Metro Transit is swapping out padded cloth seats on its light-rail trains in favor of plastic seats in a move that is expected to save thousands of dollars in cleaning costs each year.

Crews have finished switching out the fabric seats on two Blue Line trains, and Metro Transit expects to have all 91 of its vehicles retrofitted with the new plastic seats by spring, said Jay Wesely, light-rail maintenance program manager.

The agency, which was one of the few transit agencies in the country that still had cloth seats, had planned the change long before the COVID-19 pandemic hit. Metro Transit tested plastic seats in four of its oldest Blue Line light-rail cars last year to gauge customer feedback, and results were positive, said Ryan McTeague, the agency's director of light-rail vehicle maintenance.

In February, the Met Council approved spending $1.8 million to retrofit Metro Transit's fleet, replacing about 6,000 seats.

It takes about 24 hours to complete each rail car, Wesely said. But once the plastic seats are installed, it will eliminate the labor-intensive job of cleaning cloth seats. To do that, staff has to remove seat bottoms and backs, steam clean them and allow them to dry, a process that could take more than a day. In some cases, cloth seats needed to be reupholstered or discarded.

Crews have refurbished nearly 3,900 cloth seats a year since light-rail trains began running 16 years ago. With plastic seats that are much easier to clean and can be easily disinfected each day, Metro Transit expects to save about 1,600 hours and $200,000 in maintenance a year.

"It's a good return on investment," said John Humphrey, deputy chief of rail operations.

All seats on cars that will be used on the Southwest Light Rail line will also have plastic seats.

Cloth seats on buses will not be replaced.

Tim Harlow • 612-673-7768