August 27, 2012
More than 100 of the CTA's new rail cars are in service on the Pink and Green lines, and the Red Line is due to get them starting in November, followed by the Purple, Yellow and Orange lines, according to transit officials.
With a significant number of the new Bombardier Transportation 5000 Series cars operating every day, thousands of commuters who did not ride on prototypes of the trains when they underwent testing in Chicago a couple of years ago are now getting their first experience and forming opinions.
The CTA has received numerous positive comments about the new rail cars, including the following tweet that CTA spokesman Brian Steele said the agency got just last week from a commuter who goes by the name "TheDamagedgoods": "Just took a ride in one of the new cta rail cars. Holy (expletive), such a smooth ride and so clean. Good job @cta you finally got something right."
But the majority of the emails and phone calls that your Getting Around reporter is receiving from 5000 Series first-timers reflects (similar to the reaction to the prototypes) great dismay in regard to comfort, personal space and sight lines inside the cars (rear ends and crotches of standing passengers in the faces of sitting riders) as well as obstructed views out the windows.
The emerging consensus: Love the gentle acceleration, braking and quiet ride. Appreciate the new LED station indicator maps and destination signs, security cameras, and how the floor lowers to match the platform level when the doors open at stations. Utterly despise the aisle-facing seats; get rid of them.
As the CTA embarks on a new initiative announced last week to cram fewer commuters onto each rail car, will the management team led by CTA President Forrest Claypool listen to rider critiques and rearrange the chairs that are causing a titanic uproar?
"As a rider on the Lake Street Green Line 'L' for 25-plus years, I feel you should know that the new 5000 Series cars have the most unfriendly seating imaginable," Gerald Johnson, an architect focused on design, wrote to Getting Around last week.
The CTA failed to take into account the heftiness of the populace, Johnson said, adding that he observes a lot of grousing from fellow riders.
"You are cramped in a space between two poles that weren't meant to accommodate two normal-size adults," Johnson said. "Then your feet are constantly being stepped on in the common center aisle."
Another problem with a solid line of seating, with riders in close contact on both sides, is that people sway into each other because it's difficult to brace oneself sideways. Standing passengers hanging onto the straps don't have it any better, either, as they sway and bang into each other, riders complain.
"Standees are hanging from the straps like sides of beef transported by truck swaying with each movement," rider Rob Kleps noted.
Pleaded Johnson: "If you have any influence with the powers that be at the CTA, tell them to not accept any more cars from the manufacturer with this deficient seating. And they should get busy converting the seating in the cars they already have to the layout in the older series cars."
Green Line rider Judi Zink said she is amazed at how different she feels with the seats along the walls of the car, instead of perpendicular to them facing forward and backward.
"Eeek! Now I have two people next to me instead of just one," Zink said. "My observation is that people are even less likely to make eye contact, much less communicate, and it seems we sit closer to each other with the new seating configuration. I can spy on someone's texting a little more easily."
Newbie 5000 Series riders also told Getting Around that there is another serious cultural impact. It's harder to enjoy the pastime of gazing at the skyline, the back porches and the streets of our great city out the window.
"I look out the window less, partly because it's farther away — now across the car instead of right next to me — and partly because I have to look right at and over the passengers across from me. Again, eeek!" Zink said.
Riders seem quick to realize that one of the CTA's major goals when the transit agency decided to install inward-facing seats was to pack in more riders. Yet just last week, Claypool told the Tribune about a new plan set to begin in December that will "de-crowd" trains. The intention is to reduce the number of passengers per car during peak travel times from as many as 90 per car currently to a maximum loading of 70 to 75 passengers, Claypool said.
As the 112 Bombardier 5000 Series rail cars now in Chicago increase to about 180 cars by the end of the year and to a full fleet of 706 cars when deliveries are completed in late 2014 or early 2015, do the opinions of riders matter to CTA management?
"Given all the benefits the seating configuration provides, the CTA does not anticipate changing this configuration," said Steele, the CTA spokesman.
(The Blue and Brown Lines, by the way, will not receive the 5000 Series trains. Those lines will operate with the existing 3200 Series cars, which are the CTA's second-newest cars and will undergo rehabs to upgrade them to "like-new condition," CTA officials said.)
The CTA acknowledges that of the comments received about the new Bombardier rail cars, the majority address the change in seating, with most people preferring the configuration on the existing rail fleet. But the aisle-facing seating allows space for more riders and it is better suited to accommodate backpacks, luggage and wheelchairs, officials said. There is also more space near the doors to facilitate passenger boarding and exiting, Steele said.
OK, but with a new agenda to decongest trains and almost 600 rail cars still to be assembled at Bombardier's plant in Plattsburgh, N.Y., why doesn't the CTA consider conducting an experiment? At a time that Claypool says the CTA is intently focused on attracting new riders, how about reconfiguring the next 100 rail cars with seats that Chicagoans — not New Yorkers — prefer?
The airlines play with seating configurations all the time. In the scheme of things it's not a huge expense. Just last week, Chicago-based United Airlines announced that it will install slimmer seats next year on its narrow-body Airbus planes, enabling the airline to squeeze in more passengers.
Here's an opportunity for Claypool to send a better message to his customers. Unbolt the inward-facing seats, before riders bolt.
Contact Getting Around at email@example.com or c/o the Chicago Tribune, 435 N. Michigan Ave., Chicago, IL 60611; on Twitter @jhilkevitch; and at facebook.com/jhilkevitch. Read recent columns at chicagotribune.com/gettingaround.
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