Lawmakers grill new Metra boss over weather problems

By Jon Hilkevitch Tribune reporter12:05 p.m. CST, February 10, 2014

Metra’s new boss faced an intense grilling Monday at a state hearing looking into the commuter railroad’s massive failures during winter storms.

Lawmakers told Metra CEO Don Orseno that their constituents are greatly dissatisfied with Metra’s recent performance and its inadequate customer communications related to cancelled trains, which often came too late for riders to make alternate plans.

The officials warned Orseno that more excuses and attempts to place blame on Metra’s contract carriers, the Union Pacific Railroad and the Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway, will not be tolerated.

“To say somebody else was responsible, that is not going to fly,” State Rep. Al Riley, chairman of the House Mass Transit Committee, told Orseno.

Orseno responded that his goal during his first appearance before the committee was to provide explanations, not excuses.

But State Rep. Ron Sandack, who represents western suburbs near the Metra BNSF line, said there is a widespread feeling that the Metra system “isn’t what it used to be.”

“It’s a palpable perception among my friends and neighbors,” Sandack told Orseno during a hearing in Chicago conducted by the Mass Transit Committee. And Sandack said many riders are not optimistic that Metra will turn around its slipping track record.

Orseno, a third-generation railroader who formerly was Metra’s operations chief, rejected any suggestion that Metra is “too easy” on the UP and BNSF. He pointed out the two national freight railroads have other priorities and that juggling cargo and passenger trains is a complicated process.

“It’s not as simple as, you say something and it’s going to happen,” Orseno said in response to questioning by State Rep. David Harris, who represents northwest suburbs.

“It’s not that we were not prepared,” Orseno told the committee. “This was a perfect storm to shut our system down.”

But Harris did not appear to be persuaded. He offered Orseno some advice in his new job.

“We have a saying in the military that there are times you have to kick ass and take names,” Harris said. “We don’t want another year or two like the past year or two we’ve had.”

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