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Metra BNSF riders sound off at executive director at forum

Janet Matusika of Lisle unloads from her list of complaints about Metra at the public hearing at Naperville Municipal Center on Monday night, February 10, 2014. | Jon Cunningham/For Sun-Times Media
Dan Donnelly of Lisle, a 17 year Metra rider, asks why the rail service has declined even when the weather is not bad. | Jon Cunningham/For Sun-Times Media
Mike McNicholas of Naperville, a thirty Metra rider, offers advice to railroad officials as state Rep. Darlene Senger listens. | Jon Cunningham/For Sun-Times Media
Rick Strawbridge of Naperville airs his complaints about Metra service at the public hearing at the Naperville Municipal Center on Monday night, February 10, 2014. | Jon Cunningham/For Sun-Times Media
Metra Executive Director Don Orseno and Pat Casler, Director of Suburban Services for Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railroad respond to complaints from the audience on Monday night, February 10, 2014. | Jon Cunningham/For Sun-Times Media
Metra Executive Director Don Orseno explains what railroad workers go through to keep trains running during the winter during the public hearing in Naperville on Monday night, February 10, 2014.  | Jon Cunningham/For Sun-Times Media

Metra Executive Director Don Orseno got an earful in Naperville Monday from angry customers unhappy with commuter rail service this winter.

“When is Metra going to stop using the weather as an excuse,” Naperville resident and 25-year commuter Roy Ozols asked at a public forum organized by state Reps. Darlene Senger, R-96th of Naperville, and Ron Sandack, R-87th of Downers Grove.

Ozols said his train Monday into Chicago was 15 minutes late. He said Metra needs to communicate better with riders regarding delays and cancellations.

“That’s a good suggestion,” Orseno said.

About 50 people attended the forum, and most were unhappy with Metra’s performance.

“The BNSF has more problems in a month than (other lines) have in a year,” Naperville attorney Rick Strawbridge said of his 33-year experience commuting from Naperville.

Lisle resident Dan Donnelly said that Metra’s performance in the last seven years “has been abysmal” and that it seemed to him that “10 minutes late” was the new normal for the railroad.

Several other speakers echoed those complaints, including a commuter who complained that the heat wasn’t on in her train recently.

Many in the room agreed with Donnelly that service on Metra is subpar even when there isn’t bad weather.

Orseno sympathized with the commuters and noted that the Metra system operates 753 trains daily.

“It’s a very complex system,” he said.

Burlington Northern Santa Fe Suburban Services Director Pat Casler defended the railroad’s record, saying that the 37-year on-time average was 94.5 percent, with a 97 percent average in September and October of 2013. She said she didn’t have figures yet for January’s on-time record.

Casler said that crowded trains, especially in the Naperville/Aurora area, are an inevitable result of population growth in the area.

“Sixty percent of our ridership is now west of Downers Grove,” she said.

Casler, however, said she understood commuters’ unhappiness.

“Everyone’s personal experience will generate personal frustration,” she said.

Orseno said that the entire Metra system is in dire need of infrastructure upgrades as well, including improvements in switching systems, locomotives and bridges.

Openness with the public on delays would go a long way to making the situation better, Metra Board member John Zediker said.

“We could do a better job of communicating,” he said.

Zediker, a former DuPage County Board member, said that social media like Facebook and Twitter could be utilized more effectively to communicate potential delays to commuters.

Donnelly came away unsatisfied with what he heard at the forum.

“I just think they’re a bunch of excuses,” he said.

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