“I don’t know what the point of these new trains is if people still can’t stand in them”

December 11, 2012 at 11:03 am

Not surprisingly, some of the best observations come from casual, nontechnical strangers. Last night, while riding the Red line towards Howard from Lake, a new 5000-series rail car pulled up to the station and quickly became packed. There was no difference between the lack of comfort in the new cars and the older cars still in use, but this isn’t entirely because of the design – it’s because the CTA can’t run cars often enough to actually alleviate the crowding in the cars. A woman who was trying to get off the train at the Chicago stop said this when trying to squeeze herself between passengers to get to the door:

I don’t know what the point of these new trains is if people still can’t stand in them.

It’s true, actually, that the new 5000-series cars on the CTA really don’t do anything for comfort of the passengers. The new seating, while different, doesn’t help to get more passengers in the train. Even though the aisle-facing seats do increase standing room, the case could be made that they actually decrease overall room for passengers. The configuration of the older cars’ rows is 2 seats, room for 1 standing person, and 2 seats (2-1-2). Now, with aisle-facing seats, there is 1 seat, room for 2 standing passengers, and 1 seat (1-2-1). A person standing away from the doors will find it hard to get out of the train unless a fair amount of other passengers are trying to leave the train.

Interior of a 5000-series rail car during the PM rush hour.

Interior of a 5000-series rail car during the PM rush hour. Credit: Shaun Jacobsen.

Not only does the interior feel more crowded and harder to navigate, there seems to be a bit of wasted space. Just take a look at the gap (at least 8 inches) between the seatback and the window:

Gap between seat and window

Gap (metal) between seat and window in the 5000-series rail car. I’m not sure if it is covering anything up or just keeping the seating in a row. Credit: Shaun Jacobsen.

This metal gap exists on both sides of the car and could possibly sacrifice up to 2 feet off the interior of the car. Any extra room in these cars would help move passengers about the cars. I’m not sure if this metal gap is covering anything up or if it’s just there to keep the seats in a single row. With some reconfiguration, the CTA probably could have made the doors “minivan style,” in which they opened out, then to the side, in order to increase the amount of space inside the cars (and make the doors wider, or add an extra door, too).

I’m no stranger to criticism of these cars, and neither are others – and now that the trains are coming into service on the CTA’s busiest train line, the public is finding out that the $1 billion the CTA is going to spend on them probably just isn’t worth it.

As I wrote yesterday, the CTA isn’t really doing anything to de-crowd or modernize the system. While new rail cars may have been necessary just to keep the system in repair, it really doesn’t seem like they were upgraded to increase comfort or decrease crowding at all.

Officials touring rail car

CTA/RTA officials, Bombardier Transportation official, and Mayor Emanuel looking around a new 5000-series rail car, surprised at what the interior of a rail car actually looks like. Credit: CTA.

If the CTA really wants to de-crowd the train network, it needs to run more trains. And to run more trains without more delays, it has to modernize its track technology. If the CTA wants to de-crowd the trains without having to make massive infrastructure upgrades, it should have designed the cars with more room and articulated the cars to make one, connected train, making even more room.

And most importantly, the CTA should have listened to the public when designing trains that the public would use – especially before making a multi-million (OK, nearly-billion) dollar investment in them. This isn’t to say that the older cars on the CTA are better – many of them don’t have enough poles to grab on to for a comfortable ride. The 5000-series cars, however, make relatively few improvements in terms of comfort (save their relative silence and smooth ride), especially concerning the perpetual crowding around the doors. But what are we supposed to expect? The top decision makers at the CTA don’t use the CTA every morning and every evening to get to and from work, which is why we can’t expect them to make the changes necessary to create a better, more reliable, and more attractive public transportation system for Chicagoans.