Customers vent frustration with Metra at Naperville meeting

Commuters wait for an early morning train into Chicago at the Metra station in Naperville Wednesday, Jan. 21,  2014. | Rich Hein/Sun-Times
Commuters wait for an early morning train into Chicago at the Metra station in Naperville Wednesday, Jan. 21, 2014. | Rich Hein/Sun-Times

Metra Executive Director Don Orseno got an earful in Naperville Monday night from angry customers unhappy with commuter rail service this winter.

“When is Metra going to stop using the weather as an excuse,” Naperville resident and 25-year commuter Roy Ozols asked at a public forum organized by state Reps. Darlene Senger (R-Naperville) and Ron Sandack (R-Downers Grove).

Ozols said that his train Monday into Chicago was 15 minutes late. He said Metra needs to communicate better with riders regarding delays and cancellations.

“That’s a good suggestion,” Orseno said.

About 50 people attended the forum, and most were unhappy with Metra’s performance.

“The BNSF has more problems in a month than (other lines) have in a year,” Naperville attorney Rick Strawbridge said of his 33-year experience commuting from Naperville.

Lisle resident Dan Donnelly said that Metra’s performance in the last seven years “has been abysmal” and that it seemed to him that “10 minutes late” was the new normal for the railroad.

Several other speakers echoed those complaints, including a commuter who complained that the heat wasn’t on in her train recently.

Many in the room agreed with Donnelly that service on Metra is subpar even when there isn’t bad weather.

Orseno sympathized with the commuters and noted that the Metra system operates 753 trains daily.

“It’s a very complex system,” he said.

Burlington Northern Santa Fe Suburban Services Director Pat Casler defended the railroad’s record, saying that the 37-year on-time average was 94.5 percent, with a 97 percent average in September and October of 2013. She said she didn’t have figures yet for January’s on-time record.

Casler said that crowded trains, especially in the Naperville/Aurora area, are an inevitable result of population growth in the area.

“Sixty percent of our ridership is now west of Downers Grove,” she said.

Casler, however, said she understood commuters’ unhappiness.

“Everyone’s personal experience will generate personal frustration,” she said.

Orseno said that the entire Metra system is in dire need of infrastructure upgrades as well, including improvements in switching systems, locomotives and bridges.

Openness with the public on delays would go a long way to making the situation better, Metra Board member John Zediker said.

“We could do a better job of communicating,” he said.

Zediker, a former DuPage County Board member, said that social media like Facebook and Twitter could be utilized more effectively to communicate potential delays to commuters.

Donnelly came away unsatisfied with what he heard at the forum.

“I just think they’re a bunch of excuses,” he said.