News & Reviews News Wire Station control at center of latest filings over Metra-Amtrak Union Station dispute

Station control at center of latest filings over Metra-Amtrak Union Station dispute

By Jenny Freeland | February 22, 2021

Metra revives question of legality of Amtrak ownership; Amtrak says Metra trying to 'wrest' control

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Exterior of a station building
Control of Chicago Union Station is a key issue in the latest Amtrak and Metra filings with the Surface Transportation Board. TRAINS: David Lassen

WASHINGTON — Control of Chicago Union Station emerges as the key issue in the latest filings in Metra’s dispute with Amtrak over its station lease, with Metra reviving a question whether Amtrak lawfully owns the property, while Amtrak claims Metra’s proposals “would wrest from Amtrak control over its own facility.”

The latest documents, filed Friday with the Surface Transportation Board, are supplemental reply briefs, responding to the arguments each side presented in filings earlier this year over remaining issues in the long-running disagreement over Metra’s lease [see “Latest filings with STB show significant differences remain …,” Trains News Wire, Jan. 26, 2021].

The Metra filing raises the question of station ownership because, it says, Amtrak claims its interests as the facility’s owner are superior and give it the prerogative to assume operational control, rather than balancing the interests of both operators. It cites a 2018 filing with the STB, after it first asked the board to intervene in the dispute, which claims Amtrak unlawfully merged Chicago Union Station Co., the longtime station owner, into Amtrak. The board found a ruling on that question to be premature at that time but indicated it could address it in the future, Metra’s filing says. The commuter railroad also says Amtrak’s “bias” from ownership is the basis for many of ongoing issues. “If the board were to agree with Metra that the parties are better served by balancing public interests,” the document states, “then there is no basis for imposing Amtrak-requested terms that derive from an entirely different perspective.”

The Amtrak filing, on the other hand, says the company “must have the ability to manage, oversee, and coordinate service and operations at its station. To that end, Amtrak seeks clear rights and responsibilities to be deliniated in the future access agreement.” It says Metra’s proposal that reduction of the number of Metra trains or revision of peak periods shall not be made without Metra’s consent “is not feasible. As the owner of the station, Amtrak must have the ability to control and coordinate the train schedules,” and that a Metra proposal allowing it a 5% increase in daily train movements “is wholly inconsistent with the fact that Amtrak, not Metra, owns Chicago Union Station.”

Among the specific issues that remain under dispute is “dwell time” for Metra trains at Union Station, where Amtrak’s previous filing proposed Metra trains be allowed to remain in the station for as little as 10 minutes during peak periods.

Metra’s latest filing calls this “wasteful, unnecessary, and arbitrary,” and says Amtrak offers no evidence its limits “are rooted in operating experience or need — they are not. … Restrictions are unnecessary as a matter of longstanding CUS operating practice.” Amtrak, meanwhile, focuses on a Metra proposal that would allow it to store equipment overnight after making a written request, saying “liberally allowing Metra to dwell and store its equipment overnight … would interfere not only with Amtrak’s intercity service, but also with Amtrak’s operations, maintenance, capital investment, and planned capital projects. … Metra is asking the board to grant it a right to store equipment on Amtrak property.”

Beyond the dispute before the STB, control of the station has been both contentious and sensitive, particularly since a February 2019 incident in which problems with an Amtrak computer-system upgrade disrupted traffic in and out of the station for about 12 hours. That led then-U.S. Rep. Dan Lipinski to hold a hearing in which Metra CEO Jim Derwinski said the commuter railroad sought to have “control over our own destiny,” while Ray Lang, Amtrak’s senior director of government affairs, said the passenger railroad was “not interested in giving up control of Chicago Union Station” [see “Amtrak rejects ceding Union Station control …,” News Wire, April 17, 2019]. Lipinski subsequently introduced a bill that would have required ownership of the station to be transferred to Metra [see “Congressman introduces bill to transfer control …,” News Wire, March 13, 2020].

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