December 21, 2003

CHICAGO (Dec. 21)—Travelers across North America have told a New York-based think thank they are encountering increasing rudeness from other passengers on trains, planes and buses, and carrier personnel have confirmed that passenger misbehavior is a key stressor in the workplace.

Among the carrier employees who participated in the findings are UTU members in Illinois who work aboard passenger trains operated by Amtrak and by the six-county Metra commuter rail system centered on Chicago. Those members responded after the UTU Illinois Legislative Board asked them to fill out survey forms supplied by researchers for Public Agenda.

“We were contacted in November and told by Public Agenda that they were seeking input from all segments of the travel industry about customer behavior in the on-board environment as well as in terminals and at ticket counters,” said Illinois Legislative Director Joseph C. Szabo.

Apparently, the transit industry had been somewhat reluctant to have their employees furnish information about its customers, so Public Agenda turned directly to the Washington, D.C., office of the UTU, which represents workers in intercity passenger and commuter rail and transit systems throughout the US. “In Illinois, we forwarded their surveys directly to the more than 500 UTU members in Illinois who work for Metra or Amtrak,” said Szabo.

In a CNN interview with Public Agenda that aired after the study’s release in early December, Szabo said Public Agenda’s nationwide results mirrored what members had been telling the union for several years. Sixty-five per cent of passengers using commercial transportation told Public Agenda they had encountered rudeness while traveling, and 52 per cent labeled it a major cause of travel stress. And fifty-four per cent of carrier employees said rudeness was a major source of stress in their jobs. Nearly half of the carrier personnel who responded—49 per cent–said they had personally witnessed disrespectful behavior that threatened to escalate into a physical confrontation.

“Those responses pretty closely reflect what our members at Metra and Amtrak had been telling us,” Szabo said. “Our union has been concerned about the issue for some time, so we were glad to put our members in touch with a survey that would act as their voice and get their experiences registered with the public. It’s one more way of using a union to initiate dialog to address a problem.”

The Public Agenda survey is not the first time the Illinois Legislative Board has moved to address the passenger-behavior issue. Four years ago local representatives suggested to Szabo that a joint Labor-Management “On Board Issues” subcommittee be established to make sure that Metra crews had a forum in which to discuss the issue of rider behavior with Metra management. John O’Brien, Vice Chairman of the UTU Illinois Legislative Board, and a 23-year conductor working the Metra Electric district between Chicago and University Park, has been chairman of the subcommittee from its inception.

“We meet monthly, log all the on-board incidents reported by our members and identify them to Metra,” O’Brien said. “The legislative representative from each UTU Local in the Metra system is on the subcommittee, and so is the superintendent of each Metra district [Metra is made up of 12 districts].

O’Brien said he does not believe there has been an overall deterioration in passenger behavior aboard Metra trains. “But as the survey shows, there have been shifts in society regarding civility and riders have become more sensitive to the actions of the misbehaving few,” he said. “It becomes the crew’s responsibility to restore civility.”

O’Brien said the stress problem is particularly acute during large public spectacles, like the Fourth of July fireworks on Chicago’s lakefront or New Year’s Eve in the Loop. Thousands of novice riders jam Metra’s trains, many bewildered by the novelty of the experience and, frankly, many of them drunk.

“We make Metra aware of our concerns and potential ‘hot spots,’ but they can’t provide every conductor with a personal bodyguard,” O’Brien said. “And you don’t want to call the police for every case of misbehavior you witness. Most of it turns out to be relatively minor, and you don’t want to look stupid by crying wolf. But you don’t want to endanger a train full of passengers, either. It’s a judgment call.”

O’Brien said the monthly meetings are used mostly to discuss long-term problems and policies.

“But we can also talk with Metra management about problems that arise in between meetings,” he said. “I have called the Metra Chief of Police and the Electric District Superintendent about misbehaving Cub fans aboard a train. They’ve had a few extra cocktails and they’re disturbing other passengers. We don’t need police protection—just a police presence—and Metra provides it based upon our input. An officer just strolling up and down the aisle and not saying anything can be very effective.

“For the most part, we get action,” O’Brien said. “They take the Labor-Management Committee very seriously.”

One evidence of that seriousness: In response to the concerns of conductors tying up in the wee hours at outlying terminals in the suburbs, Metra has arranged with its bank to have Automated Teller Machines installed in some of its yards so conductors can immediately deposit all cash fares collected on board before walking to their cars in the parking lot.

However, not all outlying terminals have been equipped with ATMS yet, O’Brien says. Nor has Metra developed a comprehensive solution to the problem of passengers who don’t know how to behave in public and resent Metra employees for asking them to obey the rules.

“I personally have been kicked, punched, insulted, and cussed at by passengers, all for enforcing Metra’s rules and policies,” O’Brien said. “At times it can be a very long night out there. Through the Onboard Issues committee we have top management access to the decision makers and can have the dialog to ensure that the proper policies are in place to support the train crew.”

Szabo noted, however, that management isn’t the only party that needs to be in the dialogue.
“Frankly, the subcommittee can only get results when members bring specific issues of concern to the attention of the union,” he said. “The subcommittee cannot act on information it does not have. John O’Brien and his team have developed specific forms for the use of individual members,” Szabo said.

“The Public Agenda survey has raised the level of dialog on this issue nationwide,” Szabo said. “And in Illinois the Metra Onboard Issues subcommittee gives our members a forum to have their concerns voiced. Only with the input and involvement of our Members can we get results.”