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Tuesday, June 11, 2024 | Back issues
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Union Pacific gets green light to cut services on three busy Chicago commuter rail lines

A Thursday ruling from the Northern Illinois District Court affirmed Union Pacific Railroad's assertion that is under no obligation to provide commuter service on three of Chicagoland's busiest train lines.

CHICAGO (CN) — Three busy commuter train lines in Chicagoland no longer have any legal protection from service cuts, thanks to a Thursday federal court ruling.

In that ruling, U.S. District Judge Jorge Alonso, a Barack Obama appointee, upheld the Union Pacific Railroad Company's assertion that it is under no obligation to offer commuter services on the Union Pacific North, Union Pacific West and Union Pacific Northwest Lines.

Despite this, spokespeople from both the Regional Transportation Authority and Union Pacific said they are committed to keeping those three lines operational for riders. Union Pacific said it would still maintain the physical tracks and provide rail dispatch, but with Alonso's blessing, its employees would no longer operate the rail cars or collect tickets.

The case surrounding the ruling was first launched by Union Pacific in 2019, but it can trace its true origins back to 1995. That was the year that the private, for-profit Union Pacific began providing commuter service on the Chicago-area freight lines it owned, in a partnership with the the public Regional Transportation Authority: the RTA would provide and maintain the Metra train cars that commuters actually ride in, while Union Pacific would allow the RTA to use its freight lines, maintain those lines, drive the rail cars and collect tickets.

1995 was also the year that Congress passed the Interstate Commerce Commission Termination Act, a bill officially abolishing the Interstate Commerce Commission which regulated the railroad industry.

At the time, Congress framed this Act as a way to ensure railways could remain competitive in the era of interstate highways and cheap airfare. It claimed the Act would finish the job of deregulation that began with the 1980 Staggers Rail Act, and bring profitability back to the industry.

"With the emergence of the trucking industry, as well as the pipeline and barge industries, railroads have increasingly faced competition from other modes of transportation... The Staggers Act has produced a renaissance in the railroad industry. Its return on investment, now approximately 8%, compares favorably to the 4% earned prior to 1980. Railroads have been able to maintain market share at approximately 38% during the last decade in a growing market, and recent indications show that their market share is increasing," the House Report on the Act read.

Right at the start of this era of deregulation, The RTA as Metra entered into regular purchase-of-service agreements with Union Pacific, the latest of which was signed in 2010. That agreement was set to expire in 2016, but has been carried along by a series of short term extensions. Union Pacific and the RTA have been unable to reach a new agreement, despite negotiation in 2019 and 2020, partly due to disagreements over whether Union Pacific has a common-carrier obligation to provide commuter services on the three Chicagoland lines. In the 2019 suit, Union Pacific insisted that it does not. Alonso even notes in his opinion that Union Pacific previously threatened to cut service on those lines by August 2020.

But cutting commuter services on the three Union Pacific lines could affect thousands of commuters in the Chicago suburbs and southern Wisconsin. Even with the pandemic raging, there were almost six and a half million rides on the Union Pacific line in 2020 alone. To prevent disruptions on the lines, the RTA argued in 2019 that Union Pacific was obligated to continue providing commuter service under the rules set by the Surface Transportation Board — the single regulatory remnant of the Interstate Commerce Commission.

The Surface Transportation Board has jurisdiction over "the construction, acquisition, operation, abandonment, or discontinuance of spur, industrial, team, switching, or side tracks, or facilities, even if the tracks are located, or intended to be located, entirely in one State," the Interstate Commerce Commission Termination Act states, and both the RTA and Union Pacific agree that the train lines in question lie within that jurisdiction.

The RTA says Union Pacific needs the board's permission to stop providing commuter service on its lines, but Union Pacific disagrees. So does Alonso. Their argument is based in the fact that Union Pacific isn't abandoning or discontinuing all service on its three Chicagoland lines — just its commuter service.

"Metra argues that, after the ICCTA passed in 1995, Union Pacific could stop providing the commuter services it provides on the three lines at issue in this case only by seeking the Surface Transportation Board’s permission... The Court does not agree," Alonso wrote in his ruling opinion on the case.

"Board approval is required for only two things," he wrote, explaining his position further, "(1) abandonment; or (2) discontinuance of all transportation on a line... Union Pacific does not seek to abandon the line permanently. It plans to continue offering freight service and merely wishes to stop providing the services it provides in connection with Metra’s commuter passenger service. Nor does Union Pacific plan to 'discontinue the operation of all rail transportation' on the relevant lines. Instead, it plans to continue freight service."

In light of Alonso's ruling, Union Pacific's Senior Director of Communications & Media Relations Kristen South said it planned to work with Metra to ensure a "smooth transfer" from its own services to whatever replaces it.

"We’ve always said, and reaffirm today, we want to work collaboratively with Metra to ensure a smooth transfer of service with no disruption to passenger service," South said in a prepared statement.

Metra spokesman Michael Gillis, meanwhile, said only that the commuter rail service was considering its next moves.

"We're reviewing the ruling, we're reviewing our options," he said.

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Categories / Business, Consumers, Government

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