Metra says goodbye to the last of the IC Highliners

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Metra executives and employees pose for pictures outside of the last train of Illinois Central-vintage Highlighners to operate in revenue service on the Metra Electric district on Friday.
Bob Johnston
CHICAGO — When old equipment makes its last revenue run, there is often no fanfare. But in Chicago, on Friday, Metra officials made sure to “say goodbye to old friends” as the last of 166 electric multiple unit “Highliners” rolled down to the end of the line at University Park.

The first 130 Highliners were built by St. Louis Car Company and debuted on May 31, 1971, eventually replacing an Illinois Central heavyweight fleet of 140 motors and 140 trailers dating from the 1926 electrification of the line.

Although Metra would inherit bi-levels from commuter railroads on its other routes, these Highliners were the first electrics to have air conditioning. The Chicago South Suburban Mass Transit District had purchased the cars for $40 million, with two-thirds of the cost paid for with a federal transit grant, and leased them back to the IC.

Chicago’s Regional Transit Authority took over in the late 1970s and bought another 36 Highliners from Bombardier for $28 million in 1978-1979. Metra, as the commuter rail division of the authority, took over operations from the IC in 1987.

Once $585 million of state bond financing became available in 2010, Metra placed an order with Nippon Sharyo for 160 cars. The first of these arrived in 2012 and have continued to replace the 1970s-era fleet, with the last of the originals making their final run on Feb. 12.

“About 20 are going to museums — I’ll have to check,” Metra Executive Director Don Orseno tells Trains News Wire aboard southbound train 113, “but we have to scrap the rest because we have no place to put them.”

Metra board member Norm Carlson says that the old and new Highliner fleets comprise two of four generations of rolling stock on the line, which began operating four round-trips per day between Chicago and Hyde Park with steam power in 1856.

“The 1970s cars have become harder and more expensive to maintain, and they don’t have bathrooms or the at-seat electrical outlets our passengers want today,” says Carlson. He points out that the route now has the youngest commuter rail fleet in the country, with the oldest cars being 12 years old.
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