Update: A Latino is appointed at RTA after Arroyo asks, Where’s the ‘brown’ on Metra’s board?

State Rep. Luis Arroyo says he is helping Metra, but Metra isn’t helping Latinos.

Arroyo, chairman of the House committee that wrote the $45 billion “Rebuild Illinois” state infrastructure program, appeared before Metra’s board Wednesday to take credit for helping the agency receive about $1.6 billion of that funding. He congratulated Metra for having “hit the lottery” with the legislation that Gov. J.B. Pritzker signed in June.

But the Chicago Democrat also chided Metra for a lack of Latino members on the agency’s board, calling it a “good old boys network” that needed to change. He pointedly expressed his disappointment that he didn’t see any “brown” faces before him. 

“I don’t see no Latinos on this board. I don’t see no Latino women on this board,” said Arroyo, who was born in Puerto Rico, according to his bio. “With all due respect … this looks like a good old boys network to me. That needs to change.”

On Thursday, the Regional Transportation Authority announced that business executive David Andalcio, a Latino who was born in Trinidad, was named to fill a vacancy on the RTA’s board. Andalcio will represent DuPage County, replacing longtime director Patrick Durante.

The RTA oversees Metra, the CTA and Pace and worked with the transit agencies to lobby for passage of Rebuild Illinois.

“Director Andalcio’s experience in business and government and his entrepreneurial leadership will add a vital and…

Comment: If Amtrak wants more rent for Union Station, Metra should get more control

Metra and Amtrak are fighting over the rent, but what about the service?

Amtrak, which owns Union Station, has declared an impasse in the yearlong negotiations over how much the commuter rail agency should pay to use the facility.

That amount was $9.66 million in FY 2018. Reportedly, Amtrak wants to increase that by several million dollars, but Metra wants to cut it to less than $7 million a year.

Amtrak contends Metra should be paying more because its use of Union Station has increased significantly over the years. Amtrak also says there are “significant gaps in other cost categories, including operating expenses, policing, liability and overall capital investment.”

As a result, Amtrak has asked the federal Surface Transportation Board, the agency that regulates U.S. railroads, to step in and resolve the dispute. Metra agrees. Although the current lease will expire Monday, both sides say no disruption of service or other operational changes will occur at the station.

That’s good news for the 109,520 passengers who ride the six Metra lines, including the BNSF,  that use the station.  

But money isn’t everything. Metra ought to be demanding that Amtrak do a better job of ensuring that commuters get better service. That means reducing the signal and switch problems that frequently cause delays for trains at Union Station. Or ensuring no more human screwups like the one that occurred Feb. 28 when an Amtrak…

Metra ‘attacking’ hot-car problem

Metra trains will run a little slower the next few days because of the excessive heat, but passengers should be cooler, officials promised Wednesday.

The agency announced via Twitter that, as a safety precaution, trains will operate at reduced speeds due to the potential triple-digit temperatures predicted for Thursday through Saturday.  

“Reduced speeds will ultimately result in slightly longer travel times,” Metra warned. The agency explained that when temperatures exceed 95 degrees, Metra is required to reduce train speed by 10 mph to compensate for heat-related stress on the tracks.

“This is a required safety practice that we must follow,” Bruce Marcheschi, Metra’s deputy executive director/chief operating officer, told Metra’s board. 

Most of the Chicago area will be under an Excessive Heat Watch for several days as heat index values could rise as high as 112 degrees in some places. 

But while trains may be slower, improved maintenance of the air conditioning units on Metra’s coaches should make the ride more comfortable, Marcheschi said.

“I’m happy to say this year was a great improvement over last year,” Marcheschi said. The number of reported problems are down by 78 percent, he said. 

“We are attacking this problem,” Marcheschi said. “When we do get a complaint … we get on top of it right away.”

The problem of “hot cars” due to air conditioning failures was especially acute last…

CN Railway vs. suburbs again

The battle between Canadian National Railway and suburban homeowners has flared again. 

A decade after CN won federal approval to acquire the former Elgin, Joliet & Eastern Railway line in 2009, CN is seeking to lay a second track along four-plus miles of the line in Hoffman Estates and Elgin. Residents of those areas don’t like this plan, and are fighting back. 

But it’s not just another case of NIMBY-ism. So please don’t cite that old “railroads were here first” argument.  

Created in the 1800s, the EJ&E had been lightly used in latter years. Many suburbs sprung up along the 198-mile arc around Chicago. Homeowners literally had “the J” in their backyards, but didn’t mind too much. But CN, and it’s brash CEO, E. Hunter Harrison, realized the acquisition would be a faster and more efficient way to bypass Chicago’s congested rail hub.

So instead of a few trains a day, CN’s plan was to bring dozens of mile-long-plus double-stacks carrying Chinese-made goods through these communities. Suburbs like Barrington and Aurora fought the acquisition, saying these trains would tie up crossings, block emergency responders, and transport hazardous products like crude oil dangerously close to homes and schools. CN ultimately won regulatory approval from the U.S. Surface Transportation Board.

CN, acting under its Wisconsin Central Ltd. Railroad subsidiary, has applied to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers for a permit to construct the additional main line track…

2 new Metra BNSF trains coming; more weekend service on 2 other lines

Two new weekday trains are coming for Metra BNSF commuters, and more weekend trains are on tap for Rock Island and UP Northwest riders.

Metra plans to schedule a new train during the morning and evening rushes on the BNSF Line to address concerns that resulted from last year’s implementation of positive train control, CEO/Executive Director Jim Derwinski said.

Both trains will be included in a new BNSF Line schedule to be unveiled in June, Derwinski told Metra’s board of directors.

The additional trains “will be a great enhancement” to the BNSF schedule, Derwinski said, adding that the other timetable revisions will be “very minor.”

Metra’s schedule lists 28 BNSF Line trains arriving at Chicago Union Station between 6 a.m. and 9 am., and 22 trains departing between 3 p.m. and 6 pm. The BNSF Line to Aurora carries 64,000 daily riders, the most of Metra’s 11 lines. 

In June 2018, Metra revised its schedule for the BNSF line due to the implementation of PTC, the federally mandated technology intended to automatically stop a train to prevent a collision or derailment. The changes were needed because PTC requires more time to “flip,” or prepare for a return trip.

But even though the revised schedule had been announced three months prior, the changes prompted so many overcrowding complaints that Metra was compelled to issue an apology.

Metra also announced Wednesday that…

Amtrak says ‘no’ to Metra riders stranded at Union Station by blunder

Amtrak says it won’t reimburse Metra riders for the blunder that shut down Union Station Feb. 28, causing chaos for an estimated 100,000 commuters and Amtrak passengers.

Even though Amtrak “deeply regrets this mistake and its consequences” and takes responsibility for the screwup — saying it was “human error” caused by a technician installing equipment — it’s tough luck for Metra riders. Some of them were reportedly facing tabs of as much as $125 by Uber and Lyft for rides home.

That’s what Amtrak told U.S. Rep. Dan Lipinski, chairman of the House Subcommittee on Railroads, in a letter this week. Lipinski says he is “extremely disappointed” with Amtrak’s explanation for the major service breakdown at the station and Amtrak’s response. 

“It’s wrong that Amtrak has decided they will not compensate stranded commuters who were forced to spend money out of pocket to get home,” Lipinski said in a statement. The congressman said that Amtrak CEO Richard Anderson had told him personally that that Amtrak would consider compensation because the railroad has a reimbursement policy for its own passengers.

“Compensating passengers for Amtrak’s preventable error would be a good way of showing leadership and accountability and would also serve as an incentive to avoid future failures,” Lipinski said.

Lipinski’s office released the letter from Stephen Gardner, Amtrak’s vice president for marketing, in response to a series of questions the congressman posed about the incident. The signal problem…

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…