Metra seeks answers to combat ice and snow

Written By By ROSALIND ROSSI Transportation Reporter Posted: 03/23/2014, 06:09am
Array Metra CEO Don Orseno | Chandler West/For Sun-Times Media

From Alaska to Switzerland and from Canada to Minneapolis, Metra officials have been looking for ways to combat the kind of snow and ice build-up that fueled a 140 percent jump in train delays from December to January.

Their conclusion: there’s no “miracle” de-icer out there for railroad equipment.

“I’ve been in contact with just about anybody that runs across snow — minus Siberia. I don’t have their number,’’ Jim Derwinski, Metra’s acting chief mechanical officer, told board members Friday. “There’s not a great product out there.’’

De-icers with salt can knock out signaling systems. De-icers with lubricants have to be kept away from train car brakes. And one that had to be applied on switches before snow fell couldn’t keep up with a heavy snowfall, officials said.

Metra staff Friday released new statistics indicating that Metra’s weather-related delays jumped tenfold, from 142 to 1426, between December and January.

Delays for any reason, including weather, increased 140 percent during that time, rising from 1,045 in December to 2,505 in January.

As a result, Metra racked up an 81.5 percent on-time rate during its January weekday rush hours, down from 93.1 percent in December. The agency’s goal is a 95-percent on-time rate.

Metra CEO Don Orseno has said a “perfect storm” of Jan. 6-7 powdery snow, high winds and subzero temperatures conspired to clog critical switches with ice, jam train doors and freeze equipment. The effects lingered for days and left Metra with a 30 percent on-time rate for Jan. 6 alone, Orseno has said.

To better prepare for the next “Chi-Beria,’’ Metra officials said Friday they are looking for train switch de-icers, testing under-carriage de-icers, and considering newer and larger snowblowers.

And they revealed, none of the hundreds of switches in their 24 rail yards have heaters, so they are trying to find a hot air blower small enough to fit in the constrained area near switches in yards where trains often stop for servicing between runs.

The heaters would dissolve falling snow, officials noted, but they could not immediately dissolve the ice and snow that was falling from train carraiges and clogging up switches last month.

Orseno also said he wants to boost Metra’s spare car ratio from 4 to 10 percent, or from 36 to at least 80 cars, so that trains will not have to run “short,’’ with fewer cars, when winter damage occurs. Leasing spare cars is being examined so riders won’t be packed into trains “shortened” by winter damage, Orseno said.

Like many public agencies, Metra said it’s already eaten up most of its snow removal budget and expects to go over budget by season’s end.

Metra has spent $4.2 million of its $5 million in snow removal funds, said Metra CFO Thomas Farmer. He predicted the season’s total will hit $6.5 million.

The 33.7 inches of snow in January — nearly as much as the four previous Januarys combined — cost $3 million alone in snow removal, Farmer said.

In good news for some riders, the Metra board Friday approved spending $900,000 to put electrical outlets in trains that passengers can use to recharge their electrical devices.

Officials also reported that ridership is on the rise, posting a 1.2 percent increase in 2013 over 2012. The 82.3 million Metra passenger trips last year represented the fifth-highest total in the agency’s history, they said.

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