By Jill Colvin
MIDTOWN — Metro-North's "Mad Men"-era bar cars will soon be joined by a fleet of modern liquor lounges on Connecticut-bound trains.
The Connecticut Department of Transportation is overhauling its Metro-North New Haven line with a new generation of Kawasaki-built M-8 trains. The department has purchased 342 new cars so far, and plans to place a final order for 38 more next week, spokesman Judd Everhart said.
While the fate of bar cars once hung in the balance, Everhart said the department would be transforming a handful of its new M-8s into new bar cars, to be phased in over the next three years. The new cars will join the line's current fleet of nine bar cars, two of which are currently out of commission.
"When we order the additional 38, the plan is to order them all as passenger cars and then retrofit seven of them into bar cars," Everhart said.
"We'll continue to have at least seven and maybe a couple more than that," he said, adding that many older trains would remain in service over the coming years.
The old cars have earned a loyal following among nostalgic riders who celebrate their 1970s-era design, complete with wood panels, red faux-leather banquets, unique saucer-shaped cup-holder tables and a seedy feel.
Because manufacturer Kawasaki put the asking price for a custom-made bar car at $5 million to $6 million — more than double the cost of their regular train cars — the department is planning to tear out the seats and retrofit the cars itself.
The final floor plans, which have been circulating for months, maintain some of the older trains' favorite features, including the signature cup-holders. But instead of a large, open space, the new cars would feel more like traditional dining cars, with more space for sitting, including new tables and booths. The cars would also be equipped with power outlets and TV screens.
The MTA profits handily from the cars, which earned them $1.7 million profit in 2010 — "another record-breaking year," spokeswoman Marjorie Anders said.
But finding the trains can be a challenge for passengers in search of a buzz. The bar-equipped trains only run at select times to and from Connecticut and savvy travelers must identify routes by checking for tiny martini glasses printed on pocket schedules beside train times.
Chris and Laura Kinder, 29 and 28, who cuddled up in an out-of-service bar car for their ride back home to Stamford, Conn. from Grand Central Terminal earlier this week, breathed a sigh of relief when they heard new cars were in the making.
"Thank god!" Laura exclaimed. "How old are they?" she asked, looking around. She said that while she loved the cars, she thought it was time for an upgrade.
"The old bar cars are pretty outdated. I think they're good for an update," said another commuter, 37 who travels back and forth to Stamford, Conn. to Midtown every day, and declined to give his name.
He said the cars were a nice relief at the end of a long day.
"I think it would be sad if they got rid of them altogether," he said.
But others were not as pleased.
"I'd much rather have a car with more seating. That's the real issue," said Andrew Emery, 47, who lives in Pelham, NY and said the train he took each day to work was regularly packed.
Still, he said that if the project went ahead, he liked the idea of more tables and seating, since he's seen people go as far as to tear advertisements off the walls to make makeshift tables where they could play bridge.
"I like the idea, but in terms of comfort, they aren't very user friendly," he said of the current design.
The new trains were set to be delivered in batches through 2014, spokesman Kevin Nursick said. The cars that would most likely be turned into bars would likely arrive near the end of the order, he said.