Cause of massive Metra delays: A worker fell on the circuit board

 
 
Updated 3/1/2019 5:36 PM
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  • Union Station's Great Hall was filled with commuters waiting for trains Thursday afternoon after Amtrak's automatic switching system went down, resulting in long delays for Metra trains that use the station.

    Union Station's Great Hall was filled with commuters waiting for trains Thursday afternoon after Amtrak's automatic switching system went down, resulting in long delays for Metra trains that use the station. Nader Issa/Sun-Times

  • Metra commuters dealt with hourslong delays Thursday that Amtrak officials blamed on "human error" when server upgrades to the dispatch system were being made.

      Metra commuters dealt with hourslong delays Thursday that Amtrak officials blamed on "human error" when server upgrades to the dispatch system were being made. Mark Welsh/MWELSH@DAILYHERALD.COM, AUGUST 2008

An Amtrak worker fell onto a circuit board during a server upgrade Thursday morning and caused hourslong delays for Metra riders stuck on crowded trains going to and leaving Chicago's Union Station all day long.

A resulting system outage prevented trains from being dispatched automatically, and ultimately Amtrak officials had crews deployed to control signals and switch tracks manually.

Amtrak CEO Richard Anderson apologized for what Amtrak dubbed a "human error" and noted the passenger railroad would change procedures in the wake of the outage.

U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin said he spoke with Anderson about the cause.

"He was honest and direct, and admitted that Amtrak made a series of errors," Durbin said in a news release. "The most important error they made was to decide to do a server upgrade to their computers during peak hours of service. This should be done in the middle of the night when only a handful of trains are running. Along with that, a worker fell on a circuit board, which turned off the computers and led to the interruption of service that went on all day long."

Amtrak spokesman Marc Magliari said there will be changes.

"We own the system. We will fix this problem," Magliari said. "More importantly, we are taking steps to improve our operations in Chicago, which include appointing a veteran Amtrak executive to make sure we deliver the performance our stakeholders expect of us."

He shot down any speculation that the system had been attacked by hackers.

"This system is not even connected to the internet," Magliari said.

Metra service was back to normal Friday, but ridership was reported to be much lower than usual.

"People may have made different plans to get to work today," Metra spokeswoman Meg Reile said.

Roselle commuter Stephanie Aronson described her tumultuous Thursday evening trip from Union Station to the suburbs.

"Once the train pulled up, it was just mayhem," she said. "People were running down the stairs to get on and across the tracks to get to other entrances. I have never seen anything like this."

Aronson said once inside, it was standing room only and the train didn't move for more than 30 minutes.

"I never saw a conductor," she said. "I never saw any Metra employee from the time I walked in at the Madison Street entrance."

Reile didn't immediately know the financial impact of Thursday's woes. Magliari said he was unaware of any conversation about Amtrak reimbursing Metra for any lost revenue.

Reile said there were no plans to reimburse passengers who had to deal with long waits and crowded cars.

"We took people home as best we could yesterday," Reile said. "We were really crippled and it was completely out of our control."

Reile said a similar outage occurred within the past two years, but it didn't last all day like Thursday's event.

Democratic U.S. Rep. Dan Lipinski of Western Springs, a member of the House Transportation Committee, said he met three weeks ago with Anderson about the need for improvements throughout Chicago's Amtrak system.

"Amtrak's apology for the unacceptable problems they caused Metra passengers yesterday is only a start," Lipinski said in a news release Friday. "There are many questions Amtrak needs to answer and then fixes need to be made as soon as possible."

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