For the city’s neighbors to the west, Tuesday was a big day in the effort to restore a sense of peace, quiet and dignity to the often tiresome quiet for New Jersey Transit launched its quiet car pilot program. Amidst much fanfare for an early-morning hour after a three-day weekend, the nation’s third-largest transit system sent forward a Penn Station-bound train from Trenton in which the first and last cars were designated as cell phone- and noise-free zones.
“Our customers have asked us to offer a Quiet Commute option in an effort to balance the needs of people who want to stay connected while aboard our trains with those who want to relax or work in a quiet atmosphere,” NJ Transit Executive Director James Weinstein said prior to the 9:14 a.m. launch of the quiet car. “We are offering this amenity as a pilot program and will rely on customer feedback to determine whether to make Quiet Commute a permanent NJ Transit amenity.”
For the next 90 days, the instructions are simple: The first and last cars of various trains will be clearly marked on the outside as the quiet cars, and NJ Transit conductors will pass out business cards to those who offend the sensibilities of others who want to ride in silence. The cards, printed in both English and Spanish, were first employed by SEPTA during its quiet commute launch and seem as firm reminders of the new social norms.
In this pilot, it is truly social norms of train ridership that are under assault and for the better. The Quite Commute cars, says New Jersey Transit, are intended to provide a “subdued environment for customers who wish to refrain from using cell phones and are willing to disable the sound feature on pagers, games, computers and other electronic devices.” Riders are urged to talk in “subdued” voices and, thankfully enough, are told to use headphones at a volume that “cannot be heard by other passengers.” To rid trains of the blight of loud and leaky headphones would be a true accomplishment indeed.
As the commuter rail network looks to remind people that everyone is on the train together and that selfish behavior should be left at home, the proper enforcement methods must inevitably come under scrutiny. Who, wondered Victoria St. Martin of The Star-Ledger, will enforce the quiet? If all goes according to plan, NJ Transit officials hope that other rides will serve as the overseers. “We’re not trying to make the[ conductors] hall monitors. Most will respect the rules, and if not, they will tell them,” Weinstein said. “Most of the enforcement will be peer pressure by the passengers themselves — they’ll demand it. If somebody gets on and they’re not aware it’s a quiet car, and they start their cellphone, first they get killed by looks. And then if that doesn’t work, passengers will invariably get up and let folks know that it’s a quiet car and cellphones are not permitted there.”
There are, of course, no shortage of gripes about noise. Michael Grynbaum in The Times tracked down numerous commuters who are looking forward to a quieter commute. While one commuter tells tales of 6 a.m. cell phone calls being “shut down,” others are ready for a break from the incessant chattering a 24-hour business cycle brings. “It is a movement toward civility,” Professor Frank Cioffi said. “You’ve got these high-powered businessmen in the morning doing heavy-duty negotiations, while you’re trying to read a book.”
In New York, though, the quiet car seems to be an idea out of place. Officials at Metro-North and the Long Island Rail Road say they’ll “monitor” the NJ Transit pilot but can’t see the Quiet Commute arriving on our trains any time soon. “Most of our trains are running pretty full these days,” Marjorie Anders, a Metro-North spokeswoman, said. “People don’t have the luxury of moving to another car.”
At the same time, though, if trains are about commuting and the demands of a global economy dictate a need for access to phones, e-mail and things that make noise, not everyone will head to the Quiet Commute cars. Still, those that do will treasure the silence as NJ Transit assesses this program. “It gives you a sense of calm,” Louis Kinscy said. “The cell phones go off and the erroneous conversations — it’s tolerable but it’s annoying. To have the quiet makes life much easier.”