A federal judge has ruled decisively against Metra in a long-running legal dispute over who should operate heavily used commuter lines to the north, northwest and west suburbs.
The ruling sharply raises the prospect that longtime operator Union Pacific Railroad soon will be relieved of that task, forcing Metra to find another operator or, more likely, run the trains itself. But there is no sign that passengers will notice any disruption, at least for now. (Read the ruling below.)
At issue is a case in which Metra and UP sued each other in U.S. District Court here over whether UP should be forced to continue to operate lines to Kenosha, McHenry County and Elburn. Metra paid UP $61 million in cash and $37 million in in kind-benefits such as fuel and rent in 2019 for the service, most of which had been provided by the old Chicago & Northwestern before it merged with UP.
UP wants out of the commuter business, saying it wants to focus on its its freight service. It has noted that almost all other Metra service now is operated by the commuter rail agency itself, sometimes on tracks it owns itself and at other times on track leased from freight railroads.
Metra’s position is that in the absence of a discontinuance agreement, UP had to continue to run the trains and ancillary services, such as ticket collection, under “common carrier” provisions that governed railroads nationally for more than a century.
Both sides asked Judge Jorge Alonso for summary judgement. Last week he ruled against Metra.
Effectively, Alonso held, common-carrier rules were substantially eased after the creation of Amtrak, the national passenger carrier, and other deregulation actions by Congress in recent decades. Any remaining common-carrier question that requires federal approval would under the law cover only freight, not passenger, service, he added, but UP is moving to stop only commuter service, not freight.
In his ruling, Alonso did not say what comes next, noting only that Metra already owns the cars used on the UP commuter lines and “remains free to reach an agreement” with another third party or to operate the lines itself.
In a statement, Metra said only that “We are reviewing the ruling and our options.”
UP in its own statement promised not to do anything abrupt that would interfere with service.
“We’re pleased with the court’s decision, and we look forward to our continued partnership with Metra,” it said. “We’ve always said, and reaffirm today, we want to work collaboratively with Metra to ensure a smooth transfer of service with no disruption to passenger service.”