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Metra Board: ‘Pets on Trains expanded,’ raise for CEO

Saying its pilot “Pets on Trains” program has been a success, the Metra Board on Monday expanded the program to all 11 train lines, beginning Oct. 10.

“Not very many people utilized the program, and no one had a negative word. No one complained about it,” said Metra Board Chairman Marty Oberman. “Now it’s going to be applicable on all of our 11 lines, but only on weekends, until January. Then we’re going to re-evaluate whether to make it permanent.”

The board also passed a resolution calling on Congress to extend the looming Dec. 31 deadline to implement federally mandated safety technology, maintaining Metra will be forced into a complete shut down on that date to avoid running afoul of the law and amassing financial penalties.

And members unanimously approved a raise for CEO Don Orseno, whose salary will go from $262,500 to $289,500 annually, after the board said an outside evaluation lauded his performance.

The pilot pet program, which began July 4 on weekend Rock Island Line trains, allowed pets to come on board in a crate small enough to fit under a Metra seat or in the owner’s lap.

Metra’s citizen advisory board signed off on the program after more than 4,000 people signed an online petition supporting the idea. It was implemented after rider concerns about allergies, barking dogs and animal odors were addressed. Metra policy allows conductors to boot animals who are disruptive, noisy or smell.

Only 39 riders took advantage during the three-month pilot period, said Metra. And riders who completed an online survey overwhelmingly supported the program (68 percent to 24 percent, with 8 percent not answering the question) and endorsed expanding it to weekends on all lines (62 percent to 5.5 percent, with 32.5 percent not answering the question).

The nation’s train lines are required to implement the new safety technology, called Positive Train Control (PTC), which uses global positioning satellites and other technology to automatically stop or slow trains in dangerous situations, by year’s end.

Federal officials have said PTC could have prevented an Amtrak train crash in Philadelphia in May, that killed eight people and injured more than 200; and the head of the Federal Railroad Administration recently warned railroads could face penalties of up to $25,000 a day for failure to meet the deadline.

The railroad industry has complained Congress didn’t give it the time and money to implement the new technology, and railroad lines across the country have previously warned they face shut-down without an extension by Congress.

Oberman has said Metra expects to have a positive train control system in place by 2019, with some lines implementing it before then.

“Metra alone could be subject to penalties of $18 million per day, at $25,000 per train and 753 trains,” Oberman said Monday. “The technology for this system is not even available right now, and has to be customized for every railroad in the country. And even if it were developed, it has to be tested. It was never possible to get that done by end of 2015. The railroad industry has been telling this to Congress for three years now, and Congress has just ignored it.”