Note: revises and updates previous version
A bill introduced by U.S. Rep Dan Lipinski (D-Ill.) would transfer Chicago Union Station from Amtrak to Metra ownership — a bill Amtrak says would shut down its operations in Chicago.
The “Improving the Metra Commuter Experience Act of 2020 (H.R. 6226),” one of four rail-related bills introduced by Lipinski, says its purpose “is to improve the operation of Chicago Union Station by transferring certain aspects of operational control of Chicago Union Station to Metra. Metra makes up almost 90 percent of the passenger traffic at Union Station.”
Lipinski has called for transfer of control of the station since a Feb. 28, 2019, incident in which a botched computer-system upgrade disrupted traffic in and out of Union Station for about 12 hours [see “Senator says worker’s fall onto circuit boar caused Union Station signal outage,” Trains News Wire, March 2, 2019]. In November, he indicated he might make the transfer part of the Amtrak reauthorization bill [see “Congressman may seek to strip Amtrak of control of Chicago Union Station,” Trains News Wire, Nov. 19, 2019].
If passed, the bill would require Amtrak to cede control of the station to Metra within 180 days, withholding 5% of its appropriated funding if that does not take place; define operational control to include dispatching of local trains from Canal Street to Alton Junction out of Metra’s control center, set parameters for joint policing, and split some congressional funding for the station with Metra. Text of the bill is not yet available on the Congress.gov website.
But Amtrak spokesman Marc Magliari says the bill, if it becomes law, would block Amtrak operations at the station, “as it names Metra as the train dispatcher and then says Metra would not dispatch any Amtrak trains. The only other way to read that provision is to say both Amtrak and Metra would dispatch the same track, which would be like two control towers operating the same runway.
“It would be impossible for Amtrak to operate and Cong. Lipinski’s bill would be a Chicago blockade to regional and national Amtrak service.”
Magliari notes Chicago is the hub of Amtrak’s national network, serving 3.33 million passengers, including services sponsored by three state transportation department, and says Amtrak dispatching of on-time departures exceeds 99 percent.
“Amtrak is working through a process in good faith with the U.S. Surface Transportation Board,” Magliari says. “Amtrak and Metra jointly petitioned the STB to resolve a disagreement between us involving its lease and trackage rights. Staying the course is best option at this time, versus legislation drafted to preempt the STB.
“Amtrak will vigorously work to protect our national, regional and local interests.”
A Metra spokesman declined comment on the legislation.
Other bills introduced by Lipinski, as outlined in a release from the Congressman’s office, include:
“Don’t Block Our Communities (D-BLOC) Act” (H.R. 6223), to reduce blocked crossings and their impact on local communities. Blocked rail crossings at roadways pose several noise and safety concerns for communities in the Third Congressional District, including impeding the flow of traffic and preventing emergency responders from reaching individuals in life-or-death situations.
“Building Much Needed Rail Grade Separations Act of 2020” (H.R. 6224), to increase the number of rail-grade crossing separations (overpass/underpass) around the country. Grade separation projects eliminate wait times for drivers stuck at crossings. For example, the approved grade separation project at Harlem and 65th St. will eliminate delay to approximately 1,000 vehicles daily, resulting in alleviation of 9,400 annual motorist hours of delay.
“Every Person Deserves Peace and Quiet Act of 2020” (H.R. 6225), is to increase the number of quiet zones around railroad tracks. While the Federal Railroad Administration requires locomotives to sound their horns at public highway-rail grade crossings, communities that meet specific safety criteria can establish quiet zones that ban the use of train horns at crossings except in emergencies.
In the release, Lipsinki says, “I am thrilled to introduce this package of legislation that takes into account months of work holding hearings with community members, rail industry representatives, public officials, and passenger advocates to figure out the best way forward to fix problems we see with trains in our communities. … My staff and I listened closely to the concerns of all interested parties and these bills are the culmination of countless hours drafting and fine-tuning. From exploring innovative solutions that will improve safety and end the gridlock caused by idling or broken-down trains in the Chicago area and around the country, to streamlining functionality at Chicago Union Station, these bills can make a dramatic impact. I look forward to discussing these with my colleagues in the Rail Subcommittee and working with them to pass them into law.”