Many Metra delays tied to 1930s-era switches
By ROSALIND ROSSI and ART GOLAB Staff Reporters February 7, 2014 11:52PM
Updated: March 10, 2014 6:37AM
Up the decrepit stairs of a tower built in 1907 sits the poster child for a large chunk of what troubles Metra, the suburban rail service that has given thousands of passengers angst in recent weeks.
Here, near Grand and Western, lies a mammoth rail-switching machine that dates back to the 1930s. Its 31 red and blue levers must be operated by hand. Some of its parts are so scarce they barely exist.
Once high-tech but now an 82-year-old antique, this machine powers the busiest switch intersection in Metra — called the A2 interlocker — just yards outside the tower door and 2 miles from downtown. Seven of Metra’s 11 rail lines have trains that run over A2 switches. As a result, it’s a major choke point even in good weather but especially in bad.
The A2 interlocker represents two of the biggest problems facing the nation’s second-largest commuter rail line: delays and capital needs.
Switching snafus are the largest cause of Metra delays, Metra data indicates. And A2 is among the top of the heap of Metra’s estimated $9.66 billion in capital needs over the next decade, with only $2 billion expected to plug the hole. Another concern: 60 percent of Metra’s rail cars were rated beyond their useful life in 2012.
Don Orseno, the former Metra chief operating officer who on Jan. 31 was enthusiastically tapped as CEO, is ready to bite the bullet on A2. He says he will consider a variety of options, including bonding — something Metra has avoided — or even public-private partnerships to fund the system’s capital needs. That includes a new interlocker that would reduce the number of delicate A2 switches and thus the potential for failure.
“I think we’re going to go in the right direction very, very quickly,” Orseno said after being unanimously named CEO. “It’s all about our customers. We have to be able to deliver to our customers.”
Metra faces probably more external and internal pressure than at any point in its 30-year history. It’s at a critical crossroad.
Metra is triggering increasing frustration from winter-weary passengers tired of delays — many of them, officials say, tied to weather beyond Metra’s control.
Like many massive transit systems nationwide, it’s bursting with capital needs but has yet to find a way to meet the demand ahead.
Orseno is determined to regain trust lost during the whirlwind of controversy that followed the deal to buy out his predecessor, Alex Clifford, that was worth up to $871,000.
Some lawmakers are champing at the bit for some answers and solutions. Two state legislators are hosting a public hearing Monday in Naperville, where Orseno will be called to explain a winter of delay-driven discontent.
Plus, a special task force appointed by Gov. Pat Quinn has Metra in its crosshairs. Quinn has ordered the group to consider ways to reorganize or consolidate Metra, the Chicago Transit Authority, Pace and the agency that oversees their finances — the Regional Transportation Authority. Recommendations are due Mar. 31.
“Metra is at a fork in the road,” said transportation professor Joseph Schwieterman, director of DePaul University’s Chaddick Institute for Metropolitan Development. “Everyone is asking what changes come next. It’s going to be a very politically interesting period.”
Metra officials are proud of what, for the last two years, has been a more than 95 percent on-time performance level. Delays, they say, have been a rarity among the almost 4,000 trains the commuter rail agency operates weekly.
But officials concede that’s not how numbers will shake out for January, when what Orseno called a “perfect storm” of snow, high winds and subzero temperatures created delays that lingered for days.
At A2, which holds the only switching system in Metra powered by air compression, arctic temperatures shut down the compressor needed to move switches. That, combined with ice that fell from train carriages and clogged switches, turned A2 into a pressure cooker for workers.
One of them, Dave Reiss, an eight-year Metra veteran, said Jan. 6 was “the worst day since I started at Metra.”
“For a while, every switch we threw, it would fail,” he said.
Given A2’s position, one failed switch can cause a domino effect of delays and, in brutal weather, create bone-chilling waits that riders find hard to forget.
Despite the times Metra may be on time, “When the crap hits the fan, that’s when riders need you,” said professor Joseph Schofer, director of Northwestern University’s Infrastructure Technology Institute. “If you are not going to deliver then, it becomes a serious problem.”
Well before January, certain weekday Metra trains were chronically late in the 12-month period ending with November 2013, the most recent Metra data indicates.
Ten trains experienced weekday delays, at a minimum, an average of once every two weeks, with six of them passing through A2’s switches at some point on their routes, according to a Chicago Sun-Times analysis of Metra’s monthly worst-of-the-worst trains.
Riders on such trains may have experienced even more delays because monthly counts only reflect the months in which certain weekday trains were less than 85 percent on time.
Tied for the top-offender position was Union Pacific West’s train No. 44, which arrives at Chicago’s Ogilvie Station from Elburn at 10:25 a.m. weekdays. At a minimum, over the 12 months ending in November, it was late 33 times on a Monday through Friday, including a 58-minute delay in August due not to weather but to a lack of air to power switches at A2.
At last count, about 200 trains a day lost a total 353 minutes during rush hours alone due to non-weather-related problems at A2, Metra officials said. The last estimate to update the interlocker was $172.2 million, but Metra is exploring its options .
The challenge for Metra is that riders remember delays, and 45 percent of them are categorized as “controllable.”
Some riders can understand weather-related delays, but not why Metra doesn’t communicate them faster through its online alert system.
Orseno said better customer communication is a top priority, and he hopes to roll out an enhanced train tracker system by summer. In an era when many riders expect instant information, customer alerts are another story.
UP-North rider Dorron Katzin said just last week that Ogilvie’s departure board lit up with almost across-the-board delay notices, but not all of them appeared on the alert system for nearly a half-hour.
“No matter what the reason, there is no excuse for not keeping the riders informed,” Katzin said.
Metra spokesman Michael Gillis said workers watch the movement of trains in real time, on a GPS system. They start getting ready to issue alerts five minutes before any 15-minute delay, which is usually the minimum time period that triggers an alert for a single train.
But last week “we know we should have done a better job,” Gillis said. Workers should have issued a blanket alert early, warning riders that a switch problem could delay all Ogilvie trains; instead, alerts for individual trains dribbled out.
Last week’s meltdown at Ogilvie for UP trains was caused by ice that clogged some of the system’s more than 3,000 switches, and that was something new switches would not have prevented, Gillis noted. Metra categorizes such problems as weather-related — the fourth most frequent cause of delays.
Problems with “passenger loading” are the second most frequent cause, followed by freight train interference, which was the top reason last year for UP-West, North Central and Heritage train delays.
UP-Northwest rider Jeanette Lewandowski finds passenger loading explanations hard to believe.
“Passenger loading, I think, is an excuse,” she said. “I’ve been riding Metra for 25 years, and the last two years have been ridiculous. It used to be like clockwork. Now we’re waiting.”
Passenger-loading delays can be triggered by strollers, bicycles, a disabled person using a lift or large crowds, Gillis said. Metra amends schedules as needed when this becomes a recurring issue, but to stretch out schedules to accommodate occasional passenger-loading problems could leave too many trains idle for too long, he said.
UP-West rider Bob Sandner has been taking Metra for more than 40 years, and delays are expected in severe weather, he said. He focuses on the positives.
Over the years, he has seen Metra introduce “quiet cars,” which he enjoys. Conductors are friendly and will wake sleeping passengers before their stops, he said. Ogilvie Station, where he arrives, is a stunner, loaded with shops, food and amenities.
All in all, Sandner said, “Metra is still better than driving.”