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Metra announces train car upgrades

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Metra officials announced Tuesday a number of improvements on more than 150 of their diesel commuter trains, many of which have been in operation since the mid-1990s.

The project is currently set to install—among a host of technical changes—new seat cushions, electrical outlets, and renovated bathrooms.  This last feature, mused Metra Superintendent of Car Rehab Projects Rich Keating as he gazed at a shiny black toilet seat, "looks like home."

Each train car (called a "gallery" in industry speak) costs $650,000 to rehabilitate and update, a marked cost savings compared to the price of buying brand new cars, according to Metra CEO Alex Clifford.  He said those can cost as much as $3 million.

“If we had to go out every 15 years or 20 years or even 30 years and buy brand new cars than there’d be a lot less to invest across the system,” Clifford said. 

He added that funding for the overhauling program comes mostly from federal coffers, though a small portion does come from the pockets of local taxpayers. Clifford estimated that Metra will need more than $7 billion in federal funding to maintain "a state of good repair" on trains—saying the industry-standard calls for train repairs to happen every 12 to 18 years.

Metra has already begun to introduce some cars outfitted with the improvements.  By the time all 176 trains are completed, Metra will have spent $120 million over a six year period, officials said.

There are currently 839 diesel train cars in the entire fleet, Clifford said.  Metra also will be adding 160 new Japanese-made electric trains.

Wireless internet is one notable perk missing from the current batch of improvements. When asked why, Clifford said most metropolitan trains fail to carry WiFi, due to the technical difficulties of maintaining the network.

"It's not a cost at our end, but there are some technological challenges obviously. As you think about a train going up the tracks and how you could periodically maybe lose signal," he said.

Metra estimates it will finish refurbishing all 176 cars by 2016.

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