Metra asks STB to intervene in dispute with Amtrak in Chicago

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CHICAGO — Metra is asking the Surface Transportation Board to resolve a disagreement between the commuter rail agency and Amtrak involving its lease and trackage rights at Chicago Union Station — a dispute that could have ramifications elsewhere.

The issue was prompted by the merger last year between Amtrak and Chicago Union Station Co., which had been an Amtrak subsidiary and which was Metra’s nominal landlord.

Allowing Amtrak “through a corporate maneuver to evade the board's commuter rail service-protective mechanisms would be counter to Congressional intent and public policy and an abdication of the board's responsibilities,” Metra contends in a filing.

In an April 6 filing with the STB, attorneys for Metra asked the regulator to declare that the board, under federal law, retains jurisdiction over the station, as had been the case under the lease with the station company and that the board has authority to prescribe terms for Metra’s use of the station.

Amtrak is exempted by law from most STB economic regulation, but the station company was not, according to the 66-page filing.

Specifically, Metra wants the STB to retain the authority to mediate if Metra and Amtrak reach an impasse in negotiations over a new lease.

Since 1984, Metra has been the prime tenant in Union Station and its current lease expires April 30, 2019.

Metra will pay $9.7 million under its lease this year, spokesman Michael Gillis tells Trains News Wire, but Metra declined to comment further on the lease or the filing.

Amtrak representative Marc Magliari says Amtrak does not comment on pending litigation and will respond to the STB regarding this filing.

Metra called 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.”

Union is the most significant of Metra's several stations in downtown Chicago, hosting roughly 41 percent of Metra's passengers traveling to and from the downtown area, the filing noted. An average of approximately 109,520 passengers ride 286 weekly Metra trains on six separate routes to and from Union Station.

In the filing, Metra said it had been preparing for discussions with the station company over the new lease, but was surprised to learn that company had officially merged with its parent, Amtrak, last year.

Metra said it is “assessing what options, including the invocation of board procedures and remedies, would be available should negotiations with Amtrak concerning access terms for the [Union Station] facilities not progress as well as is hoped.”

Metra contends that both parties' negotiation positions and bargaining leverage will be affected by whether the board has jurisdiction, should future circumstances warrant, involving mediation and trackage rights for Metra’s use of the station.

The two relevant sections of the law are 49 United States Code section 28502 and 11102, according to the filing.

Metra says it is concerned that Amtrak might contend that the merger has removed Union Station from the reach of sections 11102 and 28502, “thus depriving Metra of alternative paths to preserve access to the [Union Station] facilities, should it ever come to that.”

Metra wrote to Amtrak on Jan. 4, seeking confirmation from Amtrak that the protections extended to Metra under 11102 and 28502 remain applicable to the station.

In a Jan. 25 letter included in the filing, Amtrak responded that, while Amtrak would "be responsible for the facilities and obligations of [the station company] that existed at the time of the merger, Amtrak nevertheless "does not believe" that sections 11102 and 28502 are applicable.

Thus, Metra contends: “There plainly is disagreement (and therefore a controversy) between Metra and Amtrak over whether the [Union Station] properties formerly owned by [the station company] are subject to the commuter rail protections of Sections 11102 and 28502.”

In addition: “Whether or not the board has jurisdiction to administer provisions protective of commuter rail service in the event of an impasse will inform how negotiations proceed on both sides going forward.”

Metra’s filing says the outcome of the issue would also have a bearing on the use of Washington’s Union Station by two commuter rail agencies, Virginia Railway Express and MARC Commuter Train Service.

Metra is requesting that the board institute a proceeding in accordance with a timetable to and to provide for input for other potentially interested parties.
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