One High-Maintenance Trip

Metro Considers Pulling The Rug From Under Riders

READY FOR UPDATE: Mechanic Simon Jules rips up a rail car's carpeting, replaced every five years.
READY FOR UPDATE: Mechanic Simon Jules rips up a rail car's carpeting, replaced every five years. (Photos By James A. Parcell -- The Washington Post)
By Lena H. Sun
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, May 10, 2006

Next time you ride the Metro, consider what lies beneath: The cushion on which you sit costs $17 to $35 and is made by Virginia prisoners; the wool carpet under your feet comes from Taiwan and costs $5,200 per rail car.

For the comfort of passengers, the transit agency spends more than $1 million a year to replace worn cushions and filthy carpet. That doesn't include the cleaning.

Metro is one of a few major transit systems in the country to have cushions and carpet. They were luxurious touches included in the system's original design more than three decades ago to lure suburbanites out of their cars.

But now, Metro is the nation's second-busiest subway system. Riders took 739,525 trips on an average weekday last month. Three of Metro's busiest days ever were recorded during one week last month. Nothing special on those days -- no ballgames, no rallies.

Metro's new interim general manager wonders if it isn't time to rethink the comfort of your feet and, maybe, your tush.

Does it make sense, Dan Tangherlini wants to know, to spend money on carpets and cushions? Could that money be better used to make sure the system "goes where and when people want it to go"? Is there some other material cheaper and easier to maintain?

Riders, brace yourselves: Metro may go vinyl. The agency will test a slip-resistant vinyl flooring this summer -- in one pair of cars. No sense rushing out of the lap of luxury. "Maybe there's some room for experimenting," Tangherlini said recently while riding the Red Line. He's also open to cushion alternatives, but because Metro riders seem more wedded to the padding for their posteriors, there aren't any experiments in the works.

The carpet question, though, has come up often. Metro Board member Chris Zimmerman, who represents Arlington County, recalled that the board was always told that carpet was cheapest. It will be interesting to see, he said, if Tangherlini "comes up with the same answer."

Visitors are often stunned to see upholstered seats and carpet.

"There's no carpet in any of the subways in Europe," said Suzanne Liritis, 58, a photographer, riding the Red Line downtown. Liritis lives in Athens and travels extensively. She said she couldn't believe her eyes when she stepped on a Metro train and saw carpet. Shaking her head, she added: "It's a waste of money."

The decision is not as simple as it might seem: Carpet absorbs road noise. And Washington's riders can be quite attached to the amenities. At the same time, carpet absorbs water, which can damage a car's substructure and affect operation. And dirty carpet smells gross.

Bottom line: Metro managers say customers are not aware of how much work it takes to maintain the 952-car fleet. In fact, riders get downright surly about upkeep.

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