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…

‘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…

Metra: No PTC safety system until 2020

By Richard Wronski

Chicago Transportation Journal

Metra has told federal regulators that it doesn’t plan to have a high-tech safety system installed on its commuter trains until 2020, five years after a deadline that was originally imposed by Congress in 2008.

The safety system, known as Positive Train Control, uses GPS, sophisticated software and equipment to automatically slow or stop speeding trains and prevent the kinds of derailments that occurred on Metra’s Rock Island Line in 2003 and 2005 that resulted in two deaths and dozens of injuries.

Most recently, federal safety experts say, PTC would have prevented the May 12 derailment in Philadelphia of an Amtrak train that was traveling at twice the speed limit. Eight people were killed and more than 200 injured.

In the face of a threatened national railroad shutdown on Jan. 1, Congress in October approved an extension of the PTC deadline until the end of 2018, with some exceptions.

The Federal Railroad Administration on Wednesday released a list of dates by which the nation’s freight and commuter railroads said they planned to have PTC fully implemented.

Metra and Boston’s Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority were the only two big-city commuter rail agencies that said they would need until 2020 to have PTC ready.

Metra said Wednesday that the 2020 timetable it filed with the FRA was a “realistic schedule” and met the “legal deadline” for PTC implementation as outlined in the extension legislation Congress passed in October.

The legislation allows railroads to file an “alternative schedule” for PTC by the end of 2018, Metra said. That schedule calls for acquiring radio…