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Metra testing out new seat configurations for passengers

Metra officials want to test out a new train seat configuration that would place about half of riders in a backward-facing position, feature higher seat backs and possibly include armrests and cup holders.

Sample train seats were on display in November at five Metra stations, and 1,014 customers filled out surveys about them. Responses were mixed.

Overall, 54.5 percent of those surveyed liked the new design; 45.5 percent did not, Metra board members were told during Friday’s monthly meeting.

“Forty-five percent of people being unhappy seems substantial,” Board Chairman Martin Oberman said.

As a result, Metra now wants to test out the new configuration in one car of a moving train per line. Officials especially are interested in more thorough customer reaction to facing backward on a rolling train.

Rather than buy new cars with the new configuration built in, the design would be folded into the refurbishment of about 10 of 176 train cars already scheduled for rehab.

However, officials Friday could not say when testing of the new seats might occur.

Currently, most Metra trains feature forward-facing seats that can be flipped in the opposite direction to allow passengers to see each other — albeit while some are facing backward.

To be tested is a configuration that would feature only stationary seats, without the ability to be flipped, with about half facing forward and half facing backward.

In addition, each test train car would feature four “four-seaters’’ in which two pairs of seats face each other.

Eliminating the ability to flip a seat in either direction will allow the new seats to have higher backs, carry a cup holder and include an armrest.

With a 10.8 percent fare hike due to hit Feb. 1 — in part to buy or rehab virtually Metra’s entire fleet of cars and locomotives, Metra officials seemed intent on getting the configuration right before they buy any new cars.

“We want to give our customers what they want,’’ Metra CEO Don Orseno said.

Oberman said more feedback is needed.

“Based on the numbers we have now, it seems we have more homework to do,’’ Oberman said.

Also Friday, new Metra data indicated the commuter rail line’s on-time performance fell to 94.3 percent for 2014 — the second-lowest level since 1984. However, the 2014 average included massive delays during January’s brutal combination of snow, bone-numbing cold and high winds.

Metra’s goal is an on-time rate of 95 percent. Charts indicated that in 1993, 1994, 1996 and 1997, Metra’s on-time rate was at least 97 percent. However, a slightly different methodology was used to calculate rates during those years, officials said.

Oberman also noted that since those “good old days,” Metra passenger trains must maneuver around far more, and far longer freight trains.

Earlier Friday, Orseno agreed to look into delaying the Feb. 1 increase, from a current $3 to $5, for buying a Metra ticket on board a train when ticket agents are present in stations.

Orseno’s decision to take the delay “under advisement” came after Metra board member Brian Reaves of south Cook County urged that the higher surcharge not be imposed until after Metra launches systemwide mobile ticketing. Such ticketing was originally planned systemwide by May but now may not happen until June so that extensive testing can be done, board members learned Friday.

Reaves’ comments came after Elmhurst Ald. Scott Levin urged the Metra board to eliminate the on-board surcharge completely. Levin said some people buy tickets on board trains merely because they forgot their monthly passes. Others could be tourists who may not understand the policy.

Levin noted that a mother with three kids who pays a $20 fare today on board a train will be paying a $40 fare on Feb. 1 because of the surcharge jump. Said Levin: “It’s bad policy.”

The surcharge increase from $3 to $5 is not a “revenue measure,” Oberman responded. Instead, he said, it is intended to discourage passengers from buying tickets on board. Such cash tickets cost Metra money to collect and secure. The collection process slows down conductors and diverts them from concentrating on train safety, the board chairman said.

However, Oberman conceded, Metra could improve its signage warning customers that they face an extra surcharge if they buy their tickets on board.