DOWNERS GROVE – For more than 30 years, Victor Drescher has hopped on the Metra BNSF line, often heading into the city for work. As a longtime commuter, he's kept a "fairly good track record" of his experience on Metra's busiest railways. While he praises some of the conductors he's met – some of whom have become like family to him and other riders – there's one recurring issue that's greatly impacted his service.
"I ride with a group of people, and we jokingly call it the Metra 'Wheel of Misfortune,'" he said in front of representatives from Metra at a public forum held June 20 at the Lincoln Center in Downers Grove. "How are they going to spin today's problems?"
Drescher, a Downers Grove native who catches the train at the Main Street station, said that he's never sure what the issues are when his rides are delayed. The speakers on the platform, he said, "half the time you can't even hear it." Left in the dark and now late, he and other passengers scramble to figure out what to do next.
Drescher also shared a story about how earlier that week, his 7:57 a.m. train was missing a railcar, which meant he, along with several commuters, just piled into the one with the most available seats left. On that ride, he noticed that the conductors didn't bother to check for tickets.
"I don't know what your revenue stream is on an average morning train or what you're losing by not taking tickets, but that's an issue," he said, adding when that railcar finally returned, he came across another surprise: the air conditioning wasn't working.
Scott Curran, another Downers Grove resident, echoed Drescher's grievances.
"When I look around and I see [a commuter] frantically calling their boss and [saying], 'I'm late again,' and the boss doesn't care that Metra's not on time," Curran said.
"The boss cares that their hourly employee's not there, and that hourly employee cares that they miss that extra money in [their] paycheck or that they're being disciplined for not being on time," he continued. " Metra is responsible for that and nobody else."
Drescher and Curran were two of many area residents from the west suburbs who attended the town hall meeting hosted by State Sen. John Curran, R-Downers Grove, and voiced concerns about the BNSF line to Metra officials like executive director Jim Derwinski. The event offered an opportunity for community members to ask Derwinski questions, understand how the railway works, narrow down future improvements and find some common ground.
For starters, Derwinski said that the Burlington Northern Santa Fe, or BNSF, railway owns the BNSF line and has a purchase-of-service agreement with Metra. That means, the line can operate as one of Metra's commuter rail service with its own crew.
"It's a complicated network," Derwinksi said, adding that same agreement applies to the Union Pacific North, Pacific Northwest and Pacific West lines.
Out of Metra's 76 million passenger trips, the BNSF accounts for nearly 16 million of them, taking the crown for the busiest line. On the BNSF alone, which stretches from Aurora to Union Station in Chicago, Derwinski said that at least 25 trains run within an hour, traveling that 40-mile distance.
The line reaches residents from the west suburbs in both DuPage and Cook Counties like Westmont, Hinsdale, Berwyn, Riverside and Brookfield.
"When one train fails, when one switch fails, the domino effect affects everyone," he said, adding that "we're all subject – yourselves mostly –" to Metra's robust service. Derwinski shared that if Metra employees are late to their shifts because of their own train delays, they, too, don't take that as an excuse.
It's no secret that Metra's trains have suffered from countless mechanical issues, especially in recent years. As one of the oldest fleets in the country, the trains are in need of service repairs, and recent undertaking of a major capital project will help address that.
According to its official site, Metra looks to spend millions of dollars within a five-year period to alleviate the costs for rehabilitating or purchasing new railcars and locomotives; installing positive train control, or PTC, a system designed to prevent train-on-train collisions; and improving some street yards and bridges.
A majority of the capital funding – a whopping $174 million – will be supported by the State of Good Repair grant program, the site reported. Other sources like the Innovation, Coordination and Enhancement, or ICE, program and fare revenue are expected to contribute about $12 million to the planned improvements.
Specific to the BNSF line, Metra looks to focus on maintenance. From replacing cross and switch ties, as well as ballast, to conducting several engineering updates, a lot of work lies ahead to help improve the quality of commuters' rides.
"It's not perfect," Derwinksi said of Metra, noting that he is hopeful for the changes to come. "I can tell you that the old Metra that you might be thinking of five to 10 years ago is not the Metra that's here today."