The Union Pacific Railroad, which operates three Metra commuter lines around Chicago, has received court approval to stop running those trains.

It’s the latest chapter in a lengthy legal and administrative battle over who will employ the crews and provide operational services for the routes, including the UP-North line through Evanston.

However, both the railroad, which is basically a landlord for Metra, and Metra itself, which pays UP to run the trains, say commuters do not have to start planning to dodge orange construction barrels on the Kennedy heading downtown. Trains will keep running.

At issue in court was whether UP had a “common carrier” obligation to keep running the commuter trains. Metra said yes. UP said no.

And earlier this week, according to Crain’s Chicago Business, the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals agreed with a lower court, that “so far as federal law is concerned, then, Union Pacific is entitled to proceed as it proposes,” to legally, at least, pull the plug on its commuter operations.

But they won’t.

Metra spokesperson Mike Gillis tells Evanston Now that “Metra and Union Pacific have been working together on a safe, efficient transition of UP’s passenger operations to Metra. This appellate decision will not change those efforts”

And UP spokesperson Robynn Tysver tells us that while the railroad is “pleased” with the court’s ruling, “we are continuing to work with Metra to execute a smooth transfer of operations.”

UP wants out of running commuter trains, to concentrate on its core freight-hauling business.

Metra wants to take over those commuter operations, but the two sides have been unable to agree on how much Metra would pay UP for assets, as well as drawing up employment agreements for UP conductors, engineers and others who would then work for Metra.

The saga has been in court and before administrative agencies since 2019.

It’s all played out largely out of public sight and impact, except during part of the pandemic, when UP conductors refused to collect fares on the train, costing Metra millions of dollars.

The railroad said it was a health and safety issue, although some critics said UP was simply trying to pressure Metra into settling the dispute closer to UP’s terms. Ticket collecting did ultimately resume.

Metra has not said whether it will appeal the latest ruling, although the transfer of operations is gradually under way.

Gillis says Metra has already hired some UP managers, and “we hope to take over some operations by the end of the year.”

Separately, Gillis notes, financial and legal negotiations are ongoing, and “it is anticipated that those negotiations will be resolved after many of the logistical aspects of the transfer have been completed.”

This is all happening at a critical time for commuter transportation in our area.

The Regional Transportation Authority, funding agency for Metra, CTA, and Pace, projects up to a $730 million shortfall by 2026, once federal COVID-relief dollars run out.

With so many downtown Chicago workers now working at home post-pandemic, commuter rail has to at least partially reinvent itself with new schedules, fares and marketing.

Ridership is coming back from pre-pandemic levels, but this June’s weekday passenger count was only 52% of the June 2019 total. Full recovery would be a surprise anytime soon.

UP North, with its three Evanston stations — Main Street, Davis Street and Central Street — is showing the strongest recovery of all 11 Metra lines, with weekday ridership at 68% in June compared to June 2019.

A northbound train at the Davis Street Metra station in Evanston.

While resolving the UP-Metra dispute is in progress, it’s not a done deal yet.

And, as usual, it will come down to money.

According to Crains, Metra pays UP about $100 million per year to run commuter trains.

Until the negotiations are concluded, it’s unclear how much Metra will have to pay UP to take over operations

Jeff Hirsh joined the Evanston Now reporting team in 2020 after a 40-year award-winning career as a broadcast journalist in Cincinnati, Ohio.

Join the Conversation


  1. My advice to Metra is to hire Rich Melman or
    Larry Levy for customer excellence vs government lifers

    Don’t channel Amtrak

    Thank you

  2. The City of Chicago is justifiably concerned about people not returning to downtown offices, coming down to shop, eat, etc. Any reduction in service or the quality of service is going to make that worse.

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