Bidding farewell to the sound of silence

Mobile phones can save lives, yet their use in situations that are far from life-threatening can be intensely maddening, rarely more so than in rail carriages.

“Quiet” carriages have provided a haven for passengers who do not want to hear people telling other people that they’re on the train, or show-off business executives keeping tabs on what’s going on back at the office, or inane chatter about last night’s date from hell or a nightmare holiday in Cancun. 

They have been useful, too, for passengers with autism, who can be distressed by background noise.

Well, that was the intention when the civilised refinement of the quiet carriage was introduced as an escape from

the ubiquitous prattle that’s as irritating and unwanted on long-distance journeys as piped music in shops, restaurants and bars.

But what can be done when passengers do not seem to understand what the word quiet means, or choose to ignore it, or when what is in effect a ban on the use of phones in quiet carriages cannot be enforced? 

Irish Rail has decided to capitulate to what it accepts — doubtless sadly — as the “almost universal use” of mobile phones.

Irish Rail’s reference, in explaining its decision, to an international trend appears to be a wink to a similar problem in Britain, where some train companies have done away with their quiet carriages and others — ever seeking user feedback — are “consulting” passengers, presumably with a view to marshalling support for decisions already made.

South Western Railways in England admits that it’s not able to police quiet carriages, which seems strange because it is able to deal with fare dodging and other breaches of the rules. 

Instead it relies on signs and customers — by which in plain English it means passengers — to do it. It has asked passengers to be nicer to each other. That should do the trick!

Richard Branson’s CrossCountry line is scrapping its quiet carriages on long-distance routes, and First Great Western is converting first-class quiet carriages to standard class on its high-speed lines. 

Many passengers choose to turn a deaf ear — even when they have paid extra for peace and quiet — and when they do not, staff find it difficult to control arguments, doubtless noisy arguments, when tranquility is spoiled by those who insist on talking loudly on phones, using music players and singing.

Regrettably, we can’t return to those long-gone years when good manners were customary on trains and offenders were reprimanded by smartly-dressed, feared conductors with a Prussian sense of authority. 

But is Irish Rail’s surrender to selfish and thoughtless passengers overly premature?

One last stand for standards is needed. Perhaps technology could be used to guarantee what train companies like to call, in the jargon, an enhanced passenger experience. 

Electronic shields, known as a Faraday cages, block mobile phone signals. Wrapping those around train carriages would put an end to, at least, the mindless babble. 

Now, that’s a challenge for the train builders and Richard Branson, if he’s not too busy not getting that far with his plans for commercial space flights.

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