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Metra's New Shop Will Crank Out More Refurbished Railcars for Riders

Daily Herald

With an average age of 28 years, Metra's rail cars have lived through the Gulf War, the dawn of the World Wide Web and the "Seinfeld" years.

Nostalgia for the 1990s is fun, but not when you're sitting on it, which is why Metra officials broke ground on a new rehab shop Tuesday that will enable workers to refurbish 60 railcars a year instead of 35.

For riders, that means new seats, updated windows, modern bathrooms, better air-conditioning and heating, nonslip floors -- and outlets to charge devices.

The existing 49th Street railcar shop opened in Chicago in 1947 before Metra was formed. Expanding the shop and adding a new facility there will cost $29.4 million, primarily from federal funds.

"Those who ride Metra get to have an upgrade earlier and more quickly than they otherwise would," said U.S. Rep. Dan Lipinski, a Western Springs Democrat who sits on the Transportation Committee.

The agency's oldest rail cars date back to 1953; Regional Transportation Authority Chairman Kirk Dillard referred jokingly to Eisenhower-era cars and said, "I've rode these buckets of bolts for more than 40 years ... but it's only going to get better."

Typically, it takes 28 days to strip and refit a railcar. Workers remove everything from floors to windows, overhaul equipment such as air brakes and wheelchair lifts, and install new HVAC systems.

Metra Chairman Norm Carlson noted "by doing this in-house we are saving between $400,000 to $500,000 a car." Overhauling current railcars in the shop takes up to 3,200 hours and costs $700,000 for labor and materials.

In the future, Metra may offer its rebuilding services to other transit agencies, officials said. "That is very important because it brings a source of income to us," Carlson said.

Workers are hampered now by an outdated building where space is tight, car rehab superintendent Bruno Zawisza said. The extra space will allow the agency to add another shift of workers, which could mean adding 15 more positions.

The project should take up to two years to complete. It includes new storage facilities, a training center, an upgraded loading dock and improvements to parking and drainage.

"Metra is only 34 years old, so really you're seeing history today," Executive Director Jim Derwinski said. He credited Metra workers for driving the rehab program, which began in 2010.

Metra raised fares in February to help overcome a shortfall partly caused by shrinking state revenues. The agency is focusing its fleet purchases on locomotives and is negotiating to buy up to 21 used locomotives costing $1.3 million each, as well as seeking proposals for new ones.

Metra also runs a locomotive rebuild program, which is more time-intensive than the railcars and costs about $1.26 million each.