Metra riders thought they were out of the frying pan of service problems caused by extreme cold last week, but some feel they're now in the fire with overcrowded trains.
The agency ran some trains with fewer cars Monday and Tuesday as it repairs doors, brakes and wheels damaged by ice and snow. The Union Pacific Line is the hardest hit.
"People are having to stand in the aisles when we're expressing at 50 to 60 mph," emailed rider Steve Baldasti, who commutes to Chicago on the UP Northwest Line. "What if we hit something? So much for safety first."
Metra Interim CEO Don Orseno said Tuesday the agency hopes to finish train car repairs this week, noting that 11 out of 22 Union Pacific cars had returned to service as of Tuesday.
"We will not run a train on any Metra line that is not safe," Orseno said. "Are there some inconveniences with less cars on the train? Absolutely. Are we going to work very hard to get those cars back in service? Absolutely."
Orseno also apologized for the past frustrating week that resulted in multiple train cancellations, delays and other snafus. In one instance, passengers on the Milwaukee Northwest Line operated by Union Pacific were left on an unheated platform at the Clybourn station in Chicago for about 40 minutes Jan. 6 in subzero temperatures after the train switched to an express to Crystal Lake.
Orseno contacted UP immediately and received assurances it wouldn't happen again.
The major culprit was snow and ice getting into switches, which can take up to 20 minutes to fix, causing a domino effect on other trains, Orseno said. But the agency also had trouble getting fuel out to its remote yards, a number of crossings that were blocked by vehicles, snow drifts on tracks and equipment breakdowns.
The agency started readying for the so-called polar vortex days before but the one-two punch of snow and extreme cold undercut some of those preparations, causing Metra to shift from "Plan A to Plan B to Plan C," Orseno said.
Riders were also frustrated by service alerts that ended up being out of date when they reached their stations.
Metra issued 261 email service alerts Jan. 6 and 214 on Jan. 7 -- the two coldest days -- compared to 111 on Jan. 8. But sudden breakdowns and other unanticipated mishaps conspired to alter schedules constantly, officials said. "It was a dynamic situation," Orseno said, "things changed on a minute-by-minute basis.
That said, "our goal is to try and get the most on-time accurate information out as possible. If there's any way we can improve our communications, we will do that. We want our riders to be informed."