- The Washington Times - Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Record gasoline prices are forcing Chicago back to its roots as the U.S. cattle-car capital. This time it’s rush-hour commuters being packed into trains.

The Chicago Transit Authority (CTA) plans to rip all seats out of some train cars during peak hours to make more room for riders leaving their autos at home because of $4-a-gallon gas.

The standing-room-only cars, which will debut later this year, follow a 3.4 percent jump in train ridership in June from a year earlier. Bus usage gained 9.2 percent.

The north central U.S., including Chicago, led a national decline in driving in May, with a 4.5 percent drop, the Federal Highway Administration said.

The CTA, the country’s second-largest transit system, already was crowded because the region’s 900,000 senior citizens began riding free in April.

“There are people that have to wait for several trains to get on,” said Noelle Gaffney, a spokeswoman for the city transit agency. “The idea is to try and be creative and find ways to accommodate more people at the busiest times.”

The no-seat cars will begin operating on the agency’s Brown Line between the city’s Northwest Side and downtown Chicago, the U.S. meatpacking center of the 19th century. The service carries about 66,000 customers a day, making it one of the busiest lines, Ms. Gaffney said.

The program will be tested on other routes should the experiment prove popular.

Eliminating seats may add space for as many as 140 passengers, 50 more than a typical train car can hold, according to the CTA. The agency hasn’t “finalized the design” or set a start date, Ms. Gaffney said.

Commuters outside Chicago also are swapping their cars for trains.

The Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority, the fifth-busiest U.S. system, said that ridership climbed 6.1 percent to a record 374.8 million passengers for the year ending June 30.

So far, Chicago is the only city responding with seat-free cars, according to the American Public Transportation Association in Washington.

It may be a good idea until the agency can come up with a better alternative, said Joseph DiJohn, director of the Urban Transportation Center at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

“In the earlier days, there were seatless cars,” Mr. DiJohn said. “It was with the cattle.”

Chicago trains have been more tightly packed than normal this summer, said Catia Manak, a law school student who commutes to the Lakeview neighborhood on the city’s North Side.

“It wasn’t as bad before the gasoline prices went up,” said Ms. Manak, 23. “My friends who live further down the line have to wait for two or three trains before they can get on because it’s so crowded.”

John Travis, who described himself as a laborer, said he rides the train daily because there’s no way he could afford gas and parking. The CTA should explore alternatives to cramming in passengers, he said.

“People like myself that work long days or elderly people want someplace to sit,” said Mr. Travis, 28, as he waited downtown for a Brown Line train at State Street.

Not all Chicago commuters oppose the cozier ride. “It always seems crowded on the train during rush hour, so it doesn’t bother me if it packs more people in,” said Melton Thomas, a management consultant in the financial district.

That’s assuming the air conditioning works. He has reason for hope. Chicago is also the birthplace of the refrigerated cattle car.

cBrian K. Sullivan contributed to this article.

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