Amtrak CEO on the spot over Union Station meltdown

U.S. Rep. Dan Lipinski has some pointed questions for Amtrak’s CEO about that daylong service meltdown at Union Station Feb. 28 that disrupted plans for 100,000 passengers.

Interestingly, Lipinski wants to know if Amtrak contemplates reimbursing those who had to pay for alternate means of commuting home. Uber and Lyft were reportedly charging stranded Metra commuters as much as $125 as a result of “surge pricing.” What Metra trains did leave the station were “load-and-go” jammed. (Tweeted photo above).

The Chicago area congressman, like his father before him, has always played a key role in transportation issues. But Lipinski has a lot more clout now as the new chairman of the House Railroads Subcommittee. He’s putting Amtrak CEO Richard Anderson on notice, giving him until the end of March to respond to nine detailed questions about the snafu.

After the incident, Anderson apologized for the Union Station mess and said the “root cause” of the signal failure was “human error in the process of deploying a server upgrade in our technology facility that supports our dispatch control system.”

That prompted two questions from Lipinski and just about everyone: Why did Amtrak decide to launch a computer upgrade on the dispatch control system during the morning rush hour, when a glitch could — and did — cause chaos? Any IT person will say upgrades are typically done overnight or on weekends to minimize the harm from a system crash.

Squash comes to Union Station

Union Station’s Great Hall is increasingly popular as a venue for public events. This week, it’s a squash court. 

That’s right — squash, as in the sport played on a court with rackets and a ball. That’s different from the kind of squash played by Metra and Amtrak passengers who were herded into the Great Hall Thursday to wait for delayed trains caused by a signal system failure. Amtrak acknowledged Friday that an employee caused the problem while upgrading a server.

A four-walled glass court surrounded by bleachers (photo above) was constructed at the north end of the Great Hall to accommodate the Professional Squash Association’s world championships tournament, held this week through Saturday.

The $1 million tournament has attracted more than 100 top players from more than 25 countries. Reigning champions Mohamed ElShorbagy and Raneem El Welily, both Egyptians, are the top seeds. The top American in the tournament is Amanda Sobhy.  

A bit unusual for a train station to hold a sporting event? Not necessarily, says Marc Magliari, a spokesman for Amtrak, which owns Union Station. The Professional Squash Association, based in Britain, has an affinity for iconic venues and has held tournaments in Vanderbilt Hall at New York City’s Grand Central Station since 2017. 

Amtrak is happy to earn revenue by renting out parts of the facility to help pay the $22 million cost of renovating the famous Great Hall and its soaring…

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…