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April 25, 2024

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Rights to lower sleeper berths should be softened by empathy for fellow passengers

Recently two pieces of makeshift curtain that hung around two beds on a train have kept railway authorities and opinion makers busy, and netizens in general divisive.

In a second-class rail car in China, a compartment consists of six hard berths, with two in the upper, middle, and lower positions, respectively.

The price for the lower berth was slightly more expensive, but more sought after, especially by elderly passengers.

As climbing onto the middle and upper berths will involve some exertion, and dexterity, and the limited space there makes it hard for adults to sit up, it used to be perfectly acceptable for passengers who had booked the upper and the middle berths to sit on the lower berths, so long as this did not interfere with the lower berth users who were about to sleep, or lie down.

In the recent incident, two young men who had booked the lower berths in the same compartment had fastened the curtains, thus effectively preventing other passengers from sitting, incurring the displeasure of a septuagenarian.

When a video about the incident was posted, and went viral, the railway customer service line replied that there are no provisions against the use of curtains, so long as this does not affect other passengers.

Legal experts weighed in by asserting that, since the purchasers of the lower berth tickets have acquired the rights to the space assigned to the berth, it is perfectly acceptable for the users to close the curtains if they choose, and other passengers should ask for permission if they desire to sit there for a while.

There were even weird comments suggesting that a spate of such divisive incidents in recent years reflected the heightened awareness of “privacy” on the part of young people.

The railway authority and the experts are correct, but their chilling correctness does little in addressing the dilemma. For the sad truth remains that in extreme conditions, two passengers might be left in a lurch, unable to find anywhere to sit, after the two small collapsible seats attached to the wall in the aisle have been taken.

The correct attitude is, for the benefit of general interests, for each lower berth owner to give up some of their narrowly defined “rights,” in favor of a widely understood social consensus that had come into existence for so many decades. It’s a small sacrifice as a train trip gets steadily shorter.

Some years ago, I used to travel for more than 80 hours on a train, and considered myself lucky for having a hard seat by the window, being enthused by the changing views outside, as the smoke-belching locomotive chugged along, and regretting that the trip had come to an end.

When I traveled from Beijing to Shanghai over this weekend, it was a 12-hour trip, just right for a sleep.

For a longer trip, as a middle berth passenger, if I had to use a lower berth for a while, do I have to ask for permission?

It would probably be slightly embarrassing for both parties, in the wake of the recent incident. Because, instead of gazing outside to see the shifting views outside — wheat fields, rivers, and mountains — these young people chose to be hemmed in behind a curtain in a claustrophobic space.

When I went through a few compartments for a check, I found no curtains, and a few seats on the aisle were not taken.

A more serious issue seemed to be, as far as I could perceive, the ubiquity of noises coming from electronic devices.

I reminded two children, a couple of compartments away, of the noise, politely.

The mother responded with alacrity, though she directed the kids to lower, rather than mute, the voice, as the railway authority alerted in the loudspeaker at the beginning of the trip.

I hope they could do more in enforcing such injunctions.


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