Metra unveils winter battle plan

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Amid faint flurries and a 19-degree wind chill, Metra CEO Don Orseno Thursday pointed to new snow-fighting equipment and communication strategies to prepare the rail agency for its next polar vortex.

Orseno said he was “much more confident” about facing the winter ahead but cautioned “I don’t want to give anyone a sense that nothing can happen. It’s Mother Nature.

“But I think we’ll be much better situated.”

Last winter’s bitter cold, repeated snowfalls and strong winds wreaked so much havoc with Metra equipment and train schedules that lawmakers and officials of the Regional Transportation Authority held hearings to demand answers. When Metra surveyed customers afterward, many let the agency have it.

“Winter happens every year, yet Metra is caught off guard,” wrote one unhappy  rider at the time. “Just leave the commuter in the dark & blame everyone else for your inability to get from point A to point B,” wrote another.

At Metra’s critical Western Avenue yard Thursday, officials showed reporters one of three new cold-air blowers — purchased for a total $1.25 million — that should help prevent foul-weather congestion in yards that can clog up commuter traffic. The machines clear snow and ice from both land and rails with a 525 mph blast of air. Thursday, one machine blast even moved gravel.

The cold-air blowers will supplement Metra’s existing hot-air jet blowers that last year melted snow and ice, only to see them refreeze during bitter cold spells. The new cold-air blowers remove snow and ice without melting them and can blow air in more directions, officials said.

In addition, switch heaters, costing about $1 million, have been added to the 20 most critical switches at the Western Avenue yard, Orseno said. The yard’s wide-open layout made it more prone to snow and ice problems, officials said.

On the communications front, Metra riders will now be able to customize windows of time for receiving email alerts about rail problems and schedule changes. And Metra has been sending out more frequent and timelier ”blanket alerts” rather than waiting to release ones train by train.

The changes followed last winter’s complaints that commuters were bombarded with irrelevant alerts or ones that arrived too late to be helpful. More than 40 percent of riders who responded to a Metra survey in February said they found service alerts worthless, a Sun-Times analysis at the time indicated.

Plus, Metra’s GPS Center, which sends out alerts, is now making service announcements directly on trains as well as platforms.

For the next extreme weather situation, Metra has developed “alternate” schedules that are now posted at www.metrarail.com/altschedules. The new timetables reflect about 75 percent of a normal schedule — with fewer runs and stops. Riders will be sent email alerts when the alternate schedules are in effect so they can better plan their commute, officials said.

In addition, Metra has added estimated arrival times to its train tracker and included information on the next six trains instead of three. The train tracker also is now able to reflect last-minute schedule changes, such as skipped or added stops.

In response to other beefs, Metra is adding lines of text to monitors at downtown stations, is giving ticket agents email accounts so they can relay information to riders, and has changed the uniform color of communications supervisors to “goldenrod” so they are “more recognizable as Metra employees,” officials said.

Another huge beef in last year’s Metra survey was Union Station, described by riders as the site of “dangerous” crowds during delays, a horrible sound system and “disgusting” water that rained on commuters from a leaky platform ceiling. Metra said Thursday it has been working with Union Station’s landlord, Amtrak, and building manager, U.S. Equities, to improve pedestrian traffic and communications there. Changes should be announced in coming weeks.

Metra has completed the winterization of its entire fleet, including addressing train cars saddled with door problems during last year’s polar vortex.

In addition, board members Monday will vote on a 2015 budget that includes the first of 10 years of fare increases that will help Metra buy 52 new locomotives and 367 new cars, and renovate 85 locomotives and 455 cars.

While that equipment is on order, three newly-purchased used locomotives costing $1.9 million should arrive in 2015. Four newly-purchased used passenger cars should be in service by December.

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