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Metra, politicians unload on Amtrak over system failure Feb. 28

Commuters in Union Station's Great Hall

Union Station's Great Hall was filled with waiting commuters Feb. 28, 2019, after signal problems halted Amtrak and Metra service. | Nader Issa/Sun-Times

Metra’s CEO asserted Tuesday that if Metra controlled Union Station instead of Amtrak, the mistake that stranded nearly 100,000 commuters on Feb. 28 never would have happened.

The massive commuter headache happened when an inexperienced Amtrak manager broke protocol by ordering a hardware update during the morning rush instead of during off-peak hours.

The update accidentally shorted out communications equipment, grinding rail usage to a halt.

“We wouldn’t put ourselves in that position by doing that maintenance during a rush hour,” Metra CEO James Derwinski said during a regional rail issues hearing before U.S. Rep. Dan Lipinski at a downtown federal building.

“Having control of our destiny, in some senses, especially at the final terminal, is very important to Metra,” he said.

Ninety percent of passengers that move through Union Station are Metra customers, but Amtrak maintains dispatching duties at the iconic rail hub just west of Willis Tower.

Ray Lang, Amtrak senior director of government affairs, said that ceding control of Union Station is not happening.

“We’ve been very clear that we’re going to maintain ownership and control of dispatching at Union Station,” Lang said.

He described a perfect storm of unfortunate circumstances that preceded the February rail stoppage, including a backup system that was temporarily unavailable.

“Again, I apologize for what happened,” he said.

Lang also noted that Amtrak handled more than 78,000 Metra trains at Union Station last year with an on-time dispatch rate of 99.39 percent.

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Derwinksi pointed out to Lipinksi and several suburban mayors who’d gathered for the hearing that Metra has a larger workforce than Amtrak and would be better able to handle on-the-ground operations in the event of an automated system failure.

He also acknowledged that Metra has been trying to gain control of Union Station for several years.

Since the commuter catastrophe, the agencies have begun meeting monthly to discuss operations — an arrangement that several elected officials expressed astonishment was not in place years ago.

Lipinski, who leads a House subcommittee that focuses on railroad infrastructure, referred to the Feb. 28 incident as the “infamous Amtrak Chicago Union Station meltdown” and said he remained baffled at how it happened in the first place.

“This was a completely avoidable failure of epic proportions. It’s inexcusable that Amtrak was upgrading its signal system during the morning rush hour, did not have a backup in case of failure, and then did not have the problem resolved until after the evening rush,” he said.

Lipinski also asked Lang why Amtrak was not open to the idea of reimbursing stranded passengers who ended up paying as much as $80 for an Uber ride home.

“Reimbursement is not something that anyone in the industry does,” Lang said.