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Armrests on new Metra seats will create personal space

Metra conductors Thomas Nichols, standing, and Glenn Wagner check out the new railcar seats. | Rich Hein/Sun-Times

Better lumbar support, cupholders, armrests and headrests are all part of the new seats Metra plans to roll out on a limited trial beginning this week.

On Wednesday, one car featuring the new seats will be added to the Milwaukee North Line that runs between Fox Lake and Union Station.

Metra plans this year to gut and refurbish 30 cars it purchased in the 1990s — a process that will make practically everything on the car new but the frame. But, apart from the seats, the cars will look mostly the same.

Over the next few months, several of the refurbished cars will be added to every line except the Metra Electric Line, because the cars were designed to be operated by diesel locomotives not electric ones.

Metra CEO Don Orseno said Tuesday he did not know which line would be next to receive a refurbished car.

Perhaps the most dramatic feature of the new seats will be the armrests. They will allow passengers to create a boundary when sitting next to a stranger.

“This will allow you to pull the armrest down and have your own space so you can be comfortable,” Orseno said. “We believe our customers are going to love this seat. It’s much more of an airline-style comfortable seat.”

The rebuilt cars will also feature standard electrical wall outlets, located about shin high in every other row of seats.

Seating configuration of the cars will be nearly the same and will continue to feature several sets of seats that face each other in each car. But the swinging seat backs passengers have become accustomed to will no longer be an option.

After gauging customer reaction, Metra will decide on any tweaks and whether to make new seats standard as the agency, in the coming years, continues to refurbish dozens of older train cars and buy new ones.

Seats for the 30 trains cars it will roll out this year cost about $2.4 million and were made by Kustom Seating Unlimited Inc., in west suburban Bellwood.

“The new seats are roughly the same cost as the old seats, but there’s more companies making them, so there’s more competition,” Metra spokesman Mike Gillis said.

“We have to buy new seats anyway. So the question becomes ‘Do we buy the old style or try the new style?’ So we decided to try the new style,” Gillis said.

Metra’s new passenger seats feature armrests that can help create personal space. | Rich Hein/Sun-Times

Metra’s new passenger seats have built-in cupholders. | Rich Hein/Sun-Times

Metra’s new airline-style seats have overhead lighting controls. | Rich Hein/Sun-Times