Diverging Approach: Beginning of the End

It happened. It finally happened.

At today’s board meeting, Metra’s board finally marked the beginning of the end of the loathed gallery cars by approving an (up to) $1.8 billion contract with Alstom to build new, modern, bilevel passenger coaches. These low-floor coaches will include more modern amenities, including dedicated bike racks, powered doors throughout the coach (including lavatories and between coaches), partially-heated floors and more. Other than the unwieldy boxy design (that is apparently intentional to make them better blend in with the existing gallery car fleet), this procurement is a massive step forward for a more modern, more accessible, actual 21st-Century fleet.

Check out the video here:

The initial contract is for a base order of 200 coaches, with options for up to 300 more; Metra’s existing fleet is 840 cars, so even if the contract is maxed out we’ll still have gallery cars around for many more decades.

To be clear, the procurement still is far from perfect: cycling advocates have pointed out that the vertical bike racks as shown can be difficult to use with heavier bikes; this fleet of unpowered cars does nothing to create a more nimble, more flexible fleet of multiple-unit coaches that can be more efficiently used for “milk run” all-stop operations that would be important for better off-peak frequency; and this blog is still concerned with spending $61.6 million on new coaches in FY2021 while the railroad reports a $70 million as-yet-unaccounted-for gap in operations funding for the same duration.

But it’s important to not let the perfect be the enemy of the good and still celebrate success stories like these. This is a huge step forward for Metra, and while there are still lots of operational deficiencies that need to be addressed post-pandemic, everyone involved — including all of us squeaky wheels who did bend the board’s ear — should be proud of the work done to make this procurement a reality and to finally roll out a 21st-Century fleet befitting one of the nation’s largest passenger railroads.

There’s still much work to be done in terms of modernizing operations to make Metra the regional rail provider it needs to be for a post-pandemic suburban Chicago: pulse scheduling, proof-of-payment, integrated transfers, and increased service are all pressing needs, as well as the looming shadow of the aforementioned $70 million budget hole this year. But today is a day for celebration and appreciation. Today is a victory, and tomorrow we keep pushing forward.

A thank you to friend-of-the-blog @inaoifeble who kept tabs on today’s board meeting and live-tweeted the spectacle. The video of the full board meeting is available on Metra’s website (meeting starts at about 1:23:40).

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