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Civic and environmental groups call on Metra to get going on zero emissions fleet

A Metra Electric District train on 71st Street in South Shore. Unlike the MED, most Metra lines are diesel-powered. Photo: John Greenfield

At Metra’s monthly board meeting, a coalition of 29 civic and environmental organizations urged Metra, Chicagoland’s commuter railroad, to start testing zero emissions technology. The groups submitted a letter was in response to Metra’s board deciding last month to delay the release of a request for proposals that would have begun the process for launching a pilot. The Active Transportation Alliance was among the coalition organizations and amplified their call for Metra to invest in zero emissions technology in a recent blog post.

Here's an excerpt from the letter to the Metra board: “The future is zero emissions. Metra has the potential to be a global leader in the transition to cleaner, greener passenger train service. This is why we’re so disappointed in your decision to delay the release of an RFP to purchase zero emissions train sets until at least later this fall. We encourage you to reconsider this decision and release the RFP as soon as practical.”

ATA goes on to make the racial justice case for Metra switching to a zero emissions fleet. Diesel is a leading contributor to poor air quality and rising carbon emissions. Oftentimes Black and Brown communities are the most impacted by air pollution given that many of these neighborhoods and suburbs have several freight and passenger rail lines running through them. In addition, Union Station’s passengers and workforce are exposed to high levels of particulate pollution. “By testing zero emissions train sets in these areas, Metra could set the example for how to make our transportation network fairer, safer, and more sustainable.”

Aside from the obvious fuel cost savings and environmental benefits, Metra stands to benefit operationally. Zero emissions train sets can bring “schedule enhancements, increased efficiency and greater reliability,” the letter states. The coalition acknowledges the financial challenges Metra faces when acquiring new fleets and points to an increasing willingness for state and federal governments to grow the pot of funding available to help transit agencies make the switch.

If Chicagoland is to reach its climate goals, “All transit vehicles must be as clean as possible to limit further harm to the air quality and health of our communities, particularly in the most polluted, highest-need areas,” the letter states. The coalition urges transit agencies, in this case Metra, to lead by example by transitioning to zero emissions as quickly as possible in order to “strengthen its case as the core of a more sustainable transportation network in the Chicago region.”

As someone who moved to Chicago because of the transit system, I couldn’t agree more. The San Bernardino County Transportation Authority in southern California will be the first transit agency to provide zero emission passenger rail in 2024 when they roll out a hydrogen-powered train. Perhaps it wouldn’t be so bad for Chicago to live up to our nickname by being the second city to roll out zero emissions passenger rail.

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