On any given day, the front seat on the PATCO train typically has been a hot commodity, offering a spectacular view over the Delaware River as the high-speed line travels between South Jersey and Philadelphia.
The coveted seat took on extra-special meaning Sunday for the final ride of the last four original cars, which operated with six trips between Lindenwold and Center City. They will be refurbished and eventually returned to service with a new modern look, marking the end of an era.
The Delaware River Port Authority, which operates the rapid-transit line, is among the last in the country to eliminate the "railfan" seats at the front and rear of the train, where commuters can sit directly across from the operator. The seats have been replaced with a closed-off area, mostly due to safety and security concerns.
The trains operated on their regular Sunday schedule with six special legacy rides that began at 7 a.m. in Lindenwold. The final train, crowded with train enthusiasts, arrived in Lindenwold at 3:33 p.m. from Philadelphia.
"This is a big part of our history," John Rink, PATCO's general manager, said in an interview. "It's an important time in our history as we close one chapter and move on to the next."
>> Read more: The Long Ride
After working overnight at Enterprise car rental at Philadelphia International Airport, Haven Thompson, 20, of Philadelphia, hopped on the train at 7:39 a.m. at Eight and Market for a nostalgic ride. The train enthusiast, who hopes to one day become a train operator, made all six legacy trips, getting off occasionally to take photographs and video.
"I hate to see them go," said Thompson. "I'm really going to miss this front window."
PATCO randomly selected a commuter from a contest to sit in the front seat for the final legacy trip. But the winner of the "Front Row Seat" social media post was a no-show, so riders took turns riding in the coveted spot, said Kyle Anderson, a DRPA spokesman. Engineer Earl Robinson, a PATCO operator since its beginning in 1969, got the honors of piloting the final ride, Rink said.
For the last five years, PATCO has been refurbishing its fleet of 120 Budd and Vickers cars, including 74 originals that went into service when the transit line began operating nearly 50 years ago. They were the original automatically operated trains in the United States.
Under a $194 million project, the cars have been transported to Alstom Transportation in Hornell, N.Y., and refurbished inside and out. The upgrades include new interiors, better communications, and security and mechanical improvements. Some of the seats flip up to better accommodate wheelchairs and bicycles.
The new cars are roomier, with more leg space and higher ceilings. Gone, too, are the old, worn, gold-and-green seats, replaced with firmer gray-and-blue seats.
There are also digital signs that flash the 13 station stops — nine in New Jersey and four in Philadelphia. The heating and air conditioning systems have also been upgraded.
Some commuters, such as Mike Brotzman, 37, who fondly recalled riding in the front seat as a youngster growing up Haddonfield, scheduled their trips for the legacy train.
"This seat is usually taken. I'm just glad I was here for the last day," said Brotzman, of Eldridge, Md., who planned to transfer to an Amtrak train for the final leg home. "I've been looking out this front row window most of my life."
Harry Garforth, 66, of Philadelphia, said he rode the PATCO line when it started in 1969. He boarded at the Woodcrest station Sunday for a final ride on the old car.
"This is really a momentous day," said Garforth, who works for Amtrak. "It's an interesting experience."
Other commuters, such as Greg Keats, were unaware of the legacy rides but welcomed the upgrades.
"It's about time," said Keats, 35, standing on the platform at the Ferry Avenue station in Camden. "I ride every day. I like free; that would be cool."
So far, about 92 cars have been refurbished and are back in service, Rink said. The remaining cars in the fleet are at various stages of upgrades and will be returned to operation. The final four originals should be back in service next year, he said.
PATCO began operating on Feb. 15, 1969, transporting commuters on the 14.2-mile line. Today, 10.8 million commuters use it annually.