New Metrorail design raises some old issues


The railings are on either side of the aisle, with poles from ceiling to seat. (Robert Thomson/The Washington Post)

This comment from Monday’s online chat: “So I saw the photos last week of these new Metro cars. I noticed a lot less seating and a lot more open standing space. But there still seems to be a total lack of places for people to hold onto anything if they are standing in the middle of the car. How is that supposed to work? Does anyone who actually rides the subway (and is less than 5′ 10″) have any role whatsoever in the design of the cars?”

I looked back at the photo above, which I took in October 2012 of car No. 7000, a “hard mock-up” of the rail car series to come, starting this year. The 7000 car was in a workshop in Landover where Metro staffers were checking its features. You can see what the commenter is concerned about, and also how Metro has adjusted earlier rail car designs in response to concerns from riders about how best to grab metal, rather than another passenger, when aboard a rolling train.

If you look to the right side of the photo, you’ll see that the new design keeps the spacious area in the middle of the rail car that is characteristic of the latest model already in service, the 6000 series. Metro is not bringing back the center poles, which are not friendly to riders in wheelchairs or to people trying to move between the aisles and the doors.

While I’ve heard riders with disabilities say good things about the more modern design, I’ve also heard from riders who worry they could either wind up on the floor or in the arms of another rider if they lose their balance. Metro’s designers did take rider comments on the interior and held focus groups to assess issues of rider comfort. The result is also visible in the photo: Railings run along the ceiling over each aisle and poles descend to the outer seats. By the open space near the middle door, you can see a vertical pole connecting with a horizontal pole. This should help people in wheelchairs but also assist other riders looking for some support.

I found this set-up convenient. Riders can hold onto those poles without fear of grabbing the hair of a seated passenger, as they might now if they have to hold onto the rails on top of the seats. Of course, my test had its limits.  I’m 5′ 11″ and was moving about a stationary rail car with only a few visitors aboard. If you’re 5′ 5″ boarding such a car at 5:15 p.m. on a weekday at Metro Center, you will recognize it as a design compromise between providing support to standees and helping them move about the car.

The car looks more spacious, and it’s not just a trick of the light. The seats are the same size as today’s cars but the aisles are wider. The new cars come in sets of four. End cars, with the operator’s cab, will have 62 seats, while the middle cars will have 64. The very oldest rail cars have 82 seats. The more recent generations have between 68 and 64, not a really big difference from the new order.

One thing I hope riders will be pleased about: The new cars won’t have those plastic straps that hang down from the ceiling railing in part of the current fleet. Those things are like cob webs, and I rarely see riders using them for support.

 

 

Robert Thomson is The Washington Post’s “Dr. Gridlock.” He answers travelers’ questions, listens to their complaints and shares their pain on the roads, trains and buses in the Washington region.
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