Sunday, February 28, 2010

Metra, maturing, maps its mission

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As job locations and residential housing patterns shift throughout Chicagoland, Metra continues to thrive, and continues preparing to expand, setting an example other regional railroads might envy.

Metra calls Chicagoland its home. Some call Metra the best regional railroad in the U.S. Such high praise, offered privately by those within the passenger rail industry and more vocally by many rail advocates nationwide, honors an organization charged in 1984 with rescuing, resuscitating, and seaming together the faltering commuter operations of numerous Class I operators serving the Windy City.

It’s done more than just excel at patchwork. Even as it secured and improved its role as a traditional “commuter” railroad, Metra has kept abreast of shifts in the region’s job market to locations in six Illinois counties outside the central business district—and the countercurrent of residential revitalization within Chicago’s downtown core.

And it’s kept faith in the ever-elusive Suburban Transit Access Route *(STAR) Line, a circumferential 55-mile rail route that would link numerous suburbs with each other, existing Metra radial lines, and Chicago O’Hare International Airport. Metra New Starts Project Leader David Kralik continues to detail the STAR plan to regional municipalities and residents despite the current global economic malaise and its unavoidable tendency to diminish expectations. “We’re seeing a lot more job growth in the suburbs,” Kralik said. “And we need a better system in order to be able to connect where people are at in the suburbs and where they live to the jobs that they want to go to in the suburbs.”

Foundation with freight railroads cited

But even as Metra showed its willingness to expand its potential customer base, it first moved decisively to solidify its hold on the traditional commuter market. That’s no small task; as Marketing Director Jim Bonistalli told Railway Age in 2009, “We probably turn 15% to 18% of our customer base over every year. We’re constantly building from an eroding customer base.”

Metra has succeeded, and Executive Director Phil Pagano identifies four items that he believes have guided the organization tosuch success through its first quarter century.

Point No. 1, Pagano says, is recognizing Chicago’s overall rail history, and Metra’s role within it. “We interface with the freight railroads on every line,” Pagano says.Both within Metra and within freight railroad partners, “Those people were still around, a strong railroad tradition was still there; we interfaced with them and took ownership.”

More than many comparable U.S. regional rail operations, Metra relies on its freight rail partners in a joint mix of infrastructure and operations. “By us owning and operating a portion of our system—say 50% as a round figure--we’re able to discuss items with the freight railroads where we have credibility,” Pagano notes. “We can talk to them; they can talk to us concerning new projects, infrastructure projects, service windows or limitations, etc.”

Labor, Metra board lauded

Pagano cites good union relations as Metra’s second key factor. “We have a labor management process that this year celebrated its 25th anniversary,” where labor and management meet monthly to review and examine numerous items, including employee assistance programs, safety programs, and capital programs. “We do not talk contractual matters” in those meetings, Pagano clarifies, but the parties do seek a collegial approach on problems or potential problems. As a result, he notes, “In our area, [when] there have been national freight strikes, or an Amtrak strike, or something similar, Metra has avoided a similar fate.” The collaboration also has bolstered Metra’s safety record, allowing it to land 11 Harriman awards, he says. Pagano cites the Metra Board of Directors as a third ingredient for success. “The board holds the staff responsible for running the railroad. They set policy goals and objectives, but they don’t get into day-to-day operations,” he says.

Metra staff seek to honor that implicit trust through performance, and Pagano says the staff has delivered. “I’ve been blessed since 1989 with the best staff possible; they’re hard-working people, they’ve been with us a long time. They know what the goals and objectives are.”

As a “four-legged stool” so constructed, Metra currently operates over 11 lines, serving 239 stations that serve roughly 322,000 riders on weekdays, and about 125,000 on weekends.

Concepts beyond ‘commuter’

An ongoing challenge is to expand Metra’s territory and reach within it. “It made perfect sense to ‘fix it first’ prior to any expansion during the early 1980s,” he says, “but then, as now, our system runs into the question of ‘What have you done for us lately? We have to maintain and upgrade what we have. But the pressure is on to expand.” It’s a challenge Pagano says Metra welcomes, even during tough economic times. “We’ve completed numerous projects under budget and ahead of schedule,” he says. “The state gas passed the capital bond program, [but so far] the bonds have not yet been released.”

Assuming money flows, Metra’s 2010 plan includes replacing 160 cars in its electric car fleet . Washington may play a role here: “The new transport bill succeeding SAFETEA-LU may be key,” he says. Metra capital spending also will include bridge rehabilitation work and “four new STAR projects we’ll be working on. That’s long-term,” he adds, seemingly almost as an afterthought but without apology, symbolic of Metra’s determination to reinvent itself, and grow in the process, as it prepares to meet the regional rail passenger needs of Chicagoland in the 21st century.