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…

Death by train: Railroads, Metra and suicides

One morning last January, Metra foreman Robert Tellin was startled as he peered out the window of his office at Elgin’s commuter station. There, Tellin saw a man standing in the center of the tracks, just as the PA announced an approaching train.

Hurrying outside, Tellin asked the man what he was doing on the tracks. The man responded: I want to die.

Quickly, Tellin grabbed the man and safely pulled him from the rails, seconds before the train arrived.

It was a heroic effort on the part of Tellin, whom Metra’s board of directors honored with a resolution in March.

Unfortunately, for every moment of heroism there are many more moments of tragedy across the Chicago area’s vast network of railroad tracks. It seems every few weeks a Metra line is shut down due to a “pedestrian accident.” One just incident occurred last Thursday when a woman was struck in Northbrook by an Amtrak train, which shares the same tracks.

Indeed, death on the tracks is a problem that is particularly endemic to the Chicago area.

According to the Federal Railroad Administration, in 2015 there were 32 suicides-by-train in Illinois. That’s one-tenth of the national total. And as the Chicago Tribune reported in 2014, the metro area itself has a higher incidence of suicides by train than the national average.

Research by Northwestern University professor Ian Savage found that 47 percent of railroad-pedestrian fatalities in the Chicago area were apparent suicides, versus 30 percent nationally.

One reason, Savage explained, is simply…