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.

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…

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…

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…

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,…

Metra to ‘break silence’ on suicides

Reposted from Trains Magazine:  Officials at Metra say it’s time to tackle a topic that many in the rail industry have long considered taboo: death by train.

The commuter rail agency, in partnership with Amtrak and the DuPage Railroad Safety Council, sponsored a daylong symposium entitled “Breaking the Silence.” The Sept. 27 session at Union Station was intended to coordinate a strategy to prevent suicides along the tracks.

The agency gathered nearly 100 mental health experts and community members to help in its campaign to install suicide prevention signs along its 11 lines by the end of the year.

Metra Board Chairman Norman Carlson said the agency wanted to develop a collaborative regional strategy to address the problem.

The primary goal “is saving human lives,” Carlson said. “That is our principal objective.”

The event coincided with Rail Safety Week. September was also National Suicide Prevention Awareness month.

Metra announced the campaign in July after a spate of suicides in the Chicago area. So far this year, Metra said it has tallied 21 suicides or suspected suicides, more than in each of the previous five years.

The problem of suicide by train is particularly acute in the Chicago area, experts say, because the city is the nation’s railroad hub, served by six Class I railroads and Amtrak. Metra itself runs more than 700 trains a day.

The agency said it has so far trained more than 700 engineers, conductors and other employees to recognize individuals in despair and to intervene.

Although this program has been successful, Carlson said the agency needed to do more to “break the silence”…