BNSF Railway exec promises to fix Metra commuters’ woes

The BNSF Railway’s top passenger rail official promised Metra’s board of directors Wednesday that the railroad would eliminate the causes of overheated and overcrowded coach cars that had commuters boiling mad this summer.

The executive from the Fort Worth, Tex.-based railroad appeared to placate three Metra directors who were harshly critical of BNSF a month ago, and who were not buying the excuses put forth then by another BNSF official. BNSF operates the line under contract to Metra.

D.J. Mitchell, assistant vice president for BNSF passenger operations, said he and and a BNSF vice president for mechanical operations would soon meet with Metra officials and seek to prevent a recurrence of the “hot cars” with failed air conditioning on Metra’s BNSF line. 

“We’re going to sit down with the Metra folks and see why this happened,” Mitchell said. “We owe everyone, first and foremost our riders, to make sure we don’t have this happen next year.”

At one point this summer, there were 64 cars with chronic AC problems on the Metra line to Aurora.  Currently, Mitchell said, there were two hot cars in service and two in the shop being repaired.

“That is a significant improvement over a month ago,” Mitchell said.

The BNSF line is the busiest of Metra’s 11 lines, with 94 trains carrying 64,000 riders a day between Union Station and Aurora.

In addition, Mitchell said trains were now operating…

GO TO 2050 takes hard look at future of transportation in Chicago

Are you concerned about how you will get to work tomorrow? Or next week? Maybe not. But how about how you will get around in five or 10 years? According to the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning (CMAP), rapidly evolving technologies are making for an uncertain, albeit promising, future.

After all, not many people thought 10 years ago that ride-sharing via Uber and Lyft would be as prevalent, convenient, and competitive, price-wise, as taking a CTA bus, train or Metra.

Meanwhile, the transit agencies themselves — CTA, Metra, Pace, and the umbrella Regional Transportation Authority — say billions of dollars in public money is needed over the next 10 years just to keep existing equipment in good operating condition.

And what about our expressways and tollways? The Illinois Department of Transportation doesn’t get anywhere near the state and federal dollars it once did. Meanwhile, the Illinois State Toll Highway Authority is the only game in town when it comes to building new highways because it is awash in toll cash. 

CMAP has developed a new comprehensive regional plan for Northeastern Illinois called ON TO 2050. The plan is divided into five chapters, which are further divided into goals and recommendations. ON TO 2050’s three principles of Inclusive Growth, Resilience, and Prioritized Investment run through all of its recommendations. The plan puts forth goals for community, prosperity, environment, governance, and mobility.

The chapter on mobility is subtitled Achieving…

‘Hot cars’ have Metra riders boiling mad

Metra riders always seem to have something to complain about. “Hot cars” — where the air conditioning has failed — is the latest passenger peeve.

The problem has been especially acute on the BNSF line, Metra’s busiest, with 94 trains carrying 64,000 riders a day between Aurora and Union Station.

That’s the line where complaints of overcrowded trains erupted in June after a new schedule was introduced.

Tempers boil quickly in standing-room-only cars with 90-degree temperatures.

Riders have lit up Twitter with gripes. Here’s a typical one from Friday morning: “@metraBNSF what the hell BSNF Metra? Nearly every other section of this train has a hot car. It feels like a sauna. When is this being fixed?”

Metra’s been getting the message. On Wednesday, Metra’s board of directors summoned the BNSF to explain the cause of the distress. The Fort Worth, Texas-based BNSF Railway operates the line under contract to Metra.

Sherwin Hudson, the head of the BNSF line’s mechanical department, apologized for the problems. He attempted to explain that there were several reasons for the “hot cars,” including  a lack of repair shop time availability, a personnel shortage, and clogged condensers on the AC units.

“They clog very easily,” Hudson said. “It is our leading cause.”

On any day, Hudson said, 12 to 14 of the 211 coaches in the BNSF line’s fleet are experiencing problems with air conditioning, with many cars having…

Martin Oberman named to U.S. rail oversight board

President Donald Trump has nominated former Chicago alderman and Metra chairman Martin Oberman to a Democratic seat on the U.S. Surface Transportation board, the independent regulatory agency that resolves railroad rate and service disputes and reviews proposed railroad mergers.

The likelihood of the nomination was first tipped locally June 27 by the Chicago Transportation Journal.  The nomination was officially posted Thursday on the White House website.

If approved by the Senate, Oberman will fill the remainder of a five-year term expiring Dec. 31, 2023. The open Democratic seat was voluntarily vacated in 2017 by former Chairman Dan Elliott.

Oberman  emerged from a group of at least eight Democrats who were being considered for the last vacancy on the five-member regulatory board, which is the successor to the Interstate Commerce Commission. The agency also has oversight of certain trucking, intercity passenger bus and pipeline matters.

Oberman’s nomination got a strong push last month from the Rail Customer Coalition, an association of trade groups representing major freight rail users.

Oberman, 73, an attorney who built a reputation as a reformer while an alderman on Chicago’s City Council, was named to Metra’s board by Mayor Rahm Emanuel in September 2013. He was elected chairman in 2014, serving until last October, when Norm Carlson took the post.

Oberman also also serves on the board of the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning (CMAP).  Previously, he served as general counsel to the Illinois Racing Board.  Oberman graduated from Yale University and earned his J.D. with honors from the University of Wisconsin Law School, the…

Critics outnumber fans of Union Station plan

Who’s a fan of the proposed “vertical addition” to Chicago Union Station? Except for DePaul University transportation expert Joe Schwieterman, almost nobody. Here’s a sampling of the critics from my story posted today on TRAINS magazine’s News Wire:

Since developers announced plans to remake historic Chicago Union Station on June 25, the critics of the proposal have outnumbered the fans by an overwhelming margin.

In newspaper pages, on blogs, and on social media, the public has generally savaged a design by Chicago-based Riverside Investment & Development and Convexity Properties to top the neoclassical head house, completed in 1925, with a modernistic, seven-story steel and glass addition.

The proposed glass structure would contain 404 apartments. Below, in the existing building, 330 hotel rooms would be built.

Architecture critics say the two designs are incongruous. Writing in The Architect’s Newspaper, Elizabeth Blasius described the addition as “a self-inked address stamper.”

“The proposed addition is not only an imbalance in terms of design, it’s also condescending to the station itself, the architectural equivalent of a head patting, or worse,” Blasius wrote.

Blair Kamin, Pulitzer Prize-winning architecture critic for the Chicago Tribune, followed up on his initial criticism of the design in the newspaper by saying in an interview with Chicago’s WTTW:

“The architects are trying to create a design that they say would be compatible with, yet distinct from the addition. But in this case, the addition is not compatible in the least with the existing Union Station. It’s top heavy. It is a grid,…

Oberman, former Metra chair and alderman, emerges as possible pick for U.S. agency

Martin Oberman, the former Metra chairman and Chicago alderman, is being highly touted to fill a vacancy on the U.S. Surface Transportation Board, the regulatory agency which has broad oversight of railroads.

The Rail Customer Coalition, an association of trade groups representing major freight rail users, is strongly urging that President Trump nominate Oberman to fill the final post on the five-member STB, a seat which must be filled by a Democrat.

Oberman’s name emerged from a list of at least eight Democrats who were being considered for the nomination.

Oberman, 73, an attorney who built a reputation as a reformer while on Chicago’s City Council, was named to Metra’s board by Mayor Rahm Emanuel in September 2013. He was elected chairman in 2014, serving until last October when Norm Carlson took over the post.

Reached Wednesday by phone — typically as he bicycled home from his law office —  Oberman declined to comment on the possible nomination.

The Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation approved the nominations of two Republicans, Patrick Fuchs and Michelle Schultz, as STB members on April 25.

All the nominations must be confirmed by the full Senate.

The Rail Customer Coalition is comprised of 29 manufacturing, agriculture and energy industry trade groups. In a letter Tuesday to Trump, it said “a fully staffed STB is critical to both the continued growth of the economy as well as furthering…

Rail summit topic: death on the tracks

What can be done about death on the tracks? While the number of fatalities from vehicle/train collisions at crossings has dropped significantly in recent decades, deaths involving trespassers on railroad tracks, including people who attempt to commit suicide by train, have risen.

Railroad safety advocates, industry representatives and other officials will meet in Chicago on Thursday, March 22, for a summit on ways to reduce trespass incidents and lower risks at grade crossings.

The session is being organized by the Illinois Commerce Commission, which oversees rail transportation in the state, and is intended to give commission members feedback on options to improve safety, according to Michael Stead, ICC’s rail program administrator.

“We hope that this will be a great opportunity to educate the commission on the issues,” Stead said.

The policy session will feature three panels intended to provide an overview of current railroad engineering education and enforcement strategies.

The first panel, entitled “The Challenge of Pedestrian Safety/Trespass Prevention,” will feature Norman Carlson, board chairman of Metra, Chicago’s commuter rail agency; Dr. Richard Jorgensen, DuPage County coroner; and Paul Piekarski, from the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen.

The second panel, “Pedestrian Safety at Highway-Rail Grade Crossings — Engineering Solutions and Personal Testimony,” will feature Adrian Guerrero, Union Pacific; Elliot Ramos, Illinois Department of Transportation; Dr. Lanny Wilson, chairman of the DuPage Rail Safety Council; and Derek Zook, a sergeant with the Naperville, Ill., Police Department.

The third panel, “Trespass Prevention — What Can We Do?” will feature Scott Gabree, manager of the Grade Crossing Safety and Trespass Prevention Program at…

‘Step-child’ LaSalle St. Station gets rehab

Is the LaSalle Street Station really Metra’s red-headed stepchild? That’s what one commentator on Trains Magazine’s News Wire called it. Unwanted? Neglected?

That viewpoint might change somewhat starting March 26 when Metra launches a $2.95 million rehab project.

The station was once a famed major terminal for the Chicago, Rock Island & Pacific and New York Central railroads but now is only a bare-bones facility serving Metra commuters. No amenities. Largely unprotected concourse. Hard to find unless you know where to go.

Metra says it will replace the station’s concourse and several pillars, the first major renovation on the facility in decades.

Granite pavers and decorative medallions will be installed on the 20,000-square-foot concourse to replace the less-durable concrete surface and to improve the overall aesthetics, officials said.

The station serves Metra’s Rock Island Line to Joliet. The existing facility, built in 1993, is used by more than 13,000 riders each weekday.

“This is a long-awaited opportunity to improve LaSalle Street Station for our customers,” Metra CEO and Executive Director Jim Derwinski said in a statement. “Other than maintenance projects, it’s been more than 25 years since significant improvements were made to the concourse area.”

Contractors plan to work around the clock to minimize the impact on customers, the agency said. Work will be phased, limiting access to different sections of the concourse and platforms as the renovations progress. The first phase will resurface the east side of the concourse, with work then progressing to the west side and finally, to the platform entrances.

Signage and barricades will be placed…

What’s up — or down — with Metra ridership?

Is Metra alarmed that ridership is quickly declining while employment in downtown Chicago is steadily rising? 

Over the past five years, Metra’s ridership has slid 4.4 percent, and 2.2 percent last year alone.

The Electric District, serving the South Side and suburbs, plummeted 14.7 percent, the worst drop of Metra’s 11 lines.

Only one line, the Heritage Corridor, serving the Southwest Suburbs, showed healthy increases, up 3.3 percent during the last five years. But the Heritage Corridor is Metra’s least-used line, with only 2,400 weekday riders.

The Union Pacific West line, serving the western suburbs, showed a 1 percent increase over the last 5 years.

What’s going on here?

The data was presented at Metra’s board of directors meeting Wednesday. Board members expressed concern, but alarm bells didn’t seem to be going off.

Here’s some data, as presented by Lynette Ciavarelli, Metra’s top research person (director of strategic capital planning).

  • Metra provided 78.6 million trips in 2017, down from 83.4 million trips in 2014. (By contrast, Metra provided a record 86.8 million trips in 2008.)
  • Ridership on Metra’s busiest line, the BNSF to Aurora and booming Naperville, dropped 2 percent over five years. The BNSF line provides 63,900 weekday rides.
  • Metra’s peak period ridership levels held steady over the past five years, but off-peak levels fell. (Are these people driving Downtown?)
  • Metra paid an outside consultant to discover that for every fare increase of 10…

Planning agency’s ‘vision’ eyes more tolls

Does the Chicago area lack a “vision” for its expressway system?

Will more tollways or so-called “managed lanes” be part of that plan?

Yes, says the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning, a low-profile public agency responsible for broad-scale land use and transportation planning decisions across the seven counties of Northeastern Illinois.

That vision, CMAP says, “will chart a bold, long-term course for the region’s expressway system” to guide future projects and spending by the Illinois Department of Transportation and the Illinois Tollway.

For too long, CMAP says, the Chicago area has struggled to maintain and modernize its expressways “in the face of persistent funding gaps” and growing congestion. Delays cost the region $7 billion a year in lost productivity and fuel. New ideas and a fresh approach to mass transit are needed.

In announcing the project Thursday, CMAP Executive Director Joseph Szabo said the planning agency was asked by the heads of IDOT and the Tollway to take a “more comprehensive and holistic” approach to the region’s highway management and planning.

Instead of just looking at improving individual tollways or expressways, for example, the CMAP vision will include recommendations for specific 10-15-mile stretches, or “corridors.”

Beyond that, the vision as outlined has no specifics at this point. Those will come later, officials said. But for now, CMAP has set three goals:

First, to support the region’s economy by promoting long-term growth, improving truck freight movement and making the system “financially sustainable.”

Second, to enhance operations with “game-changing” mass transit improvements and preparing for automatic vehicles and new communication technology.

And third, to better manage…