Metra and BNSF: problems and promises

Another day, another breakdown on Metra’s BNSF Line. An inbound train locomotive broke down Monday afternoon causing big delays and forced Metra to “load and go” homebound commuters at a jammed Union Station. Another mechanical failure Friday prompted a cancelled train, more delays, and more crowding. 

It was only a week earlier, on Jan. 26, that Metra’s CEO Jim Derwinski (at left, above) and BNSF Assistant Vice President D.J. Mitchell appeared at a town hall meeting in Naperville to discuss service and safety. Both officials also heard riders’ concerns at a town hall meeting in Western Springs on Dec. 11.

The Western Springs town hall was called by U.S. Rep. Dan Lipinski (D-3rd), whose district encompasses much of the BNSF Line. On Tuesday, Lipinski tweeted: “After two terrible weekdays (Metra and the BNSF Railway) must not only explain the problems but fix them!”

It wasn’t the first time Lipinski, who lives in Western Springs, took aim at Metra and BNSF, which operates the line under contract to Metra. As the incoming chairman of the railroads subcommittee of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, he also has enormous leverage over the rail industry.

“We all understand that problems can occur, but this year the Metra BNSF line has failed all too often.  There have been repeated delays, cancellations, broken air conditioners, and other problems,” Lipinski said at the town hall. “I’ve told Metra and BNSF that this is unacceptable and the…

Metra ‘tracks on fire’? Not quite

From ABC to the BBC and with Stephen Colbert in between, the national and international media is obsessed with Metra’s “tracks on fire.”

With the Polar Vortex bringing deep subzero temperatures to Chicago the past few days, the commuter rail agency fired up the gas heaters to keep switches operative and free of ice. The heaters proved to be an eerie and irresistible visual backdrop for news outlets to illustrate how Chicagoans were coping with the deep freeze.

CNN reported: “When it’s this cold, Chicago sets its tracks on fire.”

United Kingdom’s Daily Mail: “Crews light Chicago tracks on FIRE to keep trains moving.”

“Chicago’s so cold they had to deliberately set the train tracks on fire,” joked Colbert on his CBS talk show Wednesday night. 

Not so fast, says Metra spokeswoman Meg Reile, who posted on Facebook: “Ok national and international media, repeat after me: we do not set the tracks on fire in Chicago. You are looking at gas-fired switch heaters. We have guys out there actually making sure the tracks don’t catch fire.”

Reile pointed out that the flames come from a gas-fed system that runs adjacent to the rails, generating heat on the critical areas where the switches are supposed to make contact. Without that contact, the switches default to a failsafe mode, and train movements are halted.

Reile said she heard from more a dozen media…

Metra’s close call with calamity has agency on its heels

Metra is having a mea culpa moment. Several of them, actually.

Over a month after a viral video was posted online of a commuter train’s close call with calamity in the south suburbs — and more than two months after the original incident occurred — the agency’s CEO is acknowledging what happened and, more importantly, what went wrong.

During a lengthy accounting to Metra’s board of directors earlier this month and another one  last week with the agency’s Citizens’ Advisory Board (yes, dissatisfied riders, there is such a thing, and you can participate!), Executive Director Jim Derwinski somberly explained, in gripping detail, the events of that blustery Nov. 9 morning in Mokena.

Those events have come under scrutiny from the Federal Railroad Administration, which has the power to fine Metra for safety violations and punish personnel when rules are broken. 

That video has been viewed more than a million times on Facebook, and at least a million times more on TV newscasts. Taken by a Mokena police officer’s squad car dashcam, the video shows Rock Island Line Train 506 coming thisclose to smashing into the cop’s car at a crossing at 191st Street. The gates and lights had failed to activate. Officer Peter Stanglewicz swerved out of the way just in time. A dark SUV in front barely made it across.

Stanglewicz should be congratulated for his quick reflexes, steel nerves, and, as the audio indicates, self-control…

Lipinski to chair Railroads subcommittee in House

U.S. Rep. Dan Lipinski (D-3rd) will serve as chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee’s Subcommittee on Railroads, Pipelines and Hazardous Materials, according to a committee announcement Thursday.
Lipinski’s subcommittee’s jurisdiction includes all federal laws and programs regulating railroad transportation, including railroad safety, rail infrastructure programs, economic regulation, and railroad labor laws, as well as all federal laws and programs regulating the safety of gas and liquid pipelines and the safety of transporting material and hazardous freight.
Lipinski’s appointment follows the election of Rep. Peter DeFazio (D-Ore.) earlier this month as committee chairman. 
The committee statement said Lipinski was chosen to lead the subcommittee based on his experience and expertise in rail, pipeline, and hazmat safety; freight, commuter (Metra), and passenger (Amtrak) rail issues, performance, and regulation; the fair treatment of labor; and the impact rails and pipelines have on local communities.   

“I grew up 100 yards from the railroad tracks, so I learned first-hand early in life about the issues we all face living with so many rail lines running through our neighborhoods, including blocked crossings, noise, and pollution. I also understand the benefits railroads bring such as good jobs and more environmentally friendly movement of freight,” Lipinski said in the statement.
“I especially look forward to conducting oversight on matters my constituents and others are concerned about, including commuter rail on-time performance, noise pollution, railroad property upkeep in our communities, and reducing blocked crossings, among other issues,” Lipinski stated.

Lipinski is the most senior member from…

Tom Weisner made impact on Chicago railroads and tollways

Many are praising Tom Weisner, the former mayor of Aurora who passed away recently at the age of 69 and who was remembered at a memorial service Monday for his leadership of Illinois’ second-largest city. But the obituaries written about him failed to adequately relate three instances in which his steadfast and principled conduct had an impact on the region and even the nation.

Having covered transportation for the Chicago Tribune, I witnessed Weisner’s years as a director on the Illinois State Toll Highway Board. I also reported extensively about Weisner’s efforts, along with those of Barrington Village President Karen Darch, as both co-chaired a coalition of suburbs who fought against the Canadian National Railway’s purchase of the Elgin, Joliet & Eastern Railroad. This coalition subsequently focused attention on the potential danger posed by the shipment of crude oil by trains

These efforts began in 2007 when CN announced it would pay $300 million to acquire the EJ&E, at that time a lightly used regional line that skirted the metropolitan area. It was a bold move for CN, which was then run by the late E. Hunter Harrison, whose reputation as a hard-nosed, bottom-line-focused CEO would continue to grow in later stints at Canadian Pacific and CSX railroads.

The deal, which CN said would “fill the last gap” in its trans-Chicago network, was designed to allow its freight trains to bypass Chicago’s highly congested rail network. It took a CN train longer to get…

Martin Oberman, former Metra chairman and Chicago alderman, gets railroad regulatory post

Former Metra chairman and Chicago alderman Martin Oberman has been confirmed as a member of the U.S. Surface Transportation Board, the independent regulatory agency that oversees the nation’s freight railroad industry.

The U.S. Senate confirmed Oberman’s nomination late Wednesday along with that of Patrick Fuchs, a senior staff member for the Senate Commerce Committee.

On Thursday, Oberman told the Chicago Transportation Journal that he expected it to be an interesting, even “momentous” time for the board. There are a number of pending issues that could have a significant impact on the railroad industry, he said.

The STB is the independent federal regulatory body responsible for economic oversight of the freight rail system. Run by a five-member bipartisan board serving five-year terms, the STB has regulatory jurisdiction over railroad rates, mergers, service, line acquisitions, new rail-line construction, line abandonment, and other rail issues.

“I think the board will tackle some of those issues to see if changes should be made,” Oberman said, acknowledging that he was eager to learn more about the industry.

“After 50 years of practicing law, I like to think I’m still a fast learner,” he said. “I’ve been studying a great deal since (being nominated last year). I still have quite a bit of a learning curve, but I look at this assignment the same way as taking on complex litigation. You have to learn the law pretty quickly.”

Oberman acknowledged…

CMAP plan makes case for hiking gas tax, adding a per-mile road-usage fee

The Chicago region’s transportation system needs $24 billion over the next three decades just to keep our highways, buses and trains operating in their current condition, but that money is nowhere in sight, according to the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning.

That’s the dire outlook contained in the agency’s newly approved comprehensive plan, “On to 2050,” which guides transportation investments and outlines regional priorities on development, the environment, the economy, and other issues affecting quality of life.

The new plan, three years in the making, was rolled out Wednesday at an event at Millennium Park attended by an array of public officials, civic leaders and concerned citizens. But unless legislators in Springfield, among others, pay attention to the document’s reasons and recommendations and take action, the status quo won’t change. 

On to 2050 covers much ground, which the Chicago Transportation Journal will start to approach these topics with a look at one of its recommendations: increasing the gas tax and replacing it with a “road-usage charge.”

“Systemic shifts are leading to declining revenues, and structural problems make current revenue sources inadequate for maintaining and operating the system,” the plan notes.

For example, revenues generated from the federal and state motor fuel taxes (MFTs) have lost significant purchasing power due to inflation. Meanwhile, average vehicle fuel economy has been rising and vehicle travel has been stagnant, resulting in less fuel consumption.

“These trends will…

Chicago area rail safety advocates gain national support for campaign

Railroad safety advocates in Chicago have gained a “champion” in Washington, D.C.

With his words and a handshake, Federal Railroad Administration chief Ronald Batory agreed to work toward reducing trespassing and suicide deaths by 50 percent by 2026.

“I am totally committed to it,” Batory said, then shook hands in agreement with Dr. Lanny Wilson, chairman of the DuPage Railroad Safety Council. Prior to the conference, Wilson said enlisting Batory’s support on a national level was one of the council’s goals.

Batory was keynote speaker Thursday at the council’s biennial conference, held at the Drake Hotel in Oak Brook. More than 100 safety advocates, public officials, railroad representatives and others were on hand for the daylong session.

The organization launched the campaign in 2016, hoping to replicate the success of the federal Highway-Rail Crossing Safety Action Plan in reaching the goal of reducing crossing incidents and fatalities by 50 percent.

Reducing grade crossing deaths was the original goal of the council, which Wilson, a Hinsdale physician, formed after the death of his daughter, Lauren, in a 1994 crossing incident. Batory  also lived in Hinsdale at the time, and his daughter was a high school classmate of Lauren.

Wilson noted that while highway-rail crossing statistics have steadily improved in recent years, trespasser and suicide statistics have worsened.

Thursday’s conference was intended to continue the discussion about prevention strategies, mental health awareness, and law-enforcement…

Rail safety advocates hope feds will boost campaign to cut track deaths

Chicago area railroad safety advocates are hoping their campaign to reduce trespass and suicide deaths will go national with the help of the Federal Railroad Administration.

FRA chief Ronald Batory will keynote the 2018 meeting of the DuPage Railroad Safety Council as the organization hosts its 12th biennial safety summit on Thursday.

The focus of this year’s conference, entitled Prevent Tragedy on the Tracks, will be to continue the organization’s goal of cutting trespass and suicide deaths 50 percent by 2026, according to  council chairman Dr. Lanny Wilson.

The council is hoping that Batory “will be our champion and take this goal nationwide,” Wilson said.

The council was founded in 1994 to examine ways to heighten awareness and improve safety at highway/railroad crossings and to work with civic, law enforcement and railroad leaders to eliminate deaths and injuries along railways. In 2016, the council expanded its efforts to include reducing trespass and suicide deaths.

Three sessions will be conducted Thursday: The first on research on rail trespass and suicide prevention strategies; the second on mental health initiatives; and the third on law enforcement efforts.

Among the panelists are: Scott Gabree, engineering research psychologist with the Volpe National Transportation Systems Center in Cambridge, Mass.; Patrick Sherry, executive director of the National Center for Intermodal Transportation at the University of Denver; and James Buckley-Waterman of Network Rail Consulting.

Representatives from Highland Park Police, the DuPage County…

For Union Station, a modest ‘penthouse’ is proposed

Advocates for preserving Chicago’s historic Union Station appear to have won a significant battle against developers with a more modern perspective.

A revised plan for the redevelopment of the neoclassic building calls for adding only a single-story “penthouse,” which officials promise would not be visible from street level.

This comes instead of a modern seven-story glass and steel addition that developers — hired by Amtrak, the building’s owner — had proposed in June. That 404-apartment addition was scrapped after a torrent of opposition from preservationists, railroad fans and architecture critics.

At a meeting in the station’s restored Burlington Room Tuesday evening, developers unveiled the latest plans for the building, along with a proposal for a 715-foot, 1.5 million-square-foot office building with an attached parking structure and a 1.5-acre park, to be located on the block south of the station.

The penthouse would be atop two separate hotels totaling 400 rooms. These hotels would be built within the existing fifth and sixth floors of the building.

The penthouse will not be visible from the street, insisted officials with Chicago-based Riverside Investment & Development and Convexity Properties. They backed up this promise with a sight-line diagram showing how the penthouse would be set back and screened from view.

Riverside CEO John O’Donnell called the plan the “revitalization of a Chicago landmark.”

The penthouse would encircle but not block the station’s iconic 219-foot barrel-vaulted skylight that soars above…