Metra hopes worst is over with new BNSF schedule, braking system

  • BNSF riders had a rough week as Metra began a new schedule and braking system. Officials hope rollouts on other lines in coming months will be smoother.

    BNSF riders had a rough week as Metra began a new schedule and braking system. Officials hope rollouts on other lines in coming months will be smoother. Bev Horne | Staff Photographer

Updated 6/18/2018 7:24 AM

The debut last week of a revised BNSF Line timetable caused sardine-like conditions and enraged passengers on some cars, followed by mea culpas by Metra officials.

The question now is whether the railroad can avoid repeating the BNSF's problems as it rolls out more schedule adjustments on its 10 other train lines in the coming months.


"There could be some similar issues but they will likely not be quite as challenging as the BNSF Line, because of the number of passengers and the amount of freight traffic on that line," spokesman Michael Gillis said.

The schedule changes were required to accommodate a new automatic braking system that stops a train if an engineer misses a signal or is speeding.

Dubbed Positive Train Control, the technology takes about six minutes to initiate when a locomotive starts a run. Congress mandated that all major freight and commuter railroads install PTC after a 2008 head-on crash in Los Angeles that killed 25.

About 80 percent of trains on the BNSF, Metra's busiest line, are equipped with PTC.

That leaves the Union Pacific, Milwaukee District, North Central Service, Metra Electric, Heritage Corridor, SouthWest Service and Rock Island lines to follow.

Schedule tweaks hit the BNSF the hardest because many of its trains "flip," or make a trip one way, then reverse in short order, officials said. With six minutes or so added to each run, the line required multiple schedule changes.

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The Union Pacific North, Northwest and West lines have about 30 flips combined, Gillis said.

"There's going to be a lot of challenges," Metra CEO Jim Derwinski said of the Union Pacific logistics last week. "We're talking with (UP) continually about Chicago."

Numbers of flips weren't available for the other lines, but riders should expect some timetable tweaks.

Revisions to schedules will basically coincide with the implementation of PTC on individual lines, Gillis said.

Union Pacific is expected to finish installing the system later this year. For the Milwaukee West District, completion is likely in the fourth quarter of 2019; for the Milwaukee North District, it's later in the first quarter of 2020.

On the North Central Service, Gillis said PTC should be operable in 2020, but that's dependent on the Canadian National Railway, which owns the tracks.


Metra board directors said the agency "dropped the ball" on customer service with the BNSF; administrators promised to stay on top of the issue.

One more thing

What compounded the packed train trauma on the BNSF? The line has 94 trains each weekday and two of the most-used stations on the Metra system in Naperville.

Compare that to 70 trains for the UP North, 65 for the UP Northwest and 59 for the UP West, according to Metra data. The Milwaukee District North has 60 trains and Milwaukee District West has 58. In contrast, the North Central Service runs 22 trains.

Gridlock alert

Medinah Road will be shut down at the Metra Milwaukee District West tracks from Wednesday through June 30 for resurfacing of the railroad crossing. Detours will be posted.

Your voice

Mark Muehlhausen of Schaumburg was skeptical of apps that allow private citizens to rent out their vehicles as described in a recent column. Legislation to tax those individuals is awaiting the governor's signature.

"These folks seem to want to make side income on the sly, no taxes, no reporting, no identity beyond the app they use for sales, marketing and collections -- all gravy," Muehlhausen wrote.

"Rental companies have to certify their cars safe and their insurance has to meet basic standards. If the renter has an accident using a fake driver's license who pays? It sounds like a great way for someone on a suspended license with a fake ID to get a car."

You should know

Ethiopian Airlines and the Chicago Department of Aviation announced new nonstop service between O'Hare International Airport and Addis Ababa Bole International Airport this month. It's the first direct passenger service between Africa and Chicago, officials said.

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