Thursday, September 30th, 2010

Chicago’s Metra Postpones Bridges Project

Update 10/2:The Chicago Tribune writes that the project was flawed from the start.

For my national readers, Metra is Chicago’s commuter rail agency. Back in August I strongly criticized Metra’s UP-North Line bridge reconstruction project. My principal complaint was that this project took an existing embankment that supported three track operation and reduced it to a maximum of two tracks. It also involved spending transit dollars to raise bridge clearances for trucks. And it involved an extensive section of single track operation for eight years of construction. As I noted, all of these factors are extensively inter-related.

Of course that [lower impact construction techniques] would be a lot tougher to do if the grade is being raised significantly. That’s a much more complex undertaking and is one reason that this project is going to involve eight years of service disruptions from reducing the line to only one track for an extended distance. (Yes, the right of way is for three tracks, but it is permanently being reduced to two by an eight year project that temporarily reduces it to one).

I called on the Board to conduct an independent review of the project prior to going forward with construction. Other knowledgeable transit advocates also questioned various aspects of this project and asked them to be re-evaluted. But Metra’s management was insistent theirs was the only way.

As I noted last Friday, the result was chaos and huge numbers of angry riders as the single track operation proved far more disruptive than Metra’s management anticipated. After a huge public outcry, today the agency acknowledged the plan wasn’t working and announced it was suspending the project. Trains revert to their previous schedule on Sunday.

I commend Metra for backing off a plan that clearly wasn’t working. Now hopefully there will be an opportunity to review the project and move forward in a way that preserves the three track capability (though not necessarily rebuilding the third track today) and minimizes service disruptions to riders. Ideally also truckers would be forced to pay for any benefits of the project designed principally for them.

Little information is available at present, but hopefully this serves as an impetus to further reforms Metra clearly needs. Let’s not miss this golden opportunity to rethink both this project and the way regional transit agencies approach projects.

Topics: Transportation
Cities: Chicago

16 Responses to “Chicago’s Metra Postpones Bridges Project”

  1. the urban politician says:

    I think suspending the project was motivated more by a bunch of whiny north shore suburbanites than any legitimate attempts at reforms or to “review the project in a way that preserves third rail viability”.

  2. I agree completely, but hopefully this opens the window for a reconsideration of that aspect of the project.

  3. John says:

    With the exception of one busy AM train and one busy PM train (the 5:25), it really hasn’t been that bad. I hope they don’t wait for bridges to fall down before they fix them.

  4. John, I haven’t ridden so can’t say first hand, but media reports suggest significant issues.

    Without a doubt, the bridges require replacement urgently. They are already weight limited.

  5. George says:

    How ironic is it that the answer to Metra’s quest to “maintain two-track operation during the construction” is the very thing that the construction is intended to destroy = the third track.

    Is there any realistic chance that the project can be stopped or altered to restore the third rail? I can’t imagine such a radical change in the project at this junction.

    Otherwise, the project is an incredible waste of money and time. 8 years wasted on construction and the inevitable delays when all that is really needed is to fix the 22 bridges.

  6. John says:

    I can’t ride every train because many expresses bypass my station (Main St), but I ride the line nearly every day on a variety of different trains. The schedule is certainly less convenient than before, but I can accept that will happen with construction. The travel times are basically the same, which is what is most important, and I have only found two of the trains to be very crowded. There are some consistent late arrivals that can be tweaked with schedule changes. That was supposed to take place last week, but Metra backed off due to whiny Central St customers.

    Your last sentence contradicts itself. How can it be a waste of time and money to replace the bridges when “all that is really needed is to fix the 22 bridges?”

  7. George says:

    John –

    Seems the reason the project is taking so long (8 years) and so expensive ($185 million) is because they want to raise the height of the bridges, take out the third rail line and reconfigure the remaining tracks to build stations bigger into the right of way.

    It shouldn’t take $185 million and 8 years to just fix the 22 bridges?

    BTW, I also agree that the new schedule was not the end of the world. Seems like it could have worked with some tweaks (although I don’t blame the Central Street commuters, only 2 trains between 7 am and 8 am, and they were 5 mins apart!).

  8. Curt says:

    Aaron, you may have a future in activism. 😉

  9. John says:

    I wouldn’t say Metra wants to raise the height of the bridges. They have to in order to meet design standards. Did you read Metra’s response that Aaron posted here? They have to use deeper girders for new ballast bridges than the old steel girder bridges, which necessitates the need to raise the elevation of the top of rail in order to maintain the existing vertical clearances on the streets.

  10. Roland S says:

    John, that’s just not true. Structurally, you can make a load-bearing member deeper by increasing dimension on the top OR on the bottom. That’s why some buildings, especially from the 60s-70s, have their roof trusses exposed on top of the roof instead of underneath it.

    If Metra wanted to, they could simply leave clearances the way they are and install deeper trusses that rose to a taller height. This is, in fact, what they did to several bridges on the UP-NW line. (That project, by the way, was greatly simplified and sped-up by the presence of a third track.)

    Metra’s decision to increase clearances on the viaducts is solely a matter of improving conditions for road traffic, nothing more.

  11. John says:

    It sounds to me like they want ballast under the tracks on the bridge where there is none now. Maybe this is a standard on which they could compromise?

  12. david vartanoff says:

    As I wrote before, the far smarter plan would be to FIRST build new single track bridges for the presently OOS third track thus creating a bypass for work successively on each of the others. This is BTW a common RR practice. As to ballast/bridge designs girder dimensions, we have better steel than a century ago, surely there are options other than what Metra picked.
    As to whiny customers, they ARE the reasons the trains run–Metra DESERVES complaints for deliberately choosing a customer hostile design.

  13. urbanleftbehind says:

    If they do a third track, should it run only up to Wilmette or should it go all the way up to Waukegan? That ROW is now a bike path through much of the North Shore.

    I also heard rumors about a pedestrian underpass being built at Ravinia Park. I saw some construction equipment and some piling remiscent of bridge abutments there last week. I hope that whole job can be done over a long weekend.

  14. Roland S says:

    John – you’re absolutely right… I forgot about that. Metra wants to switch from direct-fixation bridges to ballasted bridges. I believe this might reduce noise to the surrounding areas and diminish vibrations that wear out the steel.

    leftbehind – Pedestrian underpasses can indeed be built fairly quickly if there aren’t buried utility lines in the way, and if there’s plenty of room for staging.

  15. Aaron M. Renn says:

    Given that the existing bride type lasted 100 years with no major issues, and that the line has experienced excellent safety and operational characteristics during that time, I don’t see how anyone can say that there’s any technical problem with that bridge design.

    I live very close to one of the overpasses. I can’t tell the difference in noise when a train goes over it versus when it is on the embankment. Also, the noise from the once hourly off peak Metra trains is not even close to the screeching of the L.

  16. Alon Levy says:

    It’s normal to have ballast-free bridges and tunnels. Ballast is heavy and deep; it requires bridges to be bulkier and tunnels to have larger diameter, increasing cost. It’s cheaper only at-grade and on embankments.

    The noise issue is real, but if the current noise levels are fine, then there’s no need to install ballast to reduce noise further.

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