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Great news: Metra asks for modern car designs

July 19, 2018

At its board meeting this week, Metra announced it is re-issuing its request for proposals for new railcars. The previous request specified that the cars match Metra’s current 50-year-old “gallery” design, and only one firm responded. Now, the Chicagoland commuter rail agency is broadening its request to include newer, better designs. This is great news, and a good first step for Metra in modernizing and improving its service.

Contemporary commuter coach designs offer countless benefits over Metra’s retro gallery car design. Multiple doors per car with floors that are closer to the platform height—as pictured here—make getting on and off the train faster and easier, especially for people with luggage, bicycles, or those with limited mobility. Instead of an open gallery, they have two full levels, which allows for more seats and more capacity. Modern cars also have cleverly designed spaces near the doors for things like luggage, bikes, strollers, and wheelchairs.

It all adds up to an experience that makes riding the train more convenient and more pleasant, which is what exactly Metra needs to be doing to reverse its declining ridership. We hope this is just the beginning of a series of forward-thinking choices for Metra.

Modern car designs use the latest engineering concepts and technology to be both lighter and stronger, so trains are not only safer, they can accelerate and brake faster. Combined with new locomotives, Metra could dramatically reduce its fuel consumption.

Speaking of locomotives, that should be Metra’s next step: New Tier 4 locomotives, instead of rebuilt, older ones. Based on the latest technology, Tier 4 locomotives are more powerful but create only a fraction of the emissions of Metra’s current engines, all while using less fuel. Yes, they cost more, but they will be more reliable, last longer, and be easier to maintain. Commuter rail agencies in Toronto and Los Angeles ran the numbers and decided that going for Tier 4 makes more sense in the long run.

Metra could really take a leap into the future by expanding its search to include diesel multiple-unit coaches. Metra could use these shorter, more economical, self-propelled trains for frequent service throughout the day. Long, high-capacity, locomotive-hauled trains would continue to operate during rush hour to meet high demand.

This is good news for more than just Metra riders: signs that the agency is becoming more forward-thinking bode well for train service around the Midwest, including high-speed rail. As the Midwest’s premier state-owned railroad, Metra plays an important role in a Midwest high-speed rail network. Metra owns and controls track that intercity trains need to get into and through Chicago. Frequent and reliable commuter service is also an important part of the high-speed rail puzzle, as it expands the market for longer-distance trains and makes them more convenient.

We congratulate Metra on this forward-thinking move, and look forward to more innovation from the agency to improve service for the Chicago region and the Midwest.