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Metra board member: UP has ‘big black mark’ against it

Interim MetrCEO DOrseno speaks board meeting Friday about challenges Metrfaced during recent snow storm. | Alex Wroblewski/Sun-Times

Interim Metra CEO Don Orseno speaks at a board meeting Friday about the challenges Metra faced during the recent snow storm. | Alex Wroblewski/Sun-Times

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Updated: February 19, 2014 6:07AM



A Union Pacific railroad staffer’s decision to suddenly dump riders during last week’s deep freeze at the unprotected Clybourn station is “a big black mark” that “no one is ever gonna forget,’’ a Metra board member charged Friday.

“I cannot believe such a decision would come out of an organization such as yours,’’ Metra Board member Arlene Mulder told UP executive David Connell at Metra’s monthly board meeting.

“A single individual cannot make a hasty decision like that. ... To put people at risk in those temperatures is unbelievable.....I was appalled.”

Also Friday, officials said Metra will be seeking bids to develop a cell phone app that Metra riders could use to purchase tickets electronically. Conductors could visually verify tickets by looking at them on riders’ phones.

Officials hope the app also will accept credits from the CTA’s new Ventra card. It could launch this fall.

The move — based on an app used in Boston — is a departure from an earlier Metra proposal to purchase hand-held devices that conductors would use to process electronic tickets.

Several board members Friday praised Metra staff for working through last week’s arctic blast and keeping 90 percent of trains running safely. It was so cold Jan. 6, board member Don De Graff questioned if Metra should have even provided train service.

“Public schools were closed. Most businesses were closed....There was a significant amount of justification for contemplating whether we should have been open at all,’’ said De Graff, who also serves as South Holland mayor. “Are we advocating, by being open, that people travel?”

Drawing the most heat was a decision by UP on Jan. 6 to dump dozens of passengers from the Ogilvie Transportation Center at the unprotected Clybourn station so the train could run, unscheduled, express to Crystal Lake. Another Metra train was supposed to be five minutes behind, but it, too, was delayed by sub-zero weather problems.

“That is a big black mark,’’ Mulder, former mayor of Arlington Heights, told UP Friday. “This is something no one is ever gonna forget. It’s just lucky no one had a serious backlash personally.’’

Connell said the decision to suddenly run the train express was a “tactical” one made “with the best of intentions.’’

“I can’t apologize intensely enough for that event,’’ Connell said.

One of the dumped passengers, Mary Fain, 51, of Jefferson Park, told the Chicago Sun-Times Friday she’s still mad about being abandoned for some 45 minutes in record-breaking cold with about four dozen other passengers. Several elderly gentlemen were on the platform, she said. One girl’s face was so “scarlet” from the bitter cold and wind it looked “painful,’’ she said.

“It was the stupidest thing ever — in the world,’’ Fain said. “Every time I hear Metra say it’s `apologizing for this inconvenience,’ I want to say, `How many times are you going to say that before you start doing something about it?’ ”

Under prodding from board members that UP should not be able to make such a decision — particularly about bitter cold weather — without informing Metra, Connell agreed to discuss setting up a protocol for when Metra should be brought into the loop. UP runs trains under contract with Metra.

Metra Board member Jack Schaffer said he wanted it “in writing” that UP practices would be changed so “we never have another Clybourn incident.’’

UP also conceded that more than a week after powdery snow, subzero temperatures and high winds wreaked havoc on trains, 45 of a total 323 cars were still being serviced for winter damage Friday morning. That means UP trains will be running “short” — with fewer cars and more chance of being packed — until this coming Monday morning’s rush.

Connell said he was a “farm boy” from North Carolina and “I’ve never seen anything like” the Jan. 6-7 storm, whose windblown snow and minus-45 wind chills mucked up train machinery.

“Call it a polar vortex or ‘Chi-Beria,’ it was an extraordinary event,’’ Connell said.

Metra interim CEO Don Orseno said he met Thursday with top executives of UP and BNSF, which also operates under contract with Metra.

“We all agreed we had to improve,” Orseno said, and the group is working on how to do so. In particular, he said, communication with riders during the storm was “not at its best” and next time, he wants to let riders know Metra’s plans upfront, just before a storm hits.

BNSF executive Jason Jenkins told board members that BNSF’s “winter action plan” was “not designed to handle something of this magnitude” but “We’ll be better prepared for the next storm.’’

Email: rrossi@suntimes.com

Twitter: @rosalindrossi



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