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Metra may lease train cars to ease crowding during storms

Thursday, February 20, 2014
Chicago Sun-Times
by Rosalind Rossi

Metra is exploring the possibility of leasing train cars — including some it once owned — to ensure adequate backup stock before the next big storm knocks some cars out of service and leaves passengers packed in the aisles.

Metra wants to have enough spare cars to avoid running the kind of “short trains’’ — or trains with fewer cars than normal — that left passengers standing in the aisles in January while winter-damaged cars were being repaired, Metra CEO Don Orseno said Wednesday.

At least two dozen Metra cars underwent repairs after the Jan. 6-7 deep freeze, sometimes leaving trains so packed with passengers that conductors could not make it through the aisles to collect fares.

Currently, Metra only has a 4 percent spare car ratio — or 46 spare cars, only 36 of which work, Orseno said. Metra would like to boost that to 10 percent of its entire fleet of 837 cars, Orseno told the Regional Transportation Authority board during a special presentation on Metra winter storm delays. That’s 80 to 85 cars.

The nation’s second-largest commuter rail agency plans to look at leasing bilevel train cars — including some it used to own — until it can replace them with new cars, Orseno said. Some of the used Metra car that may be brought back into circulation here are in Michigan. Orseno would not pinpoint a number, except to say Metra is considering leasing less than 100 cars.

Metra also needs the extra stock to fill in during several upcoming projects, Orseno said. He noted that a federal mandate to install a safety system called “positive train control” will knock train cars out of operation while they are being updated.

Also Wednesday, the RTA released its 2013 Assessment Report, indicating that the estimated capital needs of Metra, CTA and Pace over the next 10 years has increased by 5 percent, to a total $33.48 billion.

Metra’s 10-year needs were pegged at $9.88 billion; the CTA’s at $21.45 billion and Pace’s at $2 billion. Just to keep even, the three agencies need to spend $1.32 billion a year total on capital needs, yet only expect $71 million in funding next year, RTA officials said.

In a day of transition, RTA executive director Joseph Costello presided at his last meeting before his retirement, while RTA chairman John Gates Jr. revealed that he will step down from the RTA after his chairmanship expires June 30.

Gates — the chairman and CEO of PortaeCo, a private investment company — said he needs “to get back to business” after four years as RTA chair. Announcing his decision now allows the RTA board enough time to reach agreement on a new chairman, RTA officials said.

Gates announced his intent to bow out before a taskforce appointed by Gov. Pat Quinn comes out with recommendations due March 31 that could eliminate or drastically change the RTA. The taskforce has been asked to consider reorganizing or consolidating the RTA and the three agencies it oversees — Metra, CTA and Pace.

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