City Howl Help Desk: SEPTA declines to shut up the QuietCar yakkers

If riders use their BlackBerrys and cellphones, SEPTA is unlikely to come to the aid of annoyed quiet-car riders.
If riders use their BlackBerrys and cellphones, SEPTA is unlikely to come to the aid of annoyed quiet-car riders. (If riders use their BlackBerrys)
Posted: August 03, 2011

FRANK McNamara knows exactly where to stand on the Suburban Station platform so he can walk right onto the QuietRide car on SEPTA's Fox Chase line. The quiet car, the first on the regional rail trains during peak hours, is supposed to offer a little getaway - no loud rings, never-ending conversations or headphones blasting.

McNamara also knows there are times when people break the QuietRide rules, knowingly or not. It's uncomfortable to remind people, so when he does it, he tries to be extra polite. Usually it works. But sometimes the offenders curse at him and continue to yap on their phones. One time, McNamara (quietly) reminded a woman whose phone conversation was dragging on, "This is the quiet car." She stared him down and responded, "Not anymore."

She didn't stop talking until she got off at Olney, McNamara said, his quiet ride ruined. Floored, he asked the conductor about enforcement. He told him that all he was obliged to do was to make the announcement about the nature of the car.

That didn't satisfy McNamara, who'd seen some conductors be vigilant in reminding louder passengers about the quiet car. A call to a SEPTA customer-service agent confirmed what the conductor had said. It wasn't up to the conductors to enforce the QuietRide policy. McNamara believed that SEPTA was passing the buck. Why do we have to enforce their policy? Why have the car if you're not going to enforce the rules?

Aboard the quiet car

Help Desk took the quiet car for a spin with McNamara last week. Before the ride (no talking in the car!), he told us that nine times out of 10, it's a "smooth ride," so we probably wouldn't run into any trouble. Sounded good to us.

McNamara was right: It was almost eerie how serene the ride was. There was the customary announcement at the start, telling passengers that the first car was the quiet car, but after that, Help Desk heard only the whir of the train and the conductor's keys jangling. A phone went off, but it was silenced after one ring.

This might be a good time to meditate on the worth of the quiet car. QuietRide is an effort to reduce one aspect of commuter stress. In an interview on WHYY back in April 2009, when QuietRide officially began, Richard Wener, a psychology professor at the Polytechnic Institute of New York University, said that simply having the option to ride the quiet car can relieve a lot of stress. Commuter stress - due to noise, crowding, delays, etc. - can carry over into the workday, Wener said, and make people less happy and less productive.

SEPTA'S response

After our peaceful ride, we called SEPTA to ask about the times the ride doesn't go so smoothly. First, spokeswoman Jerri Williams cleared up a misunderstanding: When SEPTA says QuietRide is "self-enforced," it doesn't mean the passengers should enforce the code. It means that it's up to riders to follow the rules. Williams says SEPTA discourages passengers from getting into arguments about (and of course, in) the quiet car.

Williams also noted that QuietRide began as a pilot program and was expanded because passengers responded positively, and showed they could handle it.

"It's not something that we think is beyond our passengers," she said. SEPTA was the first public-transportation agency to adopt QuietRide (it began with Amtrak), and the program's success seemed to lead other cities to follow: transit agencies in New Jersey, Boston and Chicago all instated similar programs in the last year, Williams said.

Though SEPTA stands firm in not having conductors enforce the rules (a conductor will never tell a passenger to end a conversation or force them to leave the quiet car), Williams says that if certain lines seem especially problematic, SEPTA wants to hear about it. Conductors on that line can be encouraged to make more announcements and maybe spend more time in the quiet car watching for offenders.

- Juliana Reyes


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