IL: Perceptions About Metra Asleep at Frozen Switches are Wrong, New Railroad Chief Says

Feb. 11--Metra's new chief officer went before state lawmakers Monday, promising at the outset that everything possible would be done to prevent a repeat of last month's service collapse and poor communication with riders.

But Executive Director Don Orseno spent much of the next two hours defending Metra's performance rather than offering ideas to improve service.

"There's a perception out there that Metra was not prepared, and I can assure you that was the furthest thing from the truth," Orseno told the Illinois House Mass Transit Committee in defense of widespread criticism about delayed and canceled trains during an early January snowstorm.

Orseno also told committee members that problems fueled by the polar vortex were largely unavoidable, in part because of aging equipment, and that Metra had done better than the South Shore Line and commuter lines in New York.

"Mr. Orseno, I don't give a damn about Indiana or New York. None of our people rode those systems," said committee Chairman Rep. Al Riley, D-Olympia Fields, cutting Orseno off in midsentence.

At the height of the storm Jan. 6, Metra dramatically slashed service. Ridership that day was only about one-third of normal weekday ridership. Yet of the diminished service offered, only 30 percent of trains operated on time, according to Metra data released at the hearing.

The CTA, although a different type of transit rail operation, suffered nowhere near the degree of stuck switches and other frozen equipment.

Orseno said Metra is aiming for future on-time performance of at least 95 percent systemwide. So far this year, about 85 percent of Metra service has been on time, averaged over the 11 commuter rail lines.

Orseno kicked off his testimony by attributing most of Metra's problems to an equipment funding shortfall that is projected at $9.7 billion over the next 10 years. He also offered a list of things Metra will not be able to accomplish until substantial repairs are made, such as better service options for reverse commuters and line extensions to outlying areas.

Orseno, a 30-year Metra veteran, was chief operating officer before being named interim executive director last summer after the forced resignation of Alex Clifford, who came to Metra from California with no railroad experience. The Metra board voted last month to appoint Orseno executive director and CEO.

Lawmakers at Monday's hearing told Orseno that riders are outraged over Metra's recent performance and its poor communication to customers about canceled trains. Riders complain that service alerts often come too late for them to make alternative plans.

Rep. Ron Sandack, R-Downers Grove, said the problems have exacerbated a widespread feeling that the Metra system "isn't what it used to be."

"It's a palpable perception among my friends and neighbors," Sandack told Orseno.

Orseno said many factors contributed to last month's problems. He cited fuel trucks that had trouble traveling during the snowstorm, although he stopped short of attributing service delays to fuel delivery problems.

Bigger problems, he said, included frozen switches and worker shortages prompted by locomotive engineers, conductors, tower operators and signal workers who had to go home because they had reached the federal limit on hours worked without rest.

Orseno also acknowledged that most of the delays and cancellations occurred on Metra lines operated by the Union Pacific Railroad and the Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway but rejected any suggestion that Metra has been "too easy" on the UP and BNSF.

Lawmakers asked whether financial penalties against the two freight railroads would lead to better passenger service, an idea Orseno said would be futile.

"When you talk about financial penalties, you can argue back and forth all day and it would cost you more arguing about that," he said. "The key is working with our freight partners to make sure we operate the service the way our customers deserve."

The third-generation railroader pointed out that the two national freight railroads have other priorities and that juggling cargo and passenger trains is a complicated process.

"It's not that we were not prepared," Orseno told the committee. "This was a perfect storm to shut our system down."

But lawmakers said his explanation amounted to excuses and would not be tolerated.

"To say somebody else was responsible, that is not going to fly," Riley said.

Rep. David Harris, R-Arlington Heights, echoed that sentiment, offering Orseno some advice in his new job.

"We have a saying in the military that there are times you have to kick ass and take names," Harris said. "We don't want another year or two like the past year or two we've had."

jhilkevitch@tribune.com

Twitter @jhilkevitch

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