Metra OKs comfy rail cars and locomotives, but directors aren't comfy with Amtrak

Metra forged ahead with plans for new railcars with cupholders and greener locomotives Wednesday even as leaders fumed about something beyond their control - the tracks out of Union Station.

Amtrak apologized for a Feb. 28 fiasco where a bungled technical upgrade delayed thousands of riders, but Metra Director Stephen Palmer said it isn't enough.

"Are we fining Amtrak? Are we going to stop a rent check to Amtrak? They owe something to our customers," Palmer said.

Meanwhile on Wednesday, officials approved seeking proposals from manufacturers for up to 400 new railcars with arm rests and cupholders - and possibly heated floors, USB ports and tray tables.

Planners hope to maximize passenger space, and while the cars will likely have two levels, the current open-gallery design could give way to a closed-off second floor.

Proposals are due in August and the railroad anticipates ordering about 200 cars by the end of 2019.

The cost is unknown, although railcars can range from $2.8 million to $4 million each; Metra has some money set aside and would allocate capital funds over several years for the purchase.

Metra also intends to buy eight Tier 4 locomotives, with the federal government's cleanest ranking for diesel emissions. Revenues for the engines derive from $42 million in Regional Transportation Authority bond funds and $14 million from Volkswagen's settlement of a pollution lawsuit with states.

Despite the forward progress, directors were clearly frustrated with Amtrak, which owns and operates Union Station.

More than 60,000 riders on the BNSF, Milwaukee District, North Central Service, Heritage Corridor and Southwest Service were delayed for hours in the morning and afternoon Feb. 28.

Amtrak was conducting a service upgrade during the morning rush when a technician fell on a circuit board.

"He tripped off the last step of the ladder, falling toward the equipment rack with a live wire in his hand," Chief Operating Officer Bruce Marcheschi said. "The live wire touched the metal rack of the equipment and shorted out the server system that controls the entire signal system."

Metra also wasn't informed about a squash tournament in Union Station's Great Hall Feb. 28 that worsened crowding.

"Amtrak is affecting our brand," Director and Hanover Park Mayor Rod Craig said.

Without control "we're relying on somebody with a hope and a prayer that they're not going to impact us. Residents in my community ... need some reliability so they can pick up their kids at day care."

Metra is meeting with Amtrak leaders in the next two weeks, officials said.

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