Metra elects new board chairman after lawmaker hearing

February 11, 2014 (CHICAGO)

His election comes as the commuter rail service has faced many problems this winter.

"The chair will not in the future, and if we have anything to say about it, be an autocrat who runs this place like a fiefdom," Oberman said.

The message from the new chair is meant to cut ties with the past. Oberman is new to the Metra board, but not new to politics.

He was a three-term Chicago alderman, early supporter of Harold Washington, long-seen as an independent voice, now with a new goal.

"That Metra function as a professionally run railroad corporation, not as some kind of political entity or place of political interference," he said.

So a new chairman, and a new executive director.

What they deal with is the perception, if not the reality, that Metra isn't what it used to be, poorer performance, and flawed communication.

"It's usually pretty show," said Tony Drake. "By the time we find out about this we're already on the train and have been sitting there a while."

Metra is exploring how it improves communication in an age when riders expect it instantaneously, and sometimes mother nature changes the message before its sent.

Still, there are bugs. One magnifies the next. Monday, a Rock Island train lost its head end power. The coach doors had to be manually opened.

But for some reason - at the Tinley Park stop - the doors on two of the cars were not opened, and a number of passengers were stuck on the train until the next stop - some of them two miles from their parked cars.

The new chair acknowledges that, overall, there is work to be done.

"I actually think the overall record of Metra is pretty good compared to the past from the knowledge I have," Oberman said. "That does not mean we can't do better and should do better and will."

Metra is warning riders that Tuesday's cold temperatures will likely delay trains. Trains could experience delays because of temperature-related speed restrictions, according to a winter weather service alert posted to Metra's website Tuesday morning.

Trains on the Milwaukee District West Line experienced delays of about 10 minutes because of switch problems Tuesday morning, according to a Metra alert. A train on the North Central Service was delayed by 15 to 20 minutes because of freight train interference.

Metra is advising riders to allow extra travel time.

The rail line has been plagued by delays. On Monday, Metra admitted only 30 percent of its trains were on time during the polar vortex on January 6.

Frozen switches, not enough cars, passengers dropped off when it's 35-below, a year-to-date on-time performance of 85 percent - well below other bad winters.

"Many of my constituents are getting concerned about reliability - even in good weather," said State Rep. Ron Sandack, R-Downers Grove.

State representatives came with questions and concerns for Metra's new boss Monday. Yes, this winter's been brutal, but continuing problems, they say, have created the perception - if not the reality that Metra no longer works as well as it once did.

"I used to be able to tell people you could set your clock to when that train would leave the Arlington Heights station. I can no longer make that statement," said State Rep. David Harris, R-Arlington Heights.

"I can say a lot of things, but you need to judge me on what I do, not what I say," said Don Orseno, Metra executive director.

The new top man at Metra says his operation was prepared for the winter - that it's a misperception to think otherwise, and that there were some valuable takeaways from the perfect storm early last month. Jet-fueled snow-blowers, for instance - so critical to clearing operations - failed in the extreme cold. They'll be replaced by diesel-powered blowers.

And communication - found lacking by so many - is under review. A survey emailed Monday to thousands of Metra riders essentially asks how do we improve communication? And no longer will a junior manager make a decision that put scores of people on an unheated platform in wind chill of minus 35. Lesley Mickle was one of them. It was she says, a one-time bad call.

"They made a really bad decision at that moment, but generally they're very good. That's why I use them," she said.

Metra riders sound off to new CEO

With Metra's on time performance sitting at around 85-percent year to date, thousands of Metra riders were emailed surveys today. The agency says it wants feedback, and tonight plenty of riders were eager to give it.

"When is Metra going to stop using weather as an excuse?" said one Metra rider during the public comment period.

"Ten minutes late is the new normal on-time," said another Metra rider.

"We're going to take every suggestion you have, every comment you have, and we are truly going to work on it," said Don Orseno, executive director, Metra.

The meeting began with a detailed presentation from new Metra CEO Don Orseno, describing how a perfect storm of extreme weather, aging rail equipment and poor communication have made for a winter of discontent.

"You can have one switch problem that impacts 10, 20, 30, 40 trains depending on where the trains are at and the density of traffic," said Orseno.

The numbers speak for themselves. A dismal 30 percent of Metra trains were on time during that extreme cold snap in early January, followed by weekly delays and cancellations that have shaken the confidence of riders.

"I never know whether or not I'm going to be standing out in the cold for 15, 20 minutes, 45 minutes, or if it's going to be on time. I never know what I'm going to get," said Jamie Scaccia, Metra rider.

"You get cold. You don't know, they give you misinformation on a daily basis," said Bryan Jones, Metra rider.

On Monday night, transportation officials again pointed at the weather.

"We continue to be challenged and have problems with switch problems when its severe weather, as it was today," said Pat Casler, BNSF Div. of Suburban Services.

But many riders had their own take.

"Your problems aren't confined to ice and snow and extreme cold weather," said Rick Strawbridge, Metra rider.

"Whether it's the spring, the summer, or the fall, we have the switch problems. We have the mechanical problems. We have the freight train problems," said Dan Donnelly, Metra rider.

There were more service delays Monday on the BNSF line this morning, the Rock Island and North Central lines this evening. Some riders said they've come to just expect to wait.

Sun-Times Media Wire contributed to this report.

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