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July 2014

Rail News: Passenger Rail

It'll take time to put Metra back on track, the Chicago agency's new leaders say

— by Angela Cotey, senior associate editor

Don Orseno joined Metra as a trainmaster in 1984, the year Chicago's Regional Transportation Authority created the agency to provide commuter-rail service in a six-county region in northeastern Illinois. Over the past three decades, Orseno has remained with the agency in good times and in bad.

He's seen tracks rebuilt, new locomotives and rail cars purchased, service added, stations constructed and track speeds increased. Orseno also has witnessed Metra's rise from a series of bankrupt railroads strung together to one of the country's largest commuter railroads, with steady ridership and respectable on-time performance.

Metra has had some rough times, too, like in spring 2010, when former Executive Director Philip Pagano was accused of taking hundreds of thousands of dollars in unauthorized vacation payouts, and later committed suicide by stepping in front of a Metra train. Or last summer, when Pagano's successor, Alex Clifford, resigned amid pressure from the board and contended he had been asked to grant patronage requests from Illinois legislators and the board's then-chairman.

Today, Orseno is sitting in the boss' chair; he was named executive director in January. It will be his most challenging position yet. There are the day-to-day tasks associated with operating a 500-mile commuter-rail system in one of the country's largest metropolitan areas: running trains reliably and on time, securing more dollars for countless capital needs, and maintaining assets. There also are the less tangible but arguably more important issues of improving employee morale, boosting public image, instilling more transparency and accountability in the organization, and rebuilding relationships with riders and legislators.

The culture-change charge isn't new at Metra. Clifford pushed an aggressive plan to restore public trust in the agency during his brief tenure; Progressive Railroading reported on it in a March 2012 cover story. But this time around, Orseno may have a few things working in his favor. His tenure and rise through Metra's ranks has helped him develop a rapport with employees and railroad partners that an outsider couldn't replicate, at least not right out of the chute. And, Orseno has more board support than Clifford did; the board now includes a handful of new members after several resigned amid the patronage scandal fallout. Metra Chairman Martin Oberman is among the newbies. He's a lawyer by trade, but previously spent many years as a Chicago city councilman who pushed to clean up local government.

Between Orseno's vast knowledge of the railroad's operations and employees, and Oberman's political experience, some Metra insiders believe the right leaders are in place to make the changes that are necessary and ensure they stick. Half a year into their new positions, Orseno and Oberman have started implementing new policies and procedures aimed at creating a more ethical, accountable and employee-friendly railroad; open communications, and more formal documentation and evaluations chief among them.

They don't expect everyone to believe their calls for a better Metra will be different this time around. But culture change is less about what you say and more about what you do. Orseno and Oberman would prefer Metra employees, riders and critics judge them on the latter.

"You can't change a culture overnight by just pronouncing things are now perfect — you have to live it, and we can't do that in five minutes," says Oberman. "Ultimately, it will take our own performance, as an entity, to regain trust."

Performance standards need to be set in the executive office, and Orseno believes he is well-positioned for the task. He began his railroad career 40 years ago, working in the train service department for the Chicago, Rock Island and Pacific Railroad, where he collected tickets for the commuter service and worked as a conductor and brakeman on the freight side. He later became a locomotive engineer. When the Chicago Rock Island ceased operations in 1980, Orseno served as a locomotive engineer for the Chicago and North Western Railroad.

During his years at Metra, Orseno has worked in all of the commuter railroad's operating districts, and has held positions such as senior trainmaster, director of mechanical, superintendent, director of safety and rules, chief customer service officer, chief transportation officer, and deputy executive director and chief operations officer.

Orseno took over the executive director duties when Clifford left the agency, and was officially named interim chief in August 2013. Metra's board launched a nationwide search for a permanent director, but ultimately determined Orseno was the best fit for the job. He was named to the permanent post in late January.

An 'Operational Competency'

Orseno's knowledge of all things Metra factored highly into the board's decision, says Oberman. Metra's operations in the highly congested and complex Chicago rail hub would take an outsider years to fully understand.

"Don has a tremendous operational competency," says Oberman. "He knows the system and he knows it well."

Orseno also has built relationships over the years with all of Metra's Class I partners. In addition, he brings "stability and high ethical standards," says Joseph Schwieterman, a professor at DePaul University's School of Public Service, who closely follows public policy and transportation issues, particularly in the Chicago region.

"Obviously that's something Metra needs right now," he says.

In Orseno, Metra employees have a leader they can trust — a straight shooter who rose through Metra's ranks but never penetrated the so-called "inner circle" created during the Pagano administration, says Oberman, adding that Orseno's appointment to the top post boosted morale within the agency.

"Everything that's happened to him at Metra has been based purely on merit," he says. "And when you talk to him, you don't worry about him having a secret agenda. Don has an authenticity about him."

He's able to relate to employees, too, and while he has high expectations and promotes a "do what it takes to get the job done" attitude, Orseno also believes it's important to empower workers to foster professional development. But he will need to grow a bit more into his new role as the public face of one of the United States' largest commuter-rail systems.

"Don really needs to now become 'the CEO' — the more dynamic, public persona," says Oberman. "That's not entirely who he is."

Oberman might be able to assist in that area. He is a longtime Chicago resident who was an active player in the city's political reform movement of the late 1960s and early 1970s — a backlash against the "totalitarian mentality of government," he says. Oberman continued his quest for political reform against what he calls the "Daley Machine" during a 12-year stint as a city councilman. He ran for Illinois attorney general three times and lost, and left public service in 1987. Oberman has been working as a civil litigation trial lawyer since.

Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel contacted Oberman just after Labor Day last year to ask him to fill the city's seat on Metra's board. He previously had served as a member of Emanuel's Midway Airport Advisory Council.

"I can't repeat what the mayor actually said — you'd have to paraphrase that for publication — but he did make it clear that he thought Metra needed to be straightened out, cleaned up and given new blood," says Oberman. "He did specifically say that Metra needs transparency and accountability, and that he wanted me to help bring that to the agency."

In The Chairman's Chair

Oberman admittedly knew little about transportation and railroading when he joined the Metra board, and has spent his first months learning about the inner workings of the agency. But he is well-versed in the Chicago-area political scene, is a strong believer in public accountability and has a knack for building consensus among differing interests — traits he believed would make him a good candidate for the chairman, despite being one of the freshman members. Other board members agreed; in February, they unanimously elected Oberman as chairman.

"He can credibly argue that he's a neutral player," says Schwieterman. "He's not connected to any of the suburban mayors, he doesn't represent a certain community that wants to fight for resources, and I don't think he's super close with Mayor Rahm. But, whether he's willing to ruffle feathers to kick Metra into higher gear remains to be seen."

So far, feather-ruffling hasn't been a priority. Oberman has been working to instill trust and foster productive working relationships among the board members.

"One of the problems with the past is that the Metra board didn't really function as a board. The culture was that the board chairman and executive director basically ran the place like a fiefdom," says Oberman. "Now that this board, old and new, has come together, there has been a very clear commitment by all of us that this will be an egalitarian operation."

Oberman strives to demonstrate that the chairperson is one of 11 board members — one without any special power. If an issue arises between Metra's monthly board meetings that needs to be addressed quickly, he'll call each board member to talk the issue through rather than make a decision on his own. It's one way to show he's determined to manage the board openly and honestly, he says.

The same aim applies for Metra proper. Top executives and board members have set out to implement reform measures aimed at creating more transparency within the organization. For starters, the board adopted a policy requiring members to document any communications they have with people regarding Metra employment.

"It doesn't matter if it's a state rep or your mother," says Oberman. "And that's not the most earth-shaking reform, but it helps send a message that we mean it when we say we're getting rid of favoritism."

Under Review

The board also has redefined the chief audit officer duties. Metra officials created the position after the Pagano scandal, but Brad O'Halloran, the chairman at the time, wanted the officer to report only to him, Oberman says.

"It turned out the chairman was using that person for a lot of secret police work and snooping," he adds. "It wasn't really a professional audit."

So, in January, the board passed an ordinance to set up an internal audit office, with the auditor reporting to the executive director and board, and charged with developing an annual audit plan.

In addition, the board is working to develop a performance evaluation system for the executive director — something Metra has never had, Oberman says.

"It holds him and us accountable," he says. "It's another example of us trying to be more objective rather than conducting things behind the scenes."

While Oberman and the board work to implement accountability measures, Orseno and other Metra executives are working to address the organization's capital, operating and workforce issues.

Improving employee morale has been a top priority. The sources of the controversies the past several years were at the executive director and board levels, but that doesn't mean it hasn't impacted the 4,500 people it takes to operate the commuter-rail system, says Orseno.

"When an employee gets on a train and hears our customers talking about what they've read about Metra in the papers, you have to imagine what goes through their mind," he says.

The agency recently formed a morale committee to determine ways they can address workers' regard for Metra. In the meantime, improving an employee's attitude sometimes can be as simple as lending an ear, Orseno believes.

"Sometimes, employees just want to be heard," he says. "You need to make sure people know there's a place to go, that the door is open and that we're going to listen."

Metra officials are working to show they're listening. At the request of employees, Metra this summer will host three family days, opening up its major maintenance facilities so workers can show them to spouses, children and parents. The agency used to host similar events, but hasn't done so in many years.

The family events are one way that Orseno will try to foster a better sense of employee ownership at Metra.

"There's a difference between doing your job and taking ownership of your job," he says. "If you feel like you are part of a process — that you're part of something and you're valued — you have more personal ownership."

Opportunities Abound

Having worked at Metra for more than three decades, Orseno is a prime example of how that ownership can pay off. He tries to encourage workers to take advantage of the opportunities that Metra can provide. For example, when a new class of trainmen begin their training, Orseno visits with them to share stories about his years in that position and reiterate the importance of their job.

"I tell them that I started exactly where they are starting today," he says. "There's a lot of opportunity at this railroad, and all you have to do is show you really want to work for it."

Metra officials are working to make it more worth their while. During the Clifford regime, the agency conducted a class and compensation study to identify specific jobs and responsibilities, and how workers in those posts should be paid. The study revealed some big gaps between what Metra was paying workers and the salaries of people with comparable skills at other organizations. Many employees began leaving the agency because of the disparity.

"We were losing a lot of good employees who were taking with them all of their institutional knowledge," he says.

Orseno worked with the board to determine how workers could be better compensated. In spring, about 450 non-union employees received a wage increase averaging 8 percent. Now, the agency has instituted a program to regularly evaluate its employees to ensure their salaries reflect their duties.

Capital projects have to be addressed, too. Metra has identified about $10 billion in capital needs during the next decade, but officials expect to only receive about 20 percent of that between its traditional state and federal funding sources. Orseno acknowledges that talking about the budget shortfall in financial terms is enough to make funding partners' eyes glaze over. That's why Metra planners have been tasked with identifying the agency's most critical needs and breaking them down into smaller programs that are easier to digest, funding-wise.

Regaining Swagger

Once a capital plan is complete, it will need to be conveyed to the public, DePaul's Schwieterman says.

"Metra hasn't aggressively promoted a long-range vision that gets the public excited, or wooed them with high hopes for the future, and I think the public is ready for that," he says. "That's where Don is coming in now. He needs to show that Metra will regain its swagger as a railroad that maintains the highest standards and pushes the modernization envelope."

State and federal legislators, too, need to be kept in the loop. That's why Metra has started issuing a monthly newsletter that includes information on agency programs and initiatives, and updates on capital projects.

"That communication link is huge for us," says Orseno. "It's imperative for them to feel like we're all part of the same thing. Everything is on the table with us."

As Metra's new leaders forge a new path for the agency, they'll do so with transparency and accountability top of mind. It will be a long, slow process, they know, but hope that over time, the scandals that have rocked Metra in recent years — and reputation it's earned because of them — will give way to a more highly regarded agency.

"It's my obligation to make sure people understand this isn't the Metra of yesterday ... and that we're working to make it the most professionally run organization as possible so we can gain their trust back," says Orseno.


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