State

Metra's aging equipment behind many delays

CHICAGO – Winter weather has been causing delays on the Chicago area’s troubled commuter rail system, but the biggest hang-up for Metra overall may be the aging equipment powering switches for its busiest intersection.

Amid increased scrutiny from lawmakers and customer complaints about delays, Metra is looking at ways to finance upgrades to outdated equipment, including a 1930s-era rail-switching machine with 31 levers that must be operated by hand. The machine itself is powered by air compression, which can be affected by cold temperatures.

Switching problems are the single largest cause of delays for Metra, the Chicago Sun-Times reported. The agency’s recent statistics show signal and switch failures accounted for more than 17 percent of delays from January through November of last year. In comparison, weather accounted for 11 percent of delays.

Emblematic of the problems for the nation’s second-largest commuter rail line is an 82-year-old switching machine housed in a tower built in 1907. One failed switch there can cause a cascade of delays that riders find hard to forget, especially in frigid weather.

Like other transit systems, Metra’s capital needs are outpacing its resources.

The most recent cost estimate for upgrading the old switching machine was $172 million. New Metra CEO Don Orseno said he will consider bonds and public-private partnerships to fund this and other capital needs.

“I think we’re going to go in the right direction very, very quickly,” Orseno said after being named CEO. “It’s all about our customers. We have to be able to deliver to our customers.”

Orseno takes the helm of an agency that has weathered allegations of political influence from a former chief executive officer, and, in 2010, the suicide of another Metra chief during an investigation into his defrauding the agency.

Last year, Gov. Pat Quinn appointed a task force to consider ways to reform Metra and other Chicago-area transit agencies following allegations of politically connected hiring.

Metra is at an important crossroads, said transportation professor Joseph Schwieterman, director of DePaul University’s Chaddick Institute for Metropolitan Development.

“Everyone is asking what changes come next,” Schwieterman said. “It’s going to be a very politically interesting period.”

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