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 at Union Station began around 8:30 a.m. that day and affected six of Metra’s lines, the BNSF, Metra’s busiest; Milwaukee West and Milwaukee North; the Heritage Corridor; North Central and SouthWest Service; as well as Amtrak service. Normally, Union Station serves 240 Metra trains and 58 Amtrak trains daily.

The system failure prevented Amtrak dispatchers from automatically controlling train movements. Amtrak had to manually operate the signal and switching points and allow only one train at a time to move, according to Metra.

The shutdown, and Amtrak’s explanation, was inexcusable for Metra’s board of directors, who say it was their “brand” that was hurt by the snafu. Amtrak owns and operates the station; Metra pays rent.

One by one, most of the board members at the agency’s March 20 meeting directed barbs at Amtrak, accusing the agency of being unconcerned about Metra and its customers. Some suggested that Amtrak was not sincere with its apology. 

“Deep in my heart, I don’t think Amtrak cares,” director John Plante said. “That’s the biggest problem we have. They are just collecting our money. That’s where they are at; it’s always where they have been at. Until we get better control of the situation, I don’t expect Amtrak to improve at all.” 

Director Steve Palmer was more blunt: The apology offered by Amtrak “was a bunch of crap.” 

“I am not satisfied, I am not happy,” Palmer said. “I want to know what we’re going to get out of this (from Amtrak) besides, ‘It won’t happen again.’”

Lipinski said the answers to his questions “seemed to conflict with what was originally said about the situation.” 

An Amtrak spokesman responded: “The letter is consistent with our earlier messaging and speaks for itself.”

According to Gardner’s letter, the system failure was caused by an Amtrak technician who accidentally shorted out equipment while installing new hardware. That equipment handled communications between the Chicago control center and another center at 14th Street. The short disabled the primary and backup systems at 14th Street.

Gardner’s letter said even though personnel are trained to avoid signal-related maintenance or upgrades during rush hours, an “inexperienced manager authorized an experienced senior technician” to install the hardware.

“Clearly, the disruption should not have taken place and the cause for the disruption should not have occurred,” the letter said. Gardner reiterated that Amtrak had apologized and accepted responsibility.

Nevertheless, Lipinski said that “nothing in Amtrak’s letter gives me confidence that anything has changed that will prevent another meltdown.”

Although Amtrak controls operations, Metra makes up more than 90 percent of the passenger traffic. This raises the question of whether Amtrak should give Metra operational control of the station, Lipinski said.

Metra board members agreed. Director Rodney Craig said: “Metra doesn’t have that control (over Union Station). We’re relying on somebody with a hope and a prayer that nothing happens,” he said.

Director Don De Graff suggested that Metra’s lease agreement with Amtrak needed to change. “They can own it, but we need to run it.”

The BNSF line runs through the heart of Lipinski’s 3rd District, and the congressman said he was committed to pursuing the issues. 

“Amtrak needs to build back the public’s confidence in our rail system and give commuters the reliable service they demand and deserve,” Lipinski said. “They have a lot of work to do.”

— Richard Wronski

A version of this story also appeared on Trains Magazine’s News Wire.

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