NAPERVILLE – DuPage County Metra riders voiced skepticism Monday night that weather is entirely to blame for long waits, delays, crowded platforms and other recent issues with the rail service.
More than 50 users of the mass transit service voiced complaints with Metra Executive Director Don Orseno and Burlington Northern Santa Fe Suburban Services Director Pat Casler during a question-and-answer Monday at Naperville City Hall. It was hosted by State Reps. Ron Sandack and Darlene Senger.
"When is Metra going to stop using weather as an excuse?" Naperville resident Roy Ozol asked. "This morning my train was 15 minutes late, the person who was on the train before me, her train was 35 minutes late."
Ozol also asked why Monday night's meeting was not announced over the Metra's PA system.
"If the purpose of this meeting was communication, why wasn't it announced on the trains or the train station?" he said.
Orseno, recently named full director following a period as interim director, expressed sympathy with riders and said the rail service is looking to improve its performance.
"We're going to take every suggestion and every comment that you have, and we are going to truly work on it," he said.
Lisle rider Dan Donnelly said he's used the train for 17 years, and said the service has become less consistent and more problem-prone in recent years.
"I'm afraid that Metra is basically hiding this problem behind the bad weather," he said. "It's performance during the bad weather was abysmal. But you know what, we can get past that. The problem is that Metra's performance over the last several years has been abysmal. Whether it's the spring, the summer or the fall, we have a switch problem, we have a mechanical problem, we have a freight train problem. It's every single problem. Ten minutes late is the new normal."
Casler replied, saying the 37-year on-time performance average was 94.5 percent, which was the same number last year. She said the number this past September and October was 97 percent. On-time is defined as arriving within 5 minutes of schedule.
Metra riders in attendance had a hard time believing the figures, and expressed further frustration with what they described as unpredictable and late arrival times.
"I think the thing that's most frustrating for me is the scheduling and the uncertainty, the fact that you just don't know when to show up for a train," Naperville resident Kevin Madden said.
Orseno said the rail line is in the process of adding a "real time train tracker" so that riders can see exactly when their train is scheduled to arrive. He said that will likely be in place by summer.
Before taking questions, Orseno detailed the wide spectrum of challenges caused by extreme cold and repeated snowfall. Weekly tasks that typically take 10 minutes, like replacing train's brake shoes, can take up to an hour because of ice. Most of his remarks focused on the effort to keep rail switches free of snow and unfrozen.
Many switches have natural gas burners that keep a flame to the switch, melting ice and snow. But he said when temperatures hover around zero for several days in a row, that is often not enough. There is also the problem caused by snow build up on the tracks.
"Every time we clean the switches out, the trains are coming through and putting more snow in the switches, which renders them inoperable," he said.
When a faulty switch causes a delay, there is a cascading effect on all subsequent trains.
"You could have one switch failure and have 30, 40, 50 delays," he said.
Casler also mentioned other long-term issues, including inadequate funding for capital purchases like spare train cars.
"On the shorter-term basis we have a lot of mechanical problems with locomotives, in May especially," she said, adding that there have been improvements.
Since then, diagnostic tests on train fuel systems led to improvements that have reduced those mechanical problems, she said.