Recent Metra-pocalypses Are a Wake-up Call That We Need Better Transit Funding

Metra Electric trains during the Polar Vortex. Photo: Jeff Zoline
Metra Electric trains during the Polar Vortex. Photo: Jeff Zoline

Metra has had a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad year, and that’s evidence that we need to take action to properly fund the system.

As the Chicago Tribune has reported, during the last 12 months the commuter railroad has experienced problems with the installation of the Positive Train Control safety system. Riders on the busiest route, the BNSF Line to Aurora, suffered through overcrowding and air conditioning failures this summer.

The Metra Electric District line completely shut down due to weather-related equipment issues during the late-January Polar Vortex, when crews had to light fires by tracks to keep the trains rolling. The MED service was canceled yet again during a mid-February ice storm. That was just days before the railroad was scheduled to offer free rides to all commuters over the weekend in February to thank them for their Polar Vortex patience.

Commuter frustrations with unreliable Metra service reached a boiling point last Thursday, when all rail lines out of Union Station were disrupted by a signal problem, causing delays for over 60,000 people, including waits of over two hours for some inbound riders. Crowds of passengers waiting to board trains backed up into station’s Great Hall, which, surreally, was partially occupied by an in-use pop-up squash court. Service was back to normal Friday morning.

That fiasco wasn’t Metra’s fault. The Tribune reported that the delays were caused by Amtrak’s ill-advised decision to upgrade its servers during business hours, which resulted in a shutdown when a worker tumbled from a ladder and hit a circuit board. That disrupted Union Station’s entire computer and signaling system, forcing signal and switching points to be operated manually, which meant only one train could leave the station at a time. There were 98 train delays and 33 cancellations as a result. Amtrak’s CEO later apologized for the multiple errors that led to the crisis, and promised to fix the problem so that a similar debacle doesn’t happen again.

In late February Metra announced that ridership fell almost 9 percent from 2014 to 2018, in the midst of recurring technical problems, as well as multiple fare hikes and service cuts. One recent bright spot is this week’s launch of new reverse-commute service to Lake County on the Milwaukee District North line, subsidized by local municipalities and businesses. But it’s understandable that fewer people are choosing to ride commuter rail when the service is increasingly unreliable, there’s generally less of it, and it costs more.

As Metra, the Regional Transportation Authority (which oversees Metra, the CTA, and Pace), and advocacy groups like the Active Transportation Alliance and the Metropolitan Planning Council have pointed out, there’s only so much the commuter railroad can do to improve service when it’s starved for funding. More money is needed for track, signal, and rolling-stock upgrades that would increase reliability, as well as to prevent cuts and fare increases. With proper funding, maybe Metra could even add more runs without depending on outside-the-box subsidies like the Lake County initiative.

Granted, Metra should be doing a better job on onboard fare collection. As it stands during busy times payment is almost optional, since the conductor often miss riders who don’t proactively offer their money. (Reminder: “Be fair, pay the fare.”)

But Metra’s financial problems are largely due to number of external forces. In the wake of Illinois’ 2016 budget deal, the state cut funding for transit in its 2017 and 2018 budgets. Our state hasn’t passed an infrastructure funding bill in more than a decade. And the state gas tax has been stuck at 19 cents a gallon for almost 30 years, which means that that the revenue generated for transportation has less buying power every year as inflation increases.

Fortunately, there’s some hope on the horizon. New governor J.B. Pritzker has voiced support for passing a capital bill, as have other lawmakers. In December, outgoing Chicago mayor Rahm Emanuel called for raising the state gas tax (in fairness, he had little to lose politically by doing so), which could help fund the infrastructure bill. Pritzker has indicated that he’s open to that solution, and the $15 state minimum wage he just passed would help offset the regressive aspect of raising the fuel tax. (Note that capital funding can only be used for infrastructure, not operating a transit service.)

Progressive ideas like switching from a flat state income tax to one with income brackets (so that wealthier people pay a higher rate), and a “LaSalle Street tax” on financial transactions, could also potentially result in more funding for transit. And, looking further down the road, groups like MPC have noted that switching from a gas tax to mileage-traveled fees could help raise revenue by ensuring that drivers of hybrid and electric vehicles pay their fair share for the upkeep of the roads they use.

If we have the political will, and a bit of courage from state legislators, we can start solving the funding problems that have contributed to most  of the recent Metra headaches. But we’ve got to get on top of this issue. The relative ease of transit commutes downtown from across the city and the region is one of Chicagoland’s fundamental strengths. If we can’t maintain that advantage, it’s going to greatly diminish our city’s prosperity and influence on the national and global stages.

  • FG

    “The Metra Electric District line completely shut down due to weather-related equipment issues during the late-January Polar Vortex, when crews had to light fires by tracks to keep the trains rolling. The MED service was canceled yet again during a mid-February ice storm. That was just days before the railroad was scheduled to offer free rides to all commuters over the weekend in February to thank them for their Polar Vortex patience.”

    Er, no, not quite. MED has brand spanking new ducted switch heaters downtown – it’s Amtrak owned tracks (primarily) at CUS that have the open flame heaters at switches, which are the only moving parts in the tracks.

    The length of the shut down was in large part due to a freight derailment with took out over a mile of catenary and severed supports (in fact, considered the damage and temperatures, Metra did an exemplary job restoring service). And money really wouldn’t have helped since the specifications of the system weren’t designed for arctic temperatures, hence shutting down when the metal in the electrical system was at risk of becoming brittle due to cold (it could probably be argued that the spec was foolish, but that’s the IC’s fault, not Metra’s), though I don’t recall the issues last time it was that cold, however, there was also no ice storm last time we had similar cold snaps.

  • johnaustingreenfield

    Metra did, in fact, light fires by tracks to keep trains rolling during the Polar Vortex. From the Tribune report: https://www.chicagotribune.com/news/weather/ct-met-chicago-train-tracks-fire-20190130-story.html

    “Extreme cold weather can cause steel to contract, causing breaks, said Metra spokeswoman Meg Thomas-Reile. While Metra uses continuously welded rail on most of the system, there are some locations near switches and some crossings where the rail is bolted together. Those areas are the most vulnerable to separating in frigid temperatures, although breaks can happen anywhere along the line.

    To repair the breaks, Metra heats the rail, usually with a rope soaked in kerosene that is laid along the base of the rail and lit on fire, Thomas-Reile said. The fire heats up the rail and once it expands, workers pull the rails back together and rebolt them or weld them.”

  • rwy

    Is there anything wrong with using fire to keep things running? Is there a better way to keep things running in the cold?

  • johnaustingreenfield

    Nope, I just mentioned that by way of pointing out how extreme the weather was.

  • Scott Avers

    Metra’s board members have been worthless for years getting funding. They’re asking riders to help. Really? Ever thought of asking the political hacks on the Metra board (Democrats & Republicans) to do something?

    Also, having Amtrak manage Union Station is a joke. There are 10X the number of Metra riders going through Union Station vs Amtrak riders. It’s a shame that Burlington Northern and the Milwaukee Road ever allowed this to happen.

  • Mcass777

    As an infrequent rider of Metra (usually in bad weather) I have see the fires as regularly as plows on streets in snow.

  • Harvey Kahler

    UP, Amtrak, and Metra use gas-fired switch heaters in freezing temperatures and snow. The Trib makes it sound like the rairoads gather sticks and build fires. Railroads also use blowers to keep switches clear and operating.

  • johnaustingreenfield

    Dude, they’re soaking rope in kerosine and lighting it on fire. That’s pretty low-tech (but apparently effective.)

  • Harvey Kahler

    Metra Electric does have a problem with the fixed-end catenary. Copper wires become nbrittle and can break in cold weather. This will take a costly conversion to a constant tension system that the Soth Shore recently completed that may be a post-IC technological improvement. The delay in converting the MED is due to the lack of money and uncertain future of the South Chicago and Blue Island branches that would affect the scope and cost of the project.

  • Harvey Kahler

    The joint bars at switches allow rails to contract without indue strain that would cause a break as with welded rail joints or cause mis-alignment of tracks. Even if bolts are sheared, the remaining bolts will hold the bars and rails in alignment. Railroads sometimes install joint bars to backup welded rail joints.

  • Harvey Kahler

    That rope is used just for repairs, not keeping the many switchrails free of ice for unhindered movement with gas heaters or blowers.

  • TRPCLRMNTCST

    Should the Metra Electric cover its wires with solar panels to generate electricity and protect the wires in ice storms?

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  • TRPCLRMNTCST

    Does Metra enforce segregation on the southwest side by making it impossible to get off the trains in so called “bad” areas? Why can’t you transfer from the BNSF to the Pink Line or the SWS to the Green Line?

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  • Robert Friedman

    No a CN freight train derailed and crashed into the Metra Electric track and electric power lines. That would have taken out your cover.

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