Metra today offered reporters a tour of its GPS Center to demonstrate how it communicates with customers and to outline the steps it takes every year to prepare for winter’s blast of snow, ice and cold.
The GPS Center, located in Metra’s headquarters building at 547 W. Jackson, is where platform announcements, website updates, email alerts and most service Tweets originate. Through the wonders of GPS technology, our communication specialists can monitor the position and timeliness of all trains in the system in real time and alert passengers in a variety of ways about delays, disruptions and other service issues.
“Our GPS Center is the heart of our communication efforts,” said Metra CEO/Executive Director Don Orseno. “Of course, we strive to operate all of our trains on time, but when they run behind due to weather or others reasons, we also strive to communicate those delays in a timely and accurate manner.”
As soon as a train falls six minutes or more behind, we will start making announcements on board the delayed train and on the platforms where passengers are waiting. Announcements can be made by typing a message, which is then turned into an automated audio announcement and posted on scrolling signs in most stations and ADA cars, or by speaking directly into a microphone to make a live announcement. Using a separate system, the announcement can also be sent directly to the delayed train.
If a delayed train falls 15 minutes behind schedule (30 minutes on weekends), then we send an alert that warns riders the train is delayed, giving the length of the delay and the reason. The alert is emailed to riders who have signed up to receive them, sent out on Twitter and posted on the Metra website, metrarail.com. Our social media team may supplement the GPS tweets with additional information.
If we know about something that is going to delay more than one train – such as a grade crossing incident or a switch failure at a critical location – we will issue a “blanket” alert as soon as we know about it. We call it that because it covers the whole line, warning that all trains may be delayed. Our intent is to let you know about the potential disruption, even if we do not specifically know how it will affect individual trains.
In 2018, Metra will be working on a major upgrade to its GPS technology, which will help us better communicate with our customers about delays and disruptions.
Each year, Metra takes the following steps to help mitigate the impact of winter weather on railroad operations:
- Inspect and test Metra’s 463 mainline switches along the Milwaukee District North and West, Metra Electric, Rock Island and SouthWest Service lines. BNSF Railway and Union Pacific Railroad have performed similar work.
- Test nozzles on 275 hot-air switch heaters. These nozzles supercharge the heat to get the maximum performance and concentrate the hot air precisely where it’s needed. BNSF Railway also has nozzles on its hot-air switch heaters and UP has them on many such heaters.
- Inspect and test the remaining 188 mainline switch heaters that use gas flames or electric current. BNSF and UP have performed similar work.
- Inspect snow and ice shields on 73 switches, which cover part of the switch machinery and help concentrate and contain the hot air from the switch heaters. BNSF and UP also use shields on many switches.
- Inspect and test heaters on all railcars. Metra has about 850 railcars on its diesel lines and 186 Highliner cars on the Metra Electric Line.
- Inspect doors on older cars for defects, worn guides and corrosion. Gaps in the door pockets created during train operations can fill with fine snow and extreme temperatures can turn this snow into ice that jams the doors and leads to delays.
- Stockpile 63,000 bags or more than 3.1 million pounds of salt to cover the platforms and other areas under Metra’s responsibility.
- Inspect and test 45 snow plows at its disposal, not counting the equipment used by its parking vendor and the numerous municipalities responsible for clearing parking lots and other areas around most of its suburban stations.
- Inspect and test Metra’s three cold-air blowers and five hot-air jet blowers to clear its largest and most critical yards. The truck-mounted cold-air blowers clear ice and snow with a 525-mph blast. Capable of traveling over roads or rails, this versatile tool can quickly clear significant amounts of snow. Keeping yards clear is critical to operations, because any bottlenecks there can lead to delays getting trains in place for service.
Unfortunately, no railroad can completely eliminate a common winter switch problem: 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 over it. 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. In those cases, the switch must be cleared manually and Metra routinely assigns employees to key switching locations during winter storms to keep the switches clear.
Steps before/during a major storm:
- Dispatching Metra signal/switch maintainers to key locations and staffing them 24/7. The switches must remain free of snow and ice, and while all mainline switches have heaters to help keep them clear, sometimes the snow and ice falls too fast or falls from a passing train and the switches need to be cleared manually with brooms, shovels or picks.
- Dispatching about 350 workers to shovel and salt platforms and other areas that are Metra’s responsibility to clear. Clearing platforms, stations and parking lots is often the responsibility of BNSF, UP, Metra’s parking vendor or the municipality in which the station is located and those entities also are gearing up.
- Putting crews and equipment in place to keep our 24 rail yards clear and operational. Bottlenecks in yards can result in delays getting trains in place for timely departures. Metra uses high-powered hot-air jet blowers and cold-air blowers in the yards to clear the snow and prevent blowing and drifting. In the last two years, Metra has also installed heaters on more than 40 of our most critical yard switches.
- Fueling our locomotives in outlying rail yards overnight. Fueling is normally done as part of the midday servicing routine. But, because the locomotives must be disconnected from their cars to be fueled, fueling them during winter storm conditions can take longer and cause yard congestion and train delays. We’ll fuel them Sunday night to help with operations Monday.
- Leaving our engines on overnight. Locomotives don’t like the cold any more than we do. If it’s too cold we may keep the engines on so they are ready when we need them.
- Running extra “ice trains” overnight on the Metra Electric Line. We must prevent ice from accumulating on the overhead power lines so the Highliner cars can continue to draw power to operate. During major storms, we may run these extra trains around the clock to ensure that the Metra Electric Line remains operational.
When extreme weather conditions do not allow for operation of regularly scheduled service, Metra may implement snow schedules that are meant to give the agency more flexibility and, ultimately, enable more passengers to reach their destinations in a timely manner. Metra’s snow schedules include about 75 to 80 percent of regularly scheduled trains.
If Metra decides to implement the snow schedules, it will provide advanced notice to customers via its website, email alerts, Twitter and the news media. Snow schedules are also uploaded into the schedules on Metra’s website for the days they are in effect.
Tips for Winter Travel on Metra
Metra understands the importance of providing reliable, real-time communications to help our customers make decisions about their travel options during winter weather and offers a number of tools:
- Email alerts – Customers can sign up to receive service alerts via email for a specific rail line during the times of day that are most important to them. Go to “My Metra” at metrarail.com to create an account.
- Website – Customers can access real-time information about train status and service alerts on our website. Customers can also follow the real-time location of their train using the Line Map feature.
- Twitter – Customers can follow each of Metra’s 11 rail lines for specific information and receive more general information about agency operations on the agency’s main Twitter feed.
- Ventra App – Customers can download the app and use the Transit Tracker for information about Metra trains, Pace buses and CTA trains and buses. The free app is available in the App Store or Google Play.
- Passenger Services – Customers can call 312-322-6777 weekdays from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. with questions about train schedules and service.