WASHINGTON - You would think passengers on a MARC train would be pretty quiet at 5:30 in the morning, when the sun is still two hours from making an appearance and most of the world is tucked in bed.
You would be wrong.
There is the bleat of pagers, the clacking of laptop computers, the hum of conversation and always the infuriating cry of cellular phones. For years other riders suffered in silence - but now there is an escape.
At the demand of harried commuters, the Maryland Transit Administration introduced "quiet cars" this week on two of its Maryland Rail Commuter Penn Line trains. The rules are simple: No cell phones, no pagers, no children. Computers must be muted, and conversations must be hushed.
The cars are, of course, an instant hit.
"I used to wear earplugs," said Yvonne Dorsey, 44, who rides the train from Aberdeen to Washington every day. "Who has telephone conversations at this time of the morning? But people do."
MARC officials say they are on the leading edge of a silent revolution in commuter rail lines. As cell phones become more pervasive - there are an estimated 137 million wireless subscribers in the United States - and their users less considerate, people are demanding relief. Restaurants and theaters have banned the phones, but trains have been slower to catch on.
The only other commuter-rail service in the country to offer quiet cars is the small Altamont Commuter Express north of San Francisco, said MARC officials. Amtrak, however, has expanded its use of quiet cars to every weekday train in the Northeast corridor in the past few years.
"They've proven very popular," said Amtrak spokesman Dan Stessel. "We find that the cars have now started `self-policing.' Passengers in the quiet cars will politely remind their fellow passengers that they do need to be quiet should a pager go off."
On pre-dawn trains
MARC has instituted the quiet cars on Trains 401 and 503 on weekday mornings. They are the earliest trains, departing Penn Station in Baltimore at 4:48 and 5:35 a.m. They're using the pre-dawn trains because officials thought the rules would be easier to enforce when people are only semiconscious. The experiment will last three months and expand to other trains if it's successful.
"I've been with MARC for seven years, and I can't recall any time we've gotten more unqualified compliments and thanks," said Ira Silverman, the rail line's chief transportation officer. "If it works out, it will certainly be on all the rush-hour trains."
MARC's quiet cars include signs featuring the universal hush symbol - a finger pressed against a pair of lips. Conductors announce the rules of the car at each stop. Passengers who have ridden in the cars this week said no one has broken the rules, save for the occasional reporter.
On Train 503 yesterday, about half of the 70 quiet-car passengers dozed silently while the others read books or newspapers. The only sound was the train's rhythmic clacking as it sped toward Washington's Union Station.
"I wish they would do it during the evening commute," said Joe Martin, 53, as he read a book titled How to Read a Book. A six-year MARC veteran, the Odenton resident has seen cell-phone use go from a nuisance to a nightmare.
It's not just cell phones. Silverman said MARC received a complaint from a quiet-car rider yesterday who thought fellow riders were ruffling their newspapers too loudly. But there are (thank goodness) no plans to ban newspapers.
MARC, which serves 24,000 daily riders on 86 trains, decided to make the quiet car the last car on its two experimental trains because the front cars are so crowded. Riders often bunch up in the front cars so they're closer to the station when the train arrives.
But the walk to the back of the train has not deterred those seeking refuge. Some say they would hike a mile if need be. The noise has even gotten to Silverman, the MARC official who also commutes on the train every day.
"There's a steady flow of cell-phone users, and if you're sitting near them, you can't help but hear their conversation, even if they're trying to keep it down," he said. "Some of them go on and on and on."
But no more.