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Ogilvie ticket verification booths are a symptom of harmful Metra / Union Pacific conflict

The new ticket verification booths. Image: WGN News

As if safety concerns, a 90 percent drop in ridership, and plummeting ticket revenue during the COVID-19 pandemic weren't enough to worry about, Metra commuter rail's ongoing dispute with the Union Pacific railroad, which operates three of Metra's lines, has come to a head during the crisis.

For months during the pandemic, Metra essentially collected no fares, since it instructed its conductors not to check tickets as a safety precaution. In June, after the infection and fatality rate dropped in Illinois, Metra ordered its conductors to check tickets again. But Union Pacific, which runs the UP North, Northwest and West lines, the three routes that terminate at the downtown Ogilvie Transportation Center, still isn’t letting its conductors collect fares, claiming it’s still worried about coronavirus safety.

A rail industry professional close to the issue, who requested anonymity out of concerns of repercussions, told Streetsblog that two Ogilvie ticket agents died after contracting the coronavirus. (Union Pacific has confirmed the deaths but declined to say whether they were COVID-related.)

However, the rail professional argued that Union Pacific's chief incentive for refusing to collect fares is financial: UP wants to force Metra to pay to take over commuter rail operations for the three lines. UP owns all the hardware for these routes, which it uses for freight transportation. Since fall of 2019, the two railroads have been in negotiations over whether to extend their current purchase of service agreement, or sign a new one.

Metra says Union Pacific's failure to collect fares is costing it $1 million a month. All in all, Metra projects a two-year budget deficit of $682.5 million. "Union Pacific is [not collecting fares] in order to bleed Metra dry," the rail professional argued.

According to the rail professional, based on the current purchase of service agreement, Metra can fine Union Pacific five times the cost of each one-way fare Metra can prove Union Pacific has failed to collect. They added that Metra may sure UP for the recent loss of revenue during the COVID crisis.

Yesterday the Chicago Tribune's Robert Channick reported that Union Pacific is trying a new approach, placing staffed Plexiglas booths on the Ogilvie platform where passengers boarding or alighting from the three train lines will be required to show their Ventra app or ticket. “We feel this is the safest way to help with fair collection, but also protect our employees and the commuters,” Union Pacific spokeswoman Kristen South told the Tribune.

Union Pacific also started ticket sales again at Ogilvie on September 28, the Tribune reported. South asserted that the ticket verification booths should result in 90 percent fare compliance on the three lines.

Metra's not thrilled about this scenario though. Spokesman Michael Gillis told the Trib the commuter railroad will be monitoring the situation, but officials are worried about the new system being a hassle for commuters, and that it could create bottlenecks that lead to unsafe crowding.

The railroad professional said the situation basically amounts to an ongoing game of chicken, with Union Pacific trying to force Metra to buy them out, and Metra hoping that UP will eventually abandon the lines it owns so that Metra can add them to its portfolio for free. That's happened previously during the commuter system's history when other freight railroads went bankrupt.

Active Transportation Alliance spokesman Kyle Whitehead argued that this brinkmanship is bad for rail employees and the commuting public, so Metra and Union Pacific need to settle their differences ASAP. "Keeping transit riders and workers safe while maintaining reliable service need to be the priorities in this ongoing dispute between Metra and UP," he said. "With proper protocols in place, including both workers and riders wearing masks, Metra and commuter rail agencies across the country have shown that on-board fare collection and verification is possible with low risk of spreading COVID."

"This is just one of many important issues Metra and Union Pacific are trying to work out," Whitehead added. "Long term, transit riders and workers need to know that service will be maintained on all three UP lines. This requires a long-term agreement between UP and Metra that doesn’t force the agency to increase fares or lay off workers to meet a larger financial obligation to the railroad. Dragging this dispute on through month-to-month agreements is not sustainable and just increases uncertainty."

"We urge Union Pacific and Metra to put the best interests of people -- transit riders and workers -- over profit in these ongoing negotiations," Whitehead concluded.

Read the full Tribune article here.

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