The scene was chaotic at 5:30 a.m. on November 3. A long CN freight train had derailed, right where the CN tracks cross the Metra Milwaukee West Line tracks near Bartlett, Ill. Freight rail cars were upended, flipped over and crunched, and some were on fire. Rails from several different sets of tracks were ripped up and twisted amid the derailed cars. The intersection was completely blocked by a smoking mass of debris, and service on the Milwaukee West was crippled, with seven of nine train sets caught on the wrong side of the accident in Metra's yard in Elgin.
And yet, less than 24 hours later, Metra trains were rolling out of the yard and through the intersection to begin serving the line's 12,000 passengers again.
To make that happen, a lot of hands pitched in – from Metra and from a variety of other agencies. Police and fire departments from Bartlett, Elgin and nearby communities quickly and effectively contained the scene and enabled the cleanup to proceed rapidly. Metra worked closely with CN to get the debris untangled and removed from the Metra right-of-way. Other state and federal agencies assisted.
But the accident presented some unique challenges for Metra, and it had to scramble to overcome them. First, Metra had to address the disruption of service and run whatever trains and buses it could. Metra had to plan for the resumption of at least partial service and keep its riders as informed as possible. And it had to decide the best way to restore at least one track through or past the accident scene – and since time was of the essence – begin preparations to do that before the debris was cleared.
The work began right after the derailment. Don Orseno, Metra's chief transportation officer, said he knew Metra had a major problem on its hands as soon as he heard the derailment happened at what is known as the Spaulding Crossing. That crossing is between the Milwaukee West's overnight storage yard in Elgin to the west and most of the rest of the line to the east. With that intersection blocked, Orseno knew that Metra would be unable to run most trains on the line.
In the early morning hours following the accident, key executive and media relations personnel put together a communications plan to try and provide all customers with Metra E-Alerts and Twitter information that would save them a trip to their station and allow them to immediately determine an alternate way to get to work that day.
Soon thereafter, Metra's top executives convened in its GPS conference room downtown, which serves as its emergency operations center. That group eventually included Alex Clifford, Metra CEO; George Hardwidge, deputy executive director; Orseno; Joe Lorenzini, chief engineering officer; Marty Ryan, chief mechanical officer; Sharon Austin, senior division director, Customer Affairs; James Sanford, Metra police chief; members of Metra's Web, media relations and customer communications teams and others.
The first priority for Metra was to do what it could do to serve riders of the Milwaukee West, and the main responsibility for determining that fell to Pete Zwolfer, the senior director who oversees the lines out of Union Station, and Rich Oppenheim, the trainmaster for the district. Metra did have two trains that made it through the intersection before the accident and it borrowed another train from another line. For Thursday morning's rush, Metra used those trains to operate very limited service between Bartlett and Chicago. It also set up buses to get riders from the last three stops of line in Elgin to Bartlett.
Metra used its E-Alerts and Twitter to inform riders about the accident and about the limited service it was able to offer. Metra also suggested that, if possible, they should use the UP Northwest or UP West lines and, if they lived from River Grove to Chicago, the North Central Service. All information also was posted on its website, which was updated frequently. Chicago's media outlets were told about the plans so they could help inform the riders.