Amtrak rejects ceding Union Station control to Metra

At hearing, Congressman calls Feb. 28 incident 'inexcusable;' Metra expresses desire to control its own destiny at station
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Amtrak’s Ray Lang speaks at Tuesday's hearing in Chicago on commuter rail issues. To his left is Metra CEO Jim Derwinski. Others are Patricia Caslin of BNSF, John Friedmann of Norfolk Southern, and Mike Matteucci, regional director for Canadian National.
Richard Wronski

CHICAGO — Amtrak is rejecting a proposal to let Metra take over operations or ownership of Chicago Union Station, even though 90 percent of all trains that use the facility are Metra’s. 

And once again, Amtrak has rebuffed a request from an influential Congressman who called for reimbursement of Metra commuters who were victims of a massive signal failure at Union Station in February.

U.S. Rep. Dan Lipinski, the chairman of the House subcommittee that oversees U.S. railroads, called a hearing Tuesday to bring together representatives from Amtrak and Metra, along with officials from BNSF, Norfolk Southern and Canadian National railroads, to address chronic delays and cancellations for Metra and Amtrak passengers at Union Station.

“Unfortunately, we are here today because all too often Metra trains are seriously delayed, very uncomfortable or unexpectedly cancelled,” said Lipinski, an Illinois Democrat whose district encompasses a large chunk of Metra territory. “Metra riders are not getting the service they deserve.”

Problems at the station came to a tipping point, officials said, the morning of Feb. 28 when “human error” by an Amtrak employee accidentally shorted out power to computer servers that control the station’s signals and switches. [See “Senator says worker’s fall onto circuit board caused Union Station signal outage,” Trains News Wire, March 2, 2019.]

The snafu caused chaos for an estimated 100,000 Metra and Amtrak passengers. The shutdown, lasting most of the day, 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. Normally, Union Station serves 240 Metra trains and 58 Amtrak trains daily.

“This was a completely avoidable failure of epic proportions,” Lipinski said, adding that it was “inexcusable” for Amtrak to be upgrading its signal system during the morning rush hour. “I want to hear today how you all are going to make the system work better.” 

Lipinski said he was “extremely disappointed” that Amtrak will not reimburse Metra riders who had to find alternative transportation home from Union Station that evening. Some had to pay from $30 to $80 for taxis and ride sharing services, the congressman said, but some were reportedly charged as must as $125. 

Ray Lang, Amtrak’s senior director of government affairs, said the agency has “repeatedly apologized” for the incident. He said Amtrak would improve its practices to prevent future errors. 

Reiterating a March 29 letter to Lipinski from Amtrak Senior Executive Vice President Stephen Gardner, Lang said that while Amtrak can provide ticket refunds for its own customers, there would be no reimbursement for Metra passengers. 

“We don’t have a process in place where we can reimburse customers for out-of pocket costs,” Lang said.

Metra CEO Jim Derwinski said it was very important for Metra to “have control over our own destiny” but that Amtrak has refused to give up operational control of Union Station.

Lang said it was “not uncommon” for Amtrak to be a minority operator of a station. “We’re not interested in giving up control of Chicago Union Station,” he said. Metra paid Amtrak $9.7 million in 2018 under its lease agreement, according to Metra.

Furthermore, Lang said Amtrak hopes for more local, state, and federal funding for capacity improvements at the facility, even as Amtrak is overseeing a major renovation of the building and adjacent property.

Lipinski made clear that he and his subcommittee of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee would play a lead role in drafting rail funding reauthorization legislation in 2020, including money for Amtrak.

Chicago officials have approved a $900 million redevelopment plan that includes an office tower on Amtrak-owned property next to Union Station. As part of the redevelopment, the station’s Beaux-Arts headhouse will be renovated and topped with a new addition containing two hotels. 

John Friedmann, a vice president for Norfolk Southern Corp., urged that more funding be provided for the second phase of the 75th Street Corridor Improvement Project on Chicago’s South Side. This project is intended to eliminate the most congested rail chokepoint in the Chicago Terminal, Belt Junction, where 30 Metra and 90 freight trains per day cross each other’s paths. 

Patricia Casler, BNSF Railway’s director of suburban services, acknowledged that on-time performance on the BNSF Line, which it operates under contract to Metra, has been subpar. But BNSF and Metra have been handicapped by outdated equipment and both agencies have been working closely to make improvements.

“We believe we are trending in the right direction,” Casler said.

NEWSWIRETrains News Wire

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