At a car dealer’s showroom, prospective buyers check the style and color of the vehicle’s seats, the sight lines, the roominess and the comfort. If the interior doesn’t feel right to the customer, no sale.

A team at Metro is designing a somewhat larger vehicle, one capable of seating more than 60. But like its counterparts in the auto industry, the Metro group also is looking at customer comfort as a key selling point.

As planning continues for the 7000 series rail cars, the design team has tried to satisfy riders, train operators, maintenance staffers, police — just about every type of person who’s going to experience these cars over the next 40 years or so.

“All the research really starts from a marketing position,” Barbara Richardson, the assistant general manager for customer service, told Metro board members during a presentation this month.

Design concept

When Richardson talks about design goals, her elegant images are more suggestive of cocktails on the 20th Century Limited than the compressed flesh aboard an Orange Line train to Vienna at 5:30 p.m. She said the goals include making the customers feel that the rail car interior is an inviting environment, “to almost escape out of the hustle and bustle.” The impression should be that the cars are “spacious, that they have a sense of room, of personal space.” The design should be “uplifting,” and “generate a sense of excitement.”

Masamichi Udagawa, an industrial designer Metro hired to develop these ideas, outlined several early incarnations of the new car interiors reviewed by riders and transit staff. Early test schemes, known to the design team by such names as “Business Elegance” and “Subtle Signature,” had a variety of elements that were either praised or condemned.

Udagawa said the team tested the idea of a brown color scheme for the car interior. But the brown was all too familiar to longtime Metro riders. “People really didn’t like seeing the brown again,” he said. “In the context of a D.C. system, people are a bit tired and maybe bored with brown.

Blue was well received. Cool and calming, Richardson said.

Updated Final Design

Testing and revising elements that range from mood to hardware, Metro has arrived at what it calls the “Updated Final Design,” which will be subject to more testing and review before a full scale mock-up is produced, probably in the latter part of 2012. These are some key elements.

Floors. There’s a lot of floor space, especially in the middle of the car. The aisles are two inches wider. The design looks good for standees, and for people with luggage, strollers and bikes. (There’s no special storage space for luggage. Metro is buying 64 of the 364 new cars to allow for service on the new Metrorail line to Dulles International Airport, but the 7000 series cars will operate throughout the transit system. The designers have found no safe way to insert bike racks.) Skid-resistant flooring replaces carpet. It might feature red, white and blue speckles.

Seats. Despite the wider aisles, the seats are the same size. Cars will come in sets of four, rather than the current pairs. End cars, with the operator’s cab, will have 62 seats, while the middle cars will have 64. Metro decided against padded head rests. Riders thought the head rests would get dirty and be difficult to clean. The seats will be covered with vinyl, rather than the cloth Metro has been testing on some 6000 series cars. Here again, the issue for riders was cleanliness.

Unlike the current design, the new seatbacks don’t meet. In each pair, there’s a V-shaped wedge of space between them. This tested well with riders who thought it established a personal space for each passenger. Beneath the seats, there’s nothing — no equipment lockers, no heaters — nothing that would interfere with maintenance or security.

The priority seats for people with disabilities are dark blue, and the other seats are a lighter shade.

Windscreens. The windscreen between the middle doors and the inward-facing bench seats has been redesigned in a clear plastic with a centered Metro logo, surrounded by a metal railing. The redesign creates an impression of spaciousness while retaining the seated riders’ protection against passengers moving around near the door.

Handholds. Riders have mixed opinions about the poles and handholds on the 6000 series. Many, especially shorter riders, have complained that in a crowded car there aren’t enough railings within reach. “Female customers felt uncomfortable grabbing up” for the overhead bars, Richardson said.

The new design eliminated a center pole, because of accessibility problems, she said, but it also adds more poles and railings. There’s a pole attached to each seat and to the windscreens. There are overhead railings, minus the spring-loaded steel handgrips introduced on the 6000 series. The L-shaped rails near the doors on the 6000 series cars will become U-shaped rails on the 7000s.

The hold-on space aboard trains is a big concern to Metro board member Mary Hynes, who represents Arlington County. Riders boarding far from the ends of the rail lines often encounter crowded trains.

“We have a series of ways that people behave now on trains when they’re really crowded,” she told Richardson. Some riders who boarded earlier plaster themselves against railings, so they can’t be used by people boarding later. She asked whether it was possible to discourage this.

Richardson said she thought the best option was to give people more options, and that’s what the extra grab points would achieve. Metro counts 16 more points to grab onto in the 7000 series design over the 6000 series.

Information. The focus groups were impressed with the amount of information available to riders in the new cars, Richardson said. The cars also will be better lighted, which should make it easier to see the maps and information displays. Metro is redesigning the system map, but a highlight of the new cars will be displays showing the train’s progress along the line. There will be two lighted route maps and four video screens positioned around each car. The train operators will not make the station announcements. That will be done by an automated public address system.