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Metra, CTA, CPS bracing for snow and cold

Mayor Rahm Emanuel on Monday held open the possibility of closing Chicago Public Schools on Wednesday after the city faces the season’s first double-whammy of snow and severe cold on the anniversary of last year’s polar vortex.

Metra officials outlined their game plan in advance of the same type of bitter cold, fine and fluffy snow, and strong winds — although not in as extreme a degree — that wreaked havoc with trains last Jan. 6 and 7.

About two inches of snow were recorded at O’Hare Airport after Monday night’s snowfall into early Tuesday, with just under 3 inches measured in southwest suburban Romeoville, according to the National Weather Service.

And now forecasters have issued a wind chill advisory slated to last through Thursday afternoon as the mercury dips well below zero, with gusts making it feel as cold as minus 35 degrees.

The extreme weather forced airlines at O’Hare Airport to cancel 230 flights as of 8 p.m. Monday, with all other flights delayed about half an hour, according to the city’s Department of Aviation. At Midway, about three dozen flights were delayed an average of 45 minutes.

The Illinois Tollway on Monday canceled all its temporary lane closures until 9 a.m. Tuesday to ensure clear sailing for its snow-removal efforts.

Metra officials reminded passengers to prepare for slower trains and delays as temperatures fall. A reading of zero degrees or less automatically triggers reduced train speeds of a maximum 60 mph instead of 79 mph.

Metra and CTA officials urged passengers to sign up for each agency’s alerts via Twitter or email so they can keep up to date with weather and service developments.

Last winter, a tanned Emanuel returned from a Christmas vacation to Indonesia to a furor over the decision by CPS to close schools on short notice on Jan. 6. Classes also were canceled on Jan. 7.

Monday was Emanuel’s first day back to work after another family trip — this time, to Chile. With the mayoral election less than two months away, he was obviously determined to give parents fair warning of any closures this season.

“Obviously, schools were open [Monday]. Schools will be open” Tuesday, Emanuel told a severe weather news conference at the city’s 911 Emergency Center.

“But, as it relates to Wednesday when you have both the snowfall as well as the temperature drop, we’re gonna be monitoring it on a minute-by-minute basis as it relates to the weather and make a decision with enough time for parents to both plan and prepare.”


Tom Tyrell, chief operating officer at CPS, said the decision to close schools will not be made lightly.

“We obviously want children in school. Every day of learning is an important day. But job one is to get them there safely and to get them home safely,” Tyrell said. “So, we’ll continue to monitor the forecast and when local conditions we believe are so dangerous that we need to protect our students by closing schools, then we’ll make that recommendation.”

Last Jan. 6, the Chicago area was hit by a monster storm that combined winds of 35 mph with bitter subzero temperatures and a fine, fluffy snow — all at one time. The mix wreaked havoc with Metra switches and train doors. Scores of trains were canceled during the two-day blitz.

A letter carrier braves the show and cold Monday night in Ravenswood as a winter storm blows into the city. | Craig M. Newman / Sun-Times

A letter carrier braves the show and cold Monday night in Ravenswood as a winter storm blows into the city. | Craig M. Newman / Sun-Times

“Last year on the 5th [of January], they predicted 6 inches. We got hit with well over a foot,” Metra Operations Chief Pete Zwolfer recalled. “We are taking all precautions.”

Metra personnel were scheduled round the clock to monitor critical switches and keep platforms clear for Tuesday morning’s commute.

Locomotives were to be fueled before Tuesday morning runs, rather than at midday. Twenty new switches were seeing action at a key yard; new cold-air snowblowers were on standby; and one-third of train cars that experienced problematic doors last year were rehabbed and ready for action, Metra CEO Don Orseno said.

Streets and Sanitation Commissioner Charles Williams assured parents on Monday that city crews would clear snow and ice from the streets and sidewalks around schools and use salt to prevent students and adults from slipping.

That’s something Chicago aldermen and their constituents complained was not done nearly as well as it should have been last year.

The weather forecast in Chicago called for mostly sunny with temperatures steady near the upper single digits. Pedestrians hurried past City Hall and the Daley Center bundled up to protect themselves from the bitter cold on Monday,  January  5, 2015.  | Al Podgorski / Sun-Times Media

The weather forecast in Chicago called for mostly sunny with temperatures steady near the upper single digits. Pedestrians hurried past City Hall and the Daley Center bundled up to protect themselves from the bitter cold on Monday, January 5, 2015. | Al Podgorski / Sun-Times Media

The weather forecast in Chicago called for mostly sunny with temperatures steady near the upper single digits. Pedestrians hurried past City Hall and the Daley Center bundled up to protect themselves from the bitter cold on Monday,  January  5, 2015.  | Al Podgorski / Sun-Times Media

The weather forecast in Chicago called for mostly sunny with temperatures steady near the upper single digits. Pedestrians hurried past City Hall and the Daley Center bundled up to protect themselves from the bitter cold on Monday, January 5, 2015. | Al Podgorski / Sun-Times Media

The weather forecast in Chicago called for mostly sunny with temperatures steady near the upper single digits. Pedestrians hurried past City Hall and the Daley Center bundled up to protect themselves from the bitter cold on Monday,  January  5, 2015.  | Al Podgorski / Sun-Times Media

The weather forecast in Chicago called for mostly sunny with temperatures steady near the upper single digits. Pedestrians hurried past City Hall and the Daley Center bundled up to protect themselves from the bitter cold on Monday, January 5, 2015. | Al Podgorski / Sun-Times Media

Edde Jones and her daughter Sienna Jones, 2, went sledding Sunday at Thaddeus S. "Ted" Lechowicz Woods.

Edde Jones and her daughter Sienna Jones, 2, went sledding Sunday at Thaddeus S. “Ted” Lechowicz Woods. Jones’ wife, Lorrie Lynn, sleds downhill backward. | Michael Schmidt / Sun-Times

Jack Solberg watches his daughter Annika, 9, snowboard at Caldwell Woods.

Jack Solberg watches his daughter Annika, 9, snowboard at Caldwell Woods. | Michael Schmidt/Sun-Times

Max Finch, 12, said he hopes it snows more so that he can make money shoveling driveways for neighbors.

Max Finch, 12, said he hopes it snows more so that he can make money shoveling driveways for neighbors. | Michael Schmidt/Sun-Times