Chicago’s winter and a commuter-rail system in trouble

Dan Weissmann Feb 18, 2014

Chicago’s winter and a commuter-rail system in trouble

Dan Weissmann Feb 18, 2014

During the worst of January’s “polar vortex,” news reports warned Chicagoans that more than a few minutes exposure to the extreme cold could kill them. And on those days, many of the city’s commuter trains failed. Engines froze. Switches got clogged with snow. And people waited in the cold.  

Worried commuters ended up staying home on January 6, freaked out by the dangerous temperatures.

But Stacey Castro went to her train stop as usual. Trains on the commuter rail system  called Metra — arrive at specific times, so she wouldn’t have long to wait. Or so she expected. 

“The train would — it would just fly right by the station,” she recalls. “And everybody would go back down to the warming station, and hope for another one to come, but you don’t really know.”

The same thing played out around the region. Metra’s CEO recently said that just 30 percent of the agency’s trains ran on time that day. Problems continued through weeks of terrible weather. There were evening rush hours when nothing left for an hour or more on some lines.  

Joseph Schwieterman is a professor who studies transportation economics at DePaul University, and a daily Metra rider. He compares the crowds that piled up at the stations on those nights to the throngs of hopeful immigrants at Ellis Island. But these huddled masses were angry.

“You look at commuters, they are like creatures of habit,” he says.  “They take this train every morning, they take that train home, if they work late, they take — you start interfering with that schedule, and suddenly they are in your face.”

Commuter rail schedules encourage this mentality. The routine is unforgiving: Arrive ten seconds late for the 6 p.m. train, and you will be waiting for the 6:44.

January’s service failures turned out to be just the tip of a very scary problem for Metra, a looming iceberg, if you will.

The iceberg — or at least its most potent symbol — sits in a warm, narrow, room about two miles west of downtown. The room is lit by big windows, looking out at seven sets of railroad tracks that cross paths here. 

The machine in this room is a beautiful metal console, at least 20 feet long, with dozens of switches and blinking lights: The A2 interlocker.  

“When it was installed here, it was state of the art, really,” says Rich Oppenheim, Metra’s Assistant Superintendent who oversees the staff here. “It was the best thing money could buy at the time.”

That was 1932.  The A2 works at a huge task for Metra: During rush hour, there’s an average of one train every minute or two, and it takes some time for each one to get through.  At most three or four trains can cross at a time. A2 is the crossing guard.

One operator sits at a desk, talking back and forth with engineers on a radio. The other physically throws switches to allow each train to cross in its turn.

“It really is amazing, when you think about it,” says Oppenheim. “An antique like this, performing the function that it does.

But it can’t operate forever. Not only is it sensitive to bad weather, but parts are getting hard to come by.

According to a study by the agency that oversees Metra, replacing the A2 is just one item on a $9.7 billion to-do list.

But the state of Illinois is broke, and at the federal level, the Republican-controlled House of Representatives seems unlikely to create new sources of funding anytime soon.

Metra has a new board chairman, Martin Oberman. He says recent agency scandals, aging infrastructure and the service failures put him in a tough position.

“Three strikes,” he says with a rueful laugh.

Still, Oberman says he intends to make the case for the money Metra needs.

“It’s fundamentally important to have a thriving business community to have good public transit,” he says.  “So it’s short-sighted not to do it.” 

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