Riders question scaled-back Metra plan
They're doing what?
Metra's announcement the railroad is scaling back its $2.4 billion capital plan that promised new railcars and locomotives has caught riders off-guard.
Back in 2015, fares shot up by 10.8 percent on average, and a 2 percent average increase followed this year. In exchange for charging more, Metra assured riders they would see improvements to increase efficiency, including 367 new railcars, with 106 to be delivered during 2018 and 2019.
But on Aug. 9, agency leaders said they needed to "rethink" the capital plan, blaming the state for suspending a $300 million payment they had counted on. The capital plan is still a go, officials said, but it will take longer to buy the railcars and 52 new locomotives. Instead, Metra will pursue acquiring and rehabbing secondhand cars, which may "result in lowering the need for as many new cars."
Some riders, such as Union Pacific Northwest regular Robert Stoll, are steamed. Others are supportive, and many want more information.
Stoll, who commutes from Barrington, said he knew two years ago that "the entire fare increase was going to be eaten up by steady increases in operating costs, leaving little to nothing left over for these equipment upgrades. The key question now is whether Metra will also scale back the remaining fare hikes."
Helen Kasic, a 30-year commuter from Countryside, was unhappy with higher fares because of "chronic" late trains on the BNSF.
"Now, rather than obtaining new equipment, they want to settle on rebuilding even older equipment," she said. "That hardly seems to be the answer, either from cost-efficiency or safety."
Metra officials intend to buy 21 new cars by piggybacking on a Virginia Railway Express order that saves $800,000 per unit. The hope is to deliver those railcars in 2018, spokesman Michael Gillis said.
UP Northwest rider Richard Stephenson of Palatine likes "the idea of Metra being creative to lower its costs. I hope the company books the savings and is thinking how it might offer additional services to customers like Wi-Fi (and) more trips on Sundays," he said.
But, Stephenson said, "how did VRE negotiate a price that is $800,000 less than Metra's cost? It makes me wonder what other things is Metra paying a premium (on)."
Several riders, though not the majority, were on board.
"If they are able to obtain cars and bring them up to the (federal) codes at a reduced savings, then by all means Metra should move ahead," said Steve Baldasti, a UP Northwest rider from Hoffman Estates.
"I think it's the locomotives that are more at risk ... Metra would be wiser to spend funds to acquire new locomotives than on older units and try to upgrade them."
Terry Tallian of Wood Dale approves of Metra's rebuilding rail cars in-house. "I am no fan of the new cars and locomotives," he said. "They are just not built with the same quality as the older equipment. For example, the end doors on the new cars do not seal very well. A number of times we were riding downtown and there was a gale blasting in from the front."
Other passengers are skeptical. "If they aren't going to do what they said they were going to do with the huge, extra ticket prices, they should revert to the old pricing schedule, especially as fuel prices are so much lower," said Stacey Horcher, who takes the North Central Service from Wheeling.
Joe Huffard, a Milwaukee District West rider from Elgin, calls the $2.4 billion plan "not realistic." Instead, he wants the existing railcars fixed. "We ride in a fleet of carriages which have the most basic of HVAC functionality -- literally 'on' or 'off' and nothing in between," Huffard said.
And some such as NCS regular Scott Jacobson were unaware of the shift.
"I'm not sure the average rider knows about this," Jacobson said. "Not unlike everything else in this state. I guess it's not surprising, but obviously disappointing."
So what does Metra say? "We are not cutting back on our plan to modernize our fleet," Gillis said. "We promised our customers that we would re-evaluate the projected fare increases every year as part of the budget process and we will make good on that promise. Last year, we projected a 5 percent increase in fare revenue and ended up limiting it to 2 percent."
Metra employees received an average 3 percent pay increase in 2016.
The agency is updating its capital plan now and expects to present an updated version in the coming months.
"Our revised plan may focus more on rehabilitating cars and locomotives or purchasing later model cars at a discounted price -- but our customers will still benefit from a newer, more modern and more reliable fleet once we're done," Gillis said.
Got an opinion on Metra's scale-back? Drop me an email at email@example.com.
IDOT workers are resurfacing Lake Street in Mundelein now through fall.
Watch out for lane and shoulder closures between Route 176 and Woodlawn Drive.
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Not just any bike race
The Active Transportation Alliance, organizer of Bike the Drive on Lake Shore Drive, asks cyclists to be "part of history" at its first Kickstand Classic Bike Challenge Sept. 25 in downtown Bartlett. Cyclists ages 16 and up can participate in various timed bike rides available for serious and casual riders. To learn more, go to www.kickstandclassic.org/.