Amtrak on hot seat for Union Station meltdown
Amtrak will hold its grip on operations at Union Station despite a takeover push from Metra backed by U.S. Rep. Daniel Lipinski at a hearing Tuesday in Chicago.
The federal scrutiny came after Amtrak's bungling of a technical upgrade that delayed 60,000 Metra passengers on the BNSF Line and other routes using Union Station Feb. 28.
"We're not interested in giving up control of Chicago Union Station," Amtrak Senior Director of Government Affairs Ray Lang said.
About 90 percent of people using the station use Metra, its Executive Director Jim Derwinski said. "Having control of our destiny especially at the final terminal is very important to Metra."
An Amtrak technician was installing new hardware during the morning rush Feb. 28 when he fell on a circuit board, shorting out communications equipment used in operating switches and signals.
It was a freak occurrence but "the only way to start efficiently moving trains was to get personnel on the ground," Derwinski said. Metra has more employees than Amtrak that it could mass in similar crises, he added.
Lipinski questioned why Amtrak leaders refused to reimburse riders for taxis and ride-shares on Feb. 28. "People were stuck paying $30, $50, $80 to get home," the Willow Springs Democrat said. "Why is it Amtrak would not contemplate reimbursing those who because of Amtrak's failure had to pay so much?"
Amtrak refunds tickets when appropriate but "we do not reimburse passengers for the cost of getting to their final destination," Lang said.
Willow Springs Mayor Alice Gallagher, whose constituents use the BNSF, questioned Amtrak's timing. "It seems like common sense not to do an upgrade at your peak time," she said.
Lang apologized for the mishap, explaining that Amtrak doesn't conduct signal-related upgrades during peak times but an inexperienced manager authorized the work.
Lang noted that in 2018, Amtrak handled more than 78,000 Metra trains at Union Station with an on-time dispatch rate of 99.4 percent.
The railroad is adding backup systems and evaluating "potential break points and potential failure points" in communications equipment and will put a new process in place, Lang said.
Lipinski also asked "will the air-conditioners work this summer?" referring to AC failures on the BNSF Line in 2018 that created scorching conditions on some older railcars.
"We're doing everything we can on that," BNSF Suburban Services Director Patricia Casler said. The railroads are retrofitting AC units but it's time-consuming, she added. Some older cars from the 1950s will not be revamped in time but will be put at the back of trains where ridership is lower, Casler said.
Derwinski, however, said "the fact we haven't retrofitted that air conditioner (doesn't mean) it's not going to work this year."
As chairman of the House Subcommittee on Railroads, Pipelines and Hazardous Materials, Lipinski flexes influence on the pending Amtrak reauthorization bill.
Asked if he was satisfied with Amtrak's answers, "the proof will be in the performance of Metra," Lipinski said, noting the railroad's on-time record improved in March. "We'll see if the good performance continues."