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Repairs of storm-damaged Metra cars leave trains crowded

Metris exploring possibility leasing tracars  ensure adequate backup stock before next big storm knocks some cars out service leaves

Metra is exploring the possibility of leasing train cars to ensure adequate backup stock before the next big storm knocks some cars out of service and leaves passengers packed in the aisles. In this photo, snow is pushed off suburban Metra tracks in Janu

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Updated: February 16, 2014 6:32AM

In yet more fallout from last week’s Chi-Beria, some Metra trains have been “running short” this week — with cars removed for winter repairs — leading to such crowded passenger conditions that some conductors couldn’t get through to collect fares, the head of Metra conceded Tuesday.

“That’s why it’s so important to get our system back to normal,’’ interim Metra CEO Don Orseno told reporters at Metra headquarters.

The process of fixing train cars damaged by last week’s snow and deep freeze should be completed in the next few days — or by Friday at the latest, Orseno said.

Union Pacific has felt the most winter damage, with one car each on 22 trains taken out of service Monday, and only 11 returned by Tuesday, he said. The Milwaukee District saw three trains shortened by winter servicing Monday, and Rock Island District saw one.

One Metra passenger — state Sen. Daniel Biss, D-Evanston — said at a separate event that he wanted to pay his fare Tuesday, but he couldn’t because his Metra train was too crowded for the conductor to maneuver through.

Metra’s fare collection system is “absurd,’’ “archaic” and “ineffective,” just as lawmakers and others are trying to find more money for transit, Biss said. Metra estimates it will need $9.7 billion over 10 years to keep its operations in a “state of good repair.”

Orseno also predicted the cost of last week’s deep freeze and snow will be “huge” in overtime alone, but whether it will be followed by a fare increase “will not be solely driven” by fallout from the storm.

Asked about complaints from customers that they were blindsided by some delays and train cancellations, Orseno said Metra will “look at every aspect of our communication,” but Metra’s ability to update its website and issue alerts was challenged by “changing dynamics” in track conditions caused by blowing, powdery snow and ice.

Metra can’t predict when ice will dislodge from a train, land on a switch and cause delays, Orseno said.

“We’ll continue to have that challenge,’’ Orseno said, and “If there’s any way we can improve our communications, we’ll do that.’’

Earlier Tuesday, he showed a group of railroad enthusiasts, called the “Sandhouse Gang,’’ photos of Metra trains, some encased in ice, plowing through tracks covered by drifts of snow. At the beginning of the storm, Metra officials said, trucks could not reach outlying areas to resupply trains with fuel, causing some delays later.

Orseno also made clear he did not agree with last week’s decision by Union Pacific to have a train from Union Station dump all its passengers who weren’t going to Crystal Lake at Clybourn to wait for the next train. The next train was supposed to arrive in 10 minutes, but, amid weather snafus, didn’t show up for 45 minutes, leaving passengers at the Clybourn station freezing and irate.

Orseno said he called top officials at Union Pacific when he heard of the decision and “that will not happen again.’’ Added Orseno, “Metra is very sorry for the inconvenience.’’


Twitter: @rosalindrossi

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