Metra to buy 500 new rail cars

The commuter rail agency’s modernization effort will get a boost from hundreds of new coaches; they’ll be a big upgrade over the outdated “gallery-style” cars in Metra’s fleet.

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Metra’s board approved the purchase of up to 500 state-of-the-art rail cars from the French firm Alstom to upgrade its aging fleet.

Screenshot of Metra video

After years of promising a multibillion-dollar overhaul, Metra will finally give its passengers some nicer coaches to ride in.

The commuter rail system’s board of directors on Wednesday unanimously approved buying up to 500 new rail cars from the French firm Alstom Transportation. The initial order is for 200 coaches, with an option to buy 300 more.

The first cars should start arriving in about three-and-a-half years, with the entire first order of 200 cars delivered within about six years. The acquisition is part of Metra’s 2014 modernization plan.

“This is something that our passengers will immediately see, feel and smell. This is a real game-changer for our riders,” Bruce Marcheschi, Metra’s chief operating officer and deputy executive director, was quoted as saying in a news release.

The cost for the first 200 coaches would be $845 million — about $4.23 million per car. Metra gets a break if they exercise the option to buy the next 300; they will cost $955 million, or about $3.18 million per car.

Interior of an older Metra coach.

Metra’s new cars will be a big change for riders used to its outdated “gallery” cars.

Fran Spielman/Sun-Times

The Alstom cars have low floors, more doors per side and an open design along the length of each car. Kevin McCann, Metra’s chief mechanical officer, said Metra wanted the most efficient passenger flow possible, opting for Alstom’s multilevel cars, which provide more comfort, accessibility and safety than Metra’s current outdated “gallery” cars.

The cars will be ADA compliant, with lifts for wheelchair users. An upgraded heating, ventilation and air-conditioning system will reduce the spread of airborne viruses. The new coaches will cost less to operate, McCann said, since they will require less maintenance than older cars.

A rendering from a promotional video showing the upper level of new rail cars being purchased by Metra.

The new rail cars Metra is buying from Alstom have a two-level design; the upper level is enclosed, without the gallery open to the lower level.

Screenshot from Metra video

“For those of you who rode on Metra Electric, think of the differences between our older Highliners and the current Highliners,” McCann said. “They’ll have a modern installation design and materials. … It’s a more reliable system.”

According to Metra, about 40% of its fleet of 840 cars — while still safe to operate — are rated in “marginal or poor condition.” Some of the cars still in service date to the Eisenhower era, board member John Zediker said.

“While it may seem unusual in the pandemic to buy new cars, we must realize it’s not going to be like this forever,” Zediker said. “We must still replace our fleet.”

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