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…

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…

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…