Comment: If Amtrak wants more rent for Union Station, Metra should get more control

Metra and Amtrak are fighting over the rent, but what about the service?

Amtrak, which owns Union Station, has declared an impasse in the yearlong negotiations over how much the commuter rail agency should pay to use the facility.

That amount was $9.66 million in FY 2018. Reportedly, Amtrak wants to increase that by several million dollars, but Metra wants to cut it to less than $7 million a year.

Amtrak contends Metra should be paying more because its use of Union Station has increased significantly over the years. Amtrak also says there are “significant gaps in other cost categories, including operating expenses, policing, liability and overall capital investment.”

As a result, Amtrak has asked the federal Surface Transportation Board, the agency that regulates U.S. railroads, to step in and resolve the dispute. Metra agrees. Although the current lease will expire Monday, both sides say no disruption of service or other operational changes will occur at the station.

That’s good news for the 109,520 passengers who ride the six Metra lines, including the BNSF,  that use the station.  

But money isn’t everything. Metra ought to be demanding that Amtrak do a better job of ensuring that commuters get better service. That means reducing the signal and switch problems that frequently cause delays for trains at Union Station. Or ensuring no more human screwups like the one that occurred Feb. 28 when an Amtrak employee shorted out a server  controlling the signal system, causing chaos for more than 65,000 Metra riders.  

Metra calls Union Station “the backbone” of its commuter rail service, “and access to the station is essential to Metra, its customers, and to efficient transportation in the greater Chicagoland area.” 

Maybe Metra needs to strengthen that backbone by requiring some performance guarantees in any new contract with Amtrak. What if Metra were to require that Amtrak pay some sort of penalty when it’s to blame for Metra service delays?

The issue of Metra taking charge of Union Station has been raised. Metra CEO Jim Derwinski has said it is important for Metra to “have control over our own destiny” at the station. 

But Amtrak has refused to give up operational control or ownership of Union Station, even though 90 percent of all trains that use the facility are Metra’s. 

At a recent Metra board meeting, Chief Operating Officer Bruce Marcheschi and board members repeated a common refrain: that Metra, as a tenant at Union Station, takes the blame for problems beyond its control.

“It’s Amtrak thats in control of the system, but its our brand name that’s out there,” Marcheschi said.

“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.” 

(Footnote: Former Metra Chairman Martin Oberman was confirmed on the STB board in January. But Oberman told the Chicago Transportation Journal that he has recused himself from the dispute.)

— Richard Wronski

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