It’s going to be in the sixties and sunny for the next few days, and memories of record snowfall and Metro closures are quickly fading. But I want to take you back a month, to twenty-inch snowfalls and closed federal offices. Every time that we’ve had a massive snowfall in the area over the last 22 years that I’ve been here, someone suggests that Metro should buy equipment to deal with big snow falls. And every time the idea gets shot down with an argument about how we can’t afford to be prepared for once every seven years/decade/lifetime storms.
With each mounting inch of snow, and each dollar that it costs to dig out, I began to doubt that, and I decided to see how much it costs to buy equipment that might help Metro fight the snow. I contacted the friendly folks at the Chicago Transit Authority and asked them about their equipment and what they do to handle the snow.
Metro closes all above ground stations when snow reaches between six and eight inches. They do this to protect the undercarriage of the trains and for fear that trains won’t be able to get power from the electrified third rail. In contrast, CTA has no such predetermined parameters and try and maintain normal service until it is unsafe to do so.
They manage this by using a combination of snow fighting tools: plows on the front of trains, ice scrapers on each of 1190 rail cars for scraping ice and sleet from the third rail, de-icing equipment on 182 rail cars to fight the formation of ice in the first place. On top of that, CTA has four diesel-powered snow fighter locomotives “with a snow blower at one end and a rotating broom at the other that are capable of removing snow in excess of eight inches from all rail system tracks.”
So what would it cost to equip Metro with similar capability? Surprisingly, it’s not as much as I would have thought considering the number of times the idea was dismissed during my years here. I’d like you to keep in mind that these numbers are for Chicago’s system, and that the two systems do not have identical rail cars. CTA also manufactures some of their snow fighting equipment themselves (like the de-icing equipment), and none of these numbers include the cost of labor or maintenance.
With that out of the way, let’s take a look at the big ticket items, those diesel snow blowing trains. CTA bought theirs years ago, and prices then aren’t what they are now, but they were kind enough to tell me that current pricing for similar locomotives would be between $1.8-$2 million a train. Assuming Metro were to get the same number of these locomotives (which is to say, assuming on the high side), that’s $8 million.
CTA tells me that the cost of rail car snow plow blades depends on the car model, either $365 or $490. Again, I’m going to assume that WMATA’s rail cars will require the more expensive plows, and that you will need to fit two on each of 140 trains. That’s a high side estimate of about $140,000.
The ice and sleet scrapers are $210 per rail car, and to buy enough for Metro’s approximately 850 cars that are used during rush hour would cost $178,500. If we bought enough for the entire fleet of 1126 rail cars, the cost would be just under a quarter million dollars.
Again, if we round way up, it looks like it would take about $10 million to equip Metro with enough snow fighting equipment to keep going through a Chicago winter. That’s 38″ of snow a season, on average.
Metro’s storm losses (between December and February) will amount to over $20 million. They will recoup most of that money from FEMA, so maybe FEMA should consider helping the system be prepared for the next big snow? Even better, the supposed cost in lost productivity for each day the Federal government is closed is $100 million. If having a working Metro could have meant one less day of closures, this equipment will have paid for itself ten times over.
Maybe, just maybe, instead of paying for the damage Mother Nature hands out we could spend a fraction of that cost on preparing for her wrath.