Metra double whammy: Weather delays spur RTA review, legislative hearing

BY ROSALIND ROSSI Transportation Reporter January 15, 2014 12:38PM

The chairman of the RTA Wednesday ordered a “post-mortem” on weather delays endured by Metra train riders last week, while lawmakers scheduled a hearing on the same topic.

The double-whammy of scrutiny erupted just as Metra had seemed to have put the buzzsaw of controversy surrounding the up to $871,000 buyout of its ex-CEO behind it.

But last week’s Chi-Beria of a cold snap and snowstorm brought Metra complaints to the forefront again.

State Rep. Al Riley (D-Olympia Fields) on Wednesday scheduled a hearing for 10 a.m. Jan. 27 at the Bilandic Building on Metra’s “recent train service schedule interruptions.” The CTA’s new Ventra fare payment systems and overall operations at Metra, CTA and Pace also will be covered, Riley said.

The hearing was set after State Rep. Ron Sandack (R-Downers Grove) wrote House Speaker Mike Madigan (D-Chicago) to request some kind of legislative hearing on Metra and to express his “deep concern over the near complete breakdown” of Metra during last week’s arctic blast.

Last week, Sandack said, constituents who take mostly Metra’s BNSF line “were outside waiting for trains that never came or were hours delayed. That’s crazy. That’s a safety issue.’’

Meanwhile, RTA Chairman John Gates Jr. Wednesday ordered his staff to determine if two railroads under contract with Metra — BNSF and Union Pacific — can be penalized for last week’s flurry of delays and cancellations.

While Metra staff did a “yeoman job” during last week’s storm, “nonetheless there were serious delays that seemed to exceed those of comparable systems that experienced similar weather conditions across the country,’’ Gates said.

Gates also blasted Metra for “very poor” communications with many riders, who were left “stranded at stations throughout the system, particularly UP.’’

Metra spokesman Michael Gillis said later Wednesday that there are no “performance agreements” with UP and BNSF, so the railroads can only be penalized for “non-fare collection in cases where we can demonstrate it [fare collection] didn’t happen and could have, which we have done infrequently.’’

However, Gillis said, “We are reviewing our options regarding the performance of the UP and BNSF.”

Gates also asked staff to examine Metra’s “capital allocation” because “a great deal of what occurred was due to service breakdowns on very old equipment.’’ He noted that Metra faces $9.7 billion in capital needs in the next 10 years, yet has not flexed its power to float $1 billion in capital bonds.

A top RTA staffer said Gates ordered the equivalent of a “post-mortem” on Metra’s weather delays.

Interim Metra CEO Don Orseno on Tuesday blamed much of Metra’s problems on powdery snow, high winds and subzero temperatures that wreaked havoc with Metra’s 3,000 switches and other equipment.

However, weather-related problems lingered into this week, when UP and other riders experienced “shortened” — and packed — trains while winter-damaged cars were being repaired. Even Orseno conceded that when shortened trains are jammed with riders, conductors are unable to maneuver through them to collect fares.

By Wednesday’s evening rush hour, UP was contrite. Conductors on the UP-North line read to passengers an apology about last week’s weather-related delays and this week’s shortened trains that caused crowded cars.

Contributing: Fran Spielman

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Twitter @rosalindrossi

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