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posted: 9/16/2013 5:30 AM

Interim CEO wants public to put its trust in Metra again

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  • Metra's interim Chief Executive Officer Don Orseno, at Chicago Union Station, wants the public to have faith in the agency after a turbulent summer.

       Metra's interim Chief Executive Officer Don Orseno, at Chicago Union Station, wants the public to have faith in the agency after a turbulent summer.
    Marni Pyke | Staff Photographer

 
 

Metra's Don Orseno now has a secretary and executive office with a view, but in a pinch he can take off his suit jacket and drive a train.

That's among the reasons Metra board members hired the third-generation railroader last month to lead the troubled organization as interim chief executive officer.

"My grandfather was a railroader for over 50 years, my father was for 47 years -- I always wanted to work for the railroad and I'm living my dream," said Orseno, formerly Metra's deputy chief for operations.

I know you're skeptical. Metra's on its third CEO in three years. Former chief Phil Pagano committed suicide amid a corruption probe in 2010. His successor Alex Clifford left explosively in June, after accusing two board members of misconduct and condoning political patronage pressure over jobs. Now two state inspectors general are investigating the agency.

I interviewed Orseno about running an ethical agency plus: Train delays? He's working on it. Service expansion? Only when it equals more riders. Fare increases? Unlikely. And customer service? Politeness is essential.

How would you handle politicians who ask you to hire a particular person? I asked.

"I'd tell them you need to apply online," Orseno said. "Submit your resume and you'll be weighed with everyone else. We want people to come in who are qualified -- but they have to come in through the front door. When we hire, we'll hire on merits and capabilities."

As to regaining the public's trust, "anyone can say anything -- but it's what you do that solidifies that," Orseno said. "If we make the right decisions, hire the right people and make sound business decisions, people will have trust in us."

Here's Orseno's take on other thorny issues:

• Everyone wants more trains, including commuters in McHenry County along the UP Northwest Line and in Lake County along the North Central Service. Is that possible?

"Would I like to see us expand? The answer is yes -- but we've got to be cognizant of the fact we've got to be able to fund any expansions," Orseno said. "If you put on more service, you've got to pay for the service ... if we aren't generating more riders all we're doing is spending money so we need to make sure there's a balance."

• Metra has raised fares in 2012 and 2013. However, "we are looking at not implementing a fare increase in 2014," Orseno said.

• The BNSF Line between Chicago and Aurora had a rough summer with delays that messed up thousands of commuters. "We struggled on the BN in June, which isn't common," Orseno said. "I've got a task force together with (BNSF Assistant Vice President of Passenger Operations) D.J. Mitchell. He got the mechanical people to fly up and work with our mechanical department so we're very hopeful."

So far, on-time performance for the line is about 97 percent, compared to 88 to 89 percent in June, he said. "I'd love to be 100 percent (systemwide) but realistically with the infrastructure and networking and density of traffic, you've got to be realistic."

• Federal law requires Metra to install Positive Train Control, an automatic system that stops trains before a crash, by 2015. But the innovation's drawn mixed reviews and it will cost Metra $214 million.

"PTC won't eliminate all accidents or incidents," Orseno said, but "if it stops one accident, it's very worthwhile." Problem is "it's so expensive to do it for commuter railroads, it takes away from other things. Is (fixing) a bridge more important than PTC? You've to weigh these things out."

• Pace and the CTA are forging ahead with a joint fare system dubbed Ventra but Metra has lagged behind. Right now, "we've got a team working with the CTA to accept Ventra cards at downtown terminals and point of sale terminals," he said. But Metra will also need an onboard system for conductors to accept passes and to issue tickets using passengers' credit or debit cards. For that, "Ventra may or may not be the way we go," Orseno said.

• Customer service: My BNSF ticket agent is efficient but I wouldn't exactly call him jovial. That could change. Orseno wants commuters "to have a good customer experience -- if they don't it's for naught."

That means, "you go buy a ticket and the agent smiles at you and makes you feel like you're welcome; you get on the train and the conductor does the same thing ... if you have questions, he answers them politely."

• Metra's in the midst of negotiations with some of its biggest unions, including the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and the United Transportation Union. "Pay is always an issue," he said, "but I believe both sides are working diligently. Everyone's aware of the budget constraints."

Hands-on experience also makes a difference in dealing with the unions and employees on a day-to-day basis, Orseno says.

"I know and respect what their jobs are and what it takes to get the job done."

Orseno knows first-hand the worst moment in any engineer's career -- when someone collides with a train.

It was a Thanksgiving Day in the early 1980s, when a man walking his dog stepped around the lowered gates in front of Orseno's train.

"It's something you never forget," he said. "It's a helpless feeling but you have to understand there is nothing you can do ... and you deal with it."

Orseno started his career with the Chicago, Rock Island and Pacific Railway in 1974, moved on to the Chicago & North Western Railway, then came to Metra in 1984. He's worked as trainmaster, director of suburban operations, mechanical director, chief safety officer and chief customer service officer.

The 58-year-old lives in the south suburb of Manhattan and is married with two adult children and four grandkids (a fifth is on the way).

Got suggestions, opinions, or gripes for Metra's new CEO? Drop me an email at Your voice

Wayne Rutkowski of Lombard wants to know why, when he's a football's throw from Bears games, it takes Pace's or the CTA's stadium express buses forever to arrive.

"No one can give me a straight answer why the bus stays in the southbound right lane on Lake Shore Drive and goes all the way around the south end of the grounds, through tailgaters, and comes back up north to drop us off at the northeast corner of the stadium," he wrote. "We lose a good 45 minutes sometimes. The bus could make a left on McFetridge and drop us off right in front of the stadium."

Pace spokesman Patrick Wilmot explains "the route we take to the stadium is strictly controlled by the Traffic Management Authority (TMA) and the Chicago Police Department. Their direction to us is that we must follow a routing of Lake Shore Drive to 18th Street to Museum Campus Drive. We inquired about using the McCormick Place busway to access Soldier Field and bypass some of the congestion, but we did not receive permission as it is a private roadway. We apologize for the inconvenience and appreciate the patience of our riders as we do our best to safely navigate the highly congested area around the stadium."

Gridlock alert

If you want a slow drive on the westbound Edens Spur ramp to the Tri-State Tollway, you're in luck! The Illinois tollway is reducing traffic on the ramp from two lanes to one for about five weeks in order to repave and repair the road.">mpyke@dailyherald.com

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