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Utah rail commuters soon will ride in East Coast style.
Many will climb aboard a classic utilitarian rail car of a bygone era, one that plied the New Jersey shore and New York suburbs. They're basic, with limited leg room and no electrical outlets, but the Utah Transit Authority believes the Jersey Comets are a quick fix for about 6,000 commuters crowding its new FrontRunner rail cars every weekday.
UTA bought 25 of the single-level aluminum cars from New Jersey and is wrapping them in red-white-and-blue vinyl to match FrontRunner's new double-deckers. Four are almost ready for the rails, but they won't likely roll out until the University of Utah begins its fall semester.
"The interiors are a little more mass transit-esque, where our FrontRunner cars are a little more open," said Todd Provost, a project manager with UTA.
They're also a lot more 1970s. The color scheme, unchanged on the inside, is brown and light brown, with some wood-panel wallpaper. There are aluminum-barred bag racks overhead. The seats are benches with short upright backs: room for three on one side of the aisle and two on the other. "Classic Naugahyde," Provost said.
The cars harken to the time when private railroads served commuters. Pullman-Standard designed them in the late-1960s for the Erie-Lackawanna Railroad, where they ran until the public New Jersey Transit took over. UTA coach technician Mike Meisner, who wore a "Salt Lake Trackers Model Railroad Club" cap to work on Monday, said he went and found a model Comet when the used cars came to Utah.
"They were a common car back East," he said.
The Comets will offer wireless Internet, but computers will have to run on batteries.
It's a product of the East Coast mentality of no-nonsense function.
"You pack a lot of people in," Provost said - about 135 per car. Workers are ripping out some seats to accommodate FrontRunner's unforeseen demand for bicycle space.
Fifteen of the Comets will augment the fleet of 20 Bombardier double-deckers currently working the Ogden-Salt Lake FrontRunner line.
The other 10 will head south when UTA finishes the Provo-Salt Lake branch, joining 18 new Bombardiers now on order.
The used cars cost $35,000 apiece, and Bombardier is fixing them up for less than $400,000 each at UTA's rail center off Beck Street. That compares with about $2.2 million for every new FrontRunner car.
UTA got some old Chicago Metra cars for free, but has determined that they are too corroded and otherwise in disrepair for commuter use. Officials say workers are cannibalizing parts for the New Jersey Comets and the agency may sell others as scrap.