Chicago has been known as the railroad center of the nation, with a long history of commuter trains and one of the largest public transit systems in the world since the 1930s. Since 1984, Metra has been at the helm of the Windy City’s commuter rail system — and is making big moves toward transitioning to battery-powered locomotives, increased safety and partnerships, and new ways of hiring.
Today, Metra boasts 11 lines and 242 stations, all in its spiderweb-looking system. They work with freight carriers Union Pacific and BNSF on several lines and are considered one of the legacy rail systems. In a typical year, they move millions of riders across the metro. Of course, this past year has been far from typical.
COVID’s Crush on Commuting Systems
Throughout the pandemic, Metra never stopped running. But that certainly doesn’t mean they didn’t feel the effects of the crisis. Passenger rail lines were hit hard across the country. Metra saw a 97% drop in ridership at the onset and averaged 90% throughout. Now, they are 87% down but are seeing a slow and steady rise closer to “normal” levels.
This drop allowed Metra to take the time they didn’t have before to deep clean cars to a point they looked brand new. Now, they have also ramped up personnel to better maintain the new standard of cleanliness. New features on board include touchless hand sanitizer dispensers for passenger use and added steps of daily sanitation fogging and wiping down high-touch areas.
A “Commute with Confidence” campaign educated passengers on Metra’s cleaning efforts and response to the pandemic, including its air filtration systems and how the air is exchanged 15 times an hour on each car. More recently, Metra passed a procurement to pilot a new three-stage air filtration system that uses ultraviolet light, electrical fields, and strong filters to remove 99% of airborne bacteria and viruses.
COVID may have changed the way our generation sees close contact, and Metra knows that social distancing will continue to be important as passengers are no longer comfortable shoulder to shoulder.
“As we come out of this, the lesson is cleanliness,” Metra CEO/Executive Director Jim Derwinski says. “That’s the new standard forever now. Maybe we need to plan for a larger fleet to have more spares to do necessary maintenance and cleaning.”
Another blessing in disguise afforded by the pandemic was increased internal communication. Most crises in Metra’s world are short-term, so in the face of a year-plus-long disaster, all hands were on deck to get through it together. “This particular pandemic has put us in a better position from a structural standpoint,” Derwinski reflects. “We have regular meetings now to cover the gamut of all that can happen long-term. That constant feedback loop is key.”
Safe operations of a train — whether it has people, ethanol, or cargo on board — are paramount, as any railroad across the country would acknowledge. So what is a large commuter like Metra doing to make sure safety is never compromised? That is where technology can play a crucial role.
Metra recently finished installing the positive train control (PTC) safety system — an investment with a hefty price tag of $415 million — that will automatically stop a train if any one of four distinct circumstances occurs. The catch in Chicago is that ability must be seamless between all dispatching systems using the rails. Going forward, Metra expects PTC to cost about $20 million annually to operate and maintain.
Their new cars will also have diagnostic computers, to which Derwinski says, “That’s one of the nice things about modernizing is you get these great computers that helps maintenance and prevent failure.”
He notes that Metra is also planning to begin testing on “smart gates” this summer to bring enhanced technology to grade crossings. Cameras, sensors, and AI will be used to monitor the gate, signals, and guideway intrusions. When an anomaly is detected, the office will be alerted to dispatch repairs.
Finally, with an unfortunate rise in pedestrian strikes, Metra has prioritized measures for train operators and other frontline personnel such as ticket agents, to watch for signs and symptoms of people in distress. In 2017, the agency partnered with Amtrak and local safety experts to host a daylong symposium called “Breaking the Silence.” There, mental health professionals and community members met to coordinate a strategy to prevent suicides on the tracks and install suicide prevention signs along the rails.
Replacement Cars are Coming
Metra is somewhat unique in rebuilding much of their own rolling stock in house, and because of that, they have one of the oldest commuter fleets in the country, with some cars dating back to the Eisenhower era.
In January, Metra’s board approved the purchase and development of up to 500 new state-of-the-art multilevel railcars from Alstom Transportation. With an initial order of 200, these cars will replace many of Metra’s decades-old gallery cars. They will be ADA-compliant, have stainless steel bodies, run quieter and smoother, feature a microprocessor-controlled braking system and electrically-operated doors. Passenger amenities will include video screens, bike racks, bag storage, charging outlets, cupholders, arm rests, and more. The first delivery is expected by late 2024.
Many of their older locomotives have also been rebuilt with upgraded features and improved emissions. Next year, they will introduce freight locomotives that have been reconfigured for passenger service, putting them among Metra’s cleanest-running diesel engines.
“[This is] really part of our long-term plan to evolve and serve the changing needs of today’s commuters,” Derwinski commented in a press release.
A Focus on Sustainability
With a personal background in mechanics, Derwinski says that Metra has been watching new technologies, and now is the time to make a move toward greener trains. And, with the Biden administration pushing for greener energy, the timing makes even more sense. In fact, they are challenging the industry to create a zero-emission commuter locomotive by converting diesels to battery-powered engines.
In April, Metra issued an RFP to convert their oldest engines, asking manufacturers to remove the diesel machinery, install lithium batteries, and change the traction to test on commuter service. The contract is expected to be awarded this fall, with the first delivery about 30 months out.
“Down the road, we hope the industry responds favorably, with a new look at this technology, and that the pilot program really sets the stage for the commuter locomotive of the future,” Derwinski says.
Other recent moves to green their fleet include a plan to replace old switch engines. This will bring six new low-emission locomotives that meet the EPA’s Tier IV emissions standards, as well as one battery-powered solution. This RFP was approved last February and represents another major step forward in Metra’s goal of reducing its carbon footprint.
A New Way of Hiring
While Chicago has now moved closer to normal levels to allow in-person recruiting, Metra had to get creative when things were locked down. With a constrained budget in 2020, many positions sat unfilled. Federal relief money brought more budget certainty this year, prompting leadership to analyze which positions most needed to be filled. The result was a virtual hiring fair, with a web portal that featured video profiles of open positions from coach cleaners to engineers to electricians and allowed interested individuals to enter their resume and apply.
“We took this opportunity in this environment to do a better job of messaging to the masses,” Derwinski says. “From what I am hearing, the number of applicants has been overwhelming, which is not surprising because these jobs are not at that bare minimum. These are good-paying jobs with benefit packages behind them.”
“We’re really looking to build Metra back up for a successful future, equipped with the right personnel, to continue to modify the system to meet riders’ needs, whether that is longer rush hours, more frequent service, or faster service,” Derwinski states.
While ridership took a nosedive when the global health crisis hit, Metra had already seen a shift in remote work patterns — most notably a drop on Fridays in particular, giving them a glimpse of what was to come.
But even before the pandemic, Derwinski says the organization was looking to enhance riders’ experience in a bold way. The launch of the My Metra campaign last spring capitalizes on the service that benefits everyone in the entire region, decongests roads, cleans the environment, helps business thrive, and more. “Our motto with My Metra is taking personal responsibility for riders and each other,” Derwinski says.
A new innovative partnership with Amazon also brought about an expanded weekday schedule, an evening inbound train, express trains on weekends, and a reverse-commute option for employees of the new Amazon distribution center. “So we’re looking at new opportunities that are not traditional peak rush hour markets,” Derwinski explains.
Another trend Metra is exploring is bike cars, which more easily connects bicyclists from the city to suburbs and nearby trails. Last November was the launch of the first bike car, “which went off like crazy,” prompting additional cars for a total of five in service now.
Based on feedback gathered through surveys and peer reviews, commuters most often request cleanliness, frequency of service, and express trains. Derwinski knows that passengers are asking how the train can get them to work or home faster than their own vehicle could. And, if a passenger misses their train, they shouldn’t have to wait long for the next one. These themes will drive where Metra focuses their work for the future.
Coming out of the pandemic now, Derwinski acknowledges that everyone knows things have and will continue to change. How we commute, how we travel, looks vastly different now than it did just two years ago. And that’s why Metra is poised for a better tomorrow by investing in needed changes today.