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.
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.
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.