Metra has filed a lawsuit against Union Pacific (UP), which operates several of its commuter rail lines, for breach of contract in Cook County (Ill.) Circuit Court.
The Chicago commuter rail agency said UP is “severely damaging Metra’s bottom line, reputation and customer experience by an ‘arbitrary and capricious’ refusal to deploy its conductors” on the three lines it owns and operates (UP North, Northwest and West) under a Purchase of Service Agreement (PSA).
The lawsuit seeks monetary damages and a permanent injunction demanding that “UP conductors and onboard personnel resume carrying out all of their required duties, which include selling and validating all tickets and making repeated passes through the cars to assist customers and promote orderly conduct,” the agency said.
“We strongly disagree with how Union Pacific Railroad has been operating commuter service,” Metra CEO/Executive Director Jim Derwinski said. “We have given UP management numerous opportunities to provide the necessary level of service as on our other lines, but they have refused to address these issues in any meaningful way and have left us no recourse but to seek relief through the courts.”
Under the PSA, UP is obligated “to collect fares and validate tickets on the trains, operate the trains in accordance with state and federal safety standards, and follow its own practices and procedures,” Metra said. “UP’s own practices and procedures dictate that it is ‘critically important that trainmen make repeated passes through their assigned cars throughout the trip, in order to detect and observe medical emergencies, passengers needing assistance or information, the general orderly conduct of the train, and fare collection.’”
Onboard ticket collection on all Metra lines was halted at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic. Since June, conductors on the eight other Metra lines—including the BNSF Line, which is owned and operated by BNSF under a similar PSA with Metra—have been “safely performing all of their required duties,” Metra said. “However, UP has refused repeated requests from Metra to require its conductors to start working the trains again.”
Earlier this month, UP reported it resumed ticket sales along UP North, Northwest and West, and began requiring riders to show valid tickets as they board outbound trains or arrive at the Ogilvie Transportation Center (OTC) in Chicago. UP has positioned its employees on platforms in plexiglass booths for verification. UP also noted that its conductors would continue to be stationed in the front and rear cars of the commuter trains—responsible for rider safety and door operation and for providing ADA assistance.
Metra said in its recent lawsuit announcement that UP deployed its “alternative fare collection” plan “without consent” and that it told the Class I its “plan was unsafe, unfeasible and ineffective, and was not a substitute for abiding by the terms of the PSA. In fact, Metra believes the cost of paying UP to staff its alternative method may exceed the amount of fare revenue that UP’s staff collects.”
“Because of UP’s refusal to deploy its conductors and its insufficient alternative, Metra has been losing fare revenue that would otherwise have been collected from passengers,” the commuter rail agency continued. “Metra is asking the court to order UP to compensate Metra for the lost revenue. In addition, Metra has heard from dozens of passengers who feel the lack of conductors has resulted in the erosion of customer safety and security on the trains, and who object to UP’s alternative method, both of which have damaged the customer experience and Metra’s reputation.”
UP said earlier this month that while it “continues to negotiate with Metra on a transfer of services, its actions related to ticket sales and verification are strictly related to employee and commuter health and safety. The railroad will continue to re-evaluate its processes as more data becomes available and will make adjustments, as necessary.”
In July, Metra asked the Surface Transportation Board (STB) to issue a preliminary injunction to prevent UP from “taking planned steps that would degrade or halt” commuter rail service on the three lines.
Separately, Metra also asked the STB to rule on whether UP has a legal common-carrier obligation to provide commuter service. “UP maintains that it has no such obligation,” Metra said, adding that it “strongly disagrees” with UP’s position and that “settling that dispute is critical to determining how service will continue to operate on the lines and, more important, what it will cost the public.”
The agency said UP “now wants to turn over operation of the commuter service to [us], which involves complex issues regarding finances, labor unions, real estate, maintenance and other areas. The two sides have been negotiating a new arrangement for nearly a year but remain far apart.”
“Union Pacific is unwilling to put fare collection ahead of employee and commuter health and safety during a global pandemic, and we are prepared to vigorously defend ourselves in court,” UP said in a statement. “There is no one-size-fits-all approach to managing fare collection during a pandemic. Transit agencies nationwide are managing this in different ways, such as not collecting fares, plexiglass protectors between customers and operators, returning conductors in new roles without selling tickets and innovating with contact-less technology. Last week, Union Pacific implemented a ticket sales and verification process that puts health and safety first, while providing an opportunity to increase fare collection at a time when ridership is down 90% across all of Metra’s lines. The process is working well.
“Union Pacific’s highest priority is safety. We want Chicago commuters to feel safe and confident as they return to riding trains, and our employees must feel the same. Following the tragic loss of two Union Pacific ticket agents during the pandemic, we will continue to use an abundance of caution, while following guidance from our company’s medical team, CDC [downloadable below], City of Chicago and the governor on best practices related to COVID-19.
“Nearly three years ago, Metra took responsibility for onboard passenger and public safety. We’ve repeatedly asked Metra to increase its police presence to address commuter safety concerns, as well as enforce ticketing and mask requirements.
“The contract under which Union Pacific operates Metra’s commuter trains expires Dec. 31. Union Pacific has worked diligently with Metra over the past 15 months to find an agreeable solution for a seamless services transfer upon expiration of the contract for Metra to operate its own trains, and we have repeatedly offered solutions that benefit Chicago commuters and Metra.”