Tipping Point: CTA, Metra, Amtrak during the deep freeze - FOX 10 News | fox10phoenix.com

Tipping Point: CTA, Metra, Amtrak during the deep freeze

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CHICAGO (FOX 32 News) -

The going certainly got tough this week if you were 'going' any place!

In the city that works, we look at how public transportation worked during the deep freeze.

Moving people from point A to B is something this city brags about.

The CTA alone boasts 1.6 million rides a day with nearly 2,000 miles of bus routes and 224 miles of rail track, making it the second largest transit system in the U.S.

It makes sense then that transportation is at the forefront of our minds as it is such a pillar of our economy and lifestyle.

So after experiencing the worst cold snap in history, Chicago's transportation is at the tipping point, exposing the system's weaknesses and strengths.

When bad weather strikes, many turn towards our public transit system as the safe alternative.

"Cars are sliding and I mean, it's just too bad to drive so the train is a perfect alternative," Metra passenger Erica Crosby said.

Another rider, Alan Paape said "The train's always a nice convenient way to get into the city and even if it's delayed it's better than driving."

The good news is the Chicago area has such an extensive rail and bus system, that it is missed when it misses the mark.

"This is clearly a C-grade, and it's not that these problems could have been avoided, but just the passengers dealing with the uncertainty, for canceled trains without plan B in place, with shuttle busses, lotta pain, a black eye for transit and it's just really hard to see," DePaul University's Dr. Joseph Schwieterman said on the massive delays and cancellations.

Dr. Joseph Schwieterman, professor of Transportation and Public Policy at DePaul University, said transit leaders should have made better plans for the treacherous temperatures, knowing there would be repairs.

"Hats off to those crews out there working, I think though in this case, it just rippled through the system and this has been three or four days now, hour-plus delays for people, that's a real shame," Schwieterman said.

The Chicago Transit Authority has not released data about its performance in the grip of the polar vortex.

Monday and Tuesday the mostly suburban Metra system canceled more than 50 trains with countless delays.

However, this was not nearly as bad as Amtrak service.

The national rail line ground to a complete halt Monday, filling Union Station with furious and freezing travelers.

Yet, the real problem was not getting real time information to riders. It was leaving them waiting or stranded in sometimes downright dangerous conditions.

Better communication is a tool keep people safe, while extreme weather attacks the equipment.

Especially when mechanical problems can be predicted.

"I don't think you can design mechanical things to operate at these temperatures," Metra mechanic, William H. Warren commented.

Transit agencies do plan for winter weather, but it's what we consider normal winter weather.

"We have alcohol buckets all along here because we can't couple trains, put em together, without cleaning the pin blocks. So we have preparation that we make," Warren said.

If that sounds like a really low-tech approach, remember this city's rail lines date back to the late 1800's. The trains have been part of a proud tradition of public transit since 1947, so we were ages ahead of other cities but now that age is a factor.

"Gradually the system is deteriorating, that, as recently as five years ago Metra you could almost set your clock by it…and now we see that's not the case anymore, not that it's falling apart, Just that everything is older," Schwieterman said.

Yet, overhaul is expensive and the piece-meal approach is hampered by competing regional interests.

The RTA wields uneasy oversight of, Pace, Metra and CTA, making a master plan for modernization a slippery goal.

"It won't be easy, given that city-suburb distrust that seems to be rearing its ugly head again," Schwieterman said.

Despite its shortcomings highlighted this week, public transportation in Chicagoland remains a cherished resource for those who use it.

Even despite a year of embarrassing headlines, from shenanigans on the Metra board to the disastrous roll out of the new Ventra fare card, ridership is up.

And during the frozen follies some loyal passengers still giving a thumbs up.

"Hey, we gotta get to work, they understand that, they're doing the best they can just like we are," Metra passenger Jeff Beese said.

Many are just glad to have it as an option compared to some cities like Detroit or Houston where you basically drive or die.

Still, the test of an excellent transit system is when those who have the means to drive themselves, choose instead to take a train or bus regularly.

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