IL: New Metra Chief: We'll Improve Communication

As one of his first tasks as the new head of Metra, Don Orseno said he plans to improve how passengers get information about their trains — a major source of complaints during a brutal winter of delays and cancellations.

Metra will enhance the Rail-Time Tracker feature on the agency's website so it is more "dynamic" and reflects real-time operations, rather than fixed schedules, Orseno said. The agency also plans to improve the email alert system that warns customers of delays, he said.

"It's all about our customers," Orseno said. "We've got to be able to deliver what we say we're going to deliver. That's my goal."

Orseno, 59, was named Metra's executive director by the unanimous approval of the commuter rail agency's board Friday, capping a turbulent seven-month span that began with the ouster of CEO Alex Clifford in what one report called a power struggle with the board.

The largely new Metra board gave a strong vote of confidence to Orseno, who has been interim chief executive since August. Members expressed no concerns or misgivings about selecting a 30-year Metra insider to run the nation's second-busiest rail line rather than search elsewhere.

In fact, some members said they were convinced that picking Orseno provided the only assurance the most complicated railroad operation in the country would be best-served.

"He has both the in-depth knowledge and experience of this complex railroad," Martin Oberman said of Orseno. "To parachute some executive in here from some other part of the country, even from another railroad would require a learning curve of months if not years to duplicate what our executive director has to do."

Members said it would have been irresponsible to go outside the organization and not give Orseno consideration.

"This idea that you have to go outside, sometimes is beneficial," but sometimes not, said member John Plante. "In this case, we didn't feel it would be more beneficial than hiring Don."

Acting Chairman Jack Partelow insisted that Orseno was "the best by a mile and a half" over three other finalists. "He was way out there," Partelow said. Partelow would not identify the other finalists.

The four candidates, all interviewed Friday morning, were "very distinguished individuals," board member Arlene Mulder said, adding that the search attracted attention from both the East and West coasts.

"It was really gratifying and enlightening to find out that all of a sudden, Don Orseno and his talent, his background and knowledge was much greater" than that of other candidates, Mulder said.

Board member Jack Schaffer, who uttered the famous "Hell, no," vote against the controversial severance deal for ousted CEO Clifford, affirmed Orseno's appointment Friday with a "Hell, yes," prompting laughter.

Orseno, who will make $262,500 a year, admitted that he drives to work because Metra's SouthWest Service Line schedule doesn't get him to the office early enough, or home late enough.

In an interview after his appointment, he emphasized three areas in addition to improving communication with customers.

  • On the issue of patronage and alleged attempts by politicians to influence Metra, Orseno said if a politician asks for a favor, such as a raise for a friend, Metra will "do the right thing. That won't happen."

"We have a policy and procedures and we're going to take the high road, we're going to do the ethical thing," he said. "No one's going to make a call and say give someone a raise, not as long as I'm sitting here."

  • On restoring the public's trust in Metra, after scandals and weather-induced problems, he said the vacation-pay scandal and suicide of former CEO Phil Pagano and the controversy over Clifford's ouster were rough for Metra.

The agency, he said, needs to focus on "doing the right things for the right reasons," he said.

"We had some challenging times, and we still have some challenging times we need to get through," Orseno said. "We've lost a lot of that public trust and we've got to earn that back."

The executive director's job, he said, "is all about our customers, it's about delivery of services, it's about communication, it's about operations, it's about everything we can do to provide better customer service."

  • On his commitment to the agency, he said that as a third-generation railroader and a 40-year railroad veteran, he's aimed for the top during his three decades with Metra.

"It's always been my goal to be the head of this agency, and today that has come true," Orseno said.


rwronski@tribune.com

Twitter @richwronski

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