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Metra sorry — but delays drag on

Updated: July 22, 2013 6:59PM



Yet another mechanical problem gummed up service to nine Burlington Northern Santa Fe trains Thursday, less than one day after Metra conceded by email to riders that it’s frustrated with the delays plaguing its busiest line and trying to fix them.

BNSF passenger patience has become so tested in recent weeks that “people that ride the BNSF feel it’s become a soap opera, a high drama,’’ said Joseph Schwieterman, director of DePaul University’s Chaddick Institute for Metropolitan Development.

“It’s become unpredictable.’’

BNSF riders late Wednesday received emailed assurances from Metra that officials were working to address a cluster of delays that produced the agency’s worst on-time performance record so far this month.

Only 89.49 percent of Chicago area BNSF trains were on time this month through June 19 — solidly below Metra’s goal of 95 percent, agency officials said.

That translates into 143 delayed trains out of 1,360 so far this month on a line that serves about 27,000 riders a day.

“Metra and BNSF Railway are aware that the on-time performance record for this line in June is below our goals and standards, and we want to assure our riders that we find it as frustrating as they do,’’ said the email, which also was posted on Metra’s website.

“Together [with BNSF] we are making an extra effort to address the issues that have resulted in recent delays.’’

Yet within 14 hours, by Thursday morning, a BNSF train at the Lisle station had to be canceled during the morning rush after it was unable to retract its wheelchair lift, Metra officials conceded. Eight other trains were delayed 15 to 30 minutes as a result, they said.

Consequently, some BNSF riders saw Wednesday’s email as little more than empty words. Some asked for timelier updates on when delays would end. Others, like Dory Stipetic, said they just want to see results.

“I find it to be very ironic that they’ll send out emails to everybody saying that they’re sorry for being late, and then the next day, there are mass delays,” said Stipetic, 38.

“It’s always BNSF; I don’t hear it on any other line,’’ Stipetic said. “They have engine problems, they have switch problems.’’

BNSF rider Rachel Pridgen said she’s been as much as an hour late recently due to BNSF problems.

“It’s been a hot mess around here,’’ Pridgen, 29, said while waiting for a train at Union Station. “Just trying to get to [and] from work has been an absolute nightmare. When I’m just trying to get home after a long day of work, it can be stressful.’’

Some delays were due to factors beyond Metra or BNSF’s control, such as the June 12 high winds that prompted BNSF to temporarily halt all inbound and outbound trains, said Metra spokesman Michael Gillis. In another case, a power outage caused switches to “go dark,” Gillis said.

BNSF requires its trains to halt if winds exceed 60 mph, Gillis noted, so to minimize wind-related delays in the future, BNSF is installing wind detectors along the line in August. That way, BNSF can gauge the wind based on real data, and not weather predictions, Gillis said.

Other BNSF delays this month involved mechanical problems with locomotives, switches and signals, Gillis said. To address mechanical problems, mechanics often ride on trains after they come back into service, in case the problems re-occur, Gillis said. And, he said, BNSF signal problems should wane as BNSF works to replace its signal system over the next two years.

Other lines falling below Metra’s 95 percent on-time performance goal for the month through June 19 were: SouthWest Service, at 89.95; Heritage Corridor, at 92.31; Milwaukee District/West Line, at 94.55; and two of Union Pacific’s three lines ­— the West Line at 92.17 percent and the Northwest Line, at 93.66.

However, other lines’ problems were confined to mostly one day, while BNSF experienced repeated problems this month, warranting the “service alert’’ issued late Wednesday, Metra officials said.

The decision to issue the alert came Tuesday, after three BNSF trains were canceled and 18 others were delayed due to engine failure on one train, near Congress, during the morning rush, Gillis said.

The email to BNSF riders did not offer an apology for a month of inconveniences, but, Gillis said, “We certainly do apologize and we should have used those words. We also wanted to explain what was going on, let our riders know that we were aware of the issues and tell them we were addressing them.’’

Through May of this year, Gillis noted, BNSF’s on-time record was 94.7 percent, far closer to the system’s 95 percent goal.

“We recognize there’s been delays and we have a plan in place to try and improve service,’’ said BNSF spokesman Andy Williams. “We want to provide safe and reliable service. . . .

“There’s been some glitches this month, but I think overall, our record is pretty good.’’



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