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…

Lipinski to chair Railroads subcommittee in House

U.S. Rep. Dan Lipinski (D-3rd) will serve as chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee’s Subcommittee on Railroads, Pipelines and Hazardous Materials, according to a committee announcement Thursday.
Lipinski’s subcommittee’s jurisdiction includes all federal laws and programs regulating railroad transportation, including railroad safety, rail infrastructure programs, economic regulation, and railroad labor laws, as well as all federal laws and programs regulating the safety of gas and liquid pipelines and the safety of transporting material and hazardous freight.
Lipinski’s appointment follows the election of Rep. Peter DeFazio (D-Ore.) earlier this month as committee chairman. 
The committee statement said Lipinski was chosen to lead the subcommittee based on his experience and expertise in rail, pipeline, and hazmat safety; freight, commuter (Metra), and passenger (Amtrak) rail issues, performance, and regulation; the fair treatment of labor; and the impact rails and pipelines have on local communities.   

“I grew up 100 yards from the railroad tracks, so I learned first-hand early in life about the issues we all face living with so many rail lines running through our neighborhoods, including blocked crossings, noise, and pollution. I also understand the benefits railroads bring such as good jobs and more environmentally friendly movement of freight,” Lipinski said in the statement.
“I especially look forward to conducting oversight on matters my constituents and others are concerned about, including commuter rail on-time performance, noise pollution, railroad property upkeep in our communities, and reducing blocked crossings, among other issues,” Lipinski stated.

Lipinski is the most senior member from…

Martin Oberman, former Metra chairman and Chicago alderman, gets railroad regulatory post

Former Metra chairman and Chicago alderman Martin Oberman has been confirmed as a member of the U.S. Surface Transportation Board, the independent regulatory agency that oversees the nation’s freight railroad industry.

The U.S. Senate confirmed Oberman’s nomination late Wednesday along with that of Patrick Fuchs, a senior staff member for the Senate Commerce Committee.

On Thursday, Oberman told the Chicago Transportation Journal that he expected it to be an interesting, even “momentous” time for the board. There are a number of pending issues that could have a significant impact on the railroad industry, he said.

The STB is the independent federal regulatory body responsible for economic oversight of the freight rail system. Run by a five-member bipartisan board serving five-year terms, the STB has regulatory jurisdiction over railroad rates, mergers, service, line acquisitions, new rail-line construction, line abandonment, and other rail issues.

“I think the board will tackle some of those issues to see if changes should be made,” Oberman said, acknowledging that he was eager to learn more about the industry.

“After 50 years of practicing law, I like to think I’m still a fast learner,” he said. “I’ve been studying a great deal since (being nominated last year). I still have quite a bit of a learning curve, but I look at this assignment the same way as taking on complex litigation. You have to learn the law pretty quickly.”

Oberman acknowledged…

Chicago area rail safety advocates gain national support for campaign

Railroad safety advocates in Chicago have gained a “champion” in Washington, D.C.

With his words and a handshake, Federal Railroad Administration chief Ronald Batory agreed to work toward reducing trespassing and suicide deaths by 50 percent by 2026.

“I am totally committed to it,” Batory said, then shook hands in agreement with Dr. Lanny Wilson, chairman of the DuPage Railroad Safety Council. Prior to the conference, Wilson said enlisting Batory’s support on a national level was one of the council’s goals.

Batory was keynote speaker Thursday at the council’s biennial conference, held at the Drake Hotel in Oak Brook. More than 100 safety advocates, public officials, railroad representatives and others were on hand for the daylong session.

The organization launched the campaign in 2016, hoping to replicate the success of the federal Highway-Rail Crossing Safety Action Plan in reaching the goal of reducing crossing incidents and fatalities by 50 percent.

Reducing grade crossing deaths was the original goal of the council, which Wilson, a Hinsdale physician, formed after the death of his daughter, Lauren, in a 1994 crossing incident. Batory  also lived in Hinsdale at the time, and his daughter was a high school classmate of Lauren.

Wilson noted that while highway-rail crossing statistics have steadily improved in recent years, trespasser and suicide statistics have worsened.

Thursday’s conference was intended to continue the discussion about prevention strategies, mental health awareness, and law-enforcement…

Rail safety advocates hope feds will boost campaign to cut track deaths

Chicago area railroad safety advocates are hoping their campaign to reduce trespass and suicide deaths will go national with the help of the Federal Railroad Administration.

FRA chief Ronald Batory will keynote the 2018 meeting of the DuPage Railroad Safety Council as the organization hosts its 12th biennial safety summit on Thursday.

The focus of this year’s conference, entitled Prevent Tragedy on the Tracks, will be to continue the organization’s goal of cutting trespass and suicide deaths 50 percent by 2026, according to  council chairman Dr. Lanny Wilson.

The council is hoping that Batory “will be our champion and take this goal nationwide,” Wilson said.

The council was founded in 1994 to examine ways to heighten awareness and improve safety at highway/railroad crossings and to work with civic, law enforcement and railroad leaders to eliminate deaths and injuries along railways. In 2016, the council expanded its efforts to include reducing trespass and suicide deaths.

Three sessions will be conducted Thursday: The first on research on rail trespass and suicide prevention strategies; the second on mental health initiatives; and the third on law enforcement efforts.

Among the panelists are: Scott Gabree, engineering research psychologist with the Volpe National Transportation Systems Center in Cambridge, Mass.; Patrick Sherry, executive director of the National Center for Intermodal Transportation at the University of Denver; and James Buckley-Waterman of Network Rail Consulting.

Representatives from Highland Park Police, the DuPage County…

For Union Station, a modest ‘penthouse’ is proposed

Advocates for preserving Chicago’s historic Union Station appear to have won a significant battle against developers with a more modern perspective.

A revised plan for the redevelopment of the neoclassic building calls for adding only a single-story “penthouse,” which officials promise would not be visible from street level.

This comes instead of a modern seven-story glass and steel addition that developers — hired by Amtrak, the building’s owner — had proposed in June. That 404-apartment addition was scrapped after a torrent of opposition from preservationists, railroad fans and architecture critics.

At a meeting in the station’s restored Burlington Room Tuesday evening, developers unveiled the latest plans for the building, along with a proposal for a 715-foot, 1.5 million-square-foot office building with an attached parking structure and a 1.5-acre park, to be located on the block south of the station.

The penthouse would be atop two separate hotels totaling 400 rooms. These hotels would be built within the existing fifth and sixth floors of the building.

The penthouse will not be visible from the street, insisted officials with Chicago-based Riverside Investment & Development and Convexity Properties. They backed up this promise with a sight-line diagram showing how the penthouse would be set back and screened from view.

Riverside CEO John O’Donnell called the plan the “revitalization of a Chicago landmark.”

The penthouse would encircle but not block the station’s iconic 219-foot barrel-vaulted skylight that soars above…

Union Station remake: Let’s keep it classic

Yet another proposal to remake historic Chicago Union Station is expected to be unveiled this week. Will this plan be any better than the others?

Here’s a suggestion: Go back to the original idea for the station. Let’s keep it classic, or at least, classy.

The most recent plan — topping the station off with a modern glass-and-steel structure — was recently scrapped. Critics described it as “an abomination” and often likened it to Soldier Field after the iconic, columned structure became the landing site for something from Star Wars.

That seven-story vertical addition was “deemed unacceptable by the community and the Alderman due to architectural and traffic concerns,” according to an announcement from the office of Brendan Reilly, whose 42nd Ward encompasses the station. 

“As a result, the development team decided to completely revise their vision for the project,” the announcement stated.

Good idea.

Amtrak, which owns Union Station, selected Chicago-based Riverside Investment & Development and Convexity Properties in May 2017 to redevelop the station and surrounding properties at a cost of $1 billion. Solomon Cordwell Buenz (SCB) are the architects.

Their plan called for plopping a modern addition atop the neoclassical Headhouse. This was immediately lambasted in newspaper pages, on blogs, and on social media.

The two designs were clearly incongruous. Blair Kamin, Pulitzer Prize-winning architecture critic for the Chicago Tribune, said the addition has “none of the grandeur of Union…

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…