More scrutiny for Amtrak and no reimbursement for riders after Feb. 28 mess-up

 
 
Updated 4/3/2019 7:03 PM
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  • Union Station's Great Hall filled with commuters Feb. 28 after signal problems caused by Amtrak led to major delays and cancellations for Metra riders.

    Union Station's Great Hall filled with commuters Feb. 28 after signal problems caused by Amtrak led to major delays and cancellations for Metra riders. Nader Issa/Sun-Times

  • Dan Lipinski

    Dan Lipinski

Amtrak could be on the congressional hot seat soon despite apologies -- but no reimbursements -- for thousands of Metra commuters stranded or stuck on trains after a bungled technical upgrade in February.

U.S. Rep. Daniel Lipinski, a Western Springs Democrat on the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, plans a hearing in Chicago in the coming weeks.

More than 60,000 riders on the BNSF, Milwaukee District, North Central Service, Heritage Corridor and Southwest Service were left without rides or forced to wait for hours on trains or in stations because of signal problems Feb. 28.

Lipinski said he is "extremely disappointed" after the railroad rejected his suggestion Amtrak reimburse riders who had to pay for taxis or other ways to reach their destinations.

Metra trains comprise about 75 percent of traffic at Union Station and 90 percent of passengers, although Amtrak owns the facility and controls operations.

"This raises the question of whether Amtrak should give Metra operational control of the station," Lipinski said.

Amtrak was installing new automatic braking hardware during the morning rush when a technician fell on a circuit board while holding a live wire. As a result, communications equipment shorted out primary and secondary servers, which control train signals. Two additional servers were being used to test the new braking system, Senior Executive Vice President Stephen Gardner said.

Typically, Amtrak does not conduct maintenance or upgrades of signal equipment during rush hour, but "an inexperienced manager authorized an experienced senior technician" to go ahead, he said.

"All of us at Amtrak are mindful of how many people were affected by the delays that resulted from this disruption and I assure you, we are taking immediate concrete steps to ensure the causes of this event are addressed," Gardner said in a letter to Lipinski.

Amtrak has spent more than $60 million on Union Station in the last five years and intends to ask Metra to pay more for upkeep in a lease renewal, Gardner said.

Lipinski chairs the Transportation Committee's Subcommittee on Rail, Pipelines and Hazardous Materials. The future hearing, however, is not expected to be a formal session but an ad hoc event, officials said.

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