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Metra prepares for winter weather

(November 13, 2014) - 

As the temperature drops, Metra assures its riders that it has taken a variety of steps this year to be better equipped to deal with cold and snowy weather and better prepared to deliver critical information to its passengers.

In addition to its usual winter preparation efforts, Metra has acquired new snow-fighting equipment, upgraded its website and made other changes that will improve its response and performance in severe weather and make it easier for riders to plan ahead or be informed of real-time changes or delays.

“Nobody wants a repeat of last winter – the coldest and snowiest winter since Metra was formed in 1984. We believe the steps we have taken leave us and our riders better prepared for winter’s punch,” said Metra Executive Director/CEO Don Orseno.

The changes that Metra has made are outlined below.

High-pressure cold-air jet blowers
Keeping our yards clear of snow and ice is critical to maintaining timely service during winter months. Blocked switches and tracks in yards can restrict train movement, resulting in congestion that can prevent trains from reaching their originating stations in a timely manner. Metra hot-air jet blowers help with this task, but in bitter cold, the snow and ice melted by those blowers can sometimes refreeze and create new problems. Metra now has three new cold-air blowers, which can forcefully clear ice and snow without melting it with a 525-mph blast of air. They can travel over roads or rails and have articulated arms to change the direction of the air, making them more versatile than the rail-based hot-air jet blowers, which can only blow in one direction. The cold-air blowers cost $1.25 million total.

Bad weather can also cause delays in delivering jet fuel to our yards so Metra is installing tanks in the yards to store fuel so it is always available.

Yard switch heaters
Metra has switch heaters on all its mainline switches, and has now added switch heaters to the 20 most critical switches at its Western Ave. Coach Yard. (Western Ave. experiences more problems with snow and ice than other yards because its layout is more open.) Switch heaters prevent falling snow from clogging the switches, and installing them at Western Ave. will also help prevent bottlenecks due to switch problems that can delay trains. The cost was about $1 million.

Investing in switches is a routine part of Metra’s capital program every year, and 2014 was no different. This year, Metra completed the second phase of a major upgrade/reconfiguration of its A5 interlocker, at the junction between the Milwaukee North and West (also used by the North Central Service) lines. Nineteen switches were completely replaced. Four more will be replaced next year and two will be added.

Next year we will continue an upgrade at our A2 interlocker, the busiest switching location in our system, by replacing the movable steel points and air lines. And we will replace three interlockers on the Milwaukee District.

However, new switches and old switches are equally vulnerable to the problem that plagued Metra during the snowy and cold winter last year: Snow and ice accumulates on the underside of locomotives and train cars, and then falls off the train, into a switch, as the train rumbles through the switch. The snow and ice can then prevent the movable part of the switch from making contact with the rail. If that contact can’t be made, an electric circuit cannot be completed and, as a failsafe, the signal system will not permit a train to proceed over the switch.

The switch must be cleared manually, which can take time and lead to delays – particularly if it happens at a busy switching location. Metra routinely assigns maintainers to key switching locations during winter storms to keep the switches clear.

“Customize Your Commute”
Metra riders who are signed up to receive email alerts can now tell Metra precisely when they want to receive them. The change was adopted last spring after many riders suggested that the alerts would be more useful if Metra gave customers the option of choosing to receive them only during certain time periods – for instance, during their regular morning and evening commutes. The enhancement therefore allows customers to select windows of time during which they want to receive email alerts. Riders can sign up to receive alerts by going to the Metra website and clicking on the “My Metra” tab in the upper right corner.

In addition, Metra has been sending more “blanket alerts” instead of individual alerts for specific trains. Blanket alerts can be sent as soon as we suspect there may be a problem that can affect multiple trains, such as a pedestrian incident. Such alerts give passengers the earliest possible warning about an issue and allow them to decide whether to wait for service to be restored or seek alternative transportation.

Train tracker upgrades
Metra has made a variety of changes to its “Rail-time Tracker” tool on its website so that it gives riders the most complete, up-to-date information about schedule adjustments as well as better real-time information about the status of trains throughout the Metra system. These upgrades should prove particularly useful when weather, accidents or other issues disrupt schedules and impact the on-time performance of Metra trains. The upgrades were made possible by Metra’s adoption of the GTFS (General Transit Feed Specification) format for public transportation schedules and associated geographic information, the industry standard.

Before the upgrade, the Rail-Time Tracker allowed riders to check the status of the next three trains scheduled to serve their selected station. It showed the scheduled departure times of those trains in one column and whether the trains were on time or running late – and if so, how late – in a second column that showed the estimated departures. Now the train tracker has added a third column that lists the estimated arrival time for the trains at a rider’s selected destination station. And it lists information for the next six trains, instead of three, with an option to view even more.

In addition, the tracker now always includes the unique schedule for each day, if there is one. For example, if extra trains have been added that day due to a special event, those trains will now appear in the tracker. Before, those extra trains would have been highlighted elsewhere on our website but would not be displayed by the tracker.

And we can also change the tracker to reflect last-minute schedule adjustments due to weather, accidents, mechanical problems or other issues. For instance, if a train is going to skip stops or make extra stops, the tracker will reflect those changes. Before, those changes would only be noted in service alerts. That means the tracker will always include the most up-to-date information about the schedule for each day for each line.

Schedule Finder upgrades
Most of the changes that affect the train tracker will also apply to our online Schedule Finder tool, which allows a rider to generate a schedule between two stops on a line for a specific day. It can now reflect last-minute schedule adjustments and the unique schedule for each day, if there is one, and it can tell riders if a train is running late, just like the tracker.

And Metra can now incorporate the unique schedule for a specific day into the tool in advance, including any modifications for special circumstances, such as the day before a holiday weekend, or for special events or construction. That means riders searching in advance for information about the schedule for that specific day will see those modifications. Before, those changes would have been listed elsewhere on our website but not displayed in the tool, meaning anyone using the Schedule Finder to find schedule information for that day was not viewing the correct schedule.

Alternative schedules
Metra has prepared alternative schedules that it may implement when extreme weather conditions or serious service disruptions do not allow for operation of regularly scheduled service. The schedules include on average about 75 percent of the regular schedule, which will give Metra more flexibility to handle the impact of severe weather or other disruptions and help riders make their commuting plans. Those schedules are already posted on Metra’s website so riders can see how the changes would affect their commutes.

If Metra decides to implement the alternative schedules, it will provide advance notice to riders via its website, email alerts and Chicago area news media. The alternative schedules would also be uploaded into the train tracker and schedule finder tool for the days that they are in effect.

GPS Center changes
Several changes have been made in Metra’s GPS Center, which is responsible for sending alerts and making announcements about service issues. In addition to making announcements on train station platforms, the GPS team now makes live announcements directly to affected trains. We have taken steps to ensure that GPS personnel have more time to concentrate on notifications to riders. For instance, a new automated message system has reduced the phone calls that GPS personnel must make to alert traffic reporters and internal Metra staff about issues; it also helps get messages out quicker. And in early 2015, we will be automating some of the process for sending email alerts so they can be sent more quickly. In addition, on busy days, staff will be added to help with timely communications.

Other communications
Metra has added radios and reallocated bullhorns used by our Customer Response Teams at downtown stations so they can more easily convey information to passengers. We are adding lines of text to monitors to supplement public address announcements at downtown stations. We have established email accounts for outlying ticket agents to receive e-alerts at their work stations, so they can help convey the information to riders as well.

Metra and Union Pacific Railroad have worked together to establish a Customer Assistance Team made up of UP managers to assist at Ogilvie Transportation Center. The team can deploy at a moment’s notice.

Additionally, we have changed the uniform colors (goldenrod) of our communication supervisors to be more recognizable as Metra employees. And, Metra has been awarded RTA funding for monitors that will provide real-time train information at 10 yet-to-be identified stations. Finally, we have reemphasized with our train crews the importance of providing continuous information to passengers, with frequent updates even if we have no new information to convey.

Chicago Union Station
Metra has been working with Amtrak (its landlord at Union Station), U.S. Equities (which manages the building for Amtrak) and BNSF Railway to improve the plan for handling pedestrian traffic and communications during service disruptions at the facility, particularly on the concourse that serves the BNSF Line. This safe passenger waiting and routing plan is being finalized, and we expect to be able to announce the changes in the coming weeks.

Rolling Stock
Metra has identified 200 of its older cars – ranging from 30 to 60 years old – that had the biggest issues last winter with door problems. This includes door defects, worn guides, and corrosion. Last year, gaps in the door pockets allowed fine snow to accumulate, and due to the extreme temperatures this snow formed into ice. This ice primarily caused the doors to jam at station stops, requiring a crew member to assist in the closing of the doors and delaying the train. Metra so far has carried out heavy duty repairs on about 50 of those cars.

Metra has also completed its annual winterization on it entire fleet, during which numerous repairs were made where needed.

Metra also is working to improve the number of locomotives and cars in its fleet. It recently announced a $2.4 billion plan to buy 52 new locomotives and 367 new cars and renovate 85 locomotives and 455 cars. Those new cars will take some time to order and be built. In the meantime, Metra has bought three used locomotives for $1.9 million that should arrive in early 2015. Metra bought four used passenger cars that should be in service by December and is in the process of acquiring about seven more that should be in service by the end of winter.

“Harsh weather impacts all modes of transportation, with cancelled flights and icy highways, and of course, it will always impact our trains and rails as well. Metra will constantly seek improvements that boost our safety and reliability, even in the most challenging conditions, and we pledge to communicate to riders as much as possible so they can get where they need to go,” Orseno said.

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