Jan. 16--Already under fire from passengers for chronic delays, cancellations and rail car shortages, Metra is now coming under official scrutiny for its much-criticized performance during last week's arctic blast.
The Regional Transportation Authority, the oversight agency for Metra, the CTA and Pace, will conduct a review of Metra's operations over the last two weeks, officials said Wednesday.
Underscoring the rail agency's problems, the number of out-of-service cars on Metra lines jumped sharply just as passengers were headed home Wednesday evening.
Metra reported that 39 cars were pulled from its lines, including 32 from the three Union Pacific lines alone. The UP has repaired cars and returned them to service but has also removed more cars for repairs, which is why the number was higher than on previous days, Metra said.
Other lines, including the Rock Island, Milwaukee District, the BNSF and SouthWest Service lines, lost one car each. Eleven cars were reported pulled from service Tuesday, down from 29 on Monday
Crews were working "extra shifts around the clock to make repairs to bring cars back in service. Our goal is to be significantly caught up by Monday," spokesman Michael Gillis said.
The Federal Railroad Administration said it was monitoring the car maintenance situation, and that it was conducting inspections as appropriate.
"From all appearances, UP is ...is only running equipment that complies with federal regulations," the regulatory agency said in a statement.
Earlier Wednesday, RTA Chairman John Gates Jr. said he directed the RTA's staff to review Metra's performance.
"I'm very concerned about Metra and the CTA's response to the winter weather that caused riders undue inconvenience," Gates said. "I know the Metra and CTA staffs have worked incredibly hard ... to improve the situation but nonetheless there were serious delays."
Gates said he wants the review to evaluate of Metra's communications with riders as well as the commuter rail agency's agreements with the two freight railroads that operate four of Metra's busiest lines. The review also will look at the extent to which Metra is taking advantage of bonding power to address long-term
Gates directed RTA staff to conduct the review and report back in 60 days. Metra's interim executive director, Don Orseno, is expected to appear before the RTA board in February.
In addition, state legislators have scheduled a meeting of the House Mass Transit Committee for Jan. 27 to look into the commuter rail agency's weather woes. The committee hearing will review agency operations and recent train service schedule interruptions.
One lawmaker, State Rep. Ron Sandack, R-Downers Grove, said he hoped the hearing would shed light on not just last week's Metra operations, but on recent years as well.
"I'm a long-time rider and have taken the BNSF to the city for 20-plus years, and I think there's a perception among riders that service isn't what it used to be," Sandeck said.
Metra, meanwhile, conducted a wide-ranging meeting of its top management and representatives from the BNSF Railway and Union Pacific, its partner railroads, to assess weather-related problems and seek ways to solve them.
The meeting was "productive" but Metra was not ready Wednesday to talk about any conclusions, Gillis said. Metra's board of directors is scheduled to meet Friday.
Riders continue to voice complaints about crowded conditions on trains. Rush hour express train cars are consistently short of seats, said Crystal Szewczyk, who commutes from Naperville on the BNSF Line.
"People are shoved into vestibules and sitting on the ... stairwells, often two to three per stairwell because no seats remain," she said.
Echoing a concern raised by many riders, the RTA's Gates said communication between Metra and passengers "seems to have been quite poor."
Riders have reported that train schedule information and delay notices posted on Metra's website and issued via email alerts often lagged or was inaccurate.