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NY Times article on cell phone problems

June 22, 2002

Train Riders Lament Use of (Others') Cellphones


WHITE PLAINS, June 21 Marian Lewis is among the three-quarters of riders on the Metro-North Railroad with a cellphone. She uses it occasionally to contact a family member in an emergency. She considers it a necessity, an unalienable right, and balks at the idea of segregating users in specified cars, like the smoking sections of yore.

But Ms. Lewis is mightily annoyed at everyone else yakking on the phone around her. In this, she is like the majority of her fellow commuters: she relies on her cellphone and resents everybody else's.

"If I wrote novels I'd try to pick up vignettes, but the conversations are always so boring," said Ms. Lewis, a special referee for the Supreme Court of New York who commutes from White Plains. "Everybody is always talking about their nanny or what tunnel they're headed into. And too loud and too long always seem to go together."

The habits and attitudes of riders emerged in a quarterly survey of 5,271 riders conducted in April by Metro-North, which serves about 120,000 customers a day from New York City's northern suburbs. It was the first time that Metro-North included questions about cellphones in its survey; the results were similar to those of a smaller survey done two years ago by a commuters group on the Long Island Rail Road.

The Metro-North results, released this week, found that 76 percent of customers carried a cellphone. Of those, 55 percent reported using their phones on the train "occasionally" (for emergencies or at most once a week); 29 percent, "moderately" (more than once a week, but less than once every trip); and 6 percent, "frequently" (one or more calls per trip).

Asked to gauge their annoyance with cellphones, 13 percent of those same customers said they were never bothered by them. But 87 percent said they were bothered: 55 percent said "sometimes"; 20 percent said "most of the time"; and 12 percent said "all of the time."

What to do? Here's where it gets fuzzy, in part because respondents could choose more than one option. The clear majority, 81 percent, wanted Metro-North to continue to educate riders on "considerate usage." Other options were limiting cellphone use to door areas (34 percent), limiting phone use to designated cars (27 percent) and prohibiting cellphones on trains (6 percent).

Daniel Brucker, a Metro-North spokesman, said the railroad was not planning to experiment with designating certain cars for cellphones.

Jim Cameron, vice chairman of the Connecticut Metro-North Rail Commuter Council, a watchdog group, said that rather than ask if cellphones should be restricted to some cars, Metro-North should have raised the possibility of a single quiet car. "The question they ask gives the implication that only one or two cars would be usable for cellphones," said Mr. Cameron, who owned up to being interviewed on his own cellphone, though not aboard Metro-North.

He pointed to the implementation of a quiet car on Amtrak, which he rode this week, so popular as an experiment that it became a feature on most weekday trains in the Northeast Corridor and on the Empire line.

Metro-North officials said that such a solution was not practical on its trains, which run at capacity, with many riders sprinting toward the cars as the doors are closing.

Metro-North also said that its conductors would be overwhelmed trying to police passengers who sneaked a call aboard "quiet" cars, especially those who had been unable to find a seat on the rest of the train.

Last year Metro-North launched a courtesy campaign, which, among other things, encouraged cellphone users to keep their voices down and to move to the vestibule areas for longer conversations. Since then, the number of complaints has dropped to 3 to 5 a month from about 10 a month.

Some of those complaints come from aboard the trains, one cellphone user ratting on another. "They are fearful that they are going to lose their right to use their cellphone because others are abusing them," said Ted Bowen, the railroad's manager of customer relations.

One commuter, Gregory Jeffries of Mamaroneck, who averages about one call during his 40-minute trip, said the inconsiderate camp of cellphone users threatened to ruin things for the courteous camp, to which he claimed to belong. "I don't understand the way people use cellphones sometimes," he said. "They talk louder than normal and pretend there is no one else around."


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