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BART's Fabric Seats May Be Fading Out

The commuter train's often filthy, stained cloth seat covers may give way to an easy-cleaning alternative

The era of the cloth BART seat – detested by some for its grossness and adored by others for its comfort -- could possibly be drawing to a close.

As part of plans for a batch of new cars, BART is considering several different seat models: bigger, smaller, more tilted, comfortably padded or more easily cleaned vinyl or hard plastic.

BART employees tested different styles earlier this month in a warehouse in Hayward. The lab has since been disassembled, but BART employee Melissa Jordan filed a report today about the clandestine seat testing that points out the trade-offs of choosing new seats.

“Can I live with a seat that's 2 inches narrower, to give more people overall the chance to get on the train comfortably?” wrote Jordan on the BART website. “Can I live with some type of seat that's less cushiony -- maybe padded vinyl instead of fabric -- if it's easier to keep clean?”

BART plans to let passengers check out the seat possibilities before making a decision later this year, said Jim Allison, BART spokesman. The new cars are expected to materialize in 2017.

The origin of the cloth seat can be found in BART’s suburban roots. The trains started rolling down the tracks in 1972 at a time when they had to compete with the car commuter culture at its height.

“When BART opened in 1972, it was a state of the art system,” said Allison. “The trains were controlled by computers; it was like an airplane, it was sort of glamorous; it wasn’t your grimy subway.”

Times have changed. BART has more riders now, and spilled drinks and greasy hair make a daily assault on the seat upholstery.

“People are spilling things, it’s a lot more crowded," said Bob Franklin, president of the BART board. "It’s a different mix of people, not just suburban-to-urban commuters.”

The cloth seats are harder to clean than hard plastic or vinyl seats, which can easily be wiped down. BART has already been moving away from the softer commute, removing carpets from some trains to make floors easier to clean. But the seats have remained cloth since BART’s inception.

Click here to see a video of riders' reactions.

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