We did the best we could, Metra officials said Tuesday, when asked about gripes from riders over canceled trains and mega-delays during the region's big chill.
Thousands of Metra passengers endured absent trains and long waits on Monday and Tuesday, when below-zero temperatures roiled the rail system throughout the region.
"You have to remember this was an extreme weather event," spokesman Michael Gillis said. "We did nevertheless operate more than 90 percent of our trains. We know there were problems with delays and cancellations ... but we did operate the trains and get people to where they needed to go." The agency usually runs 703 trains on weekdays and estimated about 50 were canceled Monday.
Service is expected to return to relative normalcy Wednesday, although passengers aren't out of the woods yet. The predicted high of 14 degrees could still mean slower speeds and iced-up switches that halt trains. Riders are still advised to check Metra's website before leaving home.
As a loudspeaker droned on about delays of 20 to 45 minutes on the BNSF Line Tuesday morning, Metra commuter Lisa Modaff sighed and headed over to a ticket agent at the Lisle station for clarification.
"It is very confusing," she said. Modaff, who works at a law firm in Chicago, didn't even bother to check the Metra website before she left for the station.
"I just figured whatever it is, it is. Not much I can do about it," she said.
Even with advance warning of Sunday's snow and Monday's deep freeze, Metra officials said the agency fell victim to ice in the switches that prevent trains from shifting to different tracks.
"This fine-grained snow that gets into everything is one of the big issues," Metra spokeswoman Meg Thomas-Reille said. When ice forms on switches or trains pick up ice and drop chunks onto switches, the devices fail and red signals go off, warning engineers to halt the trains.
Heaters are meant to keep the switches ice-free, but at a certain point they won't work any more and the ice "has to be physically removed and that takes 10 to 15 minutes," she explained.
With multiple switches malfunctioning across the system, Metra crews were overloaded and that compounded the problem, Thomas-Reille said, adding that the agency had brought on extra personnel and heaters.
Adding to the slowdown were delays boarding trains with passengers waiting in their cars and in stations until the last minute, trains running about 10 mph slower because of icy tracks and the need for employees to take breaks and work federally regulated hours, officials noted.
Daniel Allen's commute from Naperville to Lisle normally takes eight to 10 minutes.
Tuesday, it was closer to an hour.
"I normally take the 8:33 a.m. train to Lisle," Allen said. "Today we probably left around 9:10."
Adding to his adventure were frozen doors on trains. "Oftentimes, they weren't closing," he added. "I actually had to close the doors."
Although he'd known his ride wouldn't be perfect, "it was a little worse than I expected."
Once trains arrived at their destinations, the pain didn't end for some riders who found suburban stations at certain locations including Arlington Heights closed in the late afternoon Monday.
Arlington Heights Village Manager Bill Dixon said the station will be kept open until 8:30 p.m. Tuesday. Usually the concessionaire locks up around 5 p.m. but village staff would be on hand because of the extreme cold, he said.
Metra spokesman Tom Miller said the agency had contacted villages in November about keeping facilities open during cold weather but several passengers complained about being locked out at stations in Bensenville, Bartlett and Evanston.
For Pace riders, the worst delays lasted about 15 to 20 minutes Monday, spokesman Patrick Wilmot said.
To check up on Metra schedules, go to metrarail.com/metra/en/home.html.