Demetrios Vatistas, secretary and treasurer for SMART Transportation Division Local 281 (Milwaukee, Wis.), discussed working as a Metra conductor during the coronavirus pandemic with a Chicago-area newspaper.
Vatistas has been S&T for his local since February 2019 and a TD member since 1997.
“I’ve been doing this for 24 years, and I’ve never seen anything like this,” Vatistas told Daily Herald of Arlington Heights, Ill., reporter Marni Pyke. “It is extremely weird. We’re so used to working hand-in-hand, side-by-side. This is our family away from home.”
But there is a sense of anxiety when reporting for and performing service these days, especially when boarding what can only be described as ghost trains, Vatistas said.
Metra ridership has fallen a staggering 97% since a stay-at-home order was enacted by Illinois’ governor in March, but Vatistas said that new bonds are being formed, albeit at a safe social distance.
“I see concern, but I also see compassion,” Vatistas told Pyke.
At a meeting last week involving Metra and suburban Chicago city leaders, U.S. Rep. Dan Lipinski, chairman of the U.S. House Subcommittee on Railroads, Pipelines and Hazardous Materials, told the carrier that it needed to step up its performance.
“Too often, Metra riders are not getting the service that they deserve,” Lipinski said in a news release. “I said in a town hall I held in December to address problems on the BNSF line that 2019 needs to be a better year for all Metra riders. Metra is still coming up frustratingly short. It is time to stop passing the buck and find solutions.”
Metra struggled with a technology outage involving Amtrak at Union Station in February, which prompted the April 16 meeting, according to the Joliet Herald News.
Illinois commuter carrier Metra, in conjunction with Operation Lifesaver, has embarked on a series of educational safety blitzes to raise awareness of the importance of safe behavior around its trains and tracks.
The carrier reported in a March 26 news release that the state of Illinois ranked second in the nation in rail fatalities at highway-rail crossings and fifth in the nation in trespassing fatalities. Last year, 47 people were killed and 51 more were injured in Illinois in incidents at grade crossings or along railroad rights-of-way.
Fourteen of the state’s fatalities involved Metra trains, with six occurring at rail crossings. The fatality statistics do not include deaths ruled as suicides or suspected suicides, the carrier said.
“These safety blitzes allow us to reach our customers directly to ensure that they understand the need to stay vigilant about safety around the railroad,” Metra CEO/Executive Director Jim Derwinski said.
The carrier said that its Police Department will also conduct additional enforcement blitzes throughout the region’s six counties and 242 Metra stations. During the enforcement blitzes, citations and warnings will be issued to pedestrians and drivers who ignore gates and warning devices.
The plan is open for public comment until April 15 and seeks to measure the use and sustainability of the transit system’s stations in relation to ridership.
Most stations labeled as “unsustainable” with less than 10 percent median ridership are on Metra’s Electric Line, but others include Rosemont and Schiller Park on the North Central Service, Mannheim on the Milwaukee District West, and Kedzie on the Union Pacific West, the Daily Herald reports.
The carrier will use the information to make potential changes to improve ridership in the underused stations or in the worst cases make decisions to close stations and create new access points to the system.