(CBS) — It’s been a rough two weeks for Metra, and the commuter rail agency’s interim CEO apologized Tuesday for a series of missteps, miscommunications and breakdowns.
“Metra is very sorry for any convenience that our customers experienced,” Interim CEO Don Orseno said. ‘It’s always been our goal to try to provide the best service we can for our customers.”
But Orseno said the commuter rail agency faced a set of conditions it hasn’t seen come together since the 1990s. Not only did drifts block tracks, they made it impossible for refueling tankers to get through to train yards at outlying terminals until the deep freeze ended Wednesday, Jan. 8; he said the trains burn more fuel in bitter cold weather because the automatic starters on diesel engines don’t work reliably in subzero temperatures.
Metra has gone to great lengths to show how easy it is for one of its 3,000 switches to become jammed with ice — and how long it can take to remove the ice. Orseno said the constantly changing conditions rendered many rider alerts in the teeth of the storm outdated within minutes of the time they were issued.
“Every time it seemed like we were doing things, we were presented with a different challenge, and went from Plan A to Plan B to Plan C,” he said.
He said that on the average day Metra issues about 10 rider alerts. He said on Jan. 6, Metra issued 261 alerts, and that other days in the past two weeks have been well above normal.
Perhaps the angriest riders were those put off of a Union Pacific Northwest Line train Jan. 6, in -15 conditions, because personnel at Ogilvie Transportation Center decided to put the train back on schedule by running it express to Crystal Lake.
Orseno said he was livid when he found out.
“That was not a Metra decision. That was a decision made by the Union Pacific,” Orseno said. “When I found out about it I immediately contacted some very high-level people at the Union Pacific. They were deeply disturbed that the decision was made — but the decision was made — and that will not happen again.”
Orseno said he was told that Ogilvie personnel believed the riders would be standing at the station, which has no heated shelters or covered platforms, for only a few minutes. But delays to succeeding trains stranded them on the platform for 40 minutes.
He was unable to say whether the state of repair to Metra’s trains and railroad played a part in the problems. Metra has said that it has fallen steadily behind, needs $9.7 billion over 10 years to achieve a state of good repair, and expects only a fraction of that.
Metra personnel are still making repairs to the bi-level fleet, which have left some trains shorter than usual, because it holds few cars in reserve even in the best of conditions. Orseno said routine brake shoe replacement that normally takes 10 minutes can take 40 minutes when the wheel sets are encased in ice. Such repairs must be done in as little as every third day in heavy snow because the brake systems on trains are applied lightly even when trains are accelerating to keep them from freezing.
Despite that, shop crews are beginning to catch up and Orseno expects all trains to be at their normal lengths by Friday. Riders on some rush-hour trains have complained of crowding, and of the inability of conductors to collect fares.