By not col­lect­ing tick­ets, Union Pa­cific hurts ev­ery­body who rides Me­tra

Chicago Sun-Times - - OPINION -

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.

THOMAS FRISBIE/SUN-TIMES

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.

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