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Metra board chooses new modern passenger rail cars to replace 1950s “Gallery” cars

2:58 PM CST on January 13, 2021

The new coaches will have level boarding. Rendering by Alstom.

Update: The original version said that the new trains would have level boarding. They will have one step for nearly level boarding.

It looks like it's finally going to happen. Metra has selected a new passenger coach design that will eventually replace the current "Gallery" cars. After a previous RFP in 2016 failed to find a company to manufacture new Gallery cars, Metra issued a new RFP in 2017 and had a single bidder but failed to come to an agreement. Finally, Metra issued a third RFP in 2019 seeking alternative designs. Alstom (France), Bombardier (Canada), and CRRC (China) each proposed modern coach double decker designs. All three train manufacturers have founding and historic headquarters outside of the United States but Alstom and Bombardier have factories in New York, and CRRC has one on Chicago's South Side.

Today, the Metra board adopted a motion to purchase up to 500 coaches of a variation of Alstom's "Coradia" design to replace Gallery cars. According to a press release, "about 40 percent of Metra's current fleet of 840 cars are rated in marginal or poor condition." At full purchase, 500 cars would replace 59 percent of Metra's fleet. The Metra board had agreed in 2014 to purchase new railcars.

Bike racks inside the vestibule
Bike racks inside the vestibule. Rendering by Alstom.

The Gallery design has been in service for about 70 years, and some of the current coaches today are more than half that age. Gallery cars do not meet modern passenger comfort expectations. To adapt them for accessibility requirements, Metra added "ADA contraptions" (as one board member called them) to lift people using wheelchairs the several feet from the platform into the vestibule. The accessible and priority seating area is shared with people who bring their bikes aboard. One door per coach increases the time trains have to spend at each station to slowly exchange passengers.

The exterior of the Coradia coaches look similar to Gallery coaches, and the "cab" end (opposite the end of the locomotive) looks the same, as if there was no engine, rather than adopting the streamlined look of the main line of Coradia trains.

Some of the benefits of adopting this modern passenger train design include:

    • First and foremost, nearly level boarding gives access for people with disabilities, and anyone who has luggage, bicycles, or children. There will be one step up and people using wheelchairs and mobility devices will be able to use a short lift (presumably it's connected to the silver box at 1:55 in the video).
    • People using wheelchairs and people bringing bicycles no longer have to compete for the same space. Dedicated space for people using wheelchairs is inside the vestibule. The Gallery car design has this space behind the doors required to enter a passenger seating area.
    • Bike racks are inside the vestibule to hang bike racks during transport. (However, I'm not in favor of requiring people to lift their bicycles, since this may be difficult for smaller individuals, and I presume that this design aspect is subject to change, especially as Metra is testing a new "bike car" design that creates dedicated space in some of the existing Gallery cars).
    • Two entrances, rather than one, will likely mean that Metra trains don't have to wait at stations as long, as people can more quickly board and disembark.

After I visited Sydney, Australia, in 2019, and rode the excellent, modern regional trains there, I made a "wishlist" of what the next Metra railcar design should respond to. Alstom's video for Metra shows something that I didn't mention in the wishlist: Buttons to open the doors on demand. To save energy and keep heated or cooled air inside, train operators can set the doors to open only on demand, when people want to enter or exit that particular door (in many places around the world this happens all year round and in some places only happens in "winter mode").

I hope you're as excited as I am, but I also hope you can wait until 2024, when the first railcars are expected from Alstom. The Virginia Railway Express, another commuter rail system in the United States, will likely be joining Metra on this order but the VRE board hasn't yet approved their participation.

The new coaches will have level boarding
The new coaches will have level boarding. Rendering by Alstom.
Rendering of upper deck of Metra's new railcars
Rendering of upper deck of Metra's new railcars. Image by Alstom.
Rendering of the lower level of Metra's new railcars.
Rendering of the lower level of Metra's new railcars. The two spaces for wheelchairs are shown. When nobody is using those spaces, seats can unfold. Rendering by Alstom.

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