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Rail News Home Passenger Rail

February 2008



Rail News: Passenger Rail

Transit agencies show passengers how to 'enjoy the ride'



By Angela Cotey, Associate Editor

Many transit takers log hundreds of hours a year on commuter-rail or subway cars traveling to and from the office. And they can spend their commute time relaxing, reading the paper or a book, or chatting up a fellow passenger instead of sitting in highway gridlock.

But convincing commuters to leave behind their beloved automobile in favor of a train isn’t always an easy task. Many need something in return. And those commuters already using — and paying for — transit services are becoming more and more demanding of creature comforts they believe they deserve.

“Riders expect more and feel they’re paying for more, so we try and raise the riders’ experience up to meet that expectation,” says Mark Roeber, spokesman for Virginia Railway Express (VRE). “You can’t always do it, but at least we’re trying to provide the services they want or think they need to have.”

So, transit agencies are adding rail-car amenities. And in this case, the term “amenity” is used loosely — it covers everything from seating arrangements and interior design to bike racks to technology.

“We’re motivated to get people out of their cars and onto trains and buses to get to and from work, and one of the things that helps is our amenities,” says Wayne Friesner, Trinity Railway Express’ (TRE) vice president of commuter rail and railroad management. “It’s an enticement that helps bring additional customers.”

Wired in

TRE’s latest enticement? Adding wireless fidelity (WiFi) technology onboard 21 vehicles. As of mid-January, the commuter-rail agency’s WiFi contractors, 4G Metro L.L.C. and partner The Telos Network, had 10 vehicles equipped with WiFi and expected to have the remainder of the cars “all WiFi’d up” by March, says Friesner. The technology will enable TRE passengers to access the Internet via laptops, PDAs and cell phones.

“The passengers that are using it love it,” says Friesner. “It’s a 34-mile trip for them each way, so those that don’t sleep, work.”

As part of the WiFi hook-up, the contractors are installing digital televisions in the cars to offer passengers news, weather and sports information.

VRE is set to enter the wireless-equipped train world, too. Last month, the commuter railroad launched a two-week WiFi test to determine the technology’s connectivity and marketability, says Roeber.

“We’ve been working on the WiFi issue for a couple of years, but up until recently, it was based on a cellular-to-cellular connection,” he says. “The rolling hills of Virginia don’t lend themselves for connectivity for cellular to cellular, and we have five areas with considerable dead spots. We’re finally getting providers that can do a satellite-to-satellite feed.”

Also last month, the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority began testing Parvus Corp.’s RiderNet3 cellular-based WiFi network on the Worcester/Framingham commuter-rail line. Each of the 41 weekday trains that operate on the line will include at least one WiFi-
enabled coach car. The authority plans to eventually extend the program to other parts of its 13-mile commuter-rail system, according to a press release.

The Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA) plans to tap into technology on its next generation of rail cars, which the authority currently is designing. The authority hopes to add LCD screens inside rail cars that display interactive maps with a “blip” showing where the train is and in which direction it’s moving, says Assistant General Manager for Metrorail Dave Kubicek.

But even in today’s digital world, passengers still seek the simple things — comfortable seats, ample leg room, eye-appealing colors, cup holders — and that’s not lost on agency officials.

In its next generation of rail cars, WMATA is looking to install stainless steel seats with a fabric covering rather than the traditional plastic seats. The seat backs would be five inches taller than current seats, and the seats also would feature a contoured, ergonomic design and a handle on the back and down along the sides.

“A lot of children come through here, and they don’t have anything to hold onto,” says Kubicek.

WMATA also plans to install spring-loaded stainless-steel grab handles that passengers of all heights can pull down to their level. The handles then retract on their own when the passenger lets go.

“The car we’re looking at introducing will be here for the next 35, 40 years, so we really need to provide a good platform so this car can be successful in the future,” says Kubicek.

VRE execs adopted the same philosophy when they began designing new rail cars. Ordered from Sumitomo Corp. of America, the 61 vehicles currently are being delivered, and VRE passengers will notice a big interior design difference.

Creature comforts

The agency consulted a core group of riders to determine what types of design features passengers wanted. High on the wish list: a “convenient and workable” cup holder, says Roeber. VRE incorporated stainless-steel cup holders on all of the seats; the old cars had plastic cup holders that had a tendency to break off.

The new vehicles also feature ergonomic seats equipped with lumbar support for a more comfortable ride, as many passengers have more than an hour-long trip on the train. The seats are bigger, too, and the back nook of each seat has been cut out to give passengers an extra few inches of leg room. And even though the seats might be bigger, the configuration enabled VRE to include just as many onboard the vehicles.

Interior colors were taken into account, too. VRE decided on a robin’s egg blue and pale slate gray vs. the bright orange and vibrant blue seats found in some older VRE cars.

“The new colors have a calming effect and are soothing for the human eye; your ride experience is better because your environment is soothing and calming,” says Roeber. “The old seats were striking, but also produced visual stimulation — almost too much. Your sensories need some down time.”

MTA Metro-North Railroad selected a gray and blue color scheme for the several hundred M7 cars it ordered from Bombardier Transportation. Now in service, the cars also feature windows that are one-third larger than those on older cars, and “new generation” vacuum toilets that “completely remove and isolate waste in separate holding tanks.”

“That means no unpleasant odors, so you can breathe easy,” a Metro-North press release said about the cars.

The agency consulted a rider group to develop the M7 interior design and did the same when designing the next generation of cars, the M8s, which are being built by Kawasaki Rail Car Inc.

In California, commuter railroad Caltrain is answering passengers’ call for bike storage onboard trains. The agency has allowed bikes on trains since 1992, when Caltrain started adding bike racks on some cars. Today, there’s a bike car included on every train that can accommodate either 16 or 32 bikes, depending on the vehicle, says Caltrain spokesman Jonah Weinberg.

Bike riders account for about 7 percent of the agency’s weekday ridership, and 2,300 cycles ride Caltrain with their owners each day.

“This is a region that’s very much into alternative transportation and the biking community is very vocal, so we started accommodating them as best we could,” says Weinberg.

These days, “accommodating” is key when it comes to dealing with any type of customer service — and especially when servicing customers who spend so much time on the train, they consider it their home away from home.

“The level of expectation with any customer-based service is more demanding these days,” says WMATA’s Kubicek. “We’re in the business of moving people as quickly and efficiently as possible, but if we can make their ride a little more enjoyable, it goes a long way in making them happy.”


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