Making the Transit System Greener in a Smart Way

Back in 2012, the RTA and its partners—the Service Boards (CTA, Metra, Pace), IDOT, CMAP and CDOT—developed a plan that described the environmental benefits of transit in the region, providing a roadmap to make the system “greener.” Among its recommendations, the Chicago Regional Green Transit Plan included strategies to grow transit ridership and market share, to promote transit-oriented communities, to improve operational efficiency, and to generally “green” the transit system. The agencies moved ahead with a few recommendations like small energy improvements, but it was difficult to make significant improvements to the resiliency of the transit system without significant new capital funding.

Fast forward to January 2018, when the RTA Board adopted Invest in Transit, the strategic plan that sets a bold vision and goals for our region’s transit agencies over the next five years. In addition to highlight the importance of transit, the plan identified the vital importance of new, sustainable capital funding. Invest in Transit has shaped the activities of the region’s Transit Agencies and has served as the basis for a campaign seeking additional capital funding. Thanks to the subsequent passage of Rebuild Illinois, the largest capital program in our state’s history, the transit agencies can start making investments that advance the priorities of Invest in Transit, the green transit plan, and other foundational studies.

One such investment will be in commuter rail locomotives. Invest in Transit identified a $2.1 billion need for purchasing and modernizing Metra rail cars and locomotives, and one recommendation of the green transit plan was to examine the use of alternative fuels. So last year, Metra and the RTA worked together to investigate the feasibility of converting part or all of Metra’s locomotive fleet from one that runs on diesel fuel to a cleaner, alternative fuel source such as natural gas. The objective was to understand the environmental and potential cost savings, in addition to the safety and regulatory requirements, of new fleet purchases.

In mid-2019, a consulting team led by LTK Engineering Services completed a report that includes current best practices, feasibility and conversion details, and recommendations. It identifies a dual-fuel approach combining diesel and compressed natural gas (CNG) as the most beneficial alternative fuel solution that could reduce fuel and conversion costs without compromising train performance.

However, the report ultimately concluded that switching to an alternative fuel source would not be cost effective at this time. Why? Because no company currently manufactures CNG dual fuel locomotives; the cost to convert existing locomotives is very high; and gaining a return on that investment could take up to 15 years. Also, newer diesel locomotives are more fuel-efficient and emit fewer emissions than the older generations in Metra’s fleet. Although switching from diesel to CNG may not be the best use of resources today, the project has served an important function by arming Metra with the best available information as they plan investments in rail vehicles enabled by the new Rebuild Illinois funding.

Metra is very appreciative of the chance to collaborate with the RTA on the Locomotive Alternative Fuel Study.  The information contained in the report will allow Metra to make more informed decisions on future rolling stock acquisitions which will ultimately benefit riders in our region.

Sean R. Cronin, Senior Director, Metra Mechanical Capital Projects