by Alex Van Buren
New Jersey governor and presidential candidate Chris Christie made headlines last year after boarding the designated “quiet car” of an Amtrak Acela train in the popular Washington D.C. to New York City corridor. Gov. Christie reportedly boarded the quiet car while speaking loudly to colleagues, sat in his seat, and proceeded to have a loud phone conversation, thus breaking the car’s cardinal rule. A conductor asked Christie to leave, and he did, relocating to the café car.
For travelers who love the quiet car—which tends to be subtly marked with signs denoting it as such—this was a somewhat triumphant moment. But what are general politesse rules to observe when riding the rails? We reached out to Daniel Post Senning, great-great grandson to etiquette empress Emily Post, and cohost of the Awesome Etiquette Podcast, for his tips.
1. A quick glance goes a long way
“You rarely have any standing to address other people’s behavior,” says Senning, but “Chris Christie may not have known that he was in the quiet car.” (This was confirmed by the governor’s official spokesperson.) Your best bet? “A noticing or reproaching glance; sometimes a quick look can be enough to bring someone’s attention to something that’s impacting someone else.” That said, he warns, “You don’t want to be that person that’s walking around glaring at everyone. It’s not up to you to walk around and reprimand everyone.”
2. The Conductor has the authority over manners
“If you talked to that conductor in the quiet car,” says Post Senning, “[she] has the authority to escalate the confrontation.” His rule of thumb: “Look for someone with standing to address it.” It’s easy for a situation to escalate if you address it directly, he says. Sure, “you could mention something” to someone annoying you, he says. “But if it becomes at all contentious or heated,” leave it up to the conductor. He notes the Southwest Airlines flight that had to make an emergency landing because someone tried to strangle someone who was reclining her seat. Err on the side of caution.
3. Have your ticket ready
Be considerate. “Ticketing on trains is often a little different; you’re often seated and already going. Be prepared for that moment. Either have your ticket out and ready or have thought about how you’re going to pay for that ticket. Don’t hold up the work of that conductor.”
4. Try not to run all over the train
“Do as little moving between cars as possible,” says Post Senning. Especially as the seasons get colder, he says, a lot of cold air can be let into the cars. “It’s a courtesy to other passengers to minimize the up and down that you’re doing.”
5. Help out other travelers
“Offer assistance to someone who’s burdened or less familiar to that mode of transportation,” Senning suggests. Maybe you take Amtrak all the time, and know its ins and outs, but others may not. If someone looks confused—say, when the train stops for several minutes in New Haven—offer help.
6. If people need seats, don’t occupy two of them
Is there a pile of magazines, books and snacks denoting your turf on the seat next to you? “I think the pile is OK until the train is filling up,” Senning says. “You can’t occupy seats when people are standing. It’s one thing to leave your bag on the seat next to you until the train is [busy]… but then take your bag off, and don’t wait for someone to ask.”
7. Don’t outsource parenting to staffers
I recently saw two kids, aged about five and eight, alone in the café car of Amtrak ordering hot, black coffee for their parents. After they left, the conductor expressed frustration and concern that they’d burn themselves en route back to their seats. Senning says kids can go to the café car alone, “if they’re old enough to handle the responsibility.” But don’t, he warns, “outsource parenting to trained staff or a conductor; keep an eye on your children.”
8. It’s OK to bring your own food, but try to make sure it’s not stinky
“On planes the courtesy advice is to not bring food that’s particularly smelly,” says Senning, but “as long as it’s not bothering people or making a mess I think you can get away with it.” @wbbrjp
As for Christie, Senning says, “It doesn’t sound like he blew up or got into any trouble for yelling at a conductor. Often times the biggest test of our manners is when we are caught in a moment that we are not our best, and often not making it any worse is the best we can do.”
“Do not go where the path leads, travel instead where there is no path and leave a trail.”