Metra: Service will return to normal Friday

Metra said Thursday night it anticipates trains will return to normal Friday morning after a computer glitch plagued Chicago's Union Station all day starting in the morning and delayed thousands of commuters trying to get home to the suburbs.

"The system is now in service to support the full schedule of Amtrak and Metra trains," Metra tweeted at about 9 p.m. "In addition, Amtrak will have additional crews on stand-by tomorrow."

"Amtrak has publicly apologized to its own customers - and to Metra and its customers - for the outage. The root cause is under investigation," Metra tweeted.

The trouble stemmed from communications issues with Amtrak's automated system, spokesman Marc Magliari said. Crews had to shift to manual control of the signals and track switches, which "leads to delays," he said.

"In my time here, which is now about 18 years, I have not seen a signal control system outage of this duration," Magliari said at a media briefing in the afternoon. "We want to make sure that we apologize to our customers, to Metra's customers and others for the inconvenience."

"Operating safely is our priority. There's no choice between operating safely and operating quickly," Magliari said.

The problem cropped up at 8:35 a.m., turning later commutes into marathons. Trains between Union Station and Western Station were briefly halted around 9:45 a.m. Frustrated commuters reported sitting in rail cars for nearly three hours.

"Hey Metra at what point does offering a refund for absolutely failing to deliver acceptable service levels kick in?" BNSF rider Karl Cordes of Naperville asked on Twitter.

He experienced a two-hour delay and a train ride that lasted 2 hours and 36 minutes.

"The mood in the car was one of frustration," Cordes said. "Most people (had) heads down in their phones and laptops trying to work."

Thousands of passengers crowded into the station Thursday evening with more filing in by the minute, only to be disappointed to find out about the delays.

About 61,000 passengers travel on six Metra lines that go through Union Station, according to Metra spokesman Michael Gillis. About 86 Metra trains leave the station after 3:30 p.m., most of which are during the rush-hour commute. All saw delays of several hours.

Metra operated Burlington Northern Santa Fe trains on a "load and go" basis, with trains leaving once they were full and making all stops between Union Station and Downers Grove Main Street or between Downers Grove Main Street and Aurora. Inbound service was "extremely limited" on the line, Metra's busiest.

Metra in the afternoon had warned evening commuters to expect "extensive delays and crowding" and said riders should consider finding other ways home to the suburbs.

Kimberly Searcy walked into Union Station to catch a 3:58 p.m. BNSF train to Naperville after work. After waiting for 40 minutes, she realized there were no trains heading home for hours, and she was told the issue could take all night.

"It's ridiculous. This happens a lot," said Searcy, who was calm despite the circumstances. "I was ready to go home because I'm tired, I'm exhausted. And so it's kind of disappointing. It's almost like there's no options."

Searcy decided to head back to work for a couple of hours and try her luck later in the evening, but she said she would resort to a ride-hailing service if the problem wasn't resolved.

But for a rider like Searcy, who already bought a $210.25 unlimited monthly Metra pass, options like Uber or Lyft were pricey alternatives. Surge pricing, which goes into effect when there's high demand for rides, caused prices to skyrocket for rides to the suburbs. A ride from Union Station to the Naperville Metra station, usually $50, shot up to $126 Thursday evening.

"It's busy, fares are a lot higher than usual," read an alert on the Uber app.

The Union Pacific Northwest Line was further delayed Thursday evening because of a vehicle stuck on the tracks in Edison Park in Chicago, Metra said via Twitter.

The CTA honored Metra passes during the evening rush but stopped doing so by 7 p.m.

People at Union Station were being routed away from the concourses and into the Great Hall to prevent overcrowding, Metra announced.

Trains that use Ogilvie Transportation Center weren't affected by the signal problem but were more crowded.

• The Chicago Sun-Times contributed to this report.

Commuters line up at Union Station Thursday afternoon. Signal problems that halted Amtrak and Metra trains at Union Station in the morning also caused major delays for people headed home. Nader Issa/Sun-Times
Union Station's Great Hall was filled with waiting commuters Thursday afternoon. Signal problems that halted Amtrak and Metra trains at Union Station in the morning also caused major delays for people headed home. Nader Issa/Sun-Times
"On the BNSF line, which is by far the busiest line, we're just operating what we call a 'load and go' system," said Metra spokesman Michael Gillis, "where they bring a train in, fill it with passengers and leave immediately. There's no set schedule. As soon as it's full, it departs and we bring another train in." Nader Issa/Sun-Times
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