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…

Metra to ‘break silence’ on suicides

Reposted from Trains Magazine:  Officials at Metra say it’s time to tackle a topic that many in the rail industry have long considered taboo: death by train.

The commuter rail agency, in partnership with Amtrak and the DuPage Railroad Safety Council, sponsored a daylong symposium entitled “Breaking the Silence.” The Sept. 27 session at Union Station was intended to coordinate a strategy to prevent suicides along the tracks.

The agency gathered nearly 100 mental health experts and community members to help in its campaign to install suicide prevention signs along its 11 lines by the end of the year.

Metra Board Chairman Norman Carlson said the agency wanted to develop a collaborative regional strategy to address the problem.

The primary goal “is saving human lives,” Carlson said. “That is our principal objective.”

The event coincided with Rail Safety Week. September was also National Suicide Prevention Awareness month.

Metra announced the campaign in July after a spate of suicides in the Chicago area. So far this year, Metra said it has tallied 21 suicides or suspected suicides, more than in each of the previous five years.

The problem of suicide by train is particularly acute in the Chicago area, experts say, because the city is the nation’s railroad hub, served by six Class I railroads and Amtrak. Metra itself runs more than 700 trains a day.

The agency said it has so far trained more than 700 engineers, conductors and other employees to recognize individuals in despair and to intervene.

Although this program has been successful, Carlson said the agency needed to do more to “break the silence”…

Feds reject Great Lakes Basin railroad bypass around Chicago

Federal regulators have derailed a private corporation’s plans to build a new, multibillion-dollar, 261-mile railroad to bypass Chicago’s notorious freight congestion.

The U.S. Surface Transportation Board rejected an application from Great Lakes Basin Transportation Inc., saying the Crete-based company’s financial information is incomplete and “fundamentally flawed,” making it impossible to determine if Great Lakes can meet required statutory criteria.

In its decision issued Thursday, the three-member board pointedly described the financial fitness of Great Lakes as “clearly deficient,” based on the company’s admission that its current assets at the end of 2016 amounted to only $151.

The STB also questioned an “unexplained line item” in a balance sheet submitted by Great Lakes. That line item, for a negative $1,203,545, “appears to account for a substantial difference between (Great Lakes) assets and its liabilities and stockholders’ equity,” the decision said.

Great Lakes and its founder and managing partner, Frank Patton, have long promoted the $2.8 billion project as a remedy for Chicago’s “19th Century jumble” of freight rail lines. It’s often said that West Coast trains loaded with Asian imports can take days to pass through the city’s chokepoint to Eastern customers.

Great Lakes’ plan, filed with the STB on May 1, called for building a new railroad line in an irregular arc from southeast Wisconsin through Illinois and ending in northwest Indiana, across mostly rural land.

Indeed, Canadian National Railway followed the very same strategy when it won STB approval in 2008 to purchase the little-used Elgin, Joliet & Eastern Railway, giving it a bypass around Chicago.

Great Lakes told the…

Use caution with Union Station redevelopment

IMG_0043Guest commentary: Union Station is key element in Crossrail plan for unified, regional rail service

By Alan Mammoser

Historic Union Station, with grand columns and Great Hall, stands solemnly in the West Loop as is has for nearly a century. But the old station is in the news a lot lately. Recently, Amtrak and Mayor Emanuel announced a $1 billion plan to redevelop this relic of railroading’s golden age. They foresee a new hotel and condos atop the Great Hall, and new towers on adjacent blocks.

It’s an impressive plan that should generate revenue for the city and Amtrak. But it misses the big picture. The big picture for Union Station is much more than a real estate deal. The big picture includes not just the Great Hall but extends across Canal Street to the Concourse. It’s there, in the tracks beneath a nondescript 1960s-era office tower, that the key to revolutionizing Chicago-area transit lay.

Any plan to enhance Union Station’s real estate values should also recognize that its redevelopment can transform Chicago-area transit. Done properly, this plan will give Chicago a world class rail system, one fit for a global city. Done improperly, it could compromise the irreplaceable transportation jewel that Union Station is.

The plan announced in May shows no sense of the need to upgrade the rail network beneath the streets, where Amtrak and Metra face limited space to serve a growing ridership. Worse, its massive scale actually threatens future transit improvements, because its big towers sit directly…

Reformer Martin Oberman leaves Metra board

(My story from TRAINS magazine News Wire)oberman Former Metra Chairman Martin Oberman, who was credited with helping restore public confidence in Chicago’s commuter rail agency after scandal and controversy, departed the board of directors Wednesday.

Oberman, 72, 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 Norman Carlson took the post.

Oberman tells Trains News Wire that he and Emanuel recently discussed his tenure and decided it was time to leave the board.

“He wanted me to focus on other areas,” Oberman says. “Nothing’s been spelled out yet.”

Metra has an 11-member board of directors appointed by the chairmen of the six Northeastern Illinois county boards, Cook County commissioners, and Chicago’s mayor.

Oberman said two key accomplishments that occurred during his term were helping to professionalize Metra and remove political patronage, and putting the agency on a more secure financial footing.

He refused to take personal credit.

“One person can’t do it,” Oberman says. “Whatever I was able to do required the support of the board and working with the executive director.”

Metra CEO Don Orseno will be leaving the agency this fall after serving more than 30 years in various posts.

Oberman took over at Metra after the agency came under fire for ousting former Executive Director Alex Clifford, who became embroiled in a dispute with some board members over political…

Metra hikes CEO’s pay

Just one month after raising fares an average of 5.8 percent, Metra’s board of directors Wednesday awarded a 9.7 percent pay hike to Executive Director/CEO Don Orseno based on what they termed his outstanding job performance.

Orseno’s annual salary rises to $317,500 from $289,500, retroactive to Oct. 1. It’s the second pay hike for Orseno in just over a year; he received a 10 percent increase in September 2015.

Metra board members said the higher salary was “market-based” in comparison with the railroad industry and that Orseno “exceeded performance expectations” in his annual review. Officials said Orseno also earns less than his counterparts at comparable public transit agencies on the East and West Coasts.

Metra Chairman Norman Carlson said Orseno tallies 60-65-hour workweeks, and cited Orseno’s 42-year railroad career, including early work as locomotive engineer, and the last 36 years at Metra.

“We are lucky to have him,” Carlson said.

By comparison, CTA President Dorval Carter Jr. is paid $239,112 a year, according to the Better Government Association’s public payroll database.

In addition to running Metra, Orseno has leadership positions with national public transportation and commuter rail organizations, Carlson said.

Orseno took charge of Metra in the wake of the board’s controversial ouster of former Executive Director Alex Clifford in 2013.

Fare increases that will take effect on February 1, 2017 include an additional 25 cents on one-way tickets; an additional $2.75 on 10-ride tickets; and an additional $11.75 on monthly passes.

Metra also announced that Uber would pay Metra $900,000 over three years to be the agency’s “official rideshare partner.”

In return, Metra…

Not right time for new Metra chairman

Every railroad needs to operate on schedule, right Metra riders? If the timetable says departure is at 8:15 and arrival is 8:45, passengers expect Metra to stick to it. Doesn’t always happen, of course.

The commuter rail agency’s board has a policy that says that its chairmanship should operate on a schedule, too. That policy, adopted in 2012, requires that the leadership post be rotated every four years among the board members from Cook County, including Chicago, and the board members from one of the five other counties that Metra serves.

It’s kind of like a term limit. That policy was one of the first reforms to emerge from the Phil Pagano scandal, and was aimed at curbing the kind of one-man rule under which Metra operated for decades.

You remember Pagano? He was the autocratic executive director who committed suicide in 2010 after being caught stealing $475,000 in vacation pay and forging memos to cover it up.

For too long, Pagano ran Metra virtually unchallenged. Metra’s 11-member board of directors, comprised of political appointees hand-picked by the six county chairs and commissioners, gave him free rein. For most of this time, Metra’s chairman, from distant McHenry County, was Pagano’s enabler. Patronage was rife. Contracts went to pals. One board member went to prison.

Pagano’s unchecked greed exposed a glaring lack of oversight by Metra’s directors. An outraged public started paying attention, and the politicians – finally put in the spotlight themselves — began feeling the heat.

In 2011, Metra’s then-chairwoman, DuPage appointee Carole Doris, led the effort to bring…