RTA chief wants review of Metra after 'polar vortex' mess

Updated 1/15/2014 6:35 PM
  • Metra commuters survived delays and cancellations during last week's polar vortex, but the RTA thinks the agency could do better.

      Metra commuters survived delays and cancellations during last week's polar vortex, but the RTA thinks the agency could do better. Mark Welsh | Staff Photographer

Saying he's underwhelmed by Metra's handling of the extreme weather last week, RTA Chairman John Gates asked staff to scrutinize the agency's performance and see if penalties are merited for contractors Union Pacific and BNSF railways.

Gates had criticism for both the CTA and Metra at a Wednesday meeting, saying he was "very concerned about Metra and the CTA's reponse" to the so-called "polar vortex," and inconveniences to riders.

Metra has been under fire for multiple delays and cancellations.

The review, which is not an official audit, will also include research into Metra's contracts with two major railroads, Union Pacific and BNSF. UP stranded passengers for about 40 minutes in below-zero temperatures Jan. 6 at an unheated station in Chicago when administrators decided to turn an outbound Northwest Line train into an express to Crystal Lake.

Meanwhile, BNSF riders suffered through myriad delays that continued into this week.

Metra Interim CEO Don Orseno apologized Tuesday for the problems and blamed the majority of issues on ice and snow getting into switches, which take time to manually clear. He is expected to appear before the RTA in February to recap Metra's response to the polar vortex, when temperatures dropped to 16 below zero.

Gates also called Metra's communication with riders "quite poor."

He noted the agency has more than $9 billion in capital needs over 10 years and suggested its leaders consider borrowing money to fix outdated equipment.

Meanwhile Union Pacific spokesman Mark Davis said via email the railway "apologizes for the recent equipment shortages on many of your rush hour trains and delays during the storms. Because of the recent storms, much of our equipment sustained weather damage and as a result is out of service and getting thoroughly repaired. We are doing everything to get the equipment in good working order so we may return to our normal operations on time and safely.

"Our operating team has been working with Metra's operating team to review train delays during the severe winter weather and determine what can be done to reduce or eliminate those delays."

Regarding borrowing, Metra doesn't have a sufficient cash stream to pay back the debt, spokesman Michael Gillis said.

"We will of course provide them with whatever information they seek," he added. "We had a meeting today that included top Metra management and the leaders from the engineering, mechanical and transportation departments for all our lines, including BNSF and UP. The purpose was to share things we did right and things we did wrong, so the next time we encounter similar issues we can do better."

CTA spokesman Brian Steele said the CTA performed well under stressful conditions.

"Unlike other commuter and intercity rail, CTA's trains and buses remained running 24/7 throughout the record cold," Steele said. On Jan. 6 and 7, "CTA provided about 4,200 rail trips and more than 36,000 bus trips. The vast majority of those were either on time or slightly delayed. While there were a handful of longer weather-related delays, service continued throughout the entire city. Trips weren't canceled, and customers were not stranded without options."

The Regional Transportation Authority is the oversight agency for Metra, Pace and the CTA.

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