Chicago's Metra commuter rail agency is trying its best to clear the air. But it's proving to be a complicated process.
Metra announced Friday it has completed air quality studies on its Rock Island line, after a Chicago Tribune investigation found potentially high levels of diesel soot in stations and trains. The agency says it hopes to have testing completed on all lines by mid-December.
"There's never going to be an end to this issue," acting executive director William Tupper told a task force meeting at Metra headquarters. "There's always going to be improvements out there that we will continue looking at."
Tupper says test equipment is being deployed in the first and second cars behind each locomotive, and the last car of every tested train.
Sometimes, the sources of the soot appear to be obvious. Every day, scores of Metra trains (along with their Amtrak cousins) idle in stations, belching dark diesel smoke as commuters make their treks down the platforms. Many of those commuters have long asked why the trains can't be shut down while they load and unload. But railroad officials say it isn't that simple.
"Every trip that that train takes, a brake test is performed," chief mechanical officer Rich Soukup said, adding that the locomotives must continue to idle during that mandatory test. "We are looking at shutting them down within 10 minutes of train time, to keep it to a minimum."
Cleaner engines are available. But Metra says there are few dollars available to begin replacing its aging fleet.
"Cost of a new locomotive, I'm anticipating, is somewhere around four and a half million dollars," Soukup said. Simply retrofitting a locomotive with a more efficient, and hopefully cleaner engine, will run at least $1.7 million.
"Metra has a $2 billion backlog of projects to be done," Tupper said. "We have to look at where we have money available, and what's the best use of our money."
Still, the agency has reacted swiftly to the Tribune's findings, which they did not dispute. Six sub groups were formed, looking at everything from the possibility of new locomotives, to fuel additives, to new sources of revenue. A ventilation group will investigate whether modern buildings, built over the rails years ago, are keeping promises to operate ventilation systems for the now-enclosed tracks below.
"Diesel exhaust contains a lot of cancer causing chemicals," Brian Urbaszewski of the Respiratory Health Association warned. "The smoke particles you see, or even smell, have been connected to asthma attacks, heart attacks, or premature deaths."
But that warning is a double edged sword. Health officials have long advocated mass transit as the best solution for better air.
"We don't want to see people fly off Metra and drive in," Urbaszewski said. "That's going to create a much larger air pollution problem for the area."