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Karin Allen, Principal Analyst, Capital Programming and Performance Analysis, RTA

As a member of the RTA team that focuses on transit-related capital projects, I get to see first-hand how and where capital dollars are invested throughout the RTA region and understand how critical continued investment truly is.

We recently had the opportunity to visit Tower A2, a facility that is critical to Metra daily operations and affects tens of thousands of commuters a day (including me!).

If you ride a Milwaukee North, Milwaukee West, North Central Service, or Union Pacific West train into or from Chicago, you pass by Tower A2 on every trip.  This is a point on our system where three sets of Milwaukee District tracks cross over four sets of Union Pacific Tracks, creating the most complicated intersection on Metra’s extensive system.  Every day, about 360 trains move through this area, about 90% of which travel during critical rush hour periods.  The staff that operates Tower A2 controls 31 switches that configure the tracks to accommodate all those trains, as well as commuter trains that travel to and from maintenance facilities at Metra’s Western Avenue yard or the Union Pacific’s California Avenue yard, along with freight and Amtrak trains.

Tower A2 is a busy place and all of its switches are hand-operated.  The train director communicates with trains and dispatchers and tells the leverman which levers to move to send a controlled burst of air that moves the switch to the right position.  The system is very efficient and safe, but at 100 years old, it’s expensive to maintain.  Metra is currently rebuilding and replacing its steel, switches, and wires to continue to assure it functions as it should. Long term, the region needs capital investment to modernize and/or reconfigure this system.

I also recently visited the 49th Street repair shop.  Opened in 1946 for the Rock Island Line, this shop is where Metra staff rehabilitated 176 Amerail cars built in the mid to late 1990’s.  Staff is set to begin work on the next round of cars in 2017.  Each rehab consists of completely gutting and replacing flooring, windows, heating and AC units, seats, lighting, bathrooms, lift equipment, even recorders, and doors.  In addition to replacements, each train car will get new equipment installed such as LED signs and electrical outlets.

Over the course of 32 days, the cars go through a complete strip down and rebuild cycle, moving from one station to the next, one car after the next.  The men and women who do this work have become so efficient at what they do, they’ve shaved eight days off the turnaround time, meaning these newly-refurbished cars are getting back in service and ready for your daily commute quicker.

The newly rebuilt cars look amazing – check them out yourself – with basically double the life expectancy.  As a taxpayer, daily rider, and train lover in general, I’m pleased to see that such improvements are being made in a cost-effective way.  Be on the lookout for the new seating in the refurbished cars as 30 of them are being distributed throughout the system this year.

Join the RTA as we continue to advocate for the capital funding we need to ensure our system is here to serve generations to come.

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Read posts about how the RTA collaborates with CTA, Metra and Pace to plan, invest in and move the Chicago region’s transit system.

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