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.

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: No fare hike this time, but cuts are ahead without state funding

In a somewhat unusual and unexpected move, Metra’s board of directors on Wednesday voted to not raise fares in 2019.

It wasn’t a vote to reject a fare hike. There was never even an official motion to do so, although the agency’s staff had suggested that the board consider three options: raising fares 25 cents per ride, 50 cents per ride, or doing nothing.

Metra has raised fares four times in the last four years, and some observers had expected to hear the same reasons for doing so as the agency’s proposed 2019 budget was unveiled Wednesday.

Not this time, Metra Chairman Norm Carlson said.

Instead, Metra will spend the next year highlighting the need for more state funding while sounding the alarm about the system’s deterioration and possible “drastic changes in service levels” if that funding does not materialize, officials said.

In late 2014 Metra unveiled a $2.4 billion plan to modernize its rolling stock and install the federally mandated Positive Train Control (PTC) safety system. Metra had counted on the legislature to approve a $1.1 billion state bond program, along with fare increases, to generate capital, as well as an additional $1.3 billion contribution from the state.

The promised $1.1 billion was cut to $865 million, and the $1.3 billion “never materialized,” Carlson said.

Other than 2018, Metra’s fare increases were devoted to raising money for capital, that is, locomotives, cars, tracks…

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…

‘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…