Metro board members yesterday told the transit agency to study removing some seats from its train cars, raising the possibility that riders may eventually be doing a lot more standing than sitting.
Metro officials are considering the idea as an economical way to add capacity at a time when many rush-hour trains are packed and riders often have to wait for a train or two to pass before boarding. Officials also said removing some of the 64 seats that fill most cars would make it easier to get on and off, because riders would be more inclined to move to the center of cars.
Seating Concepts: Metro board members are considering four plans that would reduce seating on Metro cars in an attempt to increase rider capacity and ease movement of riders on and off the trains.
"Part of the goal is not just squeezing more people on the train, but making the overall experience better," said Chris Zimmerman, who represents Arlington County on the Metro board and is the main proponent of the idea.
Metro managers have struggled to accommodate a rapid rise in passengers. The agency plans to order 120 new rail cars over the next few years to allow it to run eight-car trains, but the first of those will not arrive until late 2006 or early 2007.
"We've seen the charts about how long it will take us to get to eight cars," said T. Dana Kauffman, who represents Fairfax County on the board. "There is an issue of comfort, yes, but there is also the issue of getting in the rail car."
Over the next 60 days, Metro engineers plan to study the feasibility of four designs that would remove varying numbers of seats. They will also try to determine how much it would cost to refit the cars and what other changes would be needed such as adding hand holds.
All of the designs would start with getting rid of rows of seats closest to doors, as well as stanchions near the center doors. From there, the designs eliminate rows of seats moving toward the center. The most ambitious plan would leave 16 seats in the middle of trains; those cannot be removed because operational equipment is located under them.
Metro officials estimate that they can get as many as 193 passengers into a car with the current design. That number could be increased to as many as 225 with the minimal number of seats. On a typical six-car rush-hour train, that would add another car's worth of passengers.
Officials will also consider ordering new cars with bench seating along the sides, similar to subway trains in New York and some other cities.
The issue of removing seats raises the question of what kind of Metro people want. Over its 28 years, the system has been designed to shuttle people as comfortably as possible. Taking away seats would signal a shift toward capacity over comfort.
"We have to decide whether we want to make a transition about what Metro means to the region," said Catherine Hudgins, who also represents Fairfax County on the board. "We're really pushing to have people leave the privacy of their car, and if you make them feel like cattle you're going to lose some."
Board members stressed that they are not committed to the idea of revamping the cars and said they will need much more information before they make a decision. They also said they would seek public feedback through the Internet and other forums to gauge rider reaction.
Generally, sentiments about the seats reflect a city-vs.-suburban split. City officials and riders tend to favor fewer seats and more capacity because they take shorter rides.
"I don't usually get a seat with the number of seats there are now," said Jason Hottle, waiting to board a train at Metro Center yesterday afternoon. "So I don't care."
Suburbanites like the seats because they can rest and work on their long hauls.
"There are a lot of things people can do when they ride, and they'd probably like to sit" to do them, said Charles Deegan, who represents Prince George's County on the board. "The emphasis should be on customer service."
Rider Renee Ingram said she doesn't mind if seats are removed, so long as some remain for those who need them. "It doesn't matter to me," she said. "But there should be capacity for those who are physically disabled."