Rail subcommittee chairman 'extremely disappointed' with Amtrak response on Union Station incident

Amtrak's decision not to compensate those caught in Feb. 28 meltdown draws Lipinski's ire
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U.S. Rep. Dan Lipinski is not satisfied with Amtrak's response to his questions over a Feb. 28 incident that badly disrupted operations at Chicago Union Station.
TRAINS: David Lassen

WASHINGTON — U.S. Rep. Dan Lipinski, chairman of the House Subcommittee on Railroads, Pipelines and Hazardous Materials, says he is “extremely disappointed” with Amtrak’s explanation for the “human error” that caused a major service breakdown at Chicago Union Station on Feb. 28, causing grief for an estimated 100,000 Amtrak and Metra passengers.

The Illinois Democrat also says Amtrak has rejected his proposal that the passenger railroad reimburse Metra commuters who were forced to find alternate transportation that day. Uber and Lyft were reportedly charging as much as $125 to give Metra commuters rides home.  

“It’s wrong that Amtrak has decided they will not compensate stranded commuters who were forced to spend money out of pocket to get home,” Lipinski said in a statement. The congressman said that Amtrak CEO Richard Anderson had told him in a meeting that that Amtrak would consider compensation because the railroad has a reimbursement policy for its own passengers.

“Compensating passengers for Amtrak’s preventable error would be a good way of showing leadership and accountability and would also serve as an incentive to avoid future failures,” Lipinski said.

Lipinski’s office released a letter from Stephen Gardner, Amtrak’s vice president for marketing, in response to a series of questions the congressman posed about the Feb. 28 incident. [See “Congressman wants answers from Amtrak on Chicago signal meltdown,” Trains News Wire, March 13, 2019.]

The signal problem at Union Station began around 8:30 a.m. 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; as well as Amtrak service. [See “Amtrak CEO says ‘human error’ caused signal problems that snarled traffic at Chicago Union Station,” Trains News Wire, March 1, 2019.] Normally, Union Station serves 240 Metra trains and 58 Amtrak trains daily.

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.

Lipinski said that in his meeting with Anderson, he told the CEO that the system failure was “completely unacceptable” and asked him to account for the cause. Lipinski said the responses to his questions “seemed to conflict with what was originally said about the situation.” 

Asked for a response to Lipinski’s comments, Amtrak said: "The letter is consistent with our earlier messaging and speaks for itself."

According to Gardner’s letter, the system failure was caused by an Amtrak technician who accidentally shorted out equipment while installing new PTC hardware. That equipment handled communications between the Chicago control center and another center at 14th Street. The short disabled the primary and backup systems at 14th Street.

Gardner’s letter said even though personnel are trained not to perform signal-related maintenance or upgrades during rush hours, an “inexperienced manager authorized an experienced senior technician” to install the PTC hardware.

“Clearly, the disruption should not have taken place and the cause for the disruption should not have occurred,” the letter said. Gardner reiterated that Amtrak had apologized and accepted responsibility.

Nevertheless, Lipinski said that “nothing in Amtrak’s letter gives me confidence that anything has changed that will prevent another meltdown.”

Metra’s board members were not mollified by Amtrak’s apology either, as they made clear at a March 20 board meeting. [See “Metra anger boils over at Amtrak for Union Station snafu,” Trains News Wire, March 21, 2019.]

“Deep in my heart, I don’t think Amtrak cares,” director John Plante said at that meeting.  “That’s the biggest problem we have. They are just collecting our money. That’s where they are at; it’s always where they have been at. Until we get better control of the situation, I don’t expect Amtrak to improve at all.” 

Director Steve Palmer was more blunt: The apology offered by Amtrak “was a bunch of crap.” 

“I am not satisfied, I am not happy,” Palmer said. “I want to know what we’re going to get out of this (from Amtrak) besides, ‘It won’t happen again.’”

Amtrak owns Union Station and controls operations, although Metra makes up more than 90 percent of the passenger traffic. This raises the question of whether Amtrak should give Metra operational control of the station, Lipinski said.

The BNSF line runs through Lipinski’s 3rd District, and the congressman said he was committed to pursuing the issues. 

“Amtrak needs to build back the public’s confidence in our rail system and give commuters the reliable service they demand and deserve,” Lipinski said. “They have a lot of work to do.”






NEWSWIRETrains News Wire

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