Located in an unassuming part of the West Pullman neighborhood on Chicago’s South Side, this is the massive warehouse where engineers store and repair Metra locomotives and cars.
By Danielle A. Scruggs
Inside the Metra Kensington Rail Yard, in the West Pullman neighborhood of Chicago, December 18, 2018. The rail yard is one of 24 rail yards and 7 maintenance facilities throughout the system.
Ivisited this winter because my City Bureau reporting team wanted to look at a facet of public transportation that is less often discussed: the Metra rail system, which is currently facing a massive budget crisis. I wanted to see for myself where and how the money they have been requesting for trains would be allocated. I also wanted to see the differences between the older cars — some of which are 40 to 50 years old — and newer cars on the Metra Electric line that serves the South Side, which were purchased in 2005 and 2012.
Due to Illinois not passing a capital budget since 2009 — which funds the purchase/maintenance of physical property— and a recent 10 percent cut in state subsidy for public transportation, this means the commuter rail line, which was established in 1984, has been unable to upgrade the vast majority of its system. Metra has estimated it needs a capital budget of $1.2 billion a year to maintain and upgrade the system and keep it in a state of good repair. However, its capital budget in 2018 was $196.8 million.
Instead, Metra has focused on upgrading small portions of the system, like the Metra Electric, and it has raised fares in order to do so. Metra fares only comprise half of its total operating costs and it will need increased capital funding to be able to purchase newer cars for the other lines. It estimates the new Metra Electric cars that were purchased in 2005 and 2012 have saved the system roughly $2.2 million in maintenance and fuel costs, because they run on electricity rather than diesel fuel.
After donning a hard hat and safety vest and listening to a briefing on safety from a bevy of Metra employees—including Kevin Clifford, the senior director of mechanical operations; Sean Cronin, senior director of mechanical capital projects; Rick Keating, shop superintendent; Ed Witham, director of mechanical, Metra Electric line; and Dave Bayo, project manager for electric multiple units (EMUs)—I was able to walk around the massive facility. It’s anchored by two rail cars in the middle of the warehouse, one older and one newer. I was able to walk onto and underneath them and see the differences between the two.
The other employees working on train equipment in the smaller rooms within the warehouse seemed amused to see me walking around with a camera and my smartphone, which I was using to take notes while the Metra crew explained those differences and answered my questions about the Electric Line. It was like a roving, miniature press conference.
It was eye-opening to see exactly how the money was used for the Electric Line and also to see the possibilities for the entire system if it had the money to update all of the trains. Metra officials are hopeful that with the newly elected governor J.B. Pritzker in Springfield, they can replace their aging cars, rehab several stations and electrify the Rock Island line, all over the next ten years.
A pantograph, which scrapes ice off the electrical wires that the Metra Electric lines trains run on. Before these were built, Metra workers would have to climb up to the wires and scrape off the ice manually.
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