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Ed. note: Roland Solinski is a graduate student of architecture at Tulane University. “I am a Chicagoan by birth and the city runs in my blood. I’m fascinated by all aspects of urban design and urban systems, but especially transit systems and public space.” Photo is of a southbound Metra Electric train. 

In November of 2010, the Chicago Tribune published an article that shocked Metra commuters. In it, Tribune reporters revealed that massive quantities of diesel exhaust were hanging in the air on platforms at Union Station and Ogilvie Transportation Center. Worse, the atmosphere inside each railcar contained the same exhaust at even higher concentrations – 72 times that of a normal city street.

In numerous other cities, commuters do not need to worry about harmful exhaust fumes, because their trains run off of electric power. In fact, many cities installed rail electrification systems at the turn of the last century specifically to eliminate toxic smoke emissions, including the Illinois Central’s line right here in Chicago, now called Metra Electric.

Clean air is just a side effect; electric trains offer a whole range of benefits with enormous potential. Just like a Porsche with a finely-tuned engine, modern electric trains accelerate at a much greater rate than Metra’s outmoded diesel locomotives. Since Metra stops are so close together, particularly in inner suburbs, trains currently spend a lot of time accelerating and slowing down, often not even reaching their 70 MPH speed limit. Alternatively, many Metra trains save precious time by simply running express and skipping whole groups of stations, benefiting outer suburban residents at the expense of inner-suburban and city residents. A fast-accelerating electric train could substantially shorten travel times and improve service for all Metra riders by bringing the train up to top speed faster.

With greatly reduced travel times, Metra could then consider a few new stations along its lines, making additional stops without inconveniencing far suburban riders. These new stations would fall particularly within the City of Chicago, where stations are currently very infrequent (aside from the Metra Electric line). Metra’s own ridership statistics, available on RTAMS, suggest that new stations inside the city would be very popular, so long as Metra’s express trains do not skip them altogether – for example, Ravenswood is currently the busiest station on the UP-North line after Ogilvie itself.

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An electric commuter train in Montréal, Québec. Photo by Sean Marshall. 

All these facts indicate that electrification could spur significant regional changes. It would enable a new kind of Metra service with 15-minute frequency and faster travel times – essentially an extension of the city’s rapid-transit network. Just like the ‘L’, electrified Metra service could transform Bungalow Belt neighborhoods and inner-ring suburbs into heavily transit-oriented areas, offering them the same fast service into downtown that many city residents currently enjoy while raising property values and encouraging infill development. Through electrification and proper planning, these benefits are achievable at a fraction of the cost of expanding the ‘L’.

In the 21st century, Metra needs to take a long, hard look at electrifying its busiest lines. Partially in response to the diesel-fumes debacle, Metra hosted a workshop on electrification in 2011. More of an industry symposium than a serious study, the workshop’s announcement still gave the impression that Metra was ready to start asking serious questions. However, the workshop documents do not even hint at a plan for Metra to move forward on studying electrification, suggesting that Metra officials are dismissive of the whole concept. In the same documents, those officials cite various reasons and excuses for why electrification wouldn’t work in Chicago – despite the fact that it already does and has for over a century on the Metra Electric.

Although the officials did a good job of laying out the technical challenges, many of those challenges seem to be strongly overstated. One official contends that low clearance on overhead bridges may restrict the installation of modern overhead wire along Metra lines, yet Metra Electric has some of the city’s lowest overpasses and seems to run just fine. In a similar vein, the tall double-stack cars that some freight railroads use to move shipping containers might force Metra to install the wire higher than normal. Finally, the construction of an electric system is expensive, including overhead wire, substations spaced out along the line, and new electric trains themselves.

These objections, however, are not nearly enough to doom electrification to the scrap heap of failed ideas. Instead the health benefits, savings on diesel fuel, and most importantly the faster acceleration and better service are well worth the investment for Chicago, and will save money over time for Metra and Chicago-area taxpayers while spurring sustainable transit-oriented development.

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The VIRM electric train in the Netherlands, which is for commuting and intercity passengers, uses a split-level carriage design. You enter on a plane level with the platform and then either traverse stairs going up or down. The platform-level deck, at each end of the carriage, holds the space for passengers with mobility devices or bicycles. 

The process would take time. Metra is a patchwork of rail lines owned by various railroads, and each line poses its own challenges – some more difficult than others. Metra itself owns the two Milwaukee District lines, the Rock Island, and the Metra Electric. On these lines, electrification can proceed easily (Metra Electric notwithstanding). The remaining six lines are owned by freight railroads, who would need to agree to the electrification. Initially after installation, Metra could swap out its aging diesel locomotives for electric ones. In fact, Metra could even purchase dual-mode locomotives to start taking advantage of the electric system before it’s even finished. These would produce no fumes and burn no costly diesel fuel on electrified segments of track, and would allow Metra to use its current fleet of railcars. However, they would not have the full benefits of acceleration and improved service. For that, Metra would need to purchase electric multiple units (EMUs) like those that Metra Electric runs. EMUs have no locomotive, but instead are simply a series of passenger cars with small motors in each one that work in sync to move the train.

How much would this all cost? We can get a good sense by looking at Caltrain, which is in the midst of planning an electrification project of its own. Caltrain is very similar to a Metra line, with two tracks, high ridership, and relatively frequent stations. It runs from San Francisco to San Jose, California. Currently, cost estimates for the electrification system are roughly $950 million for 52 miles of track, or $18 million per mile. This is a high end estimate; some projects have cost far less. Amtrak electrified the Northeast Corridor between New Haven and Boston in the 1990s, spending $475 million for 157 miles of track.  Adjusted for inflation, that project cost only $4 million per mile.

Metra’s BNSF is a good candidate for electrification; it has Metra’s highest ridership and a series of closely-spaced stations between Cicero and Lisle. Using the two previous cost figures as a range, it would cost between $675 million and $150 million to electrify the 37.5-mile BNSF. This is a huge range to be sure, but even at the high end the cost is only $10,448 for every existing weekday rider. If Metra can hold costs down to Amtrak levels, the cost is only $2,500 per existing rider. When stops like Brookfield, Riverside, and Berwyn start to see much higher service frequencies, the ridership is sure to grow dramatically, increasing revenue. On the other hand, high diesel fuel costs will be replaced with a comparatively low electric bill, decreasing expenses. Both of these changes together create substantial room in Metra’s budget that can go towards the construction and maintenance of an electrified system.

Electrification has the potential to improve or solve many problems facing Metra and the Chicago region. The savings on fuel will improve Metra’s bottom line and make it virtually immune to changing fuel prices, while the elimination of emissions will dramatically improve air quality around each line. Most importantly, electrification could begin to alter the fabric of Chicagoland, stitch the region back together and link inner-ring suburbs both to downtown and to growing areas farther out, all while costing far less than expanding the ‘L’. In an era of ever-shrinking public resources, ever-growing demand for transit, and stiff global competition among cities, Chicago can’t afford to spend too much on transit or to be satisfied with the status quo. Electrifying Metra is the right move to make.

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  • Beta Magellan

    The low clearances along Metra Electric are made possible by the fact that it’s DC, not AC—from what I’ve heard the main reason Metra Electric still uses DC is the lack of clearance under Grant Park bridges. Although most railroads prefer AC now (and I’m guessing that’s what Metra was eyeing when they held their colloquium), a big chunk of France still runs on Metra Electric-like 1.5 kV DC without issue (it might make dual-mode powertrains less cumbersome as well). 

    • Beta Magellan

      Also, great article!

    • http://twitter.com/AdamHerstein Adam Herstein

      The ‘L’ also runs over DC.

    • Roland Solinski

      Right.  As you note, it’s definitely possible to build new, ground-up 1500v DC systems.  Plus, sticking with the standard that’s already in use will make it much easier to integrate the lines later on for through-running.

      Of course, DC could potentially be more costly.  I believe it requires a closer spacing of substations.  But it’s a way to get around clearance restrictions, if there are any to begin with.

      • http://twitter.com/AdamHerstein Adam Herstein

        Can someone please explain why AC requires a higher clearance? Is that a physical restriction, or just regulatory?

        • Roland Solinski

          The AC systems run at a FAR higher voltage than the DC systems – 10x or 20x the voltage.  This requires seriously beefy insulators between the contact wire and any support structures.  There’s also a larger airspace that is required around the contact wire to prevent arcing.

  • Spanky Spankster

    Coal. 

  • http://twitter.com/aka60643 AKA60643

    If this could make more frequent service more viable while reducing operating costs, it sounds like a win-win.  We definitely need more frequent service in off-peak periods.  

  • Carter

    Seems to me there is also lots of room along railroad right-of-ways for solar panels…

  • http://bit.ly/GrayLineInfo mike621

    Hello Roland, were you aware of the Gray Line plan to utilize the Metra Electric as part of CTA’s ‘L’ System:   http://bit.ly/GrayLineInfo

  • Bbmolony

    The freight railroads require 26 feet of clearance over the top of the rails in order to clear double-stack trains regardless of the type of electricity.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Harvey-Kahler/1150173264 Harvey Kahler

    Electrification is no silver bullet for better train performance.  Higher acceleration requires more power and consumes more energy and it costs more, perhaps more than the difference in the cost of diesel fuel.  Will enough new riders then be attracted by the difference in speed to offset the cost of energy?  

    Electrification provides a means of delivering higher power than is possible with a single diesel-electric locomotive.  Amtrak uses two 11,000-hp electric locomotives to accelerate a 6-car Acela to 150-mph in as little as 8 miles.  Ironically, the Metra Electric power system is scaled to 3,000-kW trains, 6 Highliners, equivalent to a current Metra diesel.  That diesel often pulls 8-10 cars rather than 6; otherwise performance would not be so much different.  

    Modern diesels are as efficient as most electrified railways that lose a degree of efficiency with transmission loses from the point of generation.  This is especially true with the older, low-voltage systems such as the1,500-V Metra system where the resistance and voltage drop is proportionally greater.

    The one advantage of electrification is the freedom of energy source: coal, natural gas, nuclear, petroleum, hydro, wind, solar, and bio-fuels.

    The high voltage reduces the amperage needed for the higher power demand for these trains that in turn keeps catenary as light as possible.  The higher voltage and less loss allows fewer substations and farther apart which is a cost savings.  Any electrification of the BNSF, UPW, and CN most likely would be at 25,000-V if the decision was made to electrify their lines across the continent.  And CP, CSX, and IAIS would have a say in Metra-owned lines on which they have rights. 

    The overhead wire, catenary, voltage makes a difference.  25,000-V used for heavy-haul (mining) and high speed lines requires 17 times the air gap of 1,500-V used for Metra Electric.  25,000-V electrification may be an underlying assumption in the 26-foot above top of rail clearance requirement.  Electrification might make Union Station obsolete unless some costly clearance improvements, raising streets and building floors, are made to the air rights above.  

    • Roland Solinski

      Thanks for the detailed response; I appreciate the criticism.  

      All things equal, I’m still convinced that a properly-designed set of EMUs will always have higher performance than a push-pull diesel-powered train, primarily because the heavy liquid fuel and the associated engine components (injectors, combustion chamber, exhaust) will add a lot of extra weight. 

      In the real world, where all things are not equal, world manufacturers produce a huge quantity of efficient, lightweight EMUs with vastly superior performance to a conventional Metra diesel push-pull.  These would be available to use on several Metra lines with a FRA waiver like the one granted to Caltrain.Also: Metra holds a lot of power to force changes on its trackage-rights partners, because it owns the tracks.  Most Class Is have repeatedly shown that accommodating passenger service on their tracks is a very low priority.  A historical accident allowed the public to take over half of Chicago’s commuter-rail trackage, so I don’t see why the RTA can’t play hardball with CP, CSX, and Iowa Interstate with regard to electrification.  I don’t think any of them run double-stacks in the Chicago area anyway, but I might be mistaken.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Harvey-Kahler/1150173264 Harvey Kahler

    I forgot to add, as was failed to be reported, that Metra is taking steps to mitigate pollution: installing car ventilation air intake filters, and acquiring cleaner-burning locomotives.  New locomotives meeting future Tier 4 standards would be much cleaner than today. 

    • untitledreality

      Mitigation does not equal Solution. New filters, upgraded exhaust systems in stations and cleaner burning locomotives are all stop gaps.

  • http://chicagostreetcar.blogspot.com/ John Krause

    Great article!

    Haven’t the French electrified every single mile of their entire freight rail network?

    Interesting from Wikipedia:
    Public policy in the US currently interferes with electrification—higher property taxes are imposed on privately owned rail facilities if they have electrification facilities. Also, US regulations on diesel locomotives are very weak compared to regulations on automobile emissions or power plant emissions.In Europe and elsewhere, railway networks are considered part of the national transport infrastructure, just like roads, highways and waterways, and therefore are often financed by the state. Operators of the rolling stock pay fees according to rail use. This makes possible the large investments required for the technically and in the long-term also, economically advantageous electrification. Because railroad infrastructure is privately owned in the US, railroads are unwilling to make the necessary investments for electrification.http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Electric_locomotive

  • http://www.facebook.com/art.ostrowski Art Ostrowski

    go roland! Lets not forget the issue of transferring from metra to cta.. this is the main problem for lack of ridership on the metra electric in the city. mike payne’s gray line plan would rent the metra electric south shore branch to cta.

    • http://www.stevevance.net/ Steven Vance

      I’ve good news: the RTA is working on a better transfer fare schedule/scheme.

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