It's that magical time of year and Metra elves are testing train doors, calibrating the nozzles on switch heaters and revving snowblowers.
Metra leaders Tuesday outlined preparations for winter and offered advice for passengers to keep informed about weather-related delays. Here are five take-aways.
• Doors that work seamlessly in good weather can experience epic fails when fine snow gets into nooks and crannies, causing delays and/or chilly vestibules. Metra has replaced doors in 400 cars during the last three years and workers are testing each individually. That includes checking rubber striping, weather sealing and heaters located (who knew?) under the stairs.
• One big cause of delay meltdowns during the Polar Vortex of 2014 came from frozen switches. Metra is inspecting its 275 hot-air switches and 188 mainline switch heaters that use electric current or gas flames. "We're in a better position than we were in 2014" with extra switches in strategic locations and nozzles concentrating heat, incoming Executive Director Jim Derwinski said.
However, when a chunk of ice falls into a switch, it requires human intervention and will cause slowdowns, staff members noted.
• Passenger behavior can also affect train times, Deputy Director of Operations Pete Zwolfer said. In decent weather, regular commuters are usually out on the platforms waiting for the train to pull up. In freezing temperatures, (not surprisingly) they huddle inside the train station until the last minute, which slows boarding.
• When trains roll out of the yard late, it has a domino effect. In frigid weather, Metra may leave locomotives on overnight so they start in the morning, and it has a fleet of snowblowers to clear yards including some capable of a "525-mph" blast.
• Metra sends out alerts on weekdays when trains fall 15 minutes behind schedule. To sign up for email or Twitter alerts, go to metrarail.com.
What's the prognosis for the winter? The Old Farmer's Almanac is predicting a wet and warm winter, but "no matter what the Farmer's Almanac says, I go in the opposite direction," Derwinski said. He added the almanac forecast a mild winter the year of the Polar Vortex.