What's in Metra's new train cars, and when they'll debut

Yes to outlets on trains, so no more worries about your phone dying. No to flip seats. And, yes to video screens with PSAs.

Metra directors took a huge step toward upgrading the agency's antique fleet Jan. 13, in approving a contract for 500 multilevel railcars from Alstom Transportation Inc. The plan is to initially purchase 200 railcars for $845 million, with a Metra option to buy the remaining 300.

But riders won't be sitting pretty until 2024, when the first contingent of cars hit the tracks, with the full base order complete 30 months later. Why so long? We asked Metra Communications Director Michael Gillis to answer that question and others.

"There are several factors that contribute to the production time," Gillis said. "First, these are not an off-the-shelf design, and there still is some design work to complete. Second, there are numerous tests that need to be completed and regulatory rules to meet. Sub-vendors also need to ramp up their production, and again, sometimes components are not off-the-shelf technology, either. Integrating all the various systems in the new cars also can be time-consuming."

If all 500 railcars are purchased, the contract will reach $1.8 billion. Why are railcars so expensive?

"As for the price, these are large, complicated assets designed to last 40 years or more. Based on our research about other recent car purchases by other entities, we are paying about what we expected - in other words, we are paying the going rate. And while 500 cars is a large order for Metra, it is a somewhat smaller quantity and that could impact the price," Gillis explained.

Metra has 11 train lines. Which routes will get the new cars first?

"We have not determined that yet but they can be used on any line except the Metra Electric, which has a new fleet of cars already," Gillis answered.

Can I charge my smartphone on the train in the new cars and will there be Wi-Fi?

"There will be outlets at nearly every seat (possibly only a few jump seats won't have them). Wi-Fi is an option but we haven't decided yet whether to choose it," Gillis noted.

One feature of Metra's vintage railcars is the ability to flip the seats. Will the new models provide that flexibility?

"No," Gillis said.

Metra has promised video screens in the new railcars. What will riders see on the screens?

"The main function of the screens will be to provide up-to-date train/travel information. We may choose to use them for other purposes, too," Gillis added.

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One more thing

Metra planners had expected to raise $334.3 million from fares from January through November 2020, but that amount was just $100.5 million - short by $233.8 million because of the COVID-19 pandemic, the railroad's latest numbers show.

So how can Metra afford these new cars? Operating money that pays for salaries and diesel fuel, for example, is separate from the capital budget, which will cover the railcars.

The state's $45 billion six-year capital program, plus federal aid, will help fund the purchase.

Officials also expect more comfortable railcars that are less likely to malfunction - and therefore decrease delays - should help build back ridership decimated by the pandemic.

You should know

Direct flights between O'Hare International Airport and GMR Hyderabad International Airport in India started Jan. 13. Service to India's fourth-largest city will be operated by Air India and run once a week.

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Metra cars with cupholders and video screens are coming

Metra is buying up to 500 new railcars that will begin hitting the tracks in 2024. Courtesy of Metra/YouTube
Metra's new fleet of railcars will offer doors level with train station platforms, saving passengers steps. Courtesy of Metra/YouTube
Metra's new fleet of railcars will include wider vestibules to better accommodate riders with disabilities and offer bike storage. Courtesy of Metra/YouTube
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