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Metra ‘operating normally’ this morning after 60K+ stranded in Union Station

Union Station

Commuters line up at Union Station Thursday afternoon. Signal problems that halted Amtrak and Metra trains at Union Station in the morning also are likely to cause major delays for people headed home. | Nader Issa/Sun-Times

Metra service was back to normal during its Friday morning commute after extensive delays at Union Station left thousands stranded for hours during Thursday evening’s rush-hour commute.

“So far it’s operating normally this morning,” said Metra spokesman Tom Miller. “The signal system has been restored and things are on schedule.”

As of 7 a.m., no delays were reported on the six Metra lines that traverse the station: the BNSF, Milwaukee District West and North, Heritage Corridor, North Central Service and SouthWest Service lines.

The Amtrak signal problems that halted and delayed both Amtrak and Metra trains at the downtown train station were fixed by late Thursday as crews worked all day to address the issue, according to Amtrak spokesman Marc Magliari.

“In my time here, which is now about 18 years, I have not seen a signal control system outage of this duration,” Magliari said at a media briefing. “We want to make sure that we apologize to our customers, to Metra’s customers and others for the inconvenience.”

Though the largest crowds had diminished by 6 p.m., hundreds waited for their delayed trains into the evening. Announcements made every few minutes over the intercom system alerted passengers that the signal issues were not yet resolved.

Commuters in Union Station's Great Hall

Union Station’s Great Hall was filled with waiting commuters Thursday afternoon. Signal problems that halted Amtrak and Metra trains at Union Station in the morning also are likely to cause major delays for people headed home. | Nader Issa/Sun-Times

Magliari said trouble started about 8:30 a.m. when the automated system that connects the control center to the track switches and signals went down. To keep at least some trains moving while efforts were made to fix the system, crews were manually operating the signals and track switches.

Thousands of passengers crowded into the station during the evening rush-hour commute only to be disappointed to find out about the delays.

About 61,000 passengers travel on six Metra lines that go through Union Station, according to Metra spokesman Michael Gillis. About 86 Metra trains leave the station after 3:30 p.m., most of which are during the rush-hour commute. All saw delays of several hours.

“On the BNSF line, which is by far the busiest line, we’re just operating what we call a ‘load and go’ system,” said Metra spokesman Michael Gillis, “where they bring a train in, fill it with passengers and leave immediately. There’s no set schedule. As soon as it’s full, it departs and we bring another train in.” | Nader Issa/Sun-Times

“On the BNSF line, which is by far the busiest line, we’re just operating what we call a ‘load and go’ system,” Gillis said, “where they bring a train in, fill it with passengers and leave immediately. There’s no set schedule. As soon as it’s full, it departs and we bring another train in.”

BNSF trains made all stops from Union station to Downers Grove Main Street or all stops between Downers Grove Main Street and Aurora, but trains were very overcrowded, Metra said. Riders also saw “extensive delays” on the Heritage Corridor, Southwest Service, North Central Service and Milwaukee District North and West lines throughout the evening rush.

Kimberly Searcy, a daily passenger on the BNSF line to the western suburbs, walked into Union Station after work to catch a 3:58 p.m. train to Naperville. After waiting 40 minutes, the 46-year-old woman realized there were no trains heading home for hours, and she was told the issue could take all night.

“It’s ridiculous. This happens a lot,” said Searcy, who was calm despite the circumstances. “I was ready to go home because I’m tired, I’m exhausted. And so it’s kind of disappointing. It’s almost like there’s no options.”

Searcy decided to head back to work for a couple hours and try her luck later in the evening, but she said she would resort to a ride-hailing service if the problem wasn’t resolved.

Union Station's Great Hall

Union Station’s Great Hall was filled with waiting commuters Thursday afternoon. Signal problems that halted Amtrak and Metra trains at Union Station in the morning also are likely to cause major delays for people headed home. | Nader Issa/Sun-Times

But for a rider like Searcy, who already bought a $210.25 unlimited monthly Metra pass, options like Uber or Lyft could be pricey alternatives.

Surge pricing — which goes into effect when there’s high demand for rides — caused prices to skyrocket for rides to the suburbs. A trip from Union Station to the Naperville Metra station — which usually would cost about $50 — shot up to $126 Thursday evening.

“It’s busy, fares are a lot higher than usual,” read an alert on the Uber app.

Despite the ride-hailing prices, Metra advised riders who needed to be home at a specific time to think about finding an alternate form of transportation. Those options included Metra lines out of Ogilvie Station — which was not affected by the outage — that stopped by neighboring suburbs.

Amtrak planned to have additional crews on stand-by on Friday in case of more problems, Magliari said. The cause of the system failure was being investigated.