Editorial: Metra gets a lesson in need for customer service

The Daily Herald Editorial Board
Posted6/22/2018 1:00 AM
  • Metra BNSF passengers pack between trains at Union Station in Chicago to board last week.

    Metra BNSF passengers pack between trains at Union Station in Chicago to board last week. Courtesy of Carol Thompson

There are few things as regular as the toilet flushing and the trains running on time -- and few things as galling when they don't.

So it's not surprising the uproar caused when Metra trains on the Burlington Northern Santa Fe Line last week were packed to the gills with people trying to adjust to new train timetables.

On June 11, Metra debuted new times for the line that runs between Aurora and Union Station after the installation of federally mandated Positive Train Control equipment, a new safety technology that stops a train that is going too fast or if the engineer misses a signal. It comes as a result of a head-on train crash 10 years ago in Los Angeles that killed 25.

This is the first of 11 Metra lines to be outfitted with the equipment, and it is our hope that Metra has learned a few things from this implementation and no longer finds itself having to beg forgiveness of its riders.

"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," Metra spokesman Michael Gillis said.

The timetables need to be adjusted because Positive Train Control requires about six minutes to initiate once a locomotive starts up.

The reason this hits the BNSF line harder is because of the number of "flips" in the schedule: trains that make a trip one way and then make the reverse trip in short order. Each turnaround requires the computer system be fed information before it can start up again.

Union Pacific is expected to finish installation later this year with the Milwaukee West District late next year and the Milwaukee North District and North Central Service in 2020.

Metra board directors concede that they whiffed when it came to customer service in their rollout of the BNSF changes and they will be more mindful of letting their customers know what's going on as they continue with the improvements to the other lines.

This week, Metra smartly shifted six cars to the BNSF line to alleviate some of the overcrowding, especially in the busiest stations in Naperville.

Now that the worst has passed for BNSF riders, riders would be wise to anticipate what might happen on other lines and give themselves a little more time in the morning. Basically, keep abreast of the work timetable and adjustments to the train schedules, show a measure of patience and expect the unexpected.

The next two years, systemwide, will be a bit of a slog.

As English essayist and critic Gilbert K. Chesterton said, "The only way to be sure of catching a train is to miss the one before it."

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