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posted: 1/9/2014 5:00 AM

Editorial: Metra meets a challenge but has work to do

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Metra officials emphasized this week that they did the best they could under extreme conditions, and no one will deny that the conditions the railroad faced were extreme. But that doesn't mean they can't find ways to do better next time.

Metra says it operated 90 percent of its trains during the two-day frigid spell that saw temperatures plunge to record lows. If accurate, that's an admirable accomplishment.

But the riders counting on the 10 percent of trains that failed faced a host of extreme difficulties themselves, starting with late arrivals but more seriously extending to long, confusing waits on cold trains -- even at times with their destinations in sight -- and long, frigid waits outside of stations for trains whose arrivals they often could not be sure of.

It's not as though Metra hadn't foreseen -- and prepared for -- some of the worst problems.

Mechanical systems are in place to thaw and free frozen switches that were at the heart of many of the delays, but the enormous degree of icing forced crews to manually chip away ice from blocked mechanisms.

And Metra tried to keep passengers informed about delays and problems at its website.

Nor must the rail service be held accountable for every problem. At stations where commuters found themselves locked out in an unbearable cold, municipalities must shoulder much of that responsibility, and they should be looking for better ways to communicate with Metra and respond in extreme circumstances.

In the face of perhaps the worst weather conditions imaginable in Chicago, the exceptional efforts of Metra and its employees can't be overlooked and the degree of success they managed must be acknowledged. Even so, many of the byproducts of the delays weren't just matters of passenger comfort. For passengers locked out of stations or forced to wait in subzero temperatures for trains, they were issues of safety.

The extremes presented precisely the conditions in which commuters rely on trains the most, and they likely attract to the trains many riders who usually commute in their cars. Too many delays or failures and they may not be back.

With the improved temperature, the system should be back up and running closer to normal as the week ends, and that is a good thing. Still, we have to presume that Metra not only will breathe a sigh of relief for its successes getting to this point but also will evaluate carefully its failures of the past few days so that they won't occur the next time suburban commuters are confronted with the harshest brutality a Chicago winter can throw at them.

Not that we expect that to happen anytime soon, but hopefully the agency will use the time to create new communications systems and technical fail-safes for when it does.

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