Congressman wants answers from Amtrak CEO on Chicago signal meltdown

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Rep. Dan Lipinski (D-Ill.) is requesting detailed answers from Amtrak CEO Richard Anderson about February's signal failure at Chicago Union Station.
More than 100,000 Amtrak and Metra passengers had trips disrupted by the Feb. 28 signal problems at Chicago Union Station.
TRAINS: David Lassen

CHICAGO — The chairman of the House subcommittee on railroads is calling on Amtrak’s CEO to thoroughly explain the “human error” that caused a major service breakdown at Chicago Union Station last month, disrupting plans for an estimated 100,000 Amtrak and Metra passengers.

U.S. Rep. Dan Lipinski (D-Ill.) also wants to know if Amtrak contemplates reimbursing those who had to pay for alternate means of commuting home. Chicago media reported that ride-sharing services Uber and Lyft were charging stranded Metra commuters as much as $125 as a result of “surge pricing.”

Lipinski has given Amtrak CEO Richard Anderson until the end of March to respond to nine detailed questions concerning the Feb. 28 incident that brought service to a halt for more than 12 hours.[See "Amtrak CEO says 'human error' caused signal problems that snarled traffic at Chicago Union Station," Trains News Wire, March 1, 2019.]

One of the questions, which has been posed repeatedly by rail passengers, tech experts, and other public officials, is why did Amtrak decide to launch a software upgrade on the computer server that controls the dispatch control system at the station during the morning rush hour? Normally, experts say, upgrades are launched overnight or on weekends to minimize the harm from a system crash, which is what Amtrak said occurred.

Lipinski also demanded to know how an Amtrak employee ended up “falling (into) or colliding with” the circuit system, an incident which has been reported as a contributing factor to the fiasco. [See "Senator says worker's fall onto circuit board caused Union Station signal outage," Trains News Wire, March 2, 2019.]

Lipinski, who took over as chairman of the House Subcommittee on Railroads, Pipelines and Hazardous Materials last month, sent the questions to Anderson in a letter after meeting with him last week in Washington. In that session, Lipinski said Anderson provided “initial details.” Lipinski requested that Anderson reply no later than March 29.

“I appreciated the candor CEO Anderson displayed when he met with me and accepted responsibility for the failures that led to the chaos at Union Station,” Lipinski said in a statement accompanying the letter. 

“However, we need more than contrition and an acknowledgment of what went wrong in order to make sure this doesn’t happen again and to compensate passengers. I’ve asked him to conduct an in-depth review of Amtrak’s policies and procedures and present a corrective action plan to help build back the public’s confidence in our rail system and give commuters the reliable service they should expect.” 

Other key questions posed to Anderson include:

— What management protocols exist or are being implemented to ensure the timing of future computer system changes or upgrades are not implemented during high-traffic times and will not result in system degradation that negatively affects commuters on Amtrak or other rail systems?

— What back-up or redundancy system does Amtrak have to ensure the operation of its dispatch control systems? If Amtrak does have such a system, what failure occurred to that system on Feb. 28?

In a statement after the incident, Anderson apologized for the Union Station snafu and said the "root cause" of the signal failure was “human error in the process of deploying a server upgrade in our technology facility that supports our dispatch control system.”

He promised that Amtrak would take steps to improve operations in Chicago, and would appoint “a veteran Amtrak executive to make sure we deliver the performance our stakeholders expect of us.”

Anderson did not elaborate on the “human error.” However U.S. Sen Dick Durban (D-Ill.) said the problem was caused when “a worker fell on a circuit board, which turned off the computers and led to the interruption of service that went on all day long.” Durbin said he learned this in speaking with Anderson.

The signal problem at Union Station began around 8:30 a.m. Feb. 28 and affected six of Metra’s lines, the BNSF, Metra’s busiest; Milwaukee West and Milwaukee North; the Heritage Corridor; North Central and SouthWest Service.

The system failure prevented Amtrak dispatchers from automatically controlling train movements. Amtrak had to manually operate the signal and switching points and allow only one train at a time to move, according to Metra.

Approximately 120,000 Amtrak and Metra passengers use Union Station each day. More than half use the BNSF Line between downtown Chicago and Aurora.


NEWSWIRETrains News Wire

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