BART tries on new seats in effort to find balance between comfort, cleanliness 

Later this year, BART is expected to award a contract for a $3 billion train replacement initiative that will add 700 all-new cars to the rail s­ystem over the next decade.

With most of its trains nearing the end of their useful lives and the first new trains scheduled to arrive by 2013, agency officials are already working on determining the new vehicles’ design, capacity and amenities.

But when it comes to testing possible new seats, the contrasting needs of suburban and urban riders make the task a little more complex than just choosing new upholstery.

At the agency’s “seating lab,” BART employees have reviewed seat models used around the nation with different sizes, materials and levels of comfort from the agency’s current seating. The review gave agency employees insight into deciding which seats they should use when BART rolls out its new fleet of cars.

Suburban riders, some of whom travel for nearly an hour at a time on the trains, tend to put seat comfort and availability at a premium, BART spokesman Linton Johnson said. For urban riders, whose trips are much shorter, comfort often takes a back seat to cleanliness.

“Unlike most systems, we are a combination of urban and suburban passengers,” said Johnson. “We have to strike a balance that pleases both groups of riders.”

In the agency’s experiment, staff members tested seats used by Boston’s transit system that were four inches skinnier and noticeably harder than BART’s plush seats. While the hard seats would be less comfortable than those now used by BART, they’d also be easier to clean than the wool-upholstered now in use, which seem to attract grime despite BART’s ban on food and drinks.

The seating lab also reviewed models featuring vinyl covers instead of wool.

Passengers will have a chance to see some of these possible new seats later this year, when BART installs some of the options in a model train as part of its public outreach ­process.

BART Board member Tom Radulovich has expressed skepticism about the vinyl materials. Although stains would be less visible, he said the fabric could carry as many germs and get sticky during the hot summer months. He believes BART could remedy its current cleanliness issues simply by increasing daily maintenance efforts.

Oakland resident Sandy Amos travels daily on BART to his job in downtown San Francisco. With a commute time that averages 45 minutes one way, Amos said comfort takes precedent for him over cleanliness, although he wondered why the transit agency couldn’t pull off both tasks.

“You’d think they’d have the technology to come up with clean and comfortable seats,” Amos said.

Ready to ride

Timeline for putting the new BART fleet on the tracks:

2010: Proposals from train car suppliers received.
2011: Contract awarded; design process, including public outreach, begins.
2012: Target for full-scale train car mockup.
2013: First train car arrives for testing.
2014-15: First 10 train cars delivered as pilot cars.
2016: Preproduction design review; approve production.
2018: Complete acceptance of base order of 200 train cars.
2021: Complete acceptance of additional 250 train cars (option 1).
2024: Complete acceptance of additional 250 train cars (option 2).

Source: BART

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Will Reisman

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