I've been critical of the aisle-facing seating in the new CTA 5000 Series rail cars. My beef is with the continuing use of the confining, molded plastic "bucket" seats instead of bench seating, where people of any size take up the space they need.
But even if you're not a fan of the seating arrangement, there's still plenty more to like about the rail cars in general. I've had the chance to ride the new cara four times now since they were introduced on the Red Line in November. Here's my report.
The ride itself
Aside from the seating, you'll probably notice a big difference in the ride itself. The overall ride experience can be summed in two words - smooth, quiet.
That's due to the use of alternating current propulsion. You can barely hear the train entering the station. And the braking is very smooth. There are automatic levelers to raise and lowed cars to make them level with the platform. So no more stepping up or down - or falling down - when entering and leaving.
When you enter, the car seems brighter and more spacious. The aisle-facing seats make it more spacious, but there also are six or eight fewer seats than the typical older rail car.
I was glad to be able to put my bag under the seat, and I saw others do it too. It's also nice to have straps to hold on to during the ride. And signs at both ends of the cars show the current time and next station stop.
And while some have criticized the interactive map with a red light indicating the current/next station stop, at least two students appreciated it.
Passenger learning curve
Passengers still need to learn how to use these cars most efficiently. There's plenty of room for two people to stand abreast in the middle of the cars, but folks still want to clog up the area by the doors. Good thing there's plenty room there - at least at the end with the wheelchair stations.
Each rail car has a number of cameras, and the motorman can access them all. The doors have extra lighting around them. And chimes sound and lights flash when doors are closing for further safety.
Seating still tight
But still, with a passenger seated on either side of you in most seats, space is a little tight. Everybody scrunches in shoulders and legs just a little bit. I saw one tall skinny guy sit forward in his seat next to a bigger-hipped woman. However, at rush hour every seat was taken. Even the "legs-wide-spread-guy" yielded to a woman who wanted to sit him. And he politely brushed litter off the seat she was a to take.
One warning: Watch your head as you get up from a seat and leave or enter the car. I have hit my head on the hanging strap just about every time I got up or tried to make my way to the door.