Will Riders Stand by Metro?

Annie Minoff checks out a Metrorail car that has been retooled to allow more standing room.
Annie Minoff checks out a Metrorail car that has been retooled to allow more standing room. (By James A. Parcell -- The Washington Post)
By Lena H. Sun
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, August 1, 2006

Metro cars with fewer seats and more standing room will debut as early as today as the transit agency searches for ways to get more people on a system already at capacity.

Rail car 3262, a reconfigured older-model car, will debut on the Orange Line with fewer seats, floor-to-ceiling poles and windscreens to make it easier for riders to move to the center and away from doors, where passengers tend to bunch. It will run for two weeks on each of the Orange, Red and Green Lines.

Later this month, riders will sample a second design when six to eight of Metro's newest rail cars go into service, said Dan Hanlon, Metro's chief engineer. These rail cars, in the newer blue and burgundy color scheme, also aim to ease paths to the center of cars by removing seats and reconfiguring the poles that riders grab.

Floor-to-ceiling poles near the doors will be removed and replaced with handrails that extend from every seat to the ceiling. Instead of a single overhead grab bar in the middle of cars, a double row of overhead handrails will run the length of the new cars.

Officials hope the changes will lessen crowding by encouraging more riders to move down the aisle and provide smoother passage for riders in wheelchairs and those with luggage, strollers or bicycles. Cameras will be installed in the new and reconfigured cars to record passenger movements so Metro can compare footage of how the cars are being used with video of rider habits in the old layouts.

Metro officials are testing the designs to learn whether trading precious seats for standing space will benefit riders. They estimate that for every two seats taken out, three people will have room to stand.

"We're only going to know when we see the cars in service," said Chris Zimmerman, a Metro board member who represents Virginia. "At the peak times, most people are standing."

The plan to reconfigure car interiors began last year as a way to add capacity at a time when rush-hour trains are packed and ridership continues to surge. Last week, Metro reported two record ridership days, reaching 782,495 trips Wednesday, followed by 783,374 trips the next day. Wednesday's Washington Mystics and Thursday's Washington Nationals games contributed to the high ridership. Typical weekday ridership is about 700,000 trips.

The new designs were on display at the Reagan National Airport Metro station yesterday. Neither car was in service, but when people waiting on the platform were asked to look around, they seemed receptive to trying something new.

Anita Cameron, 41, a member of Metro's Elderly and Disabled Committee and a frequent Red Line rider, gave a thumbs up to both designs. "I can travel unimpeded the entire length of the train," she said, maneuvering her wheelchair in the retooled car.

Chris Scimeca, 45, a software engineer who commutes on the Orange Line from Vienna to Foggy Bottom, was a bit more skeptical. Unlike the current rail car configuration, the reconfigured model has two sets of five bench seats along the side, similar to subway trains in New York and some other cities, and additional handrails. The design opens up more space in the middle of the car, but, Scimeca said, "It seems like there are some parts that are far from any railing."

Lisa Thompson, 34, who works for a Rosslyn engineering firm and takes the Blue Line, said she liked the design in both cars. But shorter riders might have a harder time reaching the overhead bars and won't have the floor-to-ceiling poles as an alternative, said Thompson, who is 5 feet 9.

Later this year, Metro plans to test a third design, which replaces 16 seats with four folding seats at one end of the car and leaning rests at the other. Current models have 66 to 80 seats, depending on the model.

The testing is expected to cost about $375,000, almost half of what had been projected earlier, because Metro is reconfiguring fewer cars, officials said.

Once testing is done, officials plan to conduct customer surveys to get more input from riders. Managers expect to report their results and recommendations to the board early next year.

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