The padded, cloth-covered seats on Metro Transit’s Blue Line trains can be comfortable. The fabric can also camouflage dirt and soggy messes that will ruin the day of a passenger who unwittingly sits on a soiled seat.
Now Metro Transit, one of the few transit agencies in the country that still has fabric seats, is testing plastic seats in four of its oldest Blue Line light-rail cars. It’s using the pilot project to gather customer feedback and see if it can reduce the manpower it takes to keep the seats clean, said Ryan McTeague, the agency’s director of light rail vehicle maintenance.
On Green Line trains, the agency is testing a new type of fabric with a protective coating that is supposed to be more durable, protect against stains and might do a better job at keeping the foam beneath it dry, he said.
Arthur Del Rosario, a St. Paul resident and frequent light-rail rider, said he often stands on short trips to guard against sitting on a wet seat.
“I’m wary of these kinds of things,” he said.
Plastic seats first showed up about a month ago in the rear sections of the four Blue Line light-rail cars. They might be installed in three more cars as the trial continues. There’s no timeline for a decision on whether to change the seats across the entire 91-car fleet.
McTeague said plastic seats cost more, but may be cheaper in the long run because they are easier to maintain.
Dirty cloth seats have to be removed, hosed down, disinfected and left on a rack to dry for 12 to 24 hours before they are returned to service. Plastic seats can be wiped down with a cloth, he said, and could make it easier for riders to see hazards before they sit down. But they might not be as comfortable.
“This is what we are trying to find out,” McTeague said. “Is this a cost-effective approach to switch to these seats if they don’t need to be maintained as much, we don’t need as much of the workforce to constantly replace them, repair them and clean them, and balance that with customer feedback. Do people like it?”
Metro Transit has been particularly interested in riders’ opinions because they’ve seen a 2 percent drop in ridership across the system since 2017. The Blue Line has been one of the bright spots, with ridership up 4 percent during that time.
On Monday, riders gave the test seats mixed reviews. Some sympathized with the effort it takes to keep cloth seats from fraying as riders rest their feet on them. Others said they think plastic seats would be easier to clean. A few said the blue plastic seats were aesthetically pleasing.
Annyliss Quinde, of Minneapolis, said she missed the upholstered seats.
“I don’t like the change,” she said as she rode Monday. “[The plastic seats] are not as comfortable. They are too cold and too hard.”
Del Rosario said there isn’t that much difference between the two types of seats, and switching to plastic seats will make it more hygienic.
McTeague said some people have found a way to adapt to the hard plastic seats: They bring their own cushion.
Tim Harlow • 612-673-7768