July 21--Metra is scrapping longtime practices that artificially inflated its on-time performance, saying riders are entitled to have complete and accurate information about train delays.
Until now, non-peak-hour trains delayed for five, 10 or more minutes because of track repairs or other projects were not classified as late because "construction allowances" were factored into on-time calculations.
New guidelines will do away with those allowances, and as an additional measure, Metra will no longer automatically count extra trains for special events as always being on time, as it has in the past.
The two practices tended to boost Metra's performance record, which the agency has long touted as averaging 95 percent or better. After the agency revised its May numbers to reflect the policy change, Metra's overall performance for that month dropped to 94.8 percent from 96 percent.
The rate for trains most affected by the change, weekday off-peak runs, fell to 93.9 percent from 95.5 percent, and the weekend rate fell to 92.2 percent from 95.7 percent.
Metra CEO Alex Clifford, who ordered the new guidelines, said the commuter rail agency's previous administration was more concerned about on-time performance numbers than its customers.
"My philosophy is different," said Clifford, who took over in February. "I'm not (concerned) about the numbers we report. I'm about what the customer experiences when he sits in his seat."
The new guidelines will put Metra performance claims more in line with riders' perceptions. In the past, riders have complained of arriving late on trains that Metra didn't count as delayed.
"The customer that maybe experiences a construction project that made (his) trip 16 minutes late, is late, and yet we report(ed) that the train was on time," Clifford said of the old policy.
It's the second time in two months that Metra is changing the way it reports performance, after a June 15 Tribune analysis of Metra's on-time record. The analysis found that Metra's overall on-time average masked wide variations among Metra's lines and its 702 daily and 459 weekend runs.
For instance, Metra's Heritage Corridor trains, which run between Union Station and Joliet, were late more than 11 percent of the time in 2010. And more than 20 peak-hour commuter trains ran late more than once every two weeks.
"The new approach is to make sure we're being 100 percent clear and 100 percent transparent, and to make sure there's no perception that were trying to hide the reality of (our) on-time performance," said George Hardwidge, deputy executive director for operations.
Metra will also update its schedules more frequently to more accurately reflect arrival times due to construction, Hardwidge said.
Prompted by the Tribune analysis, Metra last month began posting detailed reports of its train operations on its website so the public could see how each train line was performing.
The lengthy reports outline the percentage of trains arriving on time, the number of delays and the reasons for delays on each of Metra's 11 lines dating to 2007. The reports had not been readily available previously.
Metra's policy of factoring the construction allowance into the on-time reports was little-known, if at all, by the public. Another little-known Metra policy and a commuter rail industry standard is to not count a train as late unless it is delayed six minutes or more.
"The construction allowance and the way it was calculated before hasn't been a secret," Hardwidge said. "It's been out there but has been below the surface."
Metra Director Jim LaBelle said board members were unaware of the construction allowance policy.
"Maybe everybody inside (Metra) knew (about the policy), but nobody outside knew it," LaBelle said.
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