Ode to the Amtrak Quiet Car: The Most Civilized Way to Travel


Behold, the most beautiful words a weary traveler can see (Photo: John Kannenberg/Flickr)

“Hello? … Yeah? … Oh, my God!!! He said what?!?”

The phone conversation my fellow passenger had started was as loud as it was uninteresting (then again, isn’t that always the case?). The young woman’s shrieks and laughs echoed throughout the entire car, viciously piercing the silence we travelers on Amtrak’s Northeast Corridor had been enjoying since we left New York an hour before.

“I can’t believe it!” she continued.

Fortunately, another passenger — seated across the aisle from me, directly behind the cell phone talker — noticed the cacophony as well. I glanced in his direction and he in mine. Not a word was spoken between us. And yet in that brief exchange we had an entire conversation, one that highlighted a problem, considered strategies, and settled on a plan of attack. My silent comrade then gave me an almost imperceptible nod that relayed a silent message: “Don’t worry. I got this.” He then sprang into action, leaning forward to address the loud talker.

“Excuse me,” he said politely, “this is the Quiet Car.”

Hushed apologies were issued and accepted. And order was restored with no conductors, no cops, and no air marshals.

That’s just how we roll in Amtrak’s Quiet Car.


Amtrak has Quiet Cars on several train lines, including its high-speed Acela (Photo: Ryan Stavely/Flickr)

In this summer of air raging, seat reclining, knee defending and flight diverting, it’s time to take a moment to appreciate Amtrak’s Quiet Car for what it is: our most civilized form of transportation.

Related: Air Rage: Why Does Flying Make People So Crazy?

The Quiet Car, for those who haven’t yet had the pleasure, is a designated car on many Amtrak trains where cell phone calls are banned and any conversation must be “in quiet, subdued tones.” There are other rules, according to Amtrak’s website, but I like to paraphrase them thusly:

The first rule of the Quiet Car is, “You do not talk in the Quiet Car.”

The second rule of the Quiet Car is, “You do not talk in the Quiet Car.”


Not everyone is up to the challenge of staying quiet for an entire train ride. The result: The Quiet Car tends to be less crowded (James Joel/Flickr)

In an era when peaceful travel is made virtually impossible by crying babies and chatty seat mates, travelers cherish the sanctity of the Quiet Car with a devotion that borders on obsession.

“Frequently, my favorite place to be on this earth is the Acela Quiet Car,” says Gayle Trotter, a Washington, D.C.-based attorney and activist who frequently takes Amtrak’s high-speed rail service to New York. “With the noise of my six kids at home and the incessant ringing of the phone, knocking on my door, and buzzing of email at my office, the Quiet Car offers a well-deserved respite from the cares of this world for me.”

WATCH: Inside Amtrak’s High-Speed Acela

Not only is the Quiet Car a noise-free sanctuary from outside intrusions (one of the things I like about it: It spares me from having to answer the inevitable “Are you there yet?” phone calls); it’s an oasis in an ill-mannered world. A world where basic social courtesies have gone from commonplace to optional. Where nice dinners are routinely ruined by loud cell phone talkers. Where movies are drowned out by people talking to the screen. And where the silent masses, cowed by fear or shyness, allow the loudmouths to blab away unchecked.

Not in the Quiet Car. People are polite and respectful. But the second someone whips out a cell phone, the Quiet Car becomes the “Aw, hell no!!!” car.

“Best thing about sitting in amtrak’s Quiet Car: people sternly telling others to keep it down / inform them they are in the Quiet Car,” tweeted Mashable Assistant Editor Megan Hess. In a real-time anecdote, Buzzfeed LGBT Editor Saeed Jones tweeted: “Oh snap! A dude was talking on his phone in the quiet car and another dude like ‘Not today, sir!’ LMAO.”


You talk in Amtrak’s Quiet Car and this is what you’re likely to get (Photo: Thinkstock)

And in the ultimate example of how seriously some people take the Quiet Car, writer Alexander Chee recently tweeted: “This morning’s Acela quiet car is clearly varsity quiet car. Someone got up to cough in the passage.”

“It’s enormously popular,” says Matt Hardison, Amtrak’s chief marketing and sales officer. The Quiet Car debuted in 2001, during a time when customers were seeking a respite from those increasingly ubiquitous cell phones. “One of our conductors, together with our management team, thought it’d be fun to get people together in one car and allow them to enjoy peace and solitude,” Hardison says. “It was so popular we expanded it to the rest of the system.”


In 2011, Boston used mimes to announce the MBTA’s adoption of quiet cars. (Photo AP)

And while the Quiet Car concept has since spread to commuter rail services nationwide, Amtrak’s remains the gold standard of silent travel — sometimes too silent. While Amtrak’s Quiet Car rules allow for quiet, subdued conversation, Hardison says, “The customers take it one step further and want it to be as quiet as possible.” Hence the aforementioned “You do not talk in the Quiet Car” rule.

And that’s the most remarkable thing about the Quiet Car. It’s a self-policing mini-society, with passengers enforcing the rule themselves, quickly nipping most violations in the bud before the conductor has a chance to get involved.


Amtrak’s Matt Hardison says most Quiet Car violators don’t know they were in the Quiet Car. It’s not as if there aren’t signs (The West End/Flickr)

Even Hardison has been on the wrong end of Quiet Car justice. “I’ve made the mistake of talking on my phone in the Quiet Car,” he admits. “A customer reminded me and I had to skedaddle.” (Free Amtrak promotion idea: Any passenger who has to hush an Amtrak employee in the Quiet Car gets a free trip. You’re welcome.)

And when train conductors do need to step in to correct a Quiet Car violator, it’s usually an easy conversation. “I have not seen a situation where a customer is not willing to comply,” Hardison says. In fact, he says most violators simply hadn’t realized they’d wandered into the train’s noise-protected zone and they quickly comply with the rules, either by ending their conversations or moving to another car

Related: The Quietest Quiet Car Ever: Amtrak Train Departs Penn Station Without Passengers

There was one infamous exception. In 2011, a woman made national news for talking 16 hours straight in an Amtrak Quiet Car from Oakland, California, to Salem, Oregon, refusing repeated requests to quiet down. She was eventually removed from the train by police. Definitely a sad day in Quiet Car history. But when you consider that there are enough viral videos of cops pulling obnoxious passengers off airplanes to fill an entire online channel, a single big incident in the Quiet Car’s 13-year existence doesn’t seem as bad.

In the interest of not messing with a good thing, Amtrak plans to keep its Quiet Car the same self-policing zone it’s always been.

“I think passengers can be more stringent than we [Amtrak employees] might otherwise feel comfortable being,” Hardison says.


Enjoy the Quiet Car. And keep it down! (Photo: Thinkstock)

As a proud member of the Quiet Car nation, I will admit that we may be overzealous in our efforts to preserve, protect and defend it. But that’s for good reason. In this hyperconnected world, The Quiet Car is one of the few places we have left where we’re out of reach of our busy home, social, and work lives. Here we can sit with like-minded people, enjoy our silent utopia, and just… be.

So let us celebrate the Quiet Car: the last bastion of civilized travel. Let us cherish it. Let us protect it. Let us sing its praises…

…just not too loudly.

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