Tucked in the corner of the bathroom and beneath the stairs in every Metra car sits a small piece of machinery that enables all Metra commutes.
The loading door motor is a critical part of every commuter railcar, opening and closing more than 100 times through the course of the day to let riders on and off the train. At Metra, ensuring they are in working order involves a team of carmen and electricians who remove, rebuild and replace these machines.
Each car has four loading door motors, which are electrically powered and pneumatically operated. When a train conductor pushes a particular button in the car’s vestibule, it sends an electrical feed to the motor, which repositions an air valve, allowing an air cylinder to physically open or close the doors.
Each motor has to be replaced every four years. The process involves a duo consisting of a carman and an electrician. They’re responsible for disconnecting the motor from the car’s electric system, removing it entirely from the car and installing a rebuilt motor in its place.
Scheduled replacements for Metra’s Milwaukee and North Central Service lines are done in Metra’s Western Avenue shop as part of a larger mechanical inspection. Carman Tom Dabek and Electrician Olalekan Agboola perform about two of these inspections a week, meaning they’re pulling and replacing eight motors weekly.
“If a door doesn’t open, you can’t send the car out for passengers to get in,” Agboola said. “So it’s something that has to be done.”
Not all door motor replacements are scheduled. Sometimes an electrical circuit gets shorted, or a piece breaks while a train is in service. When a motor fails unexpectedly, the pressure is on to get it replaced, said Shon George, the director of Milwaukee District Mechanical.
“Where the challenge comes in is the fact that we only have so many spare cars, so that means a lot of this stuff is done out in the yard and has to be done in a set number of hours because that train has to go back into service,” George said. “Just like you take your car to the dealership and you want your car back, it’s the same thing.”
With a steady demand for working door motors, Metra five years ago established a team to rebuild them once they’ve been pulled from a car. Carmen Gary Pituch and Don Reichert are responsible for rebuilding motors at Western Avenue. Having an in-house rebuilding program saves about 60 percent of the cost of purchasing new motors, with each ringing up for about $2,600.
It takes the pair an average of four or five hours to rebuild a motor.
“We completely disassemble them 100 percent; everything gets removed,” Pituch said. “Then it has to be cleaned and we inspect it. Sometimes theses motors come out and they’re all busted up. Sometimes there’s nothing wrong with it, it’s just old.”
After taking the motors apart, Pituch and Reichert rebuild them, which sometimes includes adding handles for easier carrying and color coding them so it’s easy to identify which belongs on the left or right side of the car. Finally, the motors are tested on a machine designed to simulate the loading door opening and closing process. Once that testing is complete, the motor is placed on a shelf where it waits to be installed for its next trip.
“Everything we send out of here is 100 percent ready to go,” Pituch said.
Consider all that next time you hear the old, familiar hiss of air and chimes as you exit the train.
Take a look at the process: