In the weeks since he officially became Metra’s CEO/Executive Director, Jim Derwinski has devoted some of his time to getting to know the agency’s employees and, in turn, letting those who make the railroad run get a little more familiar with him.
Now, to help Metra customers and the public get to know him a little better, we’ve put together the following Q&A. Derwinski, who most recently served as the agency’s Chief Mechanical Officer, was named Metra’s CEO last fall. He spent several months shadowing the retiring CEO, Don Orseno, before taking over for him on Jan. 1.
Q: How have your first few weeks as CEO been?
A: They’ve been exciting. I’ve been getting around and starting to meet and talk to all the employees here. I’ve been working with all the legislators through the transition with Don. It’s been very exciting just talking about the new and inventive things we are going to try. I’m looking forward to bringing in innovations and seeing all the new ideas that people have inside them that haven’t gotten out yet.
Q: You were an electrician on nuclear submarines for the U.S. Navy before your railroad career started. How did you make the jump from nuclear submarines to trains?
A: Nuclear submarines and trains actually have something very much in common and that’s that they are self-sufficient. You produce air, you produce electricity. You produce power. That’s exactly what a locomotive does; what trains do. It’s kind of the same kind of mechanics. The bigger difference is we make our own atmosphere on a nuclear submarine.
Q: Tell us something surprising about yourself.
A: I love the outdoors. Fishing, hiking, camping. When I’m away from Metra, I like walking. And actually, even when I’m at Metra, when I have an opportunity, I certainly love walking. I love going down to different areas of the city like the Riverwalk. I just like being outdoors. It’s refreshing.
Q: Back to Metra. What are your priorities?
A: First and foremost what Metra needs is a more stable financial situation. That’s going to take education with the legislators and working with our partners. We also need to improve our customer experience. Part of that means replacing some of our aging rolling stock, rebuilding some of our stations, the list can go on and on. But the real priority here is about the passengers and Metra’s employees.
Q: What is Metra’s biggest strength?
A: Metra’s biggest strength is its people. We’ve got a team of people here that, despite all odds, despite all the things that we are challenged with financially, or structurally when it comes to working on freight railroads and working inside this corridor, the people here make it happen. And we really do it with far less than other agencies of our size.
Q: What would you like to improve at Metra?
A: Communication is a big thing with our customers and our legislators. Trying to explain to them our needs, what we’re doing well and what we need help with. We also need to use collaboration. The goal is ultimately to improve the customer experience. But using those other tools is how you get there.
Q: You shadowed Don for a few months before taking over. What was the most valuable thing you learned from him?
A: The respect people have for Don really comes from his collaboration. People couldn’t speak highly enough of how he was about resolution and collaboration. There were never walls being built up; they were actually being destroyed. These partnerships will live for a long time. Being with Don, going to all these organizations, going to these agencies, going to these other railroads and working with him like that was eye-opening.
Q: Can customers expect anything different between your tenure and Don’s?
A: When it comes to the experience out there, we want to try to continue to improve things, just like we did under Don. Don and I both come from the operating world, so we actually put operations of the trains first. That’s not going to change. What we’re really going to try to do is replace some of the oldest equipment. It’s something Don tried to do for many years. This is a big battle. Our fares do not pay for fleet replacement, so we have to really work with our partners. That will be the goal.
Q: What would you say to customers who are frustrated by the continued fare increases?
A: Stick with us. I understand it’s frustrating we’re raising fares, but right now our infrastructure needs require it. We want to make this system better, but it’s hard to make it better when your engines are 40 years old, your cars are 65 years old. The money we are getting in for that right now just isn’t sufficient. We’re doing what we can to become more efficient and we’re meeting with our legislators to help improve the funding formulas so that we don’t have to raise fares every year. Speaking to your legislators may help; speaking to your local politicians may help.
Q: What would it take for Metra to stop raising fares?
A: That’s a complicated question, but there’s actually two simple answers. Our operating funding structure was developed back in 1984 and refined in 2008; it needs to be refined again. It wasn’t built with an index to go with inflation and with that, we’ve lagged behind. The dollars that we get in are less than the dollars we were able to spend when the formula was put in place. Refining that takes legislators and working with our partners at the RTA.
Secondly, if we had a continual influx of capital dollars at the state level to sustain what we need. Right now we get good dollars in from the federal government, what we don’t have is continued dollars coming in from the state government. If we had that, we would be able to reduce the amount of capital that comes from the fare box, and in doing so we would be able to stabilize, or at least not have the increase in fares be as great.