For the first time since the onset of last week's perilous weather, Metra's top management turned out publicly Tuesday in a bid to repair the agency's image, battered by weather-induced delays, cancellations and most recently shortages of passenger cars.The laws of physics are immutable, and slowing a train implies friction between wheel and brake-shoe, and colder metal is more brittle. Managers credit staff for their efforts.
But passenger satisfaction didn't appear to be on the rise on some lines.
Maintenance issues that have necessitated the removal of many cars on the three busy Union Pacific lines have caused crowding of passengers and many fares going uncollected, problems officials said would be fixed by Friday.
As many as 29 cars were out of service Monday, most on the UP North, Northwest and West lines. On Tuesday that number was cut to 11 on the UP lines, Metra said. Worn brakes and malfunctioning doors caused most of the problems, officials said.
The car shortages were a source of numerous complaints from riders. Commuters reported being crammed onto trains that were missing as many as four cars.
Interim Executive Director Donald Orseno, flanked by other Metra officials, was apologetic Tuesday for the inconveniences that passengers have been experiencing but insisted that Metra took every step possible to combat the paralyzing cold and obstinate snow.Union Pacific, however, made no friends by deciding to convert a Wisconsin Division local to a Crystal Lake express, herding passengers for destinations short of Crystal Lake off the train at Clybourn, a set of open platforms at the junction of the Wisconsin Division and the Milwaukee Division, with the promise of space on a following train five minutes behind. That train also encountered troubles leaving the station, turning up 30 or 45 minutes (sources vary) later.
"Everything we did was an extraordinary challenge due to the conditions," said Orseno, addressing members of the Chicago Transportation Research Forum, other transit advocates and the news media at Metra's headquarters. "We had to go from Plan A to Plan B to Plan C."
Overall, Metra's employees performed a "Herculean effort," said Orseno, a 30-year veteran of the commuter rail agency who started off operating locomotives.
Regarding an incident Jan. 6 on the UP Northwest Line during which scores of passengers were left at the open platform at the Clybourn stop in subzero temperatures, Orseno put the blame on the Union Pacific employees who run the line. Top UP officials "were deeply disturbed the decision was made. That will not happen again," Orseno said. "Metra is very sorry for the inconvenience."Yes, once upon a time, the railroads might have run late in inclement weather, but run they did. The unthinkable is no longer unthinkable.
Metra board members who attended the session Tuesday stood behind Orseno and the other officials.
"He and his team have been doing an outstanding job," said board member Norman Carlson, who represents Lake County. Added board member John Plante of Wilmette: "No plan can encompass every eventuality."
Still, veteran riders like [Wisconsin Division commuter Clayton reacted with skepticism, saying cold weather is normal in Chicago.
"I thought after 150 years of railroads being in existence, they should have this stuff figured out by now," Clayton said. "Blame whatever you'd like. Regardless, it's an excuse."
It was so cold Jan. 6, board member Don De Graff questioned if Metra should have even provided train service.I propose that the negotiations, and the resulting protocol, also cover the operation of scoots during thunderstorms. I exaggerate only slightly when I observe that a thunderstorm in Rockford ties up the Galena Division (my Elburn service) until there are clear skies in Elkhart, Indiana.
“Public schools were closed. Most businesses were closed....There was a significant amount of justification for contemplating whether we should have been open at all,’’ said De Graff, who also serves as South Holland mayor. “Are we advocating, by being open, that people travel?”
Drawing the most heat was a decision by UP on Jan. 6 to dump dozens of passengers from the Ogilvie Transportation Center at the unprotected Clybourn station so the train could run, unscheduled, express to Crystal Lake. Another Metra train was supposed to be five minutes behind, but it, too, was delayed by sub-zero weather problems.
“That is a big black mark,’’ [Metra board member Arlene] Mulder, former mayor of Arlington Heights, told UP Friday. “This is something no one is ever gonna forget. It’s just lucky no one had a serious backlash personally.’’
[Union Pacific's David] Connell said the decision to suddenly run the train express was a “tactical” one made “with the best of intentions.’’
“I can’t apologize intensely enough for that event,’’ Connell said.
One of the dumped passengers, Mary Fain, 51, of Jefferson Park, told the Chicago Sun-Times Friday she’s still mad about being abandoned for some 45 minutes in record-breaking cold with about four dozen other passengers. Several elderly gentlemen were on the platform, she said. One girl’s face was so “scarlet” from the bitter cold and wind it looked “painful,’’ she said.
“It was the stupidest thing ever — in the world,’’ Fain said. “Every time I hear Metra say it’s `apologizing for this inconvenience,’ I want to say, `How many times are you going to say that before you start doing something about it?’ ”
Under prodding from board members that UP should not be able to make such a decision — particularly about bitter cold weather — without informing Metra, Connell agreed to discuss setting up a protocol for when Metra should be brought into the loop. UP runs trains under contract with Metra.
Metra Board member Jack Schaffer said he wanted it “in writing” that UP practices would be changed so “we never have another Clybourn incident.’’
That's a H--l of a way to run a Railroad!