News & Reviews News Wire UP sues Metra over commuter operations

UP sues Metra over commuter operations

By Angela Cotey | December 21, 2019

| Last updated on July 28, 2023

Details sealed by court, but UP makes it clear it wants to end operating responsibilities

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View from bridge of commuter train at station
A Metra UP West train arrives in West Chicago, Ill., in March 2018. UP has sued Metra over its contract to operate commuter trains on three routes. David Lassen

CHICAGO — Union Pacific’s desire to get out of the business of operating Metra commuter trains has landed in federal court.

Crain’s Chicago Business reports that UP filed suit earlier this week. The exact nature of the dispute is unknown, since the filing is sealed at UP’s request, and neither side provided details in response to media inquiries. Both sides, however, said the suit posed no threat to continuing service on the three Metra lines currently operated by Union Pacific.

Metra CEO Jim Derwinski had previously informed Metra employees that negotiations were in progress for a new agreement that could result in Metra taking over many of the responsibilities that currently belong to Union Pacific under its purchase-of-service agreement. [See “Metra, Union Pacific in talks that could change operating agreement,” Trains News Wire, Dec. 5, 2019.]

UP’s current agreement to operate three Metra lines is about to expire, and a UP statement said it is seeking an agreement “that gives Metra direct responsibility for operating its commuter lines through a services transfer. This will allow Union Pacific to focus on moving customers’ goods in and out of Chicago and across the nation.” The statement said “there are fundamental principles that we believe require the help of a court to resolve.”

Metra spokesman Michael Gillis told the suburban Daily Herald that the case will not impact train service, “but it has a bearing on negotiations between Metra and UP over how service will continue on the lines and what it will cost after the current agreement between Metra and UP expires.” He said Metra has an obligation to protect “the interests of our customers and the taxpayers of northeastern Illinois and the entire state.”

Commuter train at station with "Winthrop Harbor" sign
A Kenosha-bound train on Metra’s UP North line arrives at Winthrop Harbor, Ill., in April 2019. The first car is a privately owned, members-only commuter coach painted in the colors of previous line owner Chicago & North Western. In 2018, the three Union Pacific lines ranked second, third, and fourth in Metra ridership. David Lassen

The three Metra lines involved are:

— The UP Northwest, a 62.8-mile, 22-station line to Harvard in McHenry County, on UP’s Harvard Subdivision, which sees 65 Metra trains on weekdays; six of those serve a 7.6-mile spur to a station in McHenry, Ill. In 2018, it was second among Metra’s 11 lines in ridership with 10.6 million trips. (The BNSF line was first with 15.8 million.)

— The UP North, a 51.6-mile, 24-station route on UP’s Kenosha Subdivision to Kenosha, Wis. — the only Metra station not in Illinois — although most trains begin and end at Waukegan, Ill., 36 miles from downtown. Like the Northwest line, it only sees limited freight activity. Served by 70 trains on weekdays; in 2018, it was third in Metra ridership with 8.7 million trips.

— The UP West, a 44-mile, 19-station route to Elburn in Kane County which sees 59 Metra trains each weekday. It operates on UP’s Geneva Subdivision, the railroad’s main east-west main line for freight traffic; the portion also used by Metra is triple track except for a 6.1-mile segment on either side of Geneva, Ill. Its 8.1 million trips in 2018 ranked fourth in Metra ridership.

All three are former Chicago & North Western routes inherited by UP in its 1995 acquisition of the C&NW.

15 thoughts on “UP sues Metra over commuter operations

  1. I recall a large (probably a full page) ad in the Tribune by UP apologizing to Chicago commuters for the way their managers botched the takeover of C&NW commuter operations. I also remember a public apology by UP after they learned the SP management in Houston weren’t as dumb as the UP people who took over there thought they were. It took UP about a year to straighten up the mess they made in Texas after they took over the SP. I think Wall Streets opinion of UP management is based strictly on profit and not on how to run a railroad.

  2. It is amazing that it has taken this long for resolution of these issues as the UP wanted nothing to do with the commuter operations when they took over the C&NW. That was apparent after the takeover and the problems
    that arose with their initial handling of the commuter operations. If I recall didn’t political intervention came into play to get UP to ,take commuter operations seriously.

  3. Gerald, of course I read the article, friend! I don’t see where it states “that the UP wants Metra to take over a bunch of the parts”…..what it does say is “The exact nature of the dispute is unknown, since the filing is sealed at UP’s request.” Perhaps you’re reading a little too deeply into the comment “Metra CEO Jim Derwinski had previously informed Metra employees that negotiations were in progress for a new agreement that could result in Metra taking over many of the responsibilities that currently belong to Union Pacific under its purchase-of-service agreement”. “Could”, Gerald….could. You state “that doesn’t scream money to me, that screams you can take over all the crew costs, maintenance costs”………wait….what? You do understand the relationship between the words ‘money’ & ‘costs’, no? I stand by my original comment. PSR is the driving force behind this, which is ultimately…

  4. Mark Kaspar,

    You obviously aren’t commenting on the article either, if you had bothered to read it, it clearly states that the UP wants Metra to take over a bunch of the parts of the service that UP currently provides…that doesn’t scream money to me, that screams you can take over all the crew costs, maintenance costs on the two lines with little freight traffic, dispatching of the Northwest and North line, and fill in that 6.1 mile gap in the triple track on the West line.

    I think Metra should just take over all 3 lines and control dispatching, then hear UP rant and rave and have a temper tantrum like a 3 year old when their trains get held for commuters.

  5. Rich – your comment has absolutely nothing to do with the article at hand – did you mean to comment on another article? Your query “why do we still live in this world where all freight rail traffic is exchanged at Chicago” has no correlation to the Metra/Up lawsuit. As long as you’re wondering out loud, it may have something to do with it { Chicago } being where the western roads have their eastern terminus & the eastern roads have their western terminus….& all the necessary infrastructure already in place. All roads would love to get out of the bottleneck, no doubt, but in this age of ‘ultra’ cost cutting procedures, that will likely never happen. So, once again….it’s all about the money…..

  6. Ed – yes, passengers must pay the correct fare to ride in the private car…..along with what is probably a steep price to gain admission into the ‘club’, as it’s a private car…..the public is not allowed. Yes, the group pays Metra all expenses associated with pulling/pushing the car. The interior was rehabbed recently when the exterior was rehabbed. No, there is no bar.

  7. John – your guess “I am going to guess the lawsuit is over dispatch authority” is wrong. Why on God’s green earth would the Union Pacific allow Metra to dispatch the eastern 44 miles of the Geneva Subdivision?? This was never even considered. How would that work? Metra & UP dispatchers both dispatching the same piece of track? That sounds like a collision waiting to happen. UP owns the route & will continue to dispatch its property. The lawsuit is all about money. PSR is all about money. See the connection? PSR is all about attempting to get blood from a stone. It’s no coincidence that the termination of the purchase of service agreement came shortly after the rollout of the controversial PSR program. Eliminating an entire service unit equates to eliminating cost { i.e. employees } which is a benchmark of the PSR handbook. It’s money, John….& nothing more.

  8. @Rich Boyer

    “I still don’t understand why Western roads can’t forward their traffic East at St. Louis or Kansas City, and avoid Chicago entirely, why do we still live in this world where all freight rail traffic is exchanged at Chicago?”

    Chicago has geography. That’s why the love affair with routing most traffic to the Windy exist and will continue to do so. Even though Chi-town is a slow go. It still has more capacity than St Louis. You also have to look at routes radiating out of Chicago. Flat and fast with minimal grades to encounter. St. Louis is in the Mississippi River Valley quite a bit of grades and on both sides of the Mississippi. Going west from St Louis you immediately encounter the Ozarks. As far as KC goes it comes down to cost.. BNSF and UP don’t want to short haul themselves as the margins on traffic would be much lower. Now if BNSF/NS and UP/CSX tie the knot. Expect Chicago to lose some traffic.

  9. @Rich Boyer: St Louis has a bridge problem (MacArthur) which is currently being addressed by TRRA. This is why UP acquired rights on the NS from Kansas City to Springfield, Illinois.

    Chicago is unique in that it is where all Class 1’s meet (except KCS).

    Several shippers have tried to create enough demand so that they can support a Chicago bypass. But for reasons that aren’t exactly clear, the railroads find most Chicago bypasses uneconomic.

    When the (failed) proposal to build a Chicago bypass between the BNSF across Illinois, past the proposed SSA and connect with NS and CSX in Indiana was proposed, all the rail carriers poo-pooed it. Their response? “We will never use it”.

    When ATSF bought the TPW, everyone thought, “hey, they have a good Chicago bypass”. Indiana even built a small container classification yard near Wolcott. Nothing of consequence came through and TPW was sold. Co-Alliance now runs that small yard.

    If you look at peers of rail, for example FedEx. They have 1 hub for the US (Memphis). Almost everything goes there, gets sorted and then moved on. Not to unlike rail cars and Chicago.

    How many times has UPS wrestled with the rail carriers for trans-american express rail? It’s possible technically. But the railroads seem to struggle operationally with supporting it.

    If the Indiana Railroad can get containers classified in Asia for routing to Indianapolis via little Newton, IL then you would think shippers could aggregate enough business at Long Beach for direct routing to anyplace east of the Mississippi without using Chicago.

    I would love to see the analytics on this. And by analytics, I mean something more than a single factor spreadsheet as used by UP for PSR.

    Sometimes I think its a self fulfilling prophecy. Since we route everything through Chicago, all of our peers do to, therefore we get more frequency, therefore, we don’t need as much precision at the micro level, just at the macro. And for “us” that is cheaper.

    With today’s technology, I would think you could take that precision to a more smaller level and still be effective and profitable.

    Thats my view from the armchair.

  10. I still don’t understand why Western roads can’t forward their traffic East at St. Louis or Kansas City, and avoid Chicago entirely, why do we still live in this world where all freight rail traffic is exchanged at Chicago?

  11. I have no inside information, but I am going to guess the lawsuit is over dispatch authority. Since UP took over commuter operations from CNW there have been a couple of service meltdowns where Metra took UP to task in the press for their lack of responsiveness to Metra on schedules.

    I was a Metra customer on the west line when UP had their first meltdown. Who can forget the UP within a month of taking over trying to route freights between rush hour trains and then getting stuck at Proviso which left their ass sticking out at the Elmhurst switch and holding up 4 trains?

    This would happen again in the evening commute when dispatchers would try to squeeze in a NS consist coming up the Rockwell Sub from Ashland Yard and again, it would get stuck going into Proviso with their ass blocking the switch at Melrose Park 25th Avenue.

    After UP got called out on the evening TV news and several congressmen got involved, they apologized and stopped……for awhile.

    Then a few years later they tried to express Powder River coal drags and containers up the center track thinking it wouldn’t impact commuter operations as it used a dedicated track to freight. Ah, no joy. That dang Proviso Yard again. The commuter tracks switch over the dedicated freight track going east.

    After another embarrassment in the media, UP finally started to wise up.

    They started staging freights by yarding them in transit on the center track between Park Boulevard in Glen Ellyn and Finley Road in Lombard. This gave them 2 things, quicker times to get their stuff into Proviso by being closer to it and adapting the length of the consist to stop the having their pants down in Elmhurst.

    Unfortunately, doing this got a local woman killed when a UP CW4400 was idling high, and she decided to go out and tell the engineer to lower his RPM. Needless to say she was killed by a Metra express she couldn’t hear.

    Metra has always made it known that they would like to “own their dispatch” on the lines they use. UP has never agreed to it, but always had to get beat up in the media before getting the drift. If UP freight moves on the line, then they want to own it.

    Again, I don’t know anything on what is in the suit, but since this is something Metra and UP have squabbled about since they took over CNW Chicago operations, the odds are very high it must be related to it.

  12. Back in the late 1960’s, when I was a grad student at the University of Chicago and Yerkes Observatory in Williams Bay, Wisconsin, the CNW operated 2 (I think) commuter trains from Lake Geneva, Wisconsin, to Chicago, on a branch off their northwest line. The equipment was the usual double-deck commuter coaches, except 1 train also carried a club car (I don’t recall if it was single or double level) that was chartered by a group of business persons for their sole use.

  13. I am curious about the privately owned coach on that METRA train. How much does it cost to ride in it and does it have a bar, etc.? I assume that METRA charges a fee to place that car in that train.

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