Investigations of Metra engineers on the rise for 2014

As of June, disciplinary investigations of train engineers at Metra had totaled 11, as many as the entire number of cases for 2013.

The upward trend comes in the wake of a probe by the Federal Railroad Administration sparked by three safety lapses in May and June that involved speeding or ignoring a signal.

Metra Executive Director Don Orseno said Wednesday he takes every occurrence seriously but noted the agency is one of the safest in the country, operating 750 trains a day amid 100 Amtrak trains and 500 to 600 freights.

“I don't see any trend at all,” Orseno said. “We look for trends ... those are the easier to fix.”

Instead, safety issues in 2014 had numerous causes. “That's why we constantly do what we think we need to do to keep our (engineers) engaged, focused and safety-minded,” he said.

“Some years you have relatively low numbers and some you have relatively high numbers. We're doing everything we can do to drive those numbers down.”

Disciplinary reviews range from being late for work to serious violations such as speeding or blowing a signal. The probes comprised the train lines that Metra operates: the Milwaukee District, North Central Service, Southwest Service, Rock Island and Metra Electric.

A review of documents obtained by a Daily Herald Freedom of Information Act request showed eight out of 11 instances of Metra disciplining engineers in 2014 were safety-related.

Of those eight investigations, five were cases of missing or ignoring stop signals, two were of speeding, and one was of hitting a post at a station.

As a result, one engineer resigned before being dismissed after ignoring a stop signal at Union Station Feb. 4; another engineer was fired after speeding on the Rock Island Line May 27. The Rock Island occurrence is one of three the FRA is scrutinizing.

The 11 investigations are relatively “insignificant” when compared with the hundreds of engineers and trainmen who have to follow hundreds of FRA rules, Orseno said, adding he wasn't “trying to make light of anything.”

“It's a very unforgiving world. If you're 10 feet past a stop signal, you're past a stop signal ... there is no second chance. (Metra operates) in the toughest network in the country and every day our (engineers) are making safety-related decisions.”

By comparison with 2014, out of the 11 investigations of engineers in 2013, just four were safety-related — including signal and stop infractions. The remainder involved job performance, attendance and in one case a social faux pas — a male engineer using the woman's washroom.

No engineers were let go in 2013.

Significantly, 2013 showed better results than 2012 when there were 21 discipline reviews.

Of the 21 discipline cases in 2012, 13 were safety-related including five instances of missed signals, two of speeding and two of improper braking. Two engineers were fired, one for speeding and another for taking unauthorized medication.

Noting the agency operates 700 trains a day, Metra Chairman Martin Oberman said, “I don't have a sense we have some kind of terrible systemic problem.”

If an engineer “only goes a hair beyond what you're supposed to be doing, we take a look at it. We have no tolerance for these deviations.”

Metra Director John Plante, a former CTA attorney and safety expert, said it's hard to pinpoint trends in why mistakes happen.

“Any number of factors can contribute,” Plante said. “Basically if you're exceeding the speed, you're not paying attention to the speedometer.”

Meanwhile, the federal government is nearing the end of a 45-day “deep dive” assessment of Metra, focusing on how engineers are trained and tested.

In addition to the May 27 speeding, the FRA is investigating: an engineer passing a stop signal by about 20 feet during rush-hour June 3 on the Metra Electric Line; and an engineer traveling at more than 50 mph in a 40 mph zone early in the morning June 2 on the Rock Island Line.

Other safety-related incidents in 2014 include an engineer hitting a bumping post at the LaSalle Street station on the Rock Island Line Jan. 16 and engineers missing signals April 16 and May 6.

The Daily Herald also requested reports of investigations of engineers working on the BNSF and Union Pacific lines, however, Metra officials said they did not have that information. Metra's BNSF and UP Line are operated by employees of the respective railroads.

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