May 2012

The Nation Reviewed

Quiet, Please

By Gail Bell
Illustration by Jeff Fisher.
CityRail’s ‘Quiet Carriages’ Trial

The ticket seller at the security window at Tuggerah Railway Station, on NSW’s Central Coast, hands me a leaflet showing a young man’s face mugging into the camera, eyebrows raised, his index finger lifted to his mouth in the universal ‘shush’ sign. Below him is an announcement: ‘Quiet Carriages Trial 13 February to 13 May 2012’.

On my eight-carriage train the first and last cars have been designated ‘quiet’. There are no signs (this is a trial after all) and there are no noise police. In CityRail-speak, passengers are asked to respect the peace and quiet by “refraining from loud conversations, using mobile phones or playing loud music” and by “respecting their fellow passengers”. The policing of the rules is left to us, the commuters. “What happens if a passenger chooses not to be quiet in a quiet carriage?” my leaflet asks. CityRail has gone for the no-litigation, Buddhist-like response: “There are no penalties or consequences for not being quiet in a quiet carriage, but we encourage …”

I take my seat upstairs, set my phone to silent, spread out my Herald, select a pen, sip some water and look around. Only about ten people so far, all of them giving me wary but benign gazes loaded with meaning. Fifteen quiet minutes later we roll into Gosford, the first big hub, and shortly almost every seat is full. There is a flurry of settling noise, bags are stowed, newspapers turned and folded. So far, so good. Then, into the mix come two shirt-and-tie businessmen, mid-conversation. Each has his mobile out and they seem to be cross-checking something. As we sway away from the station, gathering speed, their voices get louder so I raise my head from the crossword and give them a stare across the aisle. Other heads come up, meerkat-style. The woman in the seat ahead of them raises her hand and drums her fingers on the seat top. Nothing is said. We are “customer regulating” as one, and magically, without protest, one man slides his phone inside his coat pocket and the other browses the internet.

On cue, a guard’s recorded voice comes through the speakers, in an appropriate soft register, spelling out quiet carriage etiquette. We are “discouraged from” and “reminded that”. Those who need reminding sit glumly, possibly planning a coup. 

I take inventory, wondering if we first-carriagers are alike in some way. I’ve been worrying that we’ll turn out to be stitched-up control freaks, or ageing baby-boomers who’ve always had things their way. Two young men in yellow fluoro vests are dozing. A scattering of smartly dressed girls are listening to iPods. Books and newspapers are open. One lady is knitting. Another is marking papers. 

On we go to the next big hub, behaving a little less self-consciously. The newcomers fuss about like nesting birds, then our comfortable silence settles and we move off again. This is the most beautiful part of the trip. The train winds around Brisbane Water and reflections from its great expanses flash around the windows. By now I’ve lost interest in cryptic clues. In the gentle rocking embrace of my window seat I lapse into a trance. My eyes feel bigger. The visual world skims by; images I feel no need to name arrive in my brain as colour and texture impressions. I’m not asleep; I still register input from my physical surroundings – pages turning, light snoring from the lady beside me, a sneeze and some coughing, the whoosh of passing trains, splashes of rain on the window, and the background hum of the train’s internal machinery. The clickety-clack conjures up childhood and having my hand held by a parent. Have I died and woken up in a private drawing room on the Orient Express? Who dreamed up this nirvana for folk who don’t desire 24/7 connectivity?

It seems to have come from Europe. The websites of most large rail links in the United Kingdom and abroad offer bespoke travel options – from family zones to pet-free – as part of their consumer-oriented corporate image. In Denmark you can book train seats in the Stille Zone and expect a guard to wander through enforcing ‘respect’.

 Of course, train travel needn’t always be quiet. Once in Rajasthan I watched fascinated as excess passengers sinuously lodged themselves into spaces meant for other peoples’ feet or wriggled like acrobats into overhead luggage racks. Chickens were welcome, the sharing of food taken for granted and noisy chatter glued strangers together. In a densely populated country where private lives are richly and unabashedly played out in public, noise goes with the territory.

But what excuse do we Westerners have for getting so loud? One is the rising volume of urban noise; what with the incessant traffic, construction and retail racket vying with our own razzle-dazzle of ringing, buzzing and pinging devices, the softly modulated human voice doesn’t stand a chance. We get loud to reassure ourselves, to cheep our ‘I am here’ sounds like baby birds in a tree.

After 90-odd minutes, my train glides towards the country terminal at Central Station. Between Redfern and Central a noticeable buzz starts up. Passengers stand, shake out coats, snap locks on bags. The unmistakeable sound of digital reconnection begins. Phones come alive. Text messages beep like lost sheep. Quiet murmuring deepens into frank talk. With a clunk, we dock and all bets are off. Heart rates go up. Blood vessels constrict. The businessmen react as if the rescue chopper has spotted them. They’re already speaking confidently into their mobiles, catching up on what they might have missed during the interminable interruption of quiet time.

Gail Bell
Gail Bell has worked as a pharmacist, educator and writer. Her books include The Poison Principle and Shot: A Personal Response to Guns and Trauma.

May 2012
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