With Metra ridership down 91.5%, railway adding new air purification system to restore confidence

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Train cars sit in front of a Metra station in the snow. With the COVID-19 pandemic and a focus on working remotely, Metra’s monthly ridership has declined significantly during the last year,
With various stay at home orders due to COVID-19 and a focus on working remotely, Metra’s monthly ridership has declined significantly during the last year, and one-third of railcars remain parked. | Jordan Owen

Government stimulus funding is helping the company financially as it saw a 5.5 million fewer passenger trips during the month of January compared to pre-pandemic ridership.

Metra’s ridership continues to remain far below normal — with passenger trips per month still only at 8.5% of pre-pandemic levels — but the transit agency says it plans to add a new air filtration system to help bring customers back.

In January of last year, passengers took nearly six million trips, but a year later, ridership this past January barely broke 500,000 trips, which is 5.5 million fewer than last year. Last month’s number was even lower, at 493,000 trips. Metra had earlier estimated that passenger trips would reach 20% of pre-pandemic levels by 2021.

While the trains saw 25,000 daily passenger trips for the first time since October, the number is still lower than expected.

The reduction in trips has hurt Metra’s bottom line.

In January, Metra saw a huge deficit in rider fares and was way over budget in operating expenses. However, using relief funding from the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act, and a one-time $8 million payment from Northern Indiana Commuter Transportation District, the railway ended the month with a $2.8 million surplus.

During a Wednesday board meeting, Metra Chief Financial Officer Thomas Farmer said the company went over budget in areas like engineering and diesel fuel in part because the current budget was created six months ago when it was hard to predict ridership. There are plans to create a new budget around April.

“That revised budget will reflect some of what our thought processes are with increased ridership in the upcoming months,” said James Derwinski, the CEO and executive director of Metra. “But there is no crystal ball on this. There hasn’t been anyone who’s got this right so far. There’s a lot of things that are out of any of our control.”

Derwinski said Metra will continue to monitor trains to make sure they are safe and not too crowded while waiting for riders to slowly return.

In the first round of federal aid from the CARES Act, Metra received $479.2 million. Under the Coronavirus Response and Relief Supplemental Appropriations Act, transit agencies in the region received $486.2 million; Metra expects to receive an $83 million allotment. The company is still unsure about what the upcoming third round of government funding will yield.

With the second round of funding, Derwinski said Metra will be able to start “turning the lights on” and adding in more trains, as around one-third of rail cars are currently parked.

On Feb. 1, 10 trains were added, bringing the total trains in use to 408.

Metra also plans to host a hiring event within the next couple of months to find more employees to clean coaches and work at the train stations.

On March 17, Metra approved a $6.6 million contract with Transitair Systems to provide new heating, ventilation and air conditioning filtration and purification systems for nearly 700 railcars. This number includes all cars that are not being replaced with newer models.

The HVAC system is expected to remove 99 % of all airborne particulates, bacteria and viruses from railcars. Metra already refreshes the air every four minutes in railcars.

“This is a very essential new addition to the filtration system,” said Board Director and Treasurer Ken Koehler. “And it goes to show how proactive [Metra has] become in regards to the COVID-19 crisis.”

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March 17, 2021 at 07:14PM

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