Driving the upholstery market

Durability and cleanability top the performance list for transit upholstery fabrics, but style, comfort and safety (and economy) aren’t far behind.

When a news organization hired a university biology lab to examine the wool-covered seats within the Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) system in the San Francisco, Calif., area, the results weren’t encouraging. Researchers found at least nine bacteria strains and several types of mold. The New York Times published the findings in a March 5, 2011, article, and although a clinical professor noted that the threat of infection was low, the damage had already been done.

Officials with the BART began to survey some of its 330,000 daily commuters to find their preferences for new seating, and three-fourths of them favored vinyl. The organization agreed, determining that vinyl cost less, lasted longer than other materials and was easier to keep clean. BART commissioned manufacturer OMNOVA Solutions Inc. to provide its PreVaill Transit™ vinyl upholstery line engineered with the PreFixx® protective finish for 100 cars as part of a pilot test. BART, which custom designed a pattern called “Wine, Wind and Water” to reflect the vibrancy of the Bay Area, plans to purchase new seat covers for another several hundred car sets after positive rider feedback.

“BART is just one very visible example of a trend we are seeing more in municipalities looking for ways to improve passenger satisfaction while reducing their maintenance costs,” says Patti Francis, director of marketing for Fairlawn, Ohio-based OMNOVA.

Whether they’re seeking vinyl-based solutions like the BART, traditional upholstery fabrics or new materials that promise ultra-protective attributes, mass transit operators are searching for ways to cost effectively—and attractively—produce new or refurbished upholstered seats for school and public buses, rail lines and motor coaches.

Hard-working seating

Fabrics used to upholster mass transit seats have to meet a variety of standards and codes, which can vary from project to project. Durability, which often includes abrasion resistance, is a common requirement. “People get in and out and in and out repeatedly, so we don’t look at anything less than 50,000 double rubs,” says Dan Cohen, vice president of sales and marketing for Chicago-based Freedman Seating Co., which produces passenger and driver seats for mass transit, demand-response transit and motor coaches. “There also needs to be adequate tensile and tension strength.”

Other important characteristics include cleanability, stain and soil resistance, flame resistance and low-smoke protection, moisture repellency, color fastness and antimicrobial and antibacterial properties.

Types of seating material also vary. Plush moquettes (heavy, velvety synthetic fabrics) and flat-woven fabrics remain popular choices for mass transit seating. Rivera Bus & Coach Upholstery in Lancaster, Calif., mainly works with a polyester and wool combination. “The types of wool and polyester that we use have been put through many tests to make sure they’re up to standards with transportation requirements,” says Maritza Rivera, national sales agent, who estimates that clients shop around for new upholstery every six to eight years. “The fabrics also have to withstand at least 60 hours of UV exposure.”

At American Seating Co. in Grand Rapids, Mich., transportation product manager Michelle Wolf says the most popular fabric type is a blend that consists of 85 percent wool and 15 percent nylon. “Over the past five years recycled fabrics have become popular because of the ‘green’ story, and they are less expensive,” she adds.

Upholsterers and mass transit seat companies also report that vinyl is making a comeback. “Vinyl upholstery offers a balance of upholstered comfort with the ease of maintenance one could expect from hard plastic seats,” says OMNOVA’s Francis.

Wolf sees this return to vinyl—as well as requests for no fabric at all—cycle through every five to seven years. In her research, she has found that transit authorities, typically in larger cities with higher ridership, are moving in the same direction as the BART, “because of the amount of bacteria they are finding on the seats with fabric,” Wolf notes. “Vinyl is easier to clean and doesn’t house as many germs as a pile fabric does if not maintained or cleaned properly.”

They’ve got the look

The significance of aesthetics in mass transit upholstery depends on factors such as ridership and budgets. In some cases, uniformity proves more important than appearance. “Transit authorities want buses to stay consistent within the fleet, so they have one or two different fabrics,” notes Nancy Citti, president of Bergen Upholstery Inc. in Teterboro, N.J., which manufactures aftermarket replacement seat covers for all transportation markets. “Our job is to update the older interiors to look consistent with the most recent ones.”

Adds Cohen, “Some transit properties want inexpensive fabrics and they are not concerned with appearance, so a gray or blue vinyl is just fine. Then you get agencies that are very concerned with the appearance and coordinate materials with their marketing department so they can achieve the look they want.”

Case in point: Freedman Seating is working on a project for the Tucson Regional Transportation Authority where the organization’s logo is woven directly into the rail fabric. “This provides commonality from train to train,” Cohen points out.

As Wolf of American Seating says, “Those who don’t use a logo fabric are still very concerned about the appearance of their bus interior, but ease of cleaning and hiding dirt is also high on their list. This is why the transit fabrics have ‘crazy’ patterns; they hide more stains and allow the inserts or covers to be used longer.”

To help transit authorities visualize the look of fabrics on their vehicles, American Seating has developed the Interior Configurator, a program on its website that allows users to change out fabrics, flooring, seat colors and so on.

For motor coaches in particular, Rivera reports a trend toward bolder colors. “A lot of our customers prefer fluorescent blues, reds and yellows because they ‘pop.’ These colors work really well in motorcoaches because they’re not something you’d see in a car.”

Skills that pay bills

Upholstering for mass transit vehicles requires a special skill set, not to mention the ability to understand industry nuances. “Products require a high degree of technical and design expertise to meet crash, flame, smoke and toxicity standards,” says Gene Germaine, director of business development for Kustom Seating Unlimited Inc. in Bellwood, Ill., whose primary market is passenger rail seating. He notes a few challenges, including compliancy of requirements, in that there is a limited number of suppliers that produce specified/approved materials. Another potential problem: “The warranty of the material supplier does not always meet the customer’s warranty requirements,” he says.

Transit interiors should merge form and function. “You need to be able to balance aesthetics, both in color and design, with durability and robustness that are beyond normal furniture or upholstery norms,” Cohen explains. “You have people going into buses with the express purpose of vandalizing them, so you need to understand how to build things so they are vandal-proof.”

For public transit, this often means gluing fabric to a substrate rather than sewing it, so the cloth doesn’t delaminate or come apart. “That helps with vandal resistance,” he adds.

Many shops that specialize in aftermarket upholstery for mass transit will send out a crew to do projects at the customer’s site if requested. “We go as far or near as we have to go, at no extra cost, to accommodate our customers,” Rivera says.

Rivera Bus & Coach also makes a point to do experience-based training for its employees. “We don’t sit them in a classroom and go over things,” Rivera adds. “We have learned that a lot of people have to get hands-on to be able to understand the work. Our workers are at a pace where they can finish a whole coach in a day.”

Another crucial skill is the ability to run a smart business. Expanding a company’s business offerings can translate into higher profit margins. For example, Bergen Upholstery has diversified its services over the years to go beyond basic upholstering or fabric recovering.

“We refurbish bus seat inserts, and we are a parts distributor for almost every seat on the market,” Citti says. “We also sell OEM replacement foam for the seats at a drastically reduced rate."

Market particulars

Like any industry segment, the mass transit upholstery market has its challenges and special considerations. “Very often the lead time to get the fabric can be longer than it takes for us to make the seats,” Cohen notes. “Managing the wide variety of requests, specials and custom materials can also be a challenge, but it’s something we do well.”

Wolf indicates a similar challenge for American Seating. “From a fabric standpoint, our challenges are fabric minimums and the amount of stock in the mills. With transit authorities trying to stand out or look different from each other, the same pattern is rarely used by others.”

Furthermore, differences in upholstery exist between types of transit. “Many transit buses have seats with fiberglass inserts, which are graffiti-proof,” Citti says. “Other places like New Jersey Transit have all soft seating because their customers travel longer distances to get to work and home, and this provides a more comfortable ride.”

Understanding the expected life span of mass transit seating is another important consideration. “The seats in a bus must last at least 12 years (the life of the bus) if it is paid for with government funding,” Wolf says. “So depending on the amount of ridership, typically the fabrics will last five to 10 years if they are kept clean. Many buses will get an overhaul halfway through their life and the inserts/onserts with fabric will be replaced. Otherwise they are changed as needed because of vandalism or stains.”

When it comes to bidding on projects, upholstery shops need to have specific knowledge of the market. Rivera Bus & Coach, for instance, is starting to seek out government contracts, which differ in key ways from the private motor coach sector. “A lot of times it’s a massive amount of work, not just one coach,” Rivera explains. “We just did a bid for 400 coaches, and it’s a longer process to prepare and get everything priced out, and making sure everything is in order. We think that it’s worth it and that this market is one we would do well in.”

Holly O’Dell is a freelance writer based in Pine City, Minn.

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