Metra today asked the Surface Transportation Board (STB) to issue a preliminary injunction to prevent Union Pacific Railroad (UP) from taking planned steps that would degrade or halt commuter rail service on its three lines in the Metra system.
In a separate filing, Metra also asked the STB to rule on whether UP has a legal obligation to provide commuter service. UP maintains that it is has no such obligation. Metra strongly disagrees. Settling that dispute is critical to determining how service will continue to operate on the lines and, more importantly, what it will cost the public.
“Metra and Union Pacific have had a longstanding, cooperative working relationship and our intention is to continue to maintain this relationship going forward,” said Metra CEO/Executive Director Jim Derwinski. “These filings are an effort by Metra to maintain the status quo on the UP North, Northwest and West lines while at the same time attempting to resolve critical points of disagreement between us.”
Union Pacific owns the three UP lines in the Metra system, including the rights-of-way, tracks, yards and most stations and parking lots, and has historically operated them with its own crews under a contract with Metra known as a purchase-of-service agreement (PSA). UP now wants to turn over operation of the commuter service to Metra, which involves complex issues regarding finances, labor unions, real estate, maintenance and other areas. The two sides have been negotiating a new arrangement for nearly a year but remain far apart.
A key point of contention is whether UP has a legal obligation to provide commuter service – referred to as a “common carrier obligation.” Railroads have historically been regulated as public utilities with an obligation to provide freight and passenger service to the general public at a reasonable rate and to obtain permission to discontinue service. UP believes the common carrier obligation no longer applies to its commuter operations, but Metra says no public agency has ever released UP or its predecessor, Chicago & North Western, from this obligation.
UP in December 2019 asked a federal court to decide the matter. That case is pending, but Metra is seeking to move the decision to the STB because that federal regulatory body has responsibility for railroad policy and expertise in the railroad industry.
Metra is also seeking a preliminary injunction to maintain the status quo because UP recently informed Metra that, irrespective of negotiations and the ongoing common carrier litigation, it intends to begin to halt a variety of functions that UP says do not involve “Public Transportation Services.” Those include such functions as revenue accounting, claims, ticket agents and, most concerning, maintenance of cars and locomotives. Metra strongly disagrees that these services are unrelated to providing commuter service; to the contrary, some of them are essential, core functions. In addition, UP has said that if the court determines it has no common carrier obligation, it intends to discontinue service 90 days after that decision.
A preliminary injunction would require UP to continue to perform all the functions it has been providing under the current PSA, thereby guaranteeing uninterrupted service for nearly 45,000 riders on UP lines (Pre-COVID 19).