Switching problems, frozen brake shoes, snowed-in train yards and jammed doors were all among causes of cold-weather train delays explained to Metra riders Monday night in Naperville.
The presentation Metra CEO Don Orseno made to commuters gathered for a public hearing focused on response to these problems and others during subfreezing temperatures, but riders had more than weather-related issues on their minds.
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"I'm afraid Metra is basically hiding the problem behind the bad weather," said Dan Donnelly of Lisle, who called Metra's performance along the Burlington Northern Santa Fe Line "abysmal." "When are we going to get back to the dependable, reliable, consistent Metra?"
Donnelly was one of about 50 Metra riders who attended an hourlong public hearing Monday night hosted by state Reps. Ron Sandack of Downers Grove and Darlene Senger of Naperville. The representatives said they called the meeting after a similar event in Chicago was canceled, and they held it in Naperville to give suburban constituents a venue to voice their concerns.
"I'm a BNSF rider for over 20 years," Sandack said. "It's important to me that this system be reliable."
Orseno said snow and cold have caused separate but related problems for the 753 trains Metra runs each day. He said trains traveling on one line often push snow onto nearby tracks that otherwise were clear; routine repairs of brake shoes have been taking almost an hour instead of 10 minutes because of ice caked onto the parts; and heaters in some cases have failed to prevent switches from freezing, making it impossible for trains to pass until they are warmed.
Orseno also mentioned some of the fixes the 11-line commuter rail system is looking to make.
Metra is considering buying new heavy-duty blowing machines to clear snow. The equipment would use diesel fuel, which is on hand for use in trains, instead of jet fuel, which has to be trucked in, sometimes causing delays. Metra also plans to upgrade its website by the summer to present more "dynamic" information such as updates when trains are filled and are going to skip stations or run express.
"I wish it was in place right now, but it isn't going to be until this summer," Orseno said about the website upgrade.
Commuters including Angelique Mundt of Naperville said overcrowding, slippery walkways, mobs of people waiting for trains at Union Station and vague communication from Metra rank among their top concerns.
"We all recognize the bad weather problems," Mundt said. "But at Naperville every day the trains are ridiculously overcrowded. It just makes your patience wear very thin."
After the meeting, Orseno said he was not surprised commuters' comments strayed from the topic of frigid and snowy weather as he "expected a full gamut" of transit-related complaints and questions.
"I was happy to see the customers came out and voiced their concerns," Orseno said. "It gets us in touch with our customers."