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posted: 3/6/2017 5:33 AM

What track will new Metra chairman take?

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  • Video: New Metra chairman

  • Norm Carlson outlines his challenges and goals as Metra's latest chairman. His term began in October.

      Norm Carlson outlines his challenges and goals as Metra's latest chairman. His term began in October.
    Steve Lundy | Staff Photographer

 
 

Three months into Norman Carlson's tenure as Metra director in spring 2013, the railroad was reeling from a political scandal and the exodus of top leaders.

The commuter agency is stable now but at a significant crossroads. Executive Director Don Orseno is retiring, the fare system is evolving, there's no state funding, and riders want more -- more trains, more modern cars, more on-time service, more Wi-Fi.

In charge of the rapidly changing landscape is Carlson, a Lake Forest CPA who fought in the Vietnam War and grew up on the South Side of Chicago to the lullaby of trains.

Carlson, Metra's newest chairman, is closing on 150 days in office. When he's not drawing from an encyclopedic knowledge of railroad facts, he's delivering financial analyses -- and his findings are sobering.

"Metra has an economic model that is not sustainable in the long term. It's not sustainable midterm," Carlson, 74, said Wednesday. "The amount of money we're getting in our capital program is roughly 20 to 25 percent of what we need."

Metra in 2014 adopted a 10-year, $2.4 billion capital plan to be partially funded by yearly fare increases. The third annual fare hike, averaging 5.8 percent, began Feb 1.

The new money was to go to operating costs, an automatic braking system, rehabbing equipment and buying new stock.

But last summer, officials pulled the plug on a new railcar contract.

"When we passed this plan, no one in their wildest estimation thought we'd be in the budget situation we are in," Carlson said.

The "situation" is Democrats and Republicans deadlocking over the state budget and no capital budget in sight. With just $300 million for capital projects in 2017 when $1.2 billion is needed, Metra can't get into debt, Carlson said.

He's counting on a strategic plan consultants will deliver this fall to provide a guide on what to fix or replace first. Don't expect new stations or additional trains.

"We need to focus on the existing system before we undertake any serious expansion," Carlson said.

Another goal is to reduce deaths by suicide and trespassing. Carlson, an Army infantry officer in the Vietnam War, has seen traumatic deaths.

When someone dies on the tracks, "I think about what our engineers go through when a situation is developing. I think about what the conductors see when they get off the train. I think about the first-responders. I think about the families. I think about our people, held on the train for up to three hours, and their families," he said.

"I'm not looking for a short-term fix; I'm looking for the long haul."

This could be the year Metra directors completely revamp the fare structure.

The current zone-based system "dates back to the 1850s," Carlson said.

The status quo at Metra is jammed rush-hour trains to and from Chicago on weekdays. At off-peak times or for reverse commuters, there are plenty of empty seats.

Is there a way to encourage more riders and revenue? The agency is surveying riders at metrarail.com to gauge their appetite for pricing options, including charging less at slow times, more at rush-hour.

It's unclear what restructuring fares would mean for prices.

"There is a plan that says we're considering fares increases every year for 10 years. This is year three," Carlson said.

He said he understands higher fares create an economic hardship for some riders, but "bear in mind even today they're only paying one-third of the cost. Again, we need a capital bill."

One continual question on commuters' minds is: When will Metra get Wi-Fi in all cars?

"When we have the money," Carlson said.

Orseno, a 43-year railroad veteran, will stay at Metra through December.

Carlson didn't know when directors approved a 10 percent salary increase for Orseno in December 2016 that Orseno would decide to retire two months later.

But Carlson affirmed the decision because of Orseno's "remarkable job" performance. "We have a minor miracle twice a day," he said. "It's called the morning and evening rush hour."

Carlson was born in the old Illinois Central Railroad Hospital in Hyde Park.

"The hospital nursery was next to the tracks, and the first thing I heard in life was the 'clickety clack' of trains," he said.

He's a regular on the Union Pacific North Line, taking it two or three days each week. "I'm on the train so much, the crews say, 'Hi, Norm,'" he said.

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