By not collecting tickets, Union Pacific hurts everybody who rides Metra
THE UP SAYS IT IS WORRIED ABOUT COVID-19. THEY ARE NOT ALONE. BUT AS A RESULT, PEOPLE ARE PRETTY MUCH RIDING THOSE LINES FOR FREE. IT’S COSTING METRA AN ESTIMATED $1 MILLION A MONTH.
Mark Twain once wrote about ticket-punching train conductors who “punch with care [and] punch in the presence of the passenjare!”
But you won’t see such ticketpunching these days — either with paper tickets or virtually on the mobile phone app — on the three Metra commuter lines operated by the Union Pacific. The UP, which operates lines from Chicago to Harvard, Kenosha and Elburn, is declining to sell tickets at stations along the lines — and to collect tickets on the train.
The UP says it is worried about COVID-19. They are not alone. But as a result, people are pretty much riding those lines for free. It’s costing Metra an estimated $1 million a month.
This is bad for public transit and bad for the region. The Union Pacific needs to figure out a way to safely sell tickets and collect fares. The BNSF Railway does so on the Metra line it runs from Chicago to Aurora, which in normal times carries the most passengers of any Metra line. Metra, which directly operates the other seven Chicago area commuter lines, also has found a way to safely sell and collect tickets.
What’s the full motive?
So why is the Union Pacific placidly operating, pardon us, a “laissez-fare” system? Why are UP conductors on the trains — who wear Metra uniforms and operate Metra equipment — not walking through the coaches to make sure everyone has a ticket? Why aren’t ticket agents selling tickets, though they are shielded by glass windows from the public?
If we were cynics, we might think this has something to do with the Union Pacific’s suggestion that it would like to walk away from providing the commuter service. The UP now operates the trains through a purchase-ofservice agreement with Metra, but the UP and Metra are haggling over a new arrangement in talks that started last summer.
Although it’s hard to tell what is a negotiating tactic, the UP has said it would rather just run its freight trains, let Metra run the commuter trains, and charge Metra for use of the tracks, which the UP owns. The question of whether the UP can do that is in federal court, but no resolution is expected soon.
Making such a change would be complicated. A whole new set of collective-bargaining agreements would have to be negotiated. And the big question would be how much Metra would have to pay to continue using the Union Pacific tracks. The UP has made it clear that either way Metra service will continue.
We’d hate to think the Union Pacific believes it could make more money by running just freight trains and is using the COVID-19 pandemic to get a financial edge. The UP says there is no connection between its talks with Metra and the decision not to sell and collect tickets.
A storied service
When the Union Pacific bought the old Chicago & North Western, it purchased an operation that was a national leader in developing modern commuter trains. Railroad historian H. Roger Grant told us Wednesday, “The [C&NW’s] greatest improvement involved double-deck coaches and push-pull trains.” Keeping such a storied service going was part of the deal, at least from a civic-mindedness standpoint.
“The Union Pacific has run trains through our backyards and communities for decades,” Kirk Dillard, chairman of the Regional Transportation Authority, told us. “They have a civic duty to keep doing so since we as citizens tolerate their noise and traffic delays, allow them to make a profit and let them operate freight yards in our communities. They just can’t walk away from their civic, contractual and legal duties solely based on profit.“
Entire system harmed
Right now, Metra is getting by with about $480 million from the CARES Act. That’s part of the $1.4 billion that went to the RTA, which is planning its 2021 budget and is preparing to meet next week to set funding allocations for Metra, the CTA and Pace. The RTA, which oversees all three services, is required to have a balanced budget. Any losses for Metra are a loss for the entire system.
Because of the pandemic, far fewer passengers are riding Metra these days, so social distancing is not an issue. With all the extra scrubbing that goes on daily, Metra’s trains are probably cleaner today than at any time in history. Dillard said he confidently allowed his daughters to ride Metra over the summer.
COVID-19 has been a big challenge for all sorts of businesses, but we can’t think of any others that allow customers to help themselves to merchandise or services without paying.
The Union Pacific should figure out a safe way to get this right.
A sign at the Mount Prospect train station on Wednesday informs Metra passengers that the ticket window is closed and that they need to purchase tickets via the mobile app or from a vending machine downtown.