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Put passengers, communities first in Metra-Union Pacific dispute

The Union Pacific, which owns the tracks and pays the ticket agents and train crews under a contract with Metra, recently sent a letter to local communities saying it had entered into a deal to sell property at 41 train stations along Metra lines for about $50.9 million.

A Metra train at the Edison Park train station on the Union Pacific Northwest line.
Tyler LaRiviere/Sun-Times

On Tuesday, the Crystal Lake City Council voted to start the process of possibly buying its local train station.

Is it really necessary for a community to have to buy its own historic train station in the center of its town? Should it be necessary for other communities to do so? No.

The station is owned by the Union Pacific, which bought the storied Chicago & North Western Ry. in 1995, including its three commuter lines, which are now served by Metra. Apparently, the Union Pacific — a railroad that made history by carrying passengers on the nation’s first transcontinental railroad — now thinks it’s too hard to take people from Chicago to Des Plaines. It wants out of the commuter rail business altogether.

Not only does the UP want out of the rail business, it also wants to sell off assets. The Union Pacific, which owns the tracks and pays the ticket agents and train crews under a contract with Metra, recently sent a letter to local communities saying it had entered into a deal with an unnamed developer to sell property at 41 train stations along Metra lines for about $50.9 million. The affected Metra lines go north to Kenosha, northwest to Harvard and McHenry and west to Elburn. Among the communities the trains serve are Arlington Heights, Palatine, Elmhurst, Evanston, Waukegan and Wheaton. Ten of the train stations on those lines are in Chicago.

The UP’s letter has put communities on the spot. They have to decide whether to dig into their budgets for money they need for other purposes to buy their train stations, parking lots or other property along the tracks. If they don’t, they are not sure what will happen to them. On Monday, the Geneva City Council voted to start the process of possibly buying the commuter parking lots by its train station from the UP. In Geneva, the UP owns the parking lots, but not the station.

The Union Pacific says not to worry. In a statement, it said: “We have been clear with Metra that commuter trains will continue to run on these lines and service will not be degraded or halted.”

But it might cost Metra and communities more money. Metra thinks the UP is contractually obligated to keep operating the service. In 2019, Metra paid the Union Pacific $61 million in cash and $37 million in “in kind” benefits, such as fuel and rent. If the current deal is tossed out, Metra worries it will have to pay more to rent the tracks and operate the service than it is paying now. In late September, U.S. District Judge Jorge Alonso sided with the UP, saying it can tell Metra to run the service on its own or find another operator. Metra is seeking a review of the ruling. Metra and the UP had an earlier dispute when UP declined to collect fares during the pandemic. It resumed collecting them on June 1.

The UP really should not be trying to force Metra’s hand at a time when the transit agency already has a big challenge planning how to go forward after the pandemic. Metra has limited ability to take over all aspects of Union Pacific’s operations as quickly as the UP would like.

“The transaction should take place after several years of planning rather than amid the pressure cooker we feel now,” said transit expert Joseph P. Schwieterman, director of DePaul University’s Chaddick Institute for Metropolitan Development. “It is creating a lot of stress for advocates of transit that would seem to be avoidable.”

If the Union Pacific does stop operating commuter service itself, the railroad needs to do it in a way that is fair to Metra, local communities and the passengers. Metra and local communities should not be required to ante up money to run the trains and protect the stations and other facilities that were there before the UP bought the rail lines.

It is not the right way to run a railroad.

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