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Railroads making upgrades

Metra, other railways to work on improvements over next few years

Metra riders might see some delays with the implementation of new systems on its railroads in the next couple of years, although not as many as there have been in years’ past.

Last month, U.S. Rep. Dan Lipinski held a community meeting in Western Springs with Metra and BNSF Railway leaders to discuss recent customer complaints.

Lipinski said he had heard customers complaining about major train delays, cancellations and broken air conditioners, among other problems.

“We all understand that problems can occur, but this year the Metra BNSF line has failed all too often,” Lipinski said, according to a transcript of his remarks.

Metra spokesman Michael Gillis said the meeting was productive. Gillis also said Metra has been actively taking comments from riders into consideration.

Gillis said a major source of complaints arose because of a schedule change made last summer to accommodate the installation of a new federal safety system called Positive Train Control.

This change especially was disruptive to Metra’s BNSF line, which runs from Aurora through Naperville to downtown Chicago, because of the large number of riders and trains it has.

The BNSF line has frequent “flips,” meaning trains constantly are going back and forth along their stops from the morning commute to rush hour.

In December, Metra also announced it approved a $26.7 million contract to replace its “antiquated GPS tracking and passenger announcement system” with a new, state-of-the-art system.

“It will enable us to do a better job of tracking trains and conveying timely, accurate information to our customers, and it will address some of the common sources of complaints about our communication efforts,” Metra CEO Jim Derwinski said.

The old system’s GPS units have been failing, so about 20 percent to
30 percent of Metra’s trains have not been tracked. This prevents Metra workers from providing real-time updates.

So what is Positive Train Control?

Positive Train Control is a computerized system that will help prevent certain types of train-to-train collisions. It also aims to help avoid derailments and other incidents caused by excessive speed, and increases safety for railroad workers.

By law, the railroad Metra uses is required to implement Positive Train Control in the next couple of years.

Now that it’s been implemented on its busiest line, other lines will need the updates.

Gillis said the Rock Island line, which runs from Joliet through New Lenox and to Chicago, is in the process of schedule changes, but the disruptions won’t be as major as they were for BNSF.

Implementation for the Heritage Corridor line, which runs from Joliet through Lockport and Romeoville to Chicago is tentatively scheduled for 2020, but Gillis said that line probably won’t see much disruption in train schedules since there are so few trains that use the line.

Although the delays probably won’t be as much of a problem in the coming years, Metra customers also were complaining about issues such as broken air conditioners.

Gillis attributed these types of problems to the age of Metra’s cars and to falling behind on repairs.

It’s a problem Metra has been vocal about, saying the state and/or federal government needs substantial capital improvement funding to help it maintain its services.

Tim Baldermann, Metra’s Will County director to the board and the mayor of New Lenox, already has told the Will County Board about the difficult situation of train cars that are anywhere from 30 years to more than 60 years still in operation.

In addition, half of Metra’s bridges are more than 100 years old.

Baldermann also stressed Metra’s importance for taking thousands of cars off the road. Baldermann said he’s hopeful changes will be made, and he would be fully supportive of a new capital bill.

“I think our staff does a great job with what they have,” Baldermann said. “You can only hold things together with duct tape and strings for so long.”

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