Metra putting brakes on new rail car purchases
Metra is rethinking its ambitious plan to buy 367 new train cars and 52 locomotives, agency leaders said Tuesday.
In late 2014, Metra introduced a $2.4 billion capital program to be paid for with regular fare hikes with the promise it would update its aging fleet in order to improve efficiency and timeliness.
Now, the agency is conceding it could take longer than anticipated to obtain funding to purchase the equipment. Another change is that instead of all new rail cars, the railroad will buy an unspecified number of secondhand ones and rehab them.
Officials partially blamed Illinois' budget crisis and the fact it's owed about $300 million from the state for the change in direction.
"We're still going to get an updated fleet," Chairman Martin Oberman said. "It may take longer than expected because of these events but (riders) wouldn't want us to run the railroad blindly -- going into the future and not changing plans when circumstances change."
After 18 months without a fiscal plan, Democratic lawmakers feuding with Gov. Bruce Rauner cobbled together in June a stopgap budget, which expires at the end of the year. A capital program is an iffy proposition.
"We did not anticipate nor did anyone that the deadlock would have gone on for so long. It throws a monkey wrench into long-term planning," Oberman said.
In the short term, Metra will pursue an option to piggyback on a Virginia Rail Express equipment order that would let the agency buy 21 new rail cars at a bargain price, saving $17 million.
Executives could not say how many rail cars out of the 367 will be previously used.
Regarding rehabbed cars vs. new, "if you're a rider, they're almost indistinguishable (from new). I don't think the riding experience will be any different," Oberman said.
Workers take old cars and "strip them down to the metal," Executive Director Don Orseno said. "They have new seats, new floors, new lighting." Rehabbed cars have a shorter life span than new.
Originally, Metra proposed delivering 106 cars between 2018 and 2019 and 261 between 2020 and 2024. The timetable is uncertain now, although officials think they could secure the Virginia Rail cars soon if that deal goes through.
"A lot depends on future funding from the state," Orseno said.
Metra intended to purchase and deliver the new locomotives between 2020 and 2024, a date that could be pushed back, also.
In 2015 after rolling out the capital plan, Metra raised fares by an average of 10.8 percent and in 2016 followed suit with another hike averaging 1.3 to 3.6 percent. Those increases netted $27.3 million in 2015 and $6.5 million in 2016.
The agency intended to sell bonds to help finance the improvements but hasn't gone to market yet because of the state budget uncertainty.
"We don't want to lay out a plan now with a $300 million hole in it," Oberman said. "We have to restructure the plan and we're working as fast as we can."