Getting riders to their destinations safely and on time. That's Metra's mission but now you could add another responsibility -- saving people from confusion.
Illinois Inspector General Ricardo Meza opened a can of worms last week when his office chided Metra for keeping false records of the hours engineers or conductors worked.
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State investigators also disclosed a practice of swapping shifts at Metra, where one employee would pay another under the table for picking up his or her assignments.
Metra went on the offense, calling the Office of the Executive Inspector General's probe a waste of time and money. Although there were inaccuracies in logs, that no longer occurs nor does shift swapping, administrators said.
The issue has Metra doing a balancing act. The agency lobbied to keep the report under wraps in the midst of its commitment to transparency and openness.
Publication "is not in the public interest" and "can only serve to mislead the public," officials wrote the Illinois Ethics Commission in July.
"Metra is fully committed to transparency," spokesman Michael Gillis said in an email. But the agency called the report inaccurate and dated since it addressed a "decades-old railroad custom" discontinued nearly three years ago in the midst of the inspector general's probe. "At no time was safety compromised," Gillis noted, adding publication of the findings could cause "unjustified public confusion."
It's not a complex issue, Meza said. "Our investigation revealed that people were paid although they weren't working, people weren't getting paid although they did work, and people were paying each other to do that," he said.
Federal Railroad Administration inspectors reviewed the data, which involved 2011 records, and agreed violations -- mostly incorrectly logged hours -- did occur. They found 45 infractions and recommended Metra be penalized. That could involve fines of up to $2,000 per occurrence.
The feds also said they would send warning letters to employees who filed inaccurate logs.
However, the railroad administration did not find any specific cases of people working more hours than are allowed under federal safety rules.
Why is paperwork so important? Just go back to March, when a CTA train operator fell asleep behind the wheel and crashed onto an escalator at the Blue Line O'Hare station, injuring dozens. Afterward, as the driver's union claimed she was fatigued, NTSB investigators combed the CTA's records to see what hours the operator worked in the days leading up to the accident. Work logs are essential information, and inaccuracies are not trivial, nor is paying people under the table, Meza said.
"We focus on things we think are important," he said. "Under no set of circumstances do we think not properly recording hours of service is not something worthy of review and investigation. These trains move thousands of people every day."
The Federal Railroad Administration is conducting a safety assessment of Metra after several instances of speeding and ignoring signals in May and June.
One more thing
In late December, Metra hired one of Meza's employees -- an attorney assigned to investigations of Metra and other transit agencies -- to be its new ethics officer.
That connection gives Susan Garrett pause.
"More distinct and clear lines need to be drawn so that those (agencies) being investigated don't have the opportunity to hire the investigator," said Garrett, a former state senator and chairman of the Illinois Campaign for Political Reform.
Gillis said "great care" was taken by Metra, its new ethics officer William Benz, and the Office of the Executive Inspector General "to ensure that there was not a conflict of interest between his current and prior employment. At Metra, he has been screened from matters that he was involved with as an inspector general's office employee.
"And, as soon as he informed his OEIG supervisors about his potential employment with Metra, the office was careful to screen him from matters pertaining to Metra," Gillis said.
Do you suffer from unjustified confusion? Drop me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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