The low pleasures of the Metra train’s top floor

The railway’s “balcony” seating is city life in miniature.

When I take a day trip outside the city limits, I often drive—but I prefer to fly and take the train at the same time. After all, an $8 weekend pass on the Metra is only a fraction of the price of a tank of gas, and I get to be up high . . . well, not in the sky, but it's the closest thing we've got to flying cars.

The bottom floor (or the lobby, as I like to call it) is for the respectable people who would rather not bother with the upstairs slog or the riffraff of the top floor. The top floor (or the balcony) is where people sneak beers and booze when drinking onboard is prohibited during special events and festival season, or where groups of intoxicated people assemble in the back of the aisle and try to surreptitiously take hits of weed or cigarettes. Upstairs is where the sneaks are, the people who're trying to hide from the conductor and hoping to get a free ride.

What's funny is that the top floor was once the ultimate luxury. Bilevel rail cars date back to the mid-19th century, when voitures à impériale (double-decker cars) were introduced to French railways. These early models were actually a way not to just sit on top of the train but also to enjoy the outdoors: they had awnings that covered seats facing sideways.

In Chicago the first double-decker train seating was on "gallery cars," a specific model that was designed in the 1950s by the Saint Louis Car Company and ordered by the Chicago and North Western Transportation Company in 1955; they were also the first bilevel rail cars in the country. The Chicago and regional railway system has a complicated history, but since the network became Metra in 1985 the gallery car has remained in use. Today the train cars are designed by the Japan-based manufacturer Nippon Sharyo. In 2010 the company built a factory in nearby Rochelle to create new gallery cars for Metra, which will purchase updated cars from another Japanese corporation, Sumitomo, in the near future. Don't worry—double-decker seating will remain, though being able to flip seats might be lost.

Even if I can't flip a single front-facing seat to use the cushion as a table for eating a sandwich or storing my bag, I'll still always prefer sitting upstairs. Downstairs you may have camaraderie and convenience, but upstairs you have privacy. In a single seat, you can be alone with your thoughts, and if you nab a side seat you get panoramic views through the windows across the aisle. I appreciate the clunky spiral staircase leading up to the top floor and not having to sit next to the bathroom.

But what I love most of all is that the balcony is where you really feel the sense of living in a city. It's the individualism of being lost in a crowd, the railway approximation of apartment living, of riding on public transportation, yet also feeling like you're a part of the engine that keeps Chicago moving. The lobby is for tourists coming into the city or people going home. The top floor is for people who are already home.   v

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