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Metra chief emphasizes positives -- but not tough issues

Two days before he testifies in front of a taskforce with transit agencies in its crosshairs, Metra Interim Executive Director Don Orseno Monday put out a formal statement to riders pushing the message that “Metra is strong and steady.”

The statement emphasizes a long list of what Orseno sees as the Metra positives that have been lost amid the sea of Metra criticisms following the Metra board’s controversial June 21 buyout of ex-CEO Alex Clifford. The up to 26-month, $871,000 separation agreement spawned two inspector general investigations and an RTA audit.

Orseno’s comments offers little detail on bringing WiFi or Ventra fare card integration to Metra — two issues that Gov. Patrick Quinn called out as nettlesome in his opening address to the first meeting of his Northeastern Illinois Public Transit Task Force. In the fourth to the last graph, Orseno merely mentions that Metra is “continuing to explore such things.”

Orseno’s point: “Metra staff has not been distracted from its mission this summer.” He cites positive signs in ridership, rail car installation, bridge work, advertising revenue and year-over-year revenue. Even a back-to-school supply drive at two Chicago public schools and plans for a “Mystery Shopper Program” are on the list of accomplishments.

The Clifford “scandal,” as Quinn has labeled it,” and suggestions on how to prevent the patronage and contract-meddling allegations it raised, are not mentioned.

Metra spokesman Michael Gillis said Orseno would have put out the 1-1/2 page statement, even if he was not scheduled to testify Wednesday before the Transit Task Force, which has been asked to examine if any of the region’s four transit agencies should be reorganized or consolidated.

And, the statement is not the one Orseno will deliver to the task force on Wednesday, although some of the same information may be in his Wednesday presentation, Gillis said.

That’s good, said State Rep. Jack Franks (D-Marengo), because “if this is the tone [Orseno] brings to the task force, he should stay home.” The address is “perfect for the summer picnic for the employees” but before the task force, Franks said, Orseno should be “giving substantive ideas” on how to “change the culture” at Metra and find efficiencies.

Orseno’s message is below.

A statement from Metra Interim CEO Don Orseno

Metra is strong and steady

A lot has been said and written about Metra this summer, but little of it had to do with the 4,400 men and women who work hard every day to make sure our trains operate as safely and as reliably as possible. I was recently honored to be chosen to lead Metra on an interim basis, and I feel it is important for riders to know that throughout this summer those dedicated professionals kept their focus on providing or supporting the best possible commuter rail service. That might not make for juicy headlines, but it is good news for anyone who rides Metra or cares about public transportation.

Take, for instance, our on-time-performance record. We have acknowledged that June was a difficult month. We had unusual weather that delayed many trains, and a freight derailment that significantly impacted one line, but we also had a host of other nagging problems that brought our on-time rate down to 92.4 percent, well below our goal of 95 percent. We found that as unacceptable as our riders did, and immediately started working on doing better. In particular we worked with the management of BNSF Railway, the busiest Metra line, to identify ways to cut delays attributable to mechanical, switch, signal or other issues.

As a result, that rate has improved every month since June – to 94 percent systemwide in July, 95.2 percent in August and nearly 97 percent so far in September. The BNSF Line did even better each month than the systemwide average.

Here’s some other evidence that Metra staff has not been distracted from its mission this summer

  • Metra ridership has been up year-over-year for the past four months.
  • New cars for our Metra Electric Line continue to roll out of the factory at a rate of four to six a month. And it’s not just any factory – it’s a new Nippon Sharyo facility in Rochelle, Ill., that our order – and the state of Illinois’ leadership – helped to build. Those cars are bringing more reliable service – and, for the first time, bathrooms – to the Metra Electric.

  • We’ve continued to renovate 176 cars into like-new condition for our diesel lines in-house, which has saved us money and allowed us to add such amenities as electrical outlets and intercoms for passengers. It has also provided jobs right here in Chicago.
  • Major projects such as the UP North bridge work, the Englewood flyover bridge and rehabilitations of the Ravenswood, Cicero and Fox River Grove stations remain on track.
  • We have launched marketing campaigns to increase our ridership and inform our customers about transit benefits programs that will help employers and employees save money.
  • Just last month, we partnered with NBC 5 in a successful back-to-school school supply drive for students at two Chicago Public Schools.
  • We carried out another successful school safety poster contest, part of our mission to spread the word about railroad safety to all schoolchildren in the six-county area. Our next contest, in fact, is about to get underway.
  • We are installing technology on our locomotives that will automatically shut them down if they’ve idled too long and/or restart them as needed, which helps reduce pollution and noise. We expect two-thirds of our fleet to be equipped in the next three months.
  • We have increased our advertising revenue by 34 percent, and we have developed new advertising products – such as external train banners and waiting room wraps – to provide additional advertising revenue opportunities.

  • Finally, our year-over-year revenue through July is up by $6.9 million, or 4 percent, which is helping us to operate under budget for the year so far.

In addition to those initiatives, Metra has a variety of other plans in the works to benefit riders. We know we need to restore the public trust in Metra, and we know the best way to do that is to concentrate on operating safely and reliably and on spending public dollars wisely. Beyond that, we also want to enhance their riding experience by continuing to explore such things as Wi-Fi, an enhanced train tracker and integration with the CTA’s Ventra fare card, among other things.

And we want to work on providing the best customer service, whether our customers are riding a train, buying a ticket, viewing our website or carrying out any other interaction with Metra staff. We will soon be introducing an annual customer experience survey and a Mystery Shopper Program to ensure the experience of our riders meets their satisfaction.

I certainly will not argue that Metra is without challenges. Perhaps the biggest challenge, and one that will impact many of our plans, is our need for more capital money to invest in our system. We estimate Metra will need about $9.7 billion over the next decade to achieve a state of good repair on the system, and we expect to receive about a fourth of that amount from traditional federal and state sources. Riders need to understand that fares help us cover our operating costs but have never been a significant source for capital expenses – we must rely on Washington and Springfield for that funding.

I will argue, however, that Metra has a solid team in place to meet those challenges, and that we are fully committed to doing everything within our means to do so. Our riders, and the public, deserve no less.

Don Orseno

Interim Executive Director

Metra

September 23, 2013