Can feds fix ongoing BNSF Line woes? Congressman calls for intervention
Are sweltering rail cars and teeth-gnashingly delay-prone trains a federal concern?
Suburban congressman Dan Lipinski thinks so. Last month was apparently the breaking point for the Western Springs Democrat, who wants the U.S. Surface Transportation Board to intervene to fix meltdowns on Metra's BNSF Line.
"Accidents happen, but problems seem to never end on the BNSF line," said the usually restrained Lipinski, who's been getting an earful from riders. The Surface Transportation Board regulates railroads.
The BNSF frequently has been hit with delays over the last year. The line from Aurora to Union Station, owned and operated by BNSF in partnership with Metra, carries the most commuters -- about 20 percent -- on Metra along with balancing a hectic freight schedule.
The congressman, who sits on the House Transportation Committee, told the board, "I strongly believe the STB should conduct appropriate oversight over BNSF to ensure the railroad is taking a more proactive approach moving forward and is on track to resolve existing problems."
In August, the BNSF was the least punctual route with a 92.7 percent on-time performance score out of 11 lines. Among the issues were delays and confusion resulting from a new schedule that started in June and air-conditioning breakdowns in July.
Just before Lipinski asked for STB action on Oct. 24, Metra told riders to expect cancellations and delays over the previous weekend so workers could accelerate a rail tie replacement project. And on Oct. 25, a morning meltdown caused by downed wires in Cicero caused Lipinski to say these "problems just reinforce the need for this oversight. These headaches for passengers are unacceptable."
What's going to happen next? The STB has reached out to BNSF, a congressional staffer said.
For its part, the freight railroad "is committed to working with Metra to provide riders the safest and most reliable trip possible," spokesman Andy Williams said.
He noted that the railroad was the first to install Positive Train Control, an automatic braking system mandated by Congress. "Additionally, BNSF performed maintenance work aimed at ensuring rider safety and the best service going into this winter."
Got an opinion on Metra, the STB or other transportation issues? Drop an email to email@example.com.
Who's on time?
Metra's BNSF Line had a 92.7 percent on-time performance score in August, according to the agency's website. That's lower compared to the Milwaukee North Line, which had a 94.8 percent on-time level in August and the Milwaukee West Line with 96.6 percent. The BNSF has the most trains and passengers on Metra; it's followed by the Union Pacific Line. The UP North had a 96.6 percent on-time performance in August while the UP Northwest was at 95.8 percent and the UP West was at 89.9 percent.
One more thing
Interestingly, a Chicagoan who knows a few things about Metra could become an STB member in the near future. Former Metra chairman Marty Oberman was nominated to the board in July by President Donald Trump, but his appointment is still pending in the Senate. The attorney and former independent Chicago alderman served on Metra from 2013 to 2017 and would fill a Democratic spot on the bipartisan board.
You should know
Construction could start in 2019 to fix one of the weirder interchanges in the suburbs. The nexus of North Avenue, Lake Street/Route 20 and the Tri-State Tollway (I-294) near Elmhurst is notorious for traffic problems and incomplete access. The Illinois tollway finalized an agreement with local governments last month to fix the trouble spot. Work will include building a new ramp from southbound I-294 to County Line Road; widening the Lake Street bridge over North Avenue and constructing a road connecting the bridge to eastbound North Avenue; and improving the ramp to the northbound Tri-State from Lake Street. The project will cost about $31 million.
Plans by Pace to eliminate Saturday service on Pace Bus Route 209/Busse Highway have raised concerns among riders and state Sen. Laura Murphy. Pace is considering canceling or altering a number of low-ridership routes in its 2019 budget proposal to save money. Route 209 travels to the CTA Blue Line Harlem Avenue Station. The move will hurt riders with disabilities and others with "no other means of transportation," said Murphy, a Democrat from Des Plaines. She advises riders to attend Pace's 4:30 p.m. board meeting Nov. 14 or submit a comment online at pacebus.com/sub/news_events/public_hearings_comments.