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.

  • Adam Herstein

    It is my understanding that articulated trains wouldn’t work on the ‘L’ because there are too many tight curves. Am I incorrect in that assumption?

  • Maybe so in the loop. If the CTA didn’t want to be able to change the trains between tracks I think it might be able to work on some other lines? The Red line is the busiest line. Maybe there are curves too sharp there too.

  • Adam Herstein

    The Sheridan curve on the Red Line would almost certainly be too tight.

  • By “corrugated look” do they mean the metal exteriors that are (IMO) pretty ugly and industrial-looking? I like the look of the Munich cars. They look just like the Alstom/Bombardier cars on line 2 of Paris. Bombardier also makes the 5000-series and Alstom has a plant in New York state. Hmm…

  • Adam Herstein

    Yes. They are supposedly used to deter vandalism/tagging.

  • Yes, but the Sheridan one does look (slightly) larger. Don’t have my ruler, can’t check :P

  • Maybe my Blue Line can get some articulated trains then. Only line that’ll never run on the Loop, and we’re not getting any of the 5000s anyway…

  • jlesni5

    But is tagging really that much of a problem? I have never seen the sides of the 2600-series tagged or vandalized. .

  • Ryan Wallace

    +1 for articulated trains!!

  • Adam Herstein

    Who knows? I just know that is the CTA’s reasoning behind the corrugated walls.

  • Corrugated means the horizontal fluting on the lower half of the outside of the car. Photo: http://www.flickr.com/photos/ctaweb/6327126482/

    Nippon Sharyo is another domestic manufacturer. They now have a plant in Rochelle, IL, to manufacture new Metra cars and new high-speed rail passenger cars for the Midwest and Caltrain.

    The Class C Munich cars (the bottom photo) were designed in, get this, late 1990s, and were built by Siemens Mobility.

  • I thought about this, but I think of the articulated buses and how they have tight turns, too. I would like to know more – perhaps I can find someone who works at a train manufacturer.

  • jlesni5

    I know that’s the reasoning behind it, but it just seems silly because not every side of the car has the corrugation and its only up to the windows.

  • Adam Herstein

    That sounds like a good idea, as I am also interesting in this information. Trains are obviously not buses, so there may be some unique challenges required for articulated ‘L’ cars. I don’t doubt it is possible, though.

  • Adam Herstein

    I can’t imagine that it would be too much of an issue, because the train would either be moving, stopped at a station, or stored in a yard. A vandal would likely not have enough time to tag a car while it is stopped at a station, and must risk third-rail electrocution if sneaking into a rail yard to tag.

  • Ah, Siemens, Germany – makes sense. I hope any new design actually makes the cars roomier. The 5000 series, despite being about the same width as even the narrowest NYC cars, do not feel as roomy. There’s a lot of wasted space in the Chicago cars on the sides that needlessly narrows the cars. And bombardier built both cities’ trains.

  • The train cars on the New Delhi Metro System are articulated, very clean and sleek and look a lot like the new Munich trains, very efficient and comfortable.

  • Oh I also just remembered, some cities don’t want articulated trains because its harder to take one car (or married pair, on the CTA) if there’s a problem. You’d have to take out the entire train. I guess they could still do articulated pairs of something. It would increase the amount of space in the cars.

  • Bryan JC

    The corrugated design that the CTA insists upon is outdated and ugly. There are other ways to make trains graffiti resistant without ugly trains. The Munich design is absolutely beautiful and wouldn’t trains that looked something like that look awesome riding on our elevated rails.All you have to do is travel around the world and you see beautiful subway trains. I don’t know why CTA would insist on the corrugated design, they should just spec out the graffiti resistant requirement without specifying the corrugated tin can look.

  • davey

    If I had to choose, I’d take tagging over the damn perforated ads that deface the train car windows and make the view next to useless. Now that’s what real vandalism looks like.

  • davey

    Is the cattle car (seats lined up against the wall) layout still the only configuration on the table? If the CTA wants to be attractive to riders, this is not the way to go. The externals are trivial compared to what it’s like to actually ride.

  • Alex

    I really don’t understand why so many people in Chicago seem to hate the inward-facing seating configuration. Is sitting between two people, for twenty minutes, really that awful? Riders of just about every other transit system on earth seem to deal with it just fine, And the new design is far superior from the perspective of anyone who’s ever struggled to hold on to the back of a forward-facing seat while standing in the middle of a packed red or blue line car.

  • iskandr

    corrugation allows slightly thinner material w/otherwise same strength. (and some of us like corrugated/fluted side FWIW)

    As to articulation, Chicago had four experimental articulated sets delivered just as CTA took over. (go to the Illinois Railway Museum ro see one) They worked well for years running on the Skokie Swift/Yellow Line until retired.

  • BlueFairlane

    I find holding onto the back of a seat on a crowded train much easier than trying to reach the overhead bar on the new cars while dancing around trying to avoid the feet of the people sitting. I also think the new configuration makes it difficult to nearly impossible for those sitting to look out a window, which is one of the joys of riding the el.

  • Joseph Musco

    The view is a good point. Sometimes Chicago is better looking than Chicagoan (myself included). I know I’d rather look at the skyline unfolding under snow than me in my crazy orange ski hat.

  • “looking out the window”


    There are still transverse seats in the 5000-series cars.

    I think the seating arrangement can be changed as riders demand, but articulation can’t. I didn’t find articulation in the specs of the contract (which is linked in the article) but I think it’s something the CTA should consider to increase capacity.

  • There are many series of NYC subway cars that eschew the corrugation. They probably have a worse graffiti problem (it seems to be part of the culture or maybe it has something to do with having more train cars there, more places to apply the graffiti, and more people who are interested in doing that – yes I’m making assumptions based entirely on the fact that NYC has 3x the population and over 6,000 rail cars [Chicago has <2,000]).

  • I don’t believe this is true. Articulated cars still have married pairs, but don’t require the whole train to be taken out of service.

    (That would require an expensive additional number of complete trains that wouldn’t be used and only sit around as backup.)

  • The Munich cars have enormous windows, comparatively.

  • Thanks. If anyone wants an explanation of the benefits of articulated trains, I’d be happy to explain them.

  • Nice and the lighting looks gentler too. The CTA could still keep the look of the trains they have (exterior-wise) and have a nice updated look like that.

  • It was in a post from the transport politic a few years ago. That seemed to be the rationale. I’m not sure if it’s entirely true or just speculation. Regardless, the trains *should* be so well-engineered that having to take them out of service is a rare occurrence that doesn’t affect the design choices.

  • And if I’m reading correctly, NYC subway cars only have cabs at the ends of 5-car sets (which are often bundled into 10-car trains). Fewer cabs means more passenger space.

  • I have attempted to suggest Toronto Rockets (but I keep getting shot down in flames): http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Toronto_Rocket

    Also – the articulated Electroliners ran here for many years, and in PA. in ‘L’ type service: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rrZzv4CdyQo

    CTA is TOTALLY stuck in the PAST – and unless/until there is a change in City Hall (and subsequently CTA’s Administration) things will remain much the same.

  • Dave

    I think Steve, you should explain the difference to the normal passenger. It’s not a linked set (like NYC’s NTT), but there are differences that should be explained.

    I, for one, would prefer an FIND (Flexible Information and Notice Display) map, which is prevalent on NYC’s R160 set (and the new MetroRail cars in DC). At least, if you know there’s a reroute, the system will develop the next list of stops well ahead.

  • Besides topics already mentioned I’m curious how clean other subways around the world are, or how easy it is to clean. Sometimes I wonder how long the pee stenched back corner has been festering on an El car….

  • How about a different door plan: One in the middle on each side and one at each end on both sides to have more entry/exit points. The articulated metro cars in Barcelona are not that much longer, and have 4 entries/exits on each side. In addition to having designed doors that actually close (instead of the ones on CTA that open 3 to 4 times before finally being shut…or not), these doors do not open automatically; you have to push a green button. They close automatically after 10 seconds of no one passing. Especially in winter this would be nice to have on the CTA.

  • One set of cars should have custom prerecorded announcements done by that “Love Train” guy.

  • Rogers Park Rider

    It is that much less comfortable. For starters, many of us ride for 45 minutes or more. Being jammed in so tightly that you can’t move your arms (and I’m 5′ 2″, under 120 pounds so it’s not like I take up even my share of room) is miserable. The side-to-side swaying is really uncomfortable, and it’s nearly impossible for someone my height to comfortably reach the loops. So yes. It’s that bad. After having just endured more than an hour on one of these new cars, I have decided that I would rather pay for gas, pay for parking, and figure out other ways to reduce my carbon footprint than EVER take that trip again.

  • From what I understand, other cities that run fully articulated trainsets have newer tracks with wider curves, and run full-length trains all day. CTA has really tight curves, e.g., the corners of the Loop, and runs a lot of different consist lengths (2, 4, 6, 8 cars).


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