnessed passengers saying things to others whey they are loud in the quiet car (I think this was on the Acela for what it’s worth).
    If people are really abusing it, and you need to get work done (or sleep), I wouldn’t hesitate on saying something to the conductor. And I wouldn’t worry about typing-if that’s too loud for the quiet car then I’m guilty as well…

  2. Jeanne Leblanc

    Thanks, Scott. I appreciate the insight. I was thinking that maybe the quiet cars shouldn’t have the four seats at the end facing each other — they’re really configured for conversation. But it’s probably too much trouble and expense to change that.

  3. Ed

    I think the key rule in the quiet car is that conversations must be just above a whisper, so you probably wouldn’t have much recourse there. But a nice set of headphones would probably cover that up.
    I was on the Acela from New York to Washington on Sunday night. I boarded at Penn Station – the train had originated in Boston, so people were already on board. I went to the quiet car, and there was a man on there talking loudly into his cell phone – he must have been on the train already, because I was one of the first people to board in NY.
    One passenger got up to ask him to go elsewhere or end his call, and he copped attitude: “I’ll stop when the train moves again.” The other passenger was incredulous and sought out a conductor, who told the phone guy to cut the call immediately. He reiterated his impression that he could make noise while the train was stopped at a station.
    Which is ridiculous. If you’ve already been on the quiet car from Boston, and we’ve already established quiet, then what is so special about Penn Station that you can break that quiet with a phone call? If it’s so important, head to another car. Nobody did anything like this when we stopped in Trenton, or Wilmington, or Baltimore.
    By the way, Jeanne, you might be interested in this piece by Nancy Updike, which aired on This American Life. She ponders the tacit rules of the quiet car and becoming one of Those People who enforces the rules.

  4. BobbySF

    Hello from California. For nearly two years, I’ve been a weekday rider of Amtrak’s Capital Corridor between Sacramento and San Francisco. I take the 6:20 am train but there are two earlier trains – one at 4:30 am and one at 5:30 – so it’s not unreasonable to have a designated quiet car on those early trains, which are 4 or 5 cars long and can carry approximately 350-450 passengers.
    We don’t have the luxury of any Quiet Car signage like our East Coast brethren although we did enjoy the luxury of a single Quiet Car announcement about the dimmed lights, no electronic devices (read cell phones), no conversation (read cell phones), and so forth but that was stopped when the Quiet Car program was discontinued last Spring. Yes, discontinued. – albeit temporarily.
    While many passengers thought additional Quiet Car announcements at each station stop were needed, many thought it would defeat the purpose of the Quiet Car. Signage would have minimized the number of conflicts I witnessed when the conductor was elsewhere. In any event, our Quiet Car program was discontinued last spring when gas prices and ridership increased. None of the longtime riders I talked to understood the reasoning behind the discontinuation of the service – especially on early morning trains when passengers use the Quiet Car to catch up on much needed sleep. Though there were plenty of seats throughout the train, a vociferous few who chose to sit in the Quiet Car complained that their rights were being infringed upon by being forced to remain quiet for the duration of their trip. The negative response to the suspension of the Quiet Car program was huge and the Quiet Car was reinstated a few months later.
    I realize the impracticality of having a quiet car on the afternoon trains, though I wouldn’t complain if we had them. I remain baffled, though, why they were discontinued on the morning trains. Though the Quiet Car program has returned on four morning trains, there is no announcement and there is no signage. The only official notification the Quiet Car exists is a small notice on the back of the train schedule and the dimmed lights of the last car of the train. We are left to police the quiet car ourselves. Fortunately, there is a number of us who take unofficial turns being “on duty.”
    I’ve learned that it’s all in the delivery. One morning, I politely informed a man talking on his cell phone that he was riding in the Quiet Car. “Excuse me Sir. You may not know this but this is the Quiet Car. If you’d like to talk on your cell phone, you’ll have to go to another car.” He quickly concluded his call and later stopped by my seat to ask how he would have known that was the quiet car.
    I really thought it was a ridiculous question but I responded politely. “It’s here on the back of the schedule but look around. The lights are dimmed, everyone’s asleep; even the man next to you was asleep. No one is making a sound. Does that help?”
    His obliviousness is not uncommon.
    Although two passengers talking in low muffled voices within the published Quiet Car guidelines, add another three or four couples speaking in the same manner and it’s no longer muffled. A quiet car should be quiet. Call it monastic silence. Call it unreasonable. Call it what you will It’s not unwarranted to ask individuals to be silent. I believe it is more impolite for them to chat no matter how quietly than it is to ask the noise makers to zip it. And those with children should run far away from the Quiet Car. It verges on cruel and inhumane to ask a child to be quiet for more than 5 minutes.
    Here’s what we do on the train I ride. Because the conductors are busy with their other duties, you can get Godzilla to be quiet if there’s more than one of you asking him/her to stop with the talk. Seriously. It’s like the schoolyard. Gang up on the offender. I’m fortunate enough to ride each day with three close “train” friends. We all think similarly about the need for quiet, especially at 6:30 am. If one of us appears to be up against a wall with a noisemaker, one of the others will step in and then it’s two against one. If that doesn’t work, there’s a third who will step in. And that doesn’t include any one of the regulars from the other end of the car whose name I don’t know. If you get up and move – and you moved more than once – it’s tantamount to saying it’s ok to talk. And what is loud? My definition of loud is different than yours.
    I’m no behavioral scientist nor am I a sociologist. I’ve noticed however, an increase in impolite, inconsiderate, and discourteous behavior in my world. We often become so centered on our own needs and targets, we frequently lose sight of those around us and how our behavior impacts others. There have been many discussions about Generation X and Y and how poorly they behave – and I’m a Gen Xer! It’s seldom mentioned that those generations learned from us. And that poor behavior can be experienced on any Quiet Car you ride on either coast.

  5. Frank

    I am a daily commuter from Sacramento to San Francisco on the Capitol Corridor trains. We have quiet cars too however only on the morning trains. If anyone gets out of line about 3-4 people ask him to be quiet. Cell phones, pagers, all electronic equipment must be turned off and all conversations must be kept to a minimum. It’s not a perfect system but atleast we can get some much needed sleep in the wee hours of the morning.

  6. Conductor from the NEC

    What a surprise that we should see and read the concerns of the glorified “Quiet Car”.
    Being a Conductor that works the Northeast Corridor, the “Quiet Car” is sometimes more work than it is a controlled environment where people can enjoy the ride from point A to B without the constant chatter of someone on a cell phone or a group of people conversing of plans or the days events. On a busy train, the rights of someone that has paid the price of a ticket and forced to sit in this car because of the lack of available seats should outweigh the right of the person who thinks that they have more rights to peace and quiet. So often the passengers in this car during busy times are rude and indifferent. We as Conductors are constantly summoned to police the events in this car. While attempting to get all passengers on and off the station stops, someone will most always approach me and complain that another passenger is talking too loud or they can hear the buzz from another passengers ipod earphones.
    During our original boarding and between station stops, I normally make the following announcement;
    ” Welcome aboard Amtrak train #___, If you are seated in our Quiet Car, we ask that there is NO cellphone use, conversations are kept to a minimum, a library type atmosphere please.”
    When walking through the car I further reiterate that they are seated in the “Quiet Car” and there is no swinging from the chandeleirs, no trumpets, trombones or kazoos.
    The responsibilities of the Conductor are many, whether we are trying to find seats for families, unaccompanied minors and passengers with disabilities. Relaying information between the train crew for safety reasons and conducting our ticket lift in a timely manor, my main concern is not the quiet car.
    Amtrak is public transportation last I checked. The program was instituted by the company and I will do whatever I need to enforce the rules but, if you need that much sleep or quiet, try getting it at home.

  7. Jeanne Leblanc

    Hi Conductor,
    I’m very interested in what you’re saying. I wonder, though, is part of the reason that some people are so attached to the quiet car that some other people don’t know how to behave on public transportation?
    I see this phenomenon on planes, too. Some people seem remarkably inconsiderate. They speak loudly — and sometimes profanely — about very personal things. They let their children play loud, beeping electronic games and kick seat backs. It doesn’t take more than one or two such people among hundreds to make the rest of us flee to somewhere that it’s not permitted.

  8. Conductor from the NEC

    The average “Quiet Car” traveler is most often very rigid and usually reclouse. I do not wish to express that everyone that asks where in the consist this car is located but, this would describe most of the passengers seated in this car.
    Behavior in public places has become a hot bed of discussion. I too have been seated in a restaurant trying to enjoy my meal but subjected to some inconsiderate speaking too loudly on their cell phone or being intoxicated and unruly.
    As I expressed in my earlier comments, no other form of public transportation has an environment where you are asked to sit quietly and we as Conductors do our best to control the events in the this car. There has to be some flexibility of the passengers. The car is the “Quiet Car” not the silent car.
    Conductor from the NEC


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