Railroaded: A Series of Unfortunate Events

11 Feb

Living in the Chicago suburbs and working in downtown Chicago, I’m fortunate in being able to utilize one of the better commuter rail systems in the country to make my 40 mile trek to the office every morning.  That said, with this winter’s incredibly severe weather, with extreme cold, constant snow, etc., the commuting experience has been challenging.  At the height of the Polar Vortex mess in January, the trains were barely running – on one afternoon, Metra was so screwed up that they cancelled half their schedule, and the part that remained, only 30% ran on time.  On my line that day, the North Central Service line, there are only six trains – four during rush hour, and two more.  The hour rush hour trains were all combined into one – the 5:31 departure, which “sailed” at 10 minutes until six.

Yesterday was another very cold day and I had a commute that could only be described as “a series of unfortunate events” – borrowing from the movie and book title a few years ago.  I decided to catch the 5:31 departure, which means I need to be out the door of my office by about 5:00 PM to catch the bus to the train station.  I arrive about 10 minutes before departure and the outbound train hasn’t arrived yet.  Not a big panic, this happens fairly frequently – the train will pull in about 5 min before departure time, everyone gets on, and off we go.  Well, 5:31 comes and goes, and no train – Metra, who has been accused of poor communications is over-compensating now, but most of the communications are useless. For example, they often have circular logic “your train is operating 10 minutes late today due to the train operating late” or something like that.  Useless.  And yesterday was no exception – all they kept saying was “the 5:31 North Central Service train will arrive on Track 5 and depart shortly after”.  Ooh, thanks for that.  How about the one thing we all want to hear?  When?  When indeed.  Read on.

The train arrived at about 5:35, and the crowd piles in.  Thankfully, I was at the head of the line to board and was able to grab one of the plumb seats that people don’t expect you to share.  These are on the upper level against the bulkhead and are a full-sized seat, but no one but couples ever share those.  So a lucky moment there.  And we sit.  5:40 comes and goes and no announcement.  Finally at 5:45 the conductor comes on the PA and says that we’re late due to a mechanical issue that they are fixing on the locomotive, and that the same issue was the cause of the late-arriving equipment.  He comes on again at 5:50 and says “Ok, we’re close, should be leaving in a minute or two” – and we did.

So … 20 minutes late.  Not a trainsmash (RIMSHOT), but not ideal.  We roll along, making our usual stops and as we’re gaining speed coming out of the O’Hare Airport Transfer stop, suddenly the lights and HVAC in our car goes out and the train starts coasting to a stop – silent.  Normally, even on a very long train, you can feel the rumble and thrum of the locomotive.  There’s no rumble or thrum.  Just the dim emergency lights.  Uh oh.  We roll to a stop and … sit.  For a solid 8 minutes we sit with no updates from the crew or anything.   Finally the conductor comes on the PA and says “Well folks, the issue earlier with the locomotive was that we were getting a warning light that there was a problem with the water pumps on the engine.  We checked and everything seemed to be OK, so we thought it was the computer.  We finally were able to clear it and go.  And just now, that same warning flashed on and less than a minute later, the engine just quit dead.  The computer won’t let us attempt to restart it. I guess the computer wasn’t kidding around. So, sorry about this, but we’re working on a “plan b” for you here.”  REALLY?

Thankfully, plan B departed the station just 10 minutes behind us – the 6:00 PM train.  After about 5 minutes, the conductor came back on and said that the 6:00 would come up behind us, they’d couple the trains together, and would push us.  He estimated it would take 15 minutes to get the two trains together.  We heard the train roll up behind us (I was in the last car, so you could hear the engine), and the conductor made another announcement that there might be some jolting as they hook up the trains.  Well, jolting indeed.  It took them three tries to get connected due to the cold affecting the couplers – the final try had them bring the trains together quite hard.  Thankfully, they warned us. That all took 15 minutes. After that, they had to hook up the brakes, and well, that didn’t go so well.  I would presume the cold was affecting this as well.  After the big jolt that got the trains to couple up, the conductor said  “ok, we need just a few more minutes to get the brakes connected and we can roll.”   Well fully 15 minutes later he comes on and says “folks, we just can’t win tonight – we’re having difficulty getting the brakes connected.  We hope to have this resolved soon.”  And another 15 minutes and they did.  So … now, it is about 7:20 PM.  I was supposed to be out to dinner with my son Brian at this point, enjoying my second beer and watching the Olympics in a sports bar.

We start to roll, and only go for about 8 minutes, quite slowly, and then roll to a stop.  You can hear a huge collective groan ripple through the train.  We sit for a solid 5 minutes and finally the conductor comes on and says “folks, there’s nothing wrong – we’re holding here for some other trains to cross on the UP tracks in front of us.  Due to our delayed status, we have no priority through this intersection.”  Which seems backwards to me but … I’m not in charge.

Finally we roll again and we’re homeward bound.  Because the train consist was now two seven-car Metra passenger trains and two locomotives long, we’re much longer than what will fit the train stations, so at the first two stops, only the last two cars of our train opened – the conductor was great about urging people to come to the back cars if they were planning to get off the train.  And those stops were fairly short.

At Buffalo Grove, where I live, a large number of folks board and exit every day – it’s the single biggest stop on this line.  At least half the train gets up and leaves there.  And the last insult to all the injury happened here.  At most train stations, there are two tracks and two platforms.  And the inbound trains run on one track and the outbound run on the other.  At Buffalo Grove, I think to help serve freight traffic there, normally, we both depart and arrive on the same platform – the one closest to the station.  At stations where they use tracks, usually, you have to wait for the train to leave before you can cross over and walk to your car.  At this point, I’m done, I want to be home, go to dinner with Brian and be done.  It’s 7:45 PM.  And so, time for the final screw up.

For whatever reason, they brought us in on the opposite track, and at this station, they wanted everyone that wasn’t staying in BG to get off our broken train and get on the good one so they could completely shut down the dead one.  Which meant everyone that wanted to just go home in Buffalo Grove had to stand there for another 20 minutes because the great big train was blocking the tracks while everyone got off one train and got onto the other.  Ugh.

Finally at 8:05, I was in the car and headed home.

So after-analysis:  I do believe that the quality of service of Chicago’s suburban rail service has become worse and worse. This agency has been part of political scandals, personal scandals (the head of the Metra board was being investigated for corruption and just before he was to be removed from his post, he stepped in front of a Metra train and committed suicide – this was about 3 years ago), there are budget shortfalls, political patronage scandals and more.  Thankfully, they ARE trying to raise their game – the communications are getting much better, they are starting to use technology more, etc.  But there’s getting around the issues that their rolling stock is antiquated and crumbling, their track infrastructure that they control is a mess, and the parts they don’t control they are an afterthought from CN and UP when those cooperative deals were sold to the public as Metra having priority.

And I have to rely on it to get to work.

It is what it is.  Beats driving.  But not by much anymore.  I know the guy who wrote the tagline “Metra, The Way to Really Fly”.

Well, not so much anymore.

As you were,



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