Lipinski moving to turn control over Union Station to Metra (November 13, 2019)

Greg Hinz
November 13, 2019

A key Chicago congressman today said he's preparing to take legislative action to force Amtrak to turn over day-to-day control of Union Station to its biggest user, Metra, if the rail agency doesn't do it on its own.

In House testimony, Rep. Dan Lipinski said he's tired of Amtrak's failure to deal with "major issues" at the station, including falling concrete from a dilapidated roof that hit a train and a computer outage in February "that lasted through multiple rush hours that was solely Amtrak's fault."

Lipinski's request was immediately rejected by Amtrak CEO Richard Anderson, who said at the same hearing that the national rail service dispatches Metra trains on time 99 percent of the time.

But Lipinski doubled down in a later interview, saying he will seek to impose the shift on Amtrak in legislation reauthorizing the agency, legislation that is being written by a subcommittee he chairs.

The Southwest Side Democrat put only two conditions on that: One, that he’s convinced by outside experts that Metra has the technical ability to operate the busy station itself and two, that there are no national implications to a takeover that he’s not aware of.

If those conditions are met and Amtrak continues to balk, Lipinski says he will include a mandate in the Amtrak reauthorization bill. But ownership of the historic facility will remain with Amtrak.

Lipinski's statement is the latest chess move in a rapidly escalating battle between local and national rail agencies about who ought to be in charge here.

Direct talks between the two over a new Metra lease broke off months ago. Lipinski has increasingly and more loudly sided with Metra.

It perhaps is pertinent that Lipinski now is facing a tough renomination race against a progressive challenger, Marie Newman, and coming across as a commuter champion likely wouldn’t hurt him any.

At the same time, Amtrak recently has begun to cash in on in the neglected facility, reaching a series of deals with real estate firms for developments over and adjacent to the facility that should accrue directly to its bottom line.

In his testimony, Anderson did say that “we’ve made some progress” with Metra on a new operating agreement, and the two are near a deal on applying for capital grants. But he also suggested Amtrak intends to retain operational control.