‘Polar Vortex’ freezes up public transit service

Posted on January 14, 2014 by Alex Roman, Managing Editor

Photo by Jimmie Thomas via Wikimedia Commons
Photo by Jimmie Thomas via Wikimedia Commons
Snow, ice, and an arctic blast of freezing, dense air known as a “polar vortex” severely impacted temperatures and made mass transportation difficult throughout the country in January, particularly in the Midwest.

The snow and sub-zero temperatures began impacting Metra, Amtrak and Chicago Transit Authority (CTA) services over the first weekend of January, with services taking a real hit once the workweek began.

“The storm really had an impact beginning with the Monday commute,” explained Michael Gillis, spokesperson for the Metra commuter rail system. “The main problem here was with switches having moisture, snow and ice accumulate in them, which would then have to be physically cleaned out, leading to cascading delays through the rush hour.”

Although Metra has switch heaters, Gillis added they don’t work as effectively in extreme cold. Metra also had staff at key interlockers around the clock to keep them from being encased in snow, but in some cases, the on-site staff would have to clean out the area before and after each train.

Gillis said that while there were some delays and cancellations, Metra was still able to operate more than 90% of its schedule at the height of the storm.

Meanwhile, Amtrak suffered some service disruptions and delays, with three trains — the Southwest Chief from Los Angeles, the Illinois Zephyr from Quincy and the California Zephyr from the San Francisco Bay Area — halted about 80 miles from Chicago, when drifting snow and ice made the tracks impassable. No injuries were reported, though passengers did have to spend the night aboard the trains, said Marc Magliari, Amtrak spokesman.

“The safest thing to do for those people was to keep them on the trains,” he said. “Taking people off the trains in the middle of the night through a trench full of snow was not anywhere close to the right decision.”

Magliari added Amtrak did have emergency services people stationed outside the train in case a medical or some other type of emergency situation arose.

The more than 500 passengers affected by the delay arrived in Chicago, mostly on charter buses, 20 hours after they were stuck, according to Amtrak.

CTA provided more than 36,000 bus trips during the first two days of the workweek, and all 129 bus routes operated normally with just slight delays. On the rail system, approximately 4,200 train trips were provided and the overwhelming majority of the trips were on time or just slightly delayed, according to a CTA spokesperson.

The extreme temperatures did, however, create issues with track switches and some door problems on trains, which resulted in some longer delays — but each incident was addressed very quickly. On Tuesday, Jan.7, a minor derailment of a Yellow Line train occurred at a terminal, but it was resolved in about two hours, reported officials.

Greyhound’s intercity motorcoach services were also impacted by the storm, with the operation suspending ticket sales and delaying schedules for a few days throughout the Midwest as part of its protocol during inclement weather situations.

“The safety and security of our customers is our top priority, so we only put buses on the road when it is completely safe to do so,” said Alexandra Pedrini, spokesperson for Greyhound. “Once it is deemed safe to travel, we can put those schedules back on the road and get those customers to their destinations as quickly as possible.”

Like Amtrak, Greyhound was able to keep delayed passengers relatively comfortable under the circumstances by offering food vouchers, or in some cases, supplying food and drink right at the stations three times a day.

“We also had sleeper buses, which are running, idling buses that are heated, so customers could actually go sit on a bus with a comfortable, reclining seat,” Pedrini said. “Many times those buses are our newer buses, which are equipped with free Wi-Fi and power outlets, allowing our passengers to stay connected.”

Each of the operations involved said tools like bus and train trackers on their websites, updates at stations and aboard vehicles, and social media were invaluable in assisting customers during their commutes — providing real-time information on arrival times and service delays.

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