CHICAGO — Human error is to blame for the power failure that shut down commuter and passenger service Feb. 24 at busy Chicago Union Station and other points from New Orleans to Michigan, officials say.
An outside contractor was working on a fire alarm system when the power was knocked out, taking with it Amtrak’s dispatching computer, officials at Chicago’s Metra commuter rail agency say.
The contractor was “in an area he probably shouldn’t have been in,” Peter Zwolfer, Metra’s deputy executive direct of operations, told the agency’s board of directors, explaining why the single glitch accounted for more than half of Metra’s 140 human-error delays for the month of February.
A total of 87 Metra trains on six of the system’s 11 lines, serving mainly riders in Chicago’s west and southwest suburbs were delayed or cancelled. Most of the affected trains, 37, were on the BNSF Line, Metra’s busiest, which carries more than 67,000 customers on 94 trains each weekday.
Six Amtrak trains were affected. About 5,400 Amtrak passengers use Union Station daily.
“This was a devastating blow to the whole system,” Metra Executive Director/CEO Don Orseno says.
Amtrak owns and operates Union Station, where Metra is a tenant.
Amtrak spokesman Marc Magliari confirmed that human error was to blame. He did not identify the contractor or any outcome, other than "corrective steps" were taken.
"We took the safest approach and stopped all traffic as the system controls the signals and switches for tracks on the north and south sides of the station, along with locations in Indiana, Michigan, and Louisiana," Magliari says.
Despite the February delays, Metra officials say the agency has racked up 24 consecutive months of on-time performance. Metra’s goal is to operate at least 95 percent of its trains on time. Like the rest of the U.S. commuter railroad industry, Metra considers a train to have operated on time if it reaches its final destination within five minutes and 59 seconds of its scheduled arrival.
The on-time stretch comes in the wake of much customer criticism of Metra's timeliness in prior years.
“This two-year streak is a result of a renewed and re-energized commitment to on-time performance by everyone at Metra — from the top to senior level leadership to rank-and-file workers operating and maintaining our trains and infrastructure or supporting those efforts,” Orseno tells Trains News Wire.