31.10.02

INCENTIVES MATTER UK Transport asks why a passenger train operating authority in Chicago might succeed, while there are problems moving people around in the UK.

"The unusual thing about METRA is that it is highly fragmented. The label encompasses four train operators and nine infrastructure operators - and yet it works. We, in the UK also have fragmentation and many (including myself) believe that it is that fragmentation that has done so much damage to the industry."

In the UK, the fragmentation is working backwards, you're resurrecting pre-Grouping company names in some cases. On the other hand, the routes of Metra (with the exception of the North Central service) are the routes of long-established railway companies: the Illinois Central and tenant South Shore for the electric lines; the Rock Island for the Joliet service; the Gulf Mobile and Ohio for the Heritage Corridor Joliet service; the Wabash for the Orland Park service; the Burlington for Aurora; the Milwaukee for the Elgin and Fox Lake service; and the Chicago and North Western for the Geneva, Harvard, and Kenosha service. Metra began by purchasing service from the railway companies. The brand label came later. Some Chicago and North Western riders viewed the Metra label as a step backwards.

"So why can fragmentation be made to work in the States but not here? I think the reason lies with those infrastructure controllers. Now I am guessing here but my guess is that most of that infrastructure is owned by private companies who specialise in operating freight trains. I would also guess that the majority (in cash terms) of the trains using those tracks are freight trains."

Metra owns some of the terminal trackage and three of the downtown stations (Randolph Street, LaSalle Street, and North Western, now officially the Oglivie Transportation Center, but cab drivers know "North Western" if that's your request.) Amtrak owns Union Station and the approach tracks. Suburban trains share tracks with Amtrak passenger trains and with freight trains. In most cases, the dispatchers have had long experience with combining freight and passenger trains, and the Burlington is particularly interesting as trains cross to or from the center express track at several interlockings. There are curfews in the Metra purchase of service arrangement that limit the entry of freight trains into suburban territory during rush hours; we see freights waiting in DeKalb for clearance to the yards. And should the dispatchers lose sight of their responsibilities, Metra lets the contractor railroad know. Union Pacific had to learn that lesson the hard way in 1995, when they bought the Chicago and North Western and assigned inexperienced (with the discipline of passenger railroading) dispatchers to work the Chicago and North Western desk.

A little help for our British guests: the dispatcher controls the movement of trains. When I refer to a desk, that is analogous to a panel signal box. But the panel signal boxes are at a central location, such as Omaha for the Union Pacific, and Stevens Point for the Wisconsin Central, before that sold out to Canadian National.

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