Metra Board Commutes to Kane County, Brings News on Pets, Performance and a Possible Jan. 1 Shutdown

Metra Board Commutes to Kane County, Brings News on Pets, Performance and a Possible Jan. 1 Shutdown


Manuel Barbosa was appointed to the Commuter Rail Board (Metra) in 2013 by the Chairman of the Kane County Board.

The Metra Board commuted to the Kane County Government Center in Geneva on Monday and brought a handful of news stories along for the ride.

Metra officials meet monthly at a different venue of Metra’s five-county service area, and Kane County was the Sept. 21 stop. You can see the agenda packet for the board meeting by clicking here. Each meeting is streamed live, but you can view a video of the meeting in its entirety, as soon as it’s available, on this page.

On Monday, the board presented several headline-grabbing motions and staff reports, including the blockbuster that it is prepared to shut down all commuter-rail service as of Jan. 1 if the federal government moves forward with an unfunded mandate to install a brake-warning system by the end of the year.

The Positive Train Control initiative was mandated by Congress in 2012 in the wake of a 2008 Metrolink accident in which 25 people died. Metra Board Chairman Martin J. Oberman and other Metra officials said Monday the problem with that mandate is that the law was passed without understand the technology or how cost and time consuming the implementation would be.

Virtually no transportation organization in the country has yet been able to put the brake system in place and it’s likely none will make the deadline.

“The point is that this can be done,” board member John Plante said.

Metra is asking Congress to extend the deadline until mid-2019. That would allow enough time for the system to be installed by the end of 2018, and appropriate testing could be completed in early 2019.

Metra already has committed $135 million to the project and anticipates that the cost will climb to more than $350 million. The cost of implementation nationwide is estimated at more than $7 billion.

Officials said the Jan. 31, 2015, deadline was arbitrary and that the fine against Metra could be as high as $17 million a day if the deadline is not met. Under those circumstances, Metra “would have no choice” but to stop services entirely, Oberman said.

Newly appointed board member Ken Koehler of McHenry County said seeing the resolution in his agenda packet was an eye-opener.

“What would happen to the city and suburbs would be devastating,” he said. “It’s great to see this board being proactive informing the public. I would hate to be sitting with my family at the Thanksgiving table and find out the trains might not be running by New Year’s.”

In other action, the Metra board expanded its pilot program to allow small pets in carriers on weekend trains — welcome news for a lot of pet owners. It also reported that the new Metra app is being tested and is on target for release in the fall. The app will allow users to pay for rides and manage accounts on their smartphones.

Metra’s ontime performance met goals for the sixth straight month. Trains were on schedule 96.3 percent of the time for the month of August.

Here are three summary stories from Monday’s meeting in Kane County, provided by the Metra website:

Metra to Congress: We Will Shut Down Jan. 1 If You Enforce PTC Mandate

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The Metra Board of Directors today (Monday, Sept. 21, 2015) formally called on Congress to extend the Dec. 31, 2015 deadline to install Positive Train Control, agreeing with a staff analysis that in the current regulatory environment Metra will not be able to legally operate beyond that date.

Although Metra and the rest of the U.S. railroad industry have invested significant time and money and have made significant progress on PTC implementation, they have also warned for years that the deadline can’t be met due to a variety of operational, technological and financial challenges. Congress, however, has yet to act. In a resolution approved today, the Board again urged Congress to extend the deadline to a date that realistically accounts for the numerous challenges.

If Metra did choose to operate without PTC in place, it would be subject to potential FRA enforcement actions brought by the Department of Justice, including substantial civil penalties, issuance of compliance or emergency orders, and injunctions or criminal penalties, according to an analysis by Metra’s Law Department. The analysis concluded that Metra will be unable to legally operate its trains beyond the deadline.

“This Board will do all it can to avoid this crisis within the confines of the law as it exists today and continue to work with members of Congress on legislation that is needed to extend this unattainable deadline,” said Metra Board Chairman Martin J. Oberman. “In the meantime, on advice of counsel, Metra cannot operate any of its trains under current law as of midnight on Dec. 31, 2015.”

If Metra is unable to operate beyond December, it will work to ensure an orderly shutdown of its system and communicate with its customers with sufficient time for them to consider the effects of the shutdown, the resolution also states. Metra will also work with its transit partners in the Chicago area to provide alternative transportation but recognizes that feasible alternatives do not exist for the vast majority of Metra customers.

PTC is a computerized system that prevents certain types of train-to-train collisions, helps avoid derailments and other accidents caused by excessive speed and increases safety for workers. The system integrates GPS, wayside sensors and communications units and a railroad’s centralized dispatching system. Together, these components track trains, convey operating instructions and monitor the crew’s compliance. PTC will automatically stop a train if the system detects that a violation or equipment failure is about to occur.

PTC is not off-the-shelf technology but had to be designed from the ground up, and certain components were not immediately available. There also have been limitations on design expertise and necessary equipment. The onboard software is still being developed, and a final release date is not known at this time. It has not yet been determined whether there is enough radio spectrum available in Chicago for the PTC needs of all of the railroads that operate here.

In addition, PTC systems adopted by various railroads must communicate with each other, so trains can move seamlessly between tracks controlled by different systems. Achieving that interoperability in Chicago is especially complicated, since the region has the most complex railroad network in the country. Finally, this unfunded mandate is expected to cost Metra more than $350 million, equal to 100 percent of its federal funding for 2½ years.

Metra’s current timeline for full PTC implementation is 2019, although the agency expects several lines to be completed before that date.

Metra Will Allow Pets on Weekends

The Metra Board of Directors today voted to expand its “Pets on Trains” pilot program to allow small pets in carriers on all weekend trains beginning Oct. 10, after a successful pilot program on weekend Rock Island Line trains.

“We are pleased that the test on the Rock Island Line went well and that we can now offer this option to all of our customers,” said Metra Executive Director/CEO Don Orseno. “It’s in Metra’s best interest to offer a program like this that serves our riders and, for some, makes travel by train an even more convenient choice.”

Metra started looking into allowing pets on trains after it was presented with a petition. Metra staff then surveyed other mass transit agencies and found many of them have policies allowing small pets aboard their trains and buses without any issues. Metra also consulted with its Citizens Advisory Board and surveyed its riders before the three-month pilot program began July 4 on weekend Rock Island Line trains. The pilot program will now expand to all Metra lines starting Oct. 10 through Jan. 31, 2016.

During the Rock Island program , 39 riders took advantage of traveling with their pet, according to feedback Metra received through an online survey. Riders who completed the survey overwhelmingly supported the program (68 percent to 24 percent, with 8 percent not answering the question) and endorsed expanding it to weekends on all lines (62 percent to 5.5 percent, with 32.5 percent not answering the question). In addition, Metra did not receive a single complaint via email, phone call or in person from any rider about the policy during the Rock Island Line pilot.

Metra’s “Pets on Trains” rules are based on policies used by other agencies with successful programs:

  • Only small pets in enclosed protective carriers are allowed.
  • Carriers will not be allowed to take up seats, seating areas or obstruct pathways on trains or in stations and must be small enough to be carried on by a single person. They must fit in a passenger’s lap or under the seat at all times.
  • Metra reserves the right to remove passengers with pets that are noisy or disturb other customers.
  • Owners will be responsible for the behavior and cleanup of their pets.

After January 2016, Metra will assess how the expanded pilot program worked and then determine whether and how to proceed. Metra will again ask riders to complete a survey at about their experiences with the expanded weekend pilot program.

Service animals are allowed on all Metra trains at all times.