Metra ‘tracks on fire’? Not quite

From ABC to the BBC and with Stephen Colbert in between, the national and international media is obsessed with Metra’s “tracks on fire.”

With the Polar Vortex bringing deep subzero temperatures to Chicago the past few days, the commuter rail agency fired up the gas heaters to keep switches operative and free of ice. The heaters proved to be an eerie and irresistible visual backdrop for news outlets to illustrate how Chicagoans were coping with the deep freeze.

CNN reported: “When it’s this cold, Chicago sets its tracks on fire.”

United Kingdom’s Daily Mail: “Crews light Chicago tracks on FIRE to keep trains moving.”

“Chicago’s so cold they had to deliberately set the train tracks on fire,” joked Colbert on his CBS talk show Wednesday night. 

Not so fast, says Metra spokeswoman Meg Reile, who posted on Facebook: “Ok national and international media, repeat after me: we do not set the tracks on fire in Chicago. You are looking at gas-fired switch heaters. We have guys out there actually making sure the tracks don’t catch fire.”

Reile pointed out that the flames come from a gas-fed system that runs adjacent to the rails, generating heat on the critical areas where the switches are supposed to make contact. Without that contact, the switches default to a failsafe mode, and train movements are halted.

Reile said she heard from more a dozen media…

Metra’s close call with calamity has agency on its heels

Metra is having a mea culpa moment. Several of them, actually.

Over a month after a viral video was posted online of a commuter train’s close call with calamity in the south suburbs — and more than two months after the original incident occurred — the agency’s CEO is acknowledging what happened and, more importantly, what went wrong.

During a lengthy accounting to Metra’s board of directors earlier this month and another one  last week with the agency’s Citizens’ Advisory Board (yes, dissatisfied riders, there is such a thing, and you can participate!), Executive Director Jim Derwinski somberly explained, in gripping detail, the events of that blustery Nov. 9 morning in Mokena.

Those events have come under scrutiny from the Federal Railroad Administration, which has the power to fine Metra for safety violations and punish personnel when rules are broken. 

That video has been viewed more than a million times on Facebook, and at least a million times more on TV newscasts. Taken by a Mokena police officer’s squad car dashcam, the video shows Rock Island Line Train 506 coming thisclose to smashing into the cop’s car at a crossing at 191st Street. The gates and lights had failed to activate. Officer Peter Stanglewicz swerved out of the way just in time. A dark SUV in front barely made it across.

Stanglewicz should be congratulated for his quick reflexes, steel nerves, and, as the audio indicates, self-control…

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…

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…

Metra: No fare hike this time, but cuts are ahead without state funding

In a somewhat unusual and unexpected move, Metra’s board of directors on Wednesday voted to not raise fares in 2019.

It wasn’t a vote to reject a fare hike. There was never even an official motion to do so, although the agency’s staff had suggested that the board consider three options: raising fares 25 cents per ride, 50 cents per ride, or doing nothing.

Metra has raised fares four times in the last four years, and some observers had expected to hear the same reasons for doing so as the agency’s proposed 2019 budget was unveiled Wednesday.

Not this time, Metra Chairman Norm Carlson said.

Instead, Metra will spend the next year highlighting the need for more state funding while sounding the alarm about the system’s deterioration and possible “drastic changes in service levels” if that funding does not materialize, officials said.

In late 2014 Metra unveiled a $2.4 billion plan to modernize its rolling stock and install the federally mandated Positive Train Control (PTC) safety system. Metra had counted on the legislature to approve a $1.1 billion state bond program, along with fare increases, to generate capital, as well as an additional $1.3 billion contribution from the state.

The promised $1.1 billion was cut to $865 million, and the $1.3 billion “never materialized,” Carlson said.

Other than 2018, Metra’s fare increases were devoted to raising money for capital, that is, locomotives, cars, tracks…

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…

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…

‘Step-child’ LaSalle St. Station gets rehab

Is the LaSalle Street Station really Metra’s red-headed stepchild? That’s what one commentator on Trains Magazine’s News Wire called it. Unwanted? Neglected?

That viewpoint might change somewhat starting March 26 when Metra launches a $2.95 million rehab project.

The station was once a famed major terminal for the Chicago, Rock Island & Pacific and New York Central railroads but now is only a bare-bones facility serving Metra commuters. No amenities. Largely unprotected concourse. Hard to find unless you know where to go.

Metra says it will replace the station’s concourse and several pillars, the first major renovation on the facility in decades.

Granite pavers and decorative medallions will be installed on the 20,000-square-foot concourse to replace the less-durable concrete surface and to improve the overall aesthetics, officials said.

The station serves Metra’s Rock Island Line to Joliet. The existing facility, built in 1993, is used by more than 13,000 riders each weekday.

“This is a long-awaited opportunity to improve LaSalle Street Station for our customers,” Metra CEO and Executive Director Jim Derwinski said in a statement. “Other than maintenance projects, it’s been more than 25 years since significant improvements were made to the concourse area.”

Contractors plan to work around the clock to minimize the impact on customers, the agency said. Work will be phased, limiting access to different sections of the concourse and platforms as the renovations progress. The first phase will resurface the east side of the concourse, with work then progressing to the west side and finally, to the platform entrances.

Signage and barricades will be placed…

What’s up — or down — with Metra ridership?

Is Metra alarmed that ridership is quickly declining while employment in downtown Chicago is steadily rising? 

Over the past five years, Metra’s ridership has slid 4.4 percent, and 2.2 percent last year alone.

The Electric District, serving the South Side and suburbs, plummeted 14.7 percent, the worst drop of Metra’s 11 lines.

Only one line, the Heritage Corridor, serving the Southwest Suburbs, showed healthy increases, up 3.3 percent during the last five years. But the Heritage Corridor is Metra’s least-used line, with only 2,400 weekday riders.

The Union Pacific West line, serving the western suburbs, showed a 1 percent increase over the last 5 years.

What’s going on here?

The data was presented at Metra’s board of directors meeting Wednesday. Board members expressed concern, but alarm bells didn’t seem to be going off.

Here’s some data, as presented by Lynette Ciavarelli, Metra’s top research person (director of strategic capital planning).

  • Metra provided 78.6 million trips in 2017, down from 83.4 million trips in 2014. (By contrast, Metra provided a record 86.8 million trips in 2008.)
  • Ridership on Metra’s busiest line, the BNSF to Aurora and booming Naperville, dropped 2 percent over five years. The BNSF line provides 63,900 weekday rides.
  • Metra’s peak period ridership levels held steady over the past five years, but off-peak levels fell. (Are these people driving Downtown?)
  • Metra paid an outside consultant to discover that for every fare increase of 10…