Commuters toughing it out as winter conditions hold up many Metra runs
Early Friday morning, as the mercury remained stubbornly south of zero, Metra commuters gathered as they do every weekday at the Naperville station just south of Fifth Avenue. Most were well bundled, knowing their ride into the city might not come on schedule.
Every couple of minutes, a voice on the loudspeaker informed those within earshot that unfortunate delays had indeed arisen for both inbound and outbound trains, sometimes blaming late arrival of other trains, other times pointing a finger at “freight train interference” for the holdup.
Each announcement would end with “Metra is apologizing for this inconvenience.”
The growing crowds inside and on the platform appeared unsurprised, with delays a frequent occurrence during this cold, snowy winter.
A ticket agent, who wasn’t at liberty to share her name, said the tardy trains are caused by a variety of factors. On this morning, she said, the westbound lines were having a harder time than those headed into Chicago.
One of the more popular Burlington Northern trains, which stops at the station at 7:40 a.m., happened to be pretty close to its usual schedule on Friday. That didn’t surprise Cathy Tarvainis, who takes “the 740” — an express train that makes no stops after picking up passengers in Naperville — to Chicago’s Union Station every weekday.
“This year, actually, the BNSF line hasn’t been too bad. It’s usually during the summer that it has a problem,” said the Naperville resident, bundled in a heavy coat and fur-lined hat against the brutal cold. “There have been some delays, but I would think there would be a lot more.”
Investment banker Regan Rybarczyk, another regular on the 740, didn’t dispute that.
“It’s the 8 o’clock that’s always the issue,” he said.
Sometimes, because of earlier delays, passengers up the line fill the cars before the train ever gets to Naperville.
“They tell you they’ll be a little late, then it blows on by — they’ll say it’s full,” said Rybarczyk, adding that the following train is usually very crowded as well.
Seated in the lobby with a newspaper as a voice on the loudspeaker announced an incoming train, he wasn’t sure he’d bother to head out to vie for a seat on the train that comes after his usual one, if the thing did indeed stop. For Rybarczyk, the sometimes-conflicting messages have the effect of stretching the rail line’s credibility.
“It’s only by faith they go outside,” he said.
A few moments passed and he took a leap of faith — and was rewarded. Still, the train sat on the tracks for several minutes before at last rumbling on.
A public hearing scheduled for Monday night in Naperville’s Municipal Center will spotlight some of the Metra woes that have arisen this winter. Hosted jointly by state Reps. Darlene Senger, R-Naperville, and Ron Sandack, R-Downers Grove, the session is intended to be less gripe session and more “back-and-forth,” Senger said.
She doesn’t hear a great number of complaints about trains running late, but constituents have told her it’s an issue.
“The biggest thing they share is, ‘You know, we understand things are running late, it’s cold, but it’s a matter of communication,’” Senger said.
Riders have told her they would like the updates provided online to be more current. Sometimes, she said, despite checking the website, they’ll arrive to learn the train is running behind after all.
“They think, if I’d known this, I’d have stayed in my car,” she said.
Senger surmised that Metra might have been caught off-guard by this season’s extraordinary cold, and how it would impact daily operations.
Don Orseno, Metra’s interim executive director, will be one of at least three Metra representatives on hand at the hearing, Senger said. Comprised of a presentation followed by time for questions, the session will give the public a chance to become acquainted with the rail line’s current leadership and how its policies work.
Senger said Metra officials want to hear from Naperville riders, whose patronage makes the local commuter stations some of the busiest on all of their lines.
“They’re looking for that too,” she said. “Happy customers is what they’re about.”