As part of a pilot program, some Metra riders will start seeing the biggest change to their daily commutes in decades on Wednesday with the debut of coaches equipped with a new style of seats.
Instead of the dark green bench-style seats that have traditionally been used on Metra coaches, the new gray and blue vinyl seats are considered “airline-style” with armrests, built-in cup holders and better head, neck and back support, officials say.
And, importantly, the new seats are stationary: That is, they don’t flip.
Except for 12 seats in each car, the new ones will face the vestibule at the middle of each coach. So only about half the riders will face the direction of travel. That means some customers may have to get used to riding backwards.
Metra is rolling out the first of 30 railcars with the new seats. That car, No. 7437 (for anyone who wants to spot it), is being put into service on the Milwaukee District lines, which run north to Fox Lake and west to Elgin.
Metra plans to add the new seating to two cars per month between now and the end of the year on all lines except the Metra Electric as part of a pilot program. Older model Electric District cars have fixed seats.
Customers who use the new seats will be asked to provide feedback starting in February.
Metra Executive Director/CEO Don Orseno said Metra hopes riders find the new seats more comfortable than the current ones, and that more ridership will result.
“We want to provide the very best customer amenities,” Orseno told the Chicago Transportation Journal, pointing to the cup holders and new electrical outlets on a gleaming coach that was recently rehabbed.
A previous sampling of riders’ opinions found that more than half preferred the new seats to the old ones, Metra said. Customers tested a prototype at Metra’s five Downtown stations in November 2014.
Metra officials said the agency is not paying extra to install the new seats, which are replacing ones that have worn out.
The new seats cost Metra the same as the older seats, but there are more manufacturers of the new style in the rail industry, and this is expected to keep the prices competitive and possibly drive down future costs, Metra said. The new seats are manufactured by Kustom Seating Unlimited of Bellwood.
The new seats are being used on 30 railcars going through Metra’s Amerail car rehabilitation program, with the work being done by Metra’s own personnel.
Metra says its workers have perfected a “streamlined” process by which railcars can be stripped and fully rebuilt in 32 days.
The entire Amerail fleet, built between 1995 and 1998, includes 97 railcars and 79 cab cars and is expected to be fully rehabilitated by the end of 2016, Metra said.
This work will extend the life of the cars by 12 to 15 years. With future rehabs Metra said it expects to extend the cars’ life to 50 years of service or more.
Metra said the work costs about $650,000 in materials and labor per car compared to $2.5 million to $3 million for a new railcar. This represents a savings of about 75 percent.