Luring riders, grappling with fares are priorities for new Metra chief
Metra's incoming chief starts with a daunting challenge -- a 2 percent cut in state funding for transit.
So, slogging through a tough budget process with possible fare hikes is James Derwinski's first priority this fall.
But the agency's chief mechanical officer, who will take over from outgoing CEO Don Orseno in December, also has a panoramic vision for the commuter railroad -- growing service and making Metra the safest railroad in the U.S.
"The first thing is to get through the hurdles and achieve financial stability on both the capital and operating sides," said Derwinski, 49.
By growing service, Derwinski doesn't mean a traditional expansion into new towns. Instead, he hopes to extract an extra benefit from a revolutionary braking system being installed on trains.
Derwinski is overseeing the project that automatically stops trains when crashes are imminent. Once railcars, locomotives and track structures are equipped with positive train control, the technology offers a rich source of data to be tapped.
"I have high hopes once you gather the data ... you can look at operating more efficiently," he said.
That could mean safely narrowing the distance between trains. If now "in an hour you can run seven trains on one track, you may eventually be able to run eight trains on that same track," Derwinski said.
Another challenge is anticipating who riders are and what they want.
With Gen Xers and millennials taking over the workforce, homes serving as offices and the popularity of ride-shares, the agency now "has a completely different demographic base of people riding our trains compared to when Metra was formed," Derwinski said.
"It's going to take a bit of change in the way we do things to figure out how to put people back in the trains."
Metra passenger trips have dipped in the last three years and leaders this Wednesday will discuss changes to the agency's fare structure intended to recruit more commuters.
At the same meeting, directors will learn more about new state fees and funding cuts that will reduce revenues by at least $50 million for Metra, Pace, the Regional Transportation Authority and CTA in 2018.
"It's going to affect the bottom line on all the service boards," Derwinski said. "There's likely a hole we're going to have to fill next year."
Will that mean fare hikes? "We'll provide (Metra directors) with the data they need to make that policy decision," he said.
Fares increased Feb. 1 for the third straight year and have risen about 18.6 percent cumulatively since early 2015.
Orseno leaves Metra with ongoing challenges but free of scandal that followed ex-CEO Phil Pagano, who died in 2010 amid a corruption probe, and former chief Alex Clifford, who left after exposing patronage pressure over jobs from state lawmakers.
Derwinski said changes instituted by the board have kept political pressure at arm's length from Metra. His short-term focus is the budget shortfall, upgrading the railroad's fleet of old-codger locomotives and getting all train lines equipped with positive train control by the end of 2020.
The former U.S. Navy electrician, who worked on a nuclear submarine, started at Metra in 1997. Known as "Jim," he lives in Indiana with his wife and two children.
"I'm looking forward to moving into the next decade at Metra," he said. "We're going to become the safest and best commuter railroad in the country."
Multiple readers reacted to the tollway instituting a policy penalizing I-PASS holders with higher tolls if they don't use transponders in 2018.
"I think this is ludicrous," wrote Laurie Reifsteck, who works in North Aurora. "There is NO WAY they should charge us additional (tolls) or make us get an additional transponder. At a minimum, if I am paying from the same account, I should have all transponders attached to that same account and shouldn't have to pay for another transponder and certainly not be penalized if I don't have a transponder."
Learn about the addition of a third track on the Metra UP West Line from West Chicago to Geneva at an open house from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m. Thursday, Sept. 21, at the Kane County Government Center, 719 S. Batavia Ave., Geneva.