Most of the time your daily commute on Metra goes off without hitch. You make it to work on time and you get home to enjoy time with your family. But what about the times when something goes wrong, service is disrupted and you’re delayed? What are Metra and other agencies involved in an incident that disrupts our service doing while you wait on the train or in the station? These are some of the questions asked by customers after a service disruption. We'd like to explain some of the factors that go into our response.
So here goes...
In the event of an incident that disrupts our service whether it’s a pedestrian fatality, bad weather, a hazardous material spill or an active police or fire scene adjacent to our tracks, Metra and our region’s emergency responders go through a series of steps to maximize safety for our passengers and anyone near the scene. Our next goal is to reestablish service as soon as possible. When an incident involving one of our trains occurs, the train’s engineer first notifies the dispatcher responsible for that particular rail line. The dispatcher then typically stops all trains in the area of the incident to ensure the safety of the train crew and the emergency responders. Next, the dispatcher notifies police and Metra managers of the incident. Local police and fire personnel are dispatched to the scene followed by Metra managers, Metra police and, in the case of an incident on one of our purchase-of-service carriers (BNSF and UP), personnel from that carrier.
The crew’s job
On the scene, the train crew is responsible for communicating with passengers and should attempt to provide updates through onboard announcements every 15 minutes. The conductor also communicates with the engineer and crew, first responders, train dispatchers and Metra managers. Metra managers work with first responders with the goal of resuming service as soon as possible. Managers on the scene also provide information to our GPS Center so that up-to-date station and platform announcements are made and customer service staff at our downtown terminals can assist passengers.
Metra not in charge
When a service disruption involves injuries, fatalities or damage to property, the local police and fire departments are in charge of investigation and control the scene. They – not Metra – determine when train traffic in the area can resume. Metra and its contract carriers work with the police and fire agencies during incidents to determine the fastest way to resume service safely without impeding the investigation or creating additional hazards.
Why not bus?
In many such cases, passengers ask why Metra cannot immediately dispatch buses to provide alternate transportation, or at least allow people to get off the trains and find their own transportation. Metra's first concern is safety. We will not evacuate passengers if we do not have a safe way for you to exit the train and a safe place for those evacuated to await alternate transportation. Second, Metra does not own or operate a bus fleet. While we do have contracts with bus companies, buses are not standing by 24-7. We can often get trains moving before buses are able to arrive – especially during rush hour. Also, when service on an entire train line is disrupted, tens of thousands of riders are potentially affected. Frankly, in such cases, there are simply not enough buses available in the entire region to provide effective alternate transportation.
The duration of an incident can impact much more than the trains immediately affected. All railroads are subject to federal hours-of service provisions that dictate how long crews can be on duty and how long they must rest before beginning their next shift. In some cases, a crew will exceed these hours or will exceed their hours if their normal shift required a return trip. We can also encounter equipment shortages if trains are trapped on one side of an incident. Although we try to address these issues in ways that minimize disruptions, we are sometimes forced to dispatch replacement crews, wait for equipment to arrive or even annul a train, and this can create additional delays.
Incidents are fluid
If every incident were the same, our emergency planning would always go off without a hitch and service disruptions would be minimal. But crises are fluid situations; therefore, any given event can add a new wrinkle to our best laid plans and information can change rapidly. That’s why we continue to work with the region’s freight railroads and emergency responders to educate and improve communication, and why we continue to educate our crews so that they can better respond to the situation and our passengers’ needs. So remember that while Metra works hard to maintain one of the highest on-time performance records in the industry, our first priority is the safety of our passengers and crews. We understand that any delays are frustrating and that lack of information can make it more so. But when an incident that disrupts service occurs, Metra is utilizing all available resources to restore service and provide accurate information.