Metra has long promoted its punctuality, its ability to deliver even in the face of weather adversity, and as a consequence passengers have high expectations. But this blizzard hit the commuter rail agency in the gut so hard that it had to make unprecedented cancellations -- the big one in the wee hours of the morning.
Some passengers are angry, many are forgiving, and quite a few have questions about communication.
When the blizzard hit, Metra -- for the first time in its history -- canceled service on five of its lines and put the rest on a Sunday schedule, in part because its crews couldn't get to their trains in Metra's far suburban yards.
Then, Wednesday evening, Metra abruptly canceled its post-6 p.m. trains out of the Ogilvie Transportation Center. Regular riders who routinely check Metra's website say there was no adequate forewarning.
"What was amazing is we got there at 6. It was fairly obvious that this wasn't just happening at 6. It was already buttoned up and done. So a little advanced warning, even an hour's worth of warning would have told us that," said Metra rider Martin Hanks.
Metra's train crews on the Union Pacific and BNSF lines wear Metra uniforms but are employed by those railroads. Like all rail employees, they're subject to government limits on hours of service.
The Union Pacific Wednesday evening told Metra at the last moment that it couldn't come up with fresh crews. So the trains were abruptly canceled.
"This is definitely one of the takeaways that we have from this: We have got to work with everybody and get the communication better so we can get it out to the people who really need to know, the riders," said Bill Tupper, Metra's acting executive director.
Tupper has been with Metra for over 30 years and says the commuter railroad has never experienced the myriad of problems it faced in the "Blizzard of 2011."
Yards covered in snow and frozen switches will always be problematic, but communications can always use refinement.
"At least tell people," said Metra rider Ryan Mapili. "Usually they'll tell people, but you've been sitting there for five or 10 minutes and then they're like, 'There's, like, a delay.' Obviously. "
While he doesn't technically start until late next week, Metra's new executive director Alexander Clifford was on hand to watch the railroad deal with the blizzard. One of the first things he'll get is a post-mortem.
"All in all, we did ok," Tupper said. "Would I have liked to have done better? Yes. That's why we're going to sit down and put our heads together and see what improvements can be made next time, in communications and other operational issues."
Tupper told his new boss Wednesday evening that if you work in Chicago until you're 65, you'll never see anything as tough as this.
Perhaps that's true, but the immediate challenge is restoring Metra's full weekday schedule. That's supposed to happen Friday.
Passengers are advised to check www.metrarail.com for continued updates.
As for the CTA, all eight of the rail lines were operating normally. Trains on the Pink Line between the Pulaski and 54th/Cermak stations on the West Side resumed normal operations early Thursday.
Service on the Yellow Line, which operates between Howard Street and Skokie, was also restored early Thursday.
The transit agency says if people absolutely have to travel, the CTA says rail service is currently the best alternative.
More information on CTA service can be found at www.transitchicago.com.
Pace buses also are running normally.
(The Sun-Times Media Wire contributed to this report.)