Many Metra trains could have new braking system by end of year

  • Metra's fixing its old train cars, gradually.

      Metra's fixing its old train cars, gradually. Daniel White | Staff Photographer, January 2015

Updated 1/20/2016 5:05 PM

A crash-prevention braking system should start operating on one of Metra's most heavily used routes by the end of the year, executives said Wednesday in a presentation about 2016 goals.

The BNSF Line would be the first to provide positive train control, followed by Metra's three Union Pacific Lines.


Commuter and freight railroads successfully lobbied to extend a 2015 federal deadline for PTC, which can automatically stop a train when a crash is imminent or speeding threatens a derailment.

"If testing goes good, by the end of the year ... keeping our fingers crossed, Metra and the BNSF will have that line in operation with positive train control," Chief Engineering Officer Bruce Marcheschi said during a presentation to the Sandhouse Rail Group, which is affiliated with the Northwestern University Transportation Center.

Union Pacific is expected to start testing its PTC system in late 2016.

Metra-operated routes, including the Milwaukee District and North Central Lines, are about 30 percent complete and should be PTC-compliant by mid-2017. The agency is expected to pay from $350 million to $400 million.

The technology is so new, there are a lot of bugs to work out, Marcheschi said, noting that railroads testing the system have seen a 30 percent error rate.

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"Would you go on an airplane that had 30 percent errors?" he asked. "Probably not. So, there's a lot of work that needs to be done."

Other improvements include debuting a free Wi-Fi car on each of Metra's 11 lines as a pilot program this month, CEO Don Orseno said.

"Is it going to be successful for our customers or is it something that crashes all the time?" Orseno said. "We also want to know if it's financially feasible."

Orseno also noted upgrades will continue on the Ventra app, an smartphone ticketing app, which was used for the millionth ride Tuesday after going live in November.

For commuters tired of drafty cars and antiquated seats, the railroad is incrementally rehabbing its cars and locomotives. Out of 176 Amerail cars, 133 are fixed but just three out of 41 of the older "Budd" cars are updated, Chief Mechanical Officer Jim Derwinski said.


Seven out of 68 locomotives have been modernized.

This year Metra also expects to ask firms to submit proposals to conduct a comprehensive study of its fares, which are distance-based.

"Do we have too many zones or too few zones? Should we have a common fare like the CTA?" Orseno asked.

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