TRANSIT: Metra puts brakes on new rail car plan

Aug. 10, 2016

The transit agency is suspending plan to build new rail cars due to Illinois funding shortage

Metra in Chicago has suspended its search for a vendor to build 367 new rail cars because of a state shortfall in capital money.

The state of Illinois has put on hold more than $300 million in funding previously budgeted in the commuter rail agency's capital program, plus the state still has no new capital plan that would outline how much money the agency would get in the coming years, according to Metra officials. Metra will now examine whether it can find cheaper ways to modernize its fleet, including acquiring and rehabilitating cars from other commuter railroads.

Metra officials have said they need $11.7 billion in capital funding over the next 10 years. The board has made two programs top priorities—positive train control, a federally mandated computerized system to prevent train collisions, and new or rehabbed rolling stock. The total cost of the Metra purchase of 367 new rail cars would have been about $1.2 billion, or $3.3 million per car.

Metra said it should be able to acquire some new cars sooner than expected, and at a bargain. Metra's peer railroad, Virginia Railway Express (VRE), has an option to buy 21 rail cars from the Japanese manufacturer Nippon Sharyo at about $2.5 million per car.

Each VRE car would be about $800,000 lower than the anticipated cost of a new Metra car under a new purchase contract, in part because the Virginia contract is older. This would mean a savings of about $17 million, with delivery of the first set of new cars in early 2018.

Metra is also looking into whether it can acquire and rehabilitate a number of later model cars from other commuter railroads that may not need them. In addition, Metra wants to upgrade its facility that rehabilitates older rail cars with new equipment, so it can handle more rail cars and locomotives.