Metra official: 'We dropped the ball' on BNSF Line, and fixes could take weeks
Metra's rollout of a new BNSF Line schedule let down riders, one Metra director said Wednesday as complaints about crammed BNSF Line trains surged and administrators acknowledged it could take several weeks to get all the kinks worked out.
"My issue is customer service," Director Steve Palmer said. "I believe we dropped the ball."
Packed train cars and delays plagued a number of BNSF trains starting Monday as the railroad initiated a new timetable required because of an automatic braking system. It takes up to six minutes to test out the technology called Positive Train Control each time a locomotive begins a new run.
On Monday, six out of 94 trains were overcrowded, CEO Jim Derwinski said. He promised Metra would "stay on top" of BNSF problems but said it could take time for planners to get an understanding of which trains on the new schedule get the most riders.
"We can't predict human behavior," Derwinski said. "This is the first time Metra has ever undertaken anything of this nature (or) this big.
"The first two days saw some improvement; today is looking good."
One problem is the fluidity of passengers' choices, he noted. With changes to schedules during rush hour, the railroad couldn't predict exactly which trains riders would pick, and that meant some were overcrowded.
Metra took cars from one train to ease another overcrowded train Tuesday but doesn't want to make a practice of that, he said, because it could cause problems for another set of passengers.
Dave Keating of Aurora posted on Twitter about standing-room-only crowds Monday. On Wednesday, conditions were somewhat better, he said.
"I usually sit toward the front of the train, and my guess is the cars behind me were packed because people were moving fast to get toward the front," Keating said. "So while there were still some people forced to stand in the aisle, it wasn't as bad as Monday."
Aurora commuter Kim Stikich found "the morning trains are terrible."
But other riders experienced crunchtime in the afternoons at Union Station.
"The new schedule is making things a lot more packed especially when you're leaving (downtown)," rider Justin Kirby said at the Lisle train station. "I'm ready for it to be over."
Karl Cordes ran into chaos Monday on a 7:10 a.m. train from downtown Naperville, then switched to the 7:21 a.m. Tuesday and Wednesday and found conditions acceptable.
Union Station is "where the majority of the overcapacity and overcrowding happens," he said.
A draft schedule was released in March, when more than 2,000 BNSF riders commented on the revisions.
Metra promised passengers' concerns were being taken into consideration with the final schedule that was implemented Monday. The new timetable was also supposed to reduce overcrowding on rush-hour trains.
Metra and other railroads across the U.S. are installing Positive Train Control on equipment, tracks and locomotives to meet federal deadlines. The technology stops a train when a crash is imminent.
The schedule had to be altered because crews are required to start up and check PTC before each new train run, a process that can take about six minutes, officials said.
Derwinski noted that PTC is mandated by Congress and has cost Metra about $400 million.
Metra officials are asking the public to be patient as they calibrate fixes and advised riders to try seats at the end of trains instead of the front cars.