Letter: Metro-North Problems

To the Editor:

Metro-North, which I ride twice a week into Manhattan, is both necessity and bane. One can board the Shore Line East—another exasperating subject for another time—in Old Saybrook to make the connection in New Haven. Assuming a seamless transfer, there are standard non-trivial issues, like lateness, caused by long-term track work that has afflicted the schedule like a belated spring flu.

Unlike the relics still in use by Shore Line East, Metro-North’s cars are relatively new; I thought I was catching a break when they started to rotate them into use soon after I’d begun commuting in 2011. But the bathrooms are now of a quality you’d expect from public facilities after a few years of heavy traffic and minimal cleaning. Usually, but not always, the toilets flush. Once or twice I’ve found them offensive enough to take photos and message them to Metro-North. It would not surprise me to learn that someone at the home office has collected a trove of such photos from irate riders, which are admiringly shared at holiday parties.

My experience is that complaints about toilets are the only Facebook messages to which Metro-North responds. Kvetching about late trains receives no acknowledgement—common stuff, I gather. The theme of my most frequent dudgeon is the disquiet of quiet cars, and those complaints are, ironically or fittingly, met with dependable silence. First World problem? Sure, but the railroad doesn’t offer seats for free. I’m paying a fare for the bestowal of minor indignities.

My research on the history of quiet cars on the northeast corridor confirms that their introduction was the result of a long hard fight. It’s a great idea, especially as iPhones, constant conversation and video amusement become, well, what’s a synonym for ‘ubiquitous,’ tenfold? The observation here is that the victory was pyrrhic. Going into Grand Central, the quiet car is at the back of the train. Nearly empty when it leaves New Haven late morning, it fills halfway by Bridgeport and is more or less full—more so on matinee Wednesdays—by Stamford.

Miscreants come in all ages and shapes, but unless you’re good with walking up and down the aisle shushing people on their cell phones (ostensibly not permitted), couples chatting loudly (also not allowed), or folks enjoying portable audio (ditto), there’s not much relief. I’ve seen tempers fray because someone decided to self-police the car. It’s as obnoxious as it sounds, and I hedge my bets, rooting for the self-deputized rider even while cringing at their self-righteousness.

The problem is that conductors are, to put it delicately, loath to enforce the guidelines that are clearly explained on the blue and white cards they’ve placed on the car’s ceiling, and sometimes through announcements on the intercom. (To be fair, the conductors on Amtrak’s Northeast Regional, whose quiet cars are more likely to deliver on the promise, are also generally disinterested in holding riders accountable.) The good folks at MN who are compelled to read my digital scrawls don’t appear moved by commuter pathos. In short, there’s no recourse for those desiring serenity on their rail travels.

What exists is a small stalemate in urban quality of life. A great notion, that of setting aside one car out of seven or eight as a place of rest, is treated by the rail company as a nuisance, foisted upon them years ago by outside agencies, at the behest of riders’ advocates. The small miracle is that a majority of riders pay heed. The rest, presumably, find it a bother to walk to the next car, wherein the many variations of business calls, face timing and choral practice are celebrated. Riding twice a week, I’m resigned to diminished expectations. The train will be late. The lavatory will kind of suck. And there will be no quiet in the quiet car. So far, I’ve always arrived safely.

And that’s probably the takeaway on the underfunded and not inexpensive American commuting experience. It’s often dyspeptic and sometimes offensive, but the odds are very good that you’ll reach your destination alive.

Jerry Weiss, Chester

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