Metra locomotive "City of Evanston" in the city of Evanston.

Relations between the Union Pacific Railroad and the Metra commuter system, which in recent years have resembled a train wreck, are once again on the rails, and headed toward an apparently smooth transfer of operations.

In a recent news release, UP stated that they are “working with Metra to safely and seamlessly transfer its commuter rail operations in Chicago [to Metra], including the employees who perform the work.”

The railroad says they expect they “expect completing the transfer by the end of the first quarter of 2024,” with several management positions already shifting to the commuter agency.

UP owns and operates three commuter lines in the Chicago area, including the UP North route through Evanston.

Metra pays the railroad around $100 million a year for train crews, station agents, maintenance, and other operating expenses.

UP, a freight carrier, wants out of the passenger business.

Union Pacific freight train on UP North line in Highland Park.

Metra, a passenger carrier, wants to employ the crews and fix the trains, as it does with several other Chicagoland routes.

But the two sides have been fighting it out since 2019, in court and before a federal regulatory agency, over the terms of such a takeover.

While those cases are continuing, the gradual operations transfer will now take place anyway, and could be completed before the court/financial components are concluded.

In fact, UP says the shift of unionized mechanical and transportation employees will begin later this year.

UP will still own and maintain the tracks and dispatch the trains, even after the employees move to Metra.

The fate of the stations, including Main Street, Davis Street, and Central Street, is still up in the air (or, this being a train story, somewhere down the tracks).

UP had been hoping to sell all of its suburban station properties to developers, but so far, that has apparently not taken place.

Railroad spokesperson Kristen South tells Evanston Now that “Rail stations are not part of our discussions with Metra, as the agency declined the opportunity to purchase them.”

She says UP is “open to considering offers for properties that we no longer need for freight operations,” and the company continues to search for potential buyers.

With the operations transfer getting started, it seems that the two sides are trying to put their previous public disputes behind them.

In an interview with Trains Magazine, Metra CEO/Executive Director Jim Derwinski stated “We’ve always said that we felt there’s no better people to operate those three lines than the people currently operating those lines,” adding that Metra was looking forward to bringing the now-UP staffers onto the Metra rolls.

But however long the transfer takes, commuter rail service in Chicago and nationwide faces a post-COVID challenge, with more passengers working at home, and not heading downtown.

For example, Metra had 2.6 million passenger trips system-wide in March 2023 on its 11 routes. While that’s a 37% increase over March 2022, it’s still less than half the pre-COVID total of six million rides in March 2019.

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

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