CTA’s 846 New Train Cars Provide Opportunity For a Major Redesign

New MTA Subway Info System

The FIND transit information system in New York City provides a lot of useful information about upcoming transfers. Photo by Ellis Neder.

On Wednesday, the Chicago Transit Authority announced that it’s planning to upgrade its train fleet with more than 800 new rail cars. As the agency looks into what manufacturers can provide, this should be the time when Chicagoans influence the process and push for the best possible redesign.

CTA’s “Invitation for Bids” [PDF] requires rail car manufacturers to show them proposed designs for the interior and exterior of new cars. Each bidder has to present three alternatives for the front end cap, three color schemes for the sides, and three design alternatives for the interior (lighting, ceiling, flooring, seating, etc.). CTA wants the sides of the cars to have the same corrugated look as the 5000-series cars, the most recent addition to the agency’s fleet.

Kevin Zolkiewicz, a designer and transit rider in Andersonville, has strong opinions about the shortcomings of the 5000-series cars. I asked him for his input on what CTA should do for the 7000-series rail cars. He replied:

While the 5000-series represents a step forward for CTA railcars, they still suffer from design choices that haven’t been reexamined in decades. The colors are dated, the lighting is harsh, and the seats are uncomfortable. For designing the 7000-series, CTA simply needs to look at recent car designs in other cities.

Electronic route displays are one feature that transit riders in other cities enjoy on their newer rail cars and would be welcome in Chicago. Manufacturers and the CTA should look to provide more useful information than what’s available on the 5000-series cars, which is limited to the current stop and the next stop.

The FIND system on the newest NYC subway cars, for instance, shows the next 10 stops and the bus and train connections one can make at each of those stops. It’s eminently more useful in a system that is highly-connected and has multiple routes to reach the same destination from the same origin, and it’s great for tourists and infrequent users. The greatest benefit may be that it’s future-proof: If a station comes on line, or a station goes out of service, the FIND system can easily be updated. It is much harder to update the CTA’s LED-display maps, in use on hundreds of 5000-series cars, any time a station is added or has its name changed. Zolkiewicz added that Bus and Train Tracker displays should be on the new cars as well.

Subway Train

The previous Munich subway train design. Photo by Philip Bunge.

Chicago shouldn’t be afraid to make bigger changes. “CTA’s 7000-series should be unmistakably different from its current rolling stock,” said Zolkiewicz. “If not for the longitudinal seats on the 5000-series, a majority of the public probably wouldn’t be able to discern the cars from the older fleet. We can’t expect people to give up their cozy automobiles for railcars that look like the 1980s inside.”

For those concerned about having a new train design that’s radically different, it’s possible to build a train that’s familiar but abandons outdated forms. Two German cities, Berlin and Munich, revamped their trains for the 21st century while retaining some of the old visual cues. One of the major improvements on the newer trains is that the cars are articulated — you can walk from one car to the next without going “outside” the train. Articulated trains have more passenger space, let people disperse more easily, and can improve personal safety.

Munich's public transit

The new Munich subway train design. Photo by La Citta Vitta.

Do you have other suggestions for the new CTA cars? Let us know in the comments.