Metra Talks Perfect Storm and Delays

Metra commuters were left in the cold last week as delayed Metra trains attempted to make their way through the fine snow and subzero temperatures. We talk with Metra’s interim CEO Don Orseno, Metra board member Jack Schaffer, and Chicago Tribune transportation reporter Richard Wronski about changes to be made to the commuter rail, and what can be expected at the January 27 hearing regarding Metra’s problem-plagued  performance.

Read an interview with Wronski below.

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Richard WronskiWhat has contributed to the issues facing Metra in the cold weather?

Two things primarily: their equipment just hasn’t measured up to the challenge – switches that fail to operate when facing considerable ice and cold. That’s a big problem when you have thousands of switches along your tracks and your trains aren’t running properly. I think the communication Metra has with its customers broke down and they couldn’t keep up with what was happening. E-mails were lagging behind service, as was the postings and service alerts on the websites. If you were leaving work at 4:00 pm and expecting to catch a 4:30 pm train that was supposed to be on time, customers were not alerted in time. Same thing with people going to work in the morning. You rely on the e-mail alert and assume that it is correct. I think people were willing to deal with delays to an extent, but the information being both incorrect and late bothered them.

Why have they not been prepared? Chicago gets cold in the winter. 

I think it’s a technology issue. You have 19th century technology operating in 21st century Chicago. You have switches that cannot handle ice that is dropping from the bottom of the trains and wind blowing fine snow. You have train doors that get jammed when faced with ice and snow. I asked one Metra person last week about their switches, and it’s hard for the average person to believe that you need someone to physically clear these switches by hand. In 2014, they get jammed the way they did 150 years ago. There has to be a better solution or technology.

Are riders outraged? What has been the overall reaction?

I wouldn’t say outraged. To a certain extent, people were outraged when the train full of customers got dumped off at Clybourn – it’s windy, there are no heaters and they were at the mercy of the employee who made the decision. And they were standing there in subzero temps with wind chill for almost an hour. Most other people were willing to put up with some delays; similar to when you have to dig out your car, it takes time. People weren’t willing to put up with incorrect information or equipment that has not been updated to 21st century standards. There were people who were pretty understanding, and not yelling and screaming. There was a pretty wide variety, and I got a ton of e-mails from people complaining -- much more than ever before.

Has CTA fared better in terms of performance?

They didn’t have the same type of problems. First of all, if a train is delayed 10 minutes, it was 10 minutes. They also have more trains running than Metra. The equipment didn’t fall victim to the same snow and ice problems. And people have more alternatives when taking CTA. If one particular line was problematic, they could go to a different bus or train. They didn’t seem to be facing the same types of problems.

Is this a result of the interim leadership?

Don Orseno, the interim Metra CEO, is an operations guy. He did as good a job as anyone could, but I don’t think Metra did a very good job of using their communications people to keep customers in touch. Whether that was Orseno or someone else’s fault, I’m not sure. If there is someone to take over with a broader view of what they need to do now and respond properly, someone to say, “We have a crisis here and not just operational issues but also communication as well.”

What effect does this have on Metra’s reputation on the heels of the hiring scandal?

I don’t think people ever really recovered from the [Alex] Clifford scandal over the summer. This was just one more inconvenience and example of possible ineptitude on the part of Metra as an agency. First, the board of directors, then the director’s office. People just shrug their shoulders and then with the weather, riders took another blow. It is definitely a leadership problem. Whether it lies with the board or the executive director’s office, I think it needs to be sorted out. But probably both sides are to blame.

How do you think the January 27 hearing will go?

It’s hard to say. I think it depends on the legislators that will be there. Some have reached the end of their patience with Metra, and others are willing to sit down and get an explanation, which is really the purpose, a fact-finding mission. There are some who will want to get their licks in and do a little bit of showboating.

Contracts with Union Pacific and BNSF do not hold railroads to specific standards? Should this be addressed?

I think that if legislators are doing their jobs, they will ask that question, and board members will perhaps ask that the next time contracts come up for approval, for performance standards to be included. If you hire someone to build an addition on your house and they don’t do it well or on time, you have legal recourse. Same here. If they don’t do a very good job, people demand recourse here too.

Is there anything else you would like to add?

I think the burden is on Metra and people are still waiting for them to come out with another after-action report, what they will do better next time. People want to hear them say that “this is not working very well” and “maybe the switches we have can use a new innovation to keep them from locking up.” I am a customer and would like them to come out with something new.

What about communication? Get an app?

I think they need to figure out a better way in terms of communication with their customers. What they have now could not keep up with the changes that were happening. If a train arriving at 4:00 pm was late, they couldn’t communicate it fast enough to customers. It has to be quicker. Maybe they need a consultant to come in and figure out a way to make that communication work faster.

Interview has been condensed and edited.

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