Putting "Mute" in Commute; Amtrak's Quiet Car Cult

May 4, 2011
On a recent trip aboard an Amtrak train from Boston to New York City, a passenger gingerly opened up a bag of Baked Lays to enjoy an afternoon snack. He wrestled with the crinkly bag, then munched loudly on the chips. Fellow commuters shot him daggers with their eyes. "Sir, you're in the Quiet Car," the train conductor sniffed, on his regular pass through the 64-seat train car. "Chips are not a quiet food."

The offending snacker sheepishly folded the bag away, and his fellow passengers relaxed back into their cozy cloth seats. Silence reigned again.

The Quiet Car on Amtrak, which debuted in 1999 at the request of a group of silence-seeking commuters traveling between Philadelphia and the Big Apple, has achieved cult status. Train conductors are considered heroes for enforcing silence with an iron fist and booting loudmouths from the prized sanctuary. Overworked, overstressed commuters are territorial about their moment of silence and are not afraid to self-police.

"This is the ONLY time the whole week when I can have some peace and quiet!" yelled one passenger awoken from a nap by a cellphone conversation on a recent trip between Washington and New York. The chatterbox folded up his phone in embarrassment.

The cult of quiet has even spawned a Facebook group called "I Love the Quiet Car," where passengers vent about loudmouths breaking the study-hall silence.

The group's mantra: "You've learned how to tell someone to shut the f- -k up with just your eyes."

"The Quiet Car is total peace, serenity, tranquility," said train conductor Wayne Wise, whose job is to keep the decibel level close to zero and bump passengers who disrupt the silence. "If the person in front, behind, or across from you can hear you, you're too loud for the Quiet Car."

Snoring is frowned upon. Whispering will get you banned. Cooing babies get the evil eye (with some suggesting no children should be allowed).

If the bass is leaking from your headphones, you'll get reprimanded. If you fail to turn it down, you'll be bounced.

Even health-related noise - like a passenger choking on coffee or a child vomiting - are greeted with disgust from Quiet Car stalwarts.

A family with two small children who settled into the Quiet Car on a packed train between DC and New York recently sent the regular Quiet Car posse into a full-on panic.

"People were fuming," said one passenger. "One of the kids vomited and was loud about it. I don't know if people were more upset about the vomit or the noise."

Passengers don't tolerate infractions. Especially after they've shelled out $185 for a one-way ticket for the NYC-to-DC run and want to recline in their chair and sleep, or sit at the communal table and work.

For Wise, it's three strikes, you're out.

"I tell them to be mindful that this is the Quiet Car," he said. "If passengers continue to talk, I let them know they're too loud for the Quiet Car. If I have to come back again, I tell them it's a six-car train and that other passengers are very annoyed and ask them to move somewhere else."