The night crew: How Metra workers get trains ready for morning rush
While commuters sleep overnight, a team of a dozen dedicated Metra employees and their supervisor work at the Elgin coach yard to get 10 trains ready for the morning rush hour.
Car cleaners, engine watchmen, laborers, carmen and a mechanical foreman work as a team during an eight-hour shift that starts at 11 p.m. and ends at 7 a.m., when most commuters are starting their day.
The Elgin coach yard is just one of about two dozen similar operations taking place at outlying points throughout the Metra system. Since the vast majority of morning commuters are people traveling from the suburbs into Chicago for work, the trains need to be serviced overnight at these outlying points in preparation for the inbound commute.
In Elgin, the rush hour begins with a 4:17 a.m. departure.
"Our whole livelihood is the commuters. That's why we're here," mechanical foreman Tim Baker said. "It's all about the morning rush, making sure that the trains are cleaned, tested, inspected and leave on time."
The 10 trains consist of 69 stainless steel, double-decker commuter coaches and 10 locomotives.
After testing the air brake system from the cab car on the east end of a train, carman Derek Bugbee walks along both sides of a consist (the set of vehicles forming a complete train) to check for defects, and to make sure the brakes are set properly.
Using an unconventional but effective tool, he wields a 5-iron from a set of golf clubs kept for the purpose in the crew office. He taps on each brake with the club. A low-pitched sound tells him the brake shoe is applied to the steel wheel, while a high-pitched sound indicates it is released.
Mark Llanuza is one of five car cleaners, each of whom is responsible for 18-19 cars in an eight-hour period. He said a car cleaner's job is to make sure that the coaches appear as if they have never been used. That can be challenging, particularly after heavy use in conjunction with weekend events in Chicago.
With trains moving throughout the yard, and when slippery conditions during inclement weather are encountered, Llanuza, who also serves as safety captain, said employees must take extra care while moving from one train to another in the course of their duties.
He said that during the winter, for example, the sound of a train moving in the yard can be muffled by snow.
"The most important thing out here is safety," Llanuza said. "That's our number one priority."