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service updates

How Metra handles service disruptions

Every day, Metra strives to provide reliable service as true to its schedule as possible. However, a variety of unexpected service disruptions can affect normal operations and ultimately lengthen your trip. We understand delays are frustrating, and a lack of information in the middle of a service disruption makes those delays even more frustrating. We have put together this reference page to explain what typically occurs behind the scenes during some of the more severe service disruptions, and what you as a rider can expect to happen in each case.

While every incident is different, there is generally a series of steps undertaken by several responsible parties to reopen the railroad as quickly and safely as possible. It is our goal to get you back on your way to your destination with minimal delays.

During service disruptions, updates are provided via a series of channels: onboard and platform announcements, emailed service alerts, Twitter updates on the individual line handles, or under the Service Alerts section at metrarail.com. Alerts usually are delivered to riders through a combination of the above channels.

Pedestrian or Vehicle Incidents
Mechanical Failures
Extreme Weather
Freight Train Interference
Derailments
Signal and Switch Problems
Why Not Bus?
Other Factors
Incidents Are Fluid
Chicago Union Station Service Disruption Plan

Pedestrian or Vehicle Incidents
(Expect extensive delays of 2-3 hours)

In the event of an incident involving a pedestrian or vehicle, a team of railroad and emergency personnel must respond. Representatives from local and/or Metra police departments, paramedics, fire departments, the coroner and railroad supervisors all arrive on the scene to perform their specific duties. This alone can take some time depending on the distance each person must travel and the time of day. If traffic is heavy or if access to the site is limited, it could take those representatives longer to get there.

Once on scene, the first priority is for the police and the coroner to conduct their investigation. Metra and its contract carriers (BNSF Railway or Union Pacific) work with the police and coroner during incidents to determine the fastest way to resume service safely without impeding the investigation or creating additional hazards. An unfortunate reality is that incidents like these commonly result in a significantly large investigation area and require respectful handling of remains, both of which can add additional time to the investigation’s resolution. After the area has been cleared by authorities, railroad personnel must then perform inspections to make sure there is no damage to the rails or train. Movement of the train affected can begin once everything is determined to be safe. By this time, an extensive delay has been sustained.

Depending on the line and the circumstances, it may be possible to resume service on one track while another track remains closed. Usually, that means trains can operate through the area at greatly reduced speed. In such cases, even with traffic moving, delays occur due to the reduced speed and bottleneck at the scene. Changes to the stopping patterns of trains, such as switching some trains to all local stops or expressing certain trains, may also affect your trip.

During most incident investigations, there is no possibility of a bus bridge around the affected area. For one, Metra does not own any buses. Any cooperation between Metra and Pace or CTA would be entirely dependent upon the other agency’s requirements to their system and the time delay in organizing and dispatching equipment to the scene. Secondly, the number of buses that would be required to transport all Metra passengers, which can reach upwards of 1,500 riders per train, is prohibitive. Even in cases where the incident occurs near a station, Metra cannot let passengers off on the side of an active railroad. We will not put hundreds of our riders in danger simply to save a few minutes.

Again, it is our goal to minimize the impact of such incidents on our passengers’ rides. Should you be on a train involved in an incident, know that crew members may not be able to provide frequent updates as they are handling the situation outside the train. Metra’s GPS Center, which is responsible for making most announcements and sending email, website and Twitter alerts, makes every effort to communicate any updates to passengers. Because the scene is under the jurisdiction of local authorities, it is usually not possible to provide the exact delay times. If an event occurs before you leave your home or work, alternative transportation may be the best option.

Mechanical Failures
(Expect delays of 5-60 minutes)

Though Metra crews work diligently to maintain our aging fleet, issues with the variety of mechanical components on the train can arise at any time. Some common failures include disconnected air hoses, external doors being stuck open (especially during the winter months), improperly sitting ADA lifts and more. Some of the more complicated mechanical failures can include engine failure or computer malfunctions. The continued adoption of Positive Train Control (PTC) technology on our trains adds an additional mechanical component that can fail and affect a trip.

Delays due to a mechanical failure on the train can vary in length depending on what failed. In the event of a mechanical failure, the locomotive engineer and/or the conductors on board first identify the issue, communicate the issue to dispatchers, trainmasters and Metra’s GPS Center, and then attempt to resolve the issue as soon as possible. During this time, crew members can be off the train to resolve the issue and may not be providing updates on the train. Once the GPS Center is made aware of any issues, notifications are sent to the line’s Twitter handle, emailed to subscribers and posted on the metrarail.com homepage under Service Alerts.

Minor issues can usually be resolved by crew members and the train can be returned to service with minimal delays. Other times, a train cannot continue and significant delays will result. Whether minor or significant, a delay on one train can affect others along the line, especially during rush periods. Any delays on other trains are monitored both by the crew and GPS Center operators, who notify customers as promptly as possible.

Extreme Weather
(Expect delays of 5-60 minutes)

Extreme weather affects the operation of Metra trains as much as it does the operation of a personal vehicle. At the end of the day, safety remains our top priority, even if that means some delays arise.

Extreme cold and heat can affect the rail by either shrinking or expanding the metal. When the metal shrinks, the rail can break or “pull apart” at seams. When the metal expands, the rail can experience what is called a “sun kink,” which is when the rail becomes warped. When air temperatures reach 0° Fahrenheit and below or 90° Fahrenheit and above, trains operate at reduced speeds to minimize stress on the rails and to enable engineers to better spot pull aparts and sun kinks, respectively. The wires on the Metra Electric line are also affected by extreme temperatures. During extreme cold, the wires can contract to the point of damage to the structures holding the wire. Even though the wires are given enough slack to accommodate most temperature changes, some extreme temperatures can result in damage. Once an issue is discovered, crews are dispatched to the scene immediately in order to restore service.

During snowstorms, ice and snow buildup can prevent switches from closing properly, resulting in signal failures and delays. We employ switch heaters to keep the switches clear. However, trains often drop icy material into open switches as they rumble over them. Metra’s signaling system always fails safe – if icy buildup blocks a switch from closing, an electrical circuit cannot be completed and the signal system stops the train until the switch is unclogged manually by signalmen. Preventative measures and around-the-clock personnel help resolve many issues before they affect service, but some delays are unavoidable, especially during rush periods. Freezing rain also presents significant challenges for the Metra Electric line. Rapid ice build-up on the wires will prevent the train's pantographs (the structures that draw power from the lines to operate the train) from connecting properly. Though Metra will run empty trains overnight to knock ice off the wires, that doesn't always work, and some freezing rain situations can still result in significant delays or cancellation of service on the line.

Excessively high winds, severe thunderstorms and tornado warnings can slow or stop train movement and result in delays. For Metra, operating procedure involves reducing speeds to 25 mph or less when passing through areas of extreme wind, severe thunderstorms or tornado warnings. This applies to trains already in the affected zone when the advisory is sent out so they can clear the area as safely as possible. Trains just outside of and approaching the affected zone are required to stop until the severe weather advisory is lifted. Union Pacific and BNSF Railway operate by their own operating rules in cases of extreme wind or weather.

In some cases where there are multiple tracks in an area, trains on one track may be able to operate while another train may not. This is especially the case for separate train lines that run side-by-side, such as the UP-Northwest and UP-North lines near Clybourn and the Milwaukee District West Line and North Central Service between Union Station and River Grove. Some trains can be diverted to different tracks, but if there is no opportunity for a particular train to switch over, that train must wait until the track is cleared. We understand this can be frustrating, especially for those aboard the stopped train. Please know every effort is made to get stopped trains moving again as quickly as possible.

Freight Train Interference
(Expect delays of 5-30 minutes)

Chicago is one of the busiest train hubs in the country for both freight and commuter rail. Though the scheduling of trains through Chicagoland favors commuter rail, unexpected issues can result in freight trains blocking the passage of Metra trains. Freight train interference can be a consequence of a timing issue, a mechanical failure on the freight train, or some other incident where the freight is blocking tracks or switches.

When a freight train is blocking Metra train movement, freight railroad dispatchers notify Metra dispatchers of the issue. Metra dispatchers then communicate the delay to necessary Metra personnel, both on board and offsite. Delay lengths are usually unknown in these situations since the resolution of any issues on the freight train are the responsibility of employees of that freight company.

Freight train interference is most prevalent on lines where there are frequent crossings or shared tracks with freight. These lines include the BNSF, UP-West, SouthWest Service, Heritage Corridor and Milwaukee District lines. The increased freight traffic on or crossing these lines result in higher instances of freight train interference.

Derailments
(Expect extensive delays of 1-2 hours, partial or complete line shutdowns)

Derailments rarely occur. The most common cause of derailments is misaligned switches and they most often occur in areas with a high density of crossings, such as in railyards or near terminal stations where train speeds are slow. The biggest factors in determining the effect a derailment will have on your commute are the location of the derailment and the extent of damage to tracks.

Crew members on the train will radio in notice of the derailment as soon as it occurs, putting supervisors in several departments and across agencies into action. Metra’s GPS Center sends out alerts on the various channels, Metra’s Engineering Department will assist in re-railing the train and assessing damage and Metra’s Transportation and Operations Departments will investigate and assist in transporting any passengers on board to their destinations. Other departments and other agencies, such as Metra Police, Amtrak, BNSF Railway, or Union Pacific, may be involved depending on track and switch ownership and other factors. In such cases, a complete investigation from all parties involved is required before work begins to re-rail the train.

Placing the railcar or locomotive back on the rails frequently requires the use of a crane, which can pose a problem if the derailment occurred in a location with low overhead clearance, such as near Chicago Union Station or Millennium Station.

A derailment can have a significant effect on service across several rail lines depending on its location. If a derailment occurred in a railyard, the train may be blocking passage of rolling stock needed for rush period service, resulting in significant cancellations. If a derailment occurred while crossing several downtown terminal tracks, trains could be halted for many rail lines or many tracks may be out of service, resulting in bottlenecks. A mid-line derailment can result in a partial line shutdown since trains will not be able to operate through the incident site.

Once the train has been removed, track inspectors assess whether there is any damage to the tracks, rail or switches and either give the all clear to resume service or begin immediate track repairs. Alerts are sent out as quickly and as thoroughly as possible for every scenario, but riders should be aware that a return to normal service could be lengthy. Alternative transportation may be the best option for many riders.

Signal and Switch Problems
(Expect delays of 10-60 minutes)

Switches and signals work in tandem by plotting a safe route for trains and guiding engineers down it. Metra’s signals fail safe, meaning if there is an issue ,trains are halted rather than allowed to continue on into unprotected territory and unsafe situations. There are several issues beyond severe weather and interference from other trains that can cause the switches and signals to fail safe.

Signals and switches are mostly electrical systems that are susceptible to complications from water and condensation, computer malfunctions and circuit issues. Though every effort is made to prevent any issues, including routine maintenance and consistent monitoring of Metra’s signal systems, there are hundreds of signal boxes and thousands of switches across Metra’s 1,200 miles of track that can fail at any time. To avoid all issues would require an unsustainable number of crews positioned at each crossing. Regardless, Metra, Union Pacific Railroad, BNSF Railway and Amtrak all have dedicated workers who respond as quickly as possible to any issues to get you back on the move to your destination.

Signalmen are dispatched as soon as an issue is discovered to resolve the problem. Train movement, if allowed to proceed, will operate at greatly reduced speeds for the safety of crews near the tracks. This will increase delay times for passengers on the affected trains with residual delays for trains operating at a later time. While it is our goal to inform our customers of any updates, conductors on board may have to assist in the movement of trains by hand-lining switches or becoming flagmen and may not be available to provide onboard updates.

A variety of issues can occur within a signal system. Throw rods and point detectors, components that physically move the switches and determine when the switch is fully closed, are susceptible to damages from extreme temperatures, vibrations and ice buildup.

The computers overseeing movement into most downtown Chicago terminal stations can fail, halting movement until the computer system is fixed by the owners of those switches or until flagmen can be established to guide the trains into the station. For example, switches into Chicago Union Station are owned and controlled by Amtrak, so during switch failures it is Amtrak forces that must resolve the issue. These situations can be especially frustrating for passengers who are close to their destination but are stuck just outside of the terminal. Conductors may not be providing updates on board so they can communicate to dispatchers and flagmen to safely guide the train into the station.

The complexity of the repair can greatly affect the time in which an issue is resolved, and therefore, estimated delays are typically unknown. In every situation, alerts are sent to customers with any service changes or partial line shutdowns, and crews assemble to resolve the issue as quickly as possible and keep trains moving at reduced speeds.

Metra’s GPS Center makes every effort to inform customers of any changes or updates. An exact time until the train can proceed is typically unknown. We attempt to get every train into the station as quickly as possible, but some bottlenecking may occur, especially during the rush periods.

Additional Information

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.

Other Factors
The duration of an incident can impact much more than the trains directly affected. All railroads are subject to federal hours-of-service provisions that dictate how long crew members can be on duty and how long they must rest before beginning their next shift. In some cases, a crew will exceed their hours if its 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 cancel 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. We continue to work with the region’s freight railroads and emergency responders to inform customers and improve communication, and we continue to educate our crews so they can better respond to the situation and our passengers’ needs. So, remember 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 any delays are frustrating and 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.

Chicago Union Station Service Disruption Plan
While Amtrak owns and manages Chicago Union Station, Metra is responsible for implementing a plan to attempt to limit overcrowding once a problem occurs. If a service disruption affects those lines, Metra, BNSF Railway and Amtrak will implement this plan, which aims to keep the South Concourse waiting area clear so passengers can freely move to and from the platforms. This will be accomplished primarily by closing off the escalators/stairs that feed the concourse from the food court level on the Jackson Boulevard side. Passengers who use the entrance at Jackson and the Chicago River will have to walk north, use the escalators/stairs that feed the North Concourse near Adams Street and double back south past the Metra ticket area. BNSF passengers will be lined up along the wide corridor between the Metra ticket area and the South Concourse, and, if it is open, into the Great Hall. That corridor will serve as the main loading/staging area for BNSF trains until service returns to normal. Heritage Corridor and SouthWest Service customers will be directed to the South Concourse via the hallway that connects the South and North Concourses to the Amtrak ticket area.  Metra will provide updates with public address system announcements supplemented by staff members with bullhorns. Please obey instructions from Metra, BNSF, Amtrak and police personnel.

Maps of the service disruption plan at Chicago Union Station can be found here.

 

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