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Metra unveils new Union Station crowd control plan

By ROSALIND ROSSI | staff reporter

Metra riders at Union Station will find fliers on their seats Wednesday morning that outline a new battle plan for avoiding mob scenes in the South Concourse during service disruptions.

Nearly 21,000 weekday Metra passengers board trains from the south platform of Union Station between 4:30 p.m. and 6 p.m. That includes customers of the BNSF, Heritage Corridor and SouthWest Service lines.

“The South Concourse gets very crowded very quickly. You [can] fall into a pit,” David Rubino, Metra’s director of station services, said Tuesday.

Many riders complained about those crowds last February in a Metra survey that followed a raft of weather-related delays.

To avoid that this winter, Metra officials Tuesday unveiled three maps to show how they plan to close off several access points to the South Concourse during major service disruptions and allow entry from only one location: the wide corridor that connects the South Concourse to the Great Hall and the Metra ticketing area. Retractable belt cords would be used as barriers in some cases.

The wide corridor — and the Great Hall if it is open — would serve as waiting areas. People huddled there would be updated on service via public address announcements and officials using hand-held bullhorns, Metra officials said.

In the first of three scenarios outlined Tuesday, riders would be encouraged to wait in the Great Hall if the BNSF, Heritage Corridor and SouthWest suffered major disruptions and the Great Hall was open.

The main escalators that feed into the South Concourse from the food court would be blocked off, and riders entering at Jackson near the river would have to walk north and use the stairs or escalators that feed the North Concourse and then double back south to access the South Concourse.

Under a second scenario, if all three lines were disrupted and the Great Hall was not available, riders would wait in a wide corridor or adjacent loading area near the Great Hall and use a different path to get there. The West Jackson Boulevard entrance to Union Station would be closed.

The third scenario envisions a disruption involving only the BNSF line. In that case, SouthWest Service and Heritage Corridor riders could enter the South Concourse through the hallway that connects the South and North Concourses to the Amtrak ticket area. But BNSF riders would have to wait in the loading area or corridor.

Metra spokesman Michael Gillis said the crowd control plan would be used only during a lengthy disruption of service to the outbound BNSF line or all three outbound lines. If it had been in place over the last 12 months, it could have been used roughly a half dozen times, he estimated.

“We hope we never have to use this plan,” Gillis said. “But we just want to be prepared in case we do have to use it.”

Fliers will be placed on seats of inbound BNSF, Heritage Corridor and SouthWest Service trains explaining the three plans Wednesday morning, Gillis said. Emails also will be sent out about the crowd control plan and riders will be notified by alerts and emails when the plan is activated.

One respondent to a Metra survey after last year’s brutal January called the Union Station crowds “an accident waiting to happen.”

“One of these days,” another rider warned, “you are going to have [an] E2 nightclub type of situation on your hands where people will be seriously injured or killed.”

The new crowd control plan was developed with input from Amtrak and BNSF personnel, who will help Metra in redirecting passenger movement.