New safety system causing headaches for Metra, thousands of riders

In a FOX 32 special report: major changes for Metra.

Commuters are complaining of new schedules and overcrowding, with more changes to come. But some of the frustration might be worth the life-saving measures it's now taking.

Kathy Kuk's routine now is taking more than one dozen pills a day, plus patches and a stimulator to manage pain from a train crash 15 years ago.

“My back got shoved in,” she said. “I’ve had three surgeries.”

It happened when Kuk was riding Metra on the south side with her husband and daughter.

“We all looked back, the engines were on fire,” she said.

Since then, hundreds of more train crashes have occurred nationwide, including a 2008 collision that killed 25 outside of LA. That crash sparked a new law, requiring railroads to install a safety system called “Positive Train Control” -- or PTC -- which helps trains stay at safe speeds, avoiding derailments and crashes.

The initial deadline for installing PTC was in 2015. Then, that got extended to the end of this year, with some railroads getting another 2-year extension if they show they've made enough progress.

“It's a whole set of high tech controls. And the railroads are really struggling to get it all done,” said Joe Schwieterman, DePaul University transportation expert.

That's partially because PTC isn't cheap. Metra estimates installation could cost $400 million dollars.

Installation that started this summer on the rail's BNSF line and Metra expects to be done in 2020, and Metra blames PTC for added train turnaround time saying it could take several additional minutes at the start and stop of each line.

“That's been painful for some of the schedule changes, trains got really full, and commuters don't like that, and they'll let you know,” Schwieterman said.

“Since the changeover, it's been a nightmare,” said Jack Thurston.

Thurston is one of those commuters. He says his Downers Grove train has been so full, conductors can't get around to check tickets, and that riders can’t get a seat.

“People are just shaking their heads, and everyone's frustrated,” Thurston said.

But is it all worth it? Kuk's lawyer says yes.

“Had there been PTC, the computer would have kicked in and slowed the train down,” said attorney Tim Cavanagh.

And from the crash that killed eight in Philadelphia to the one that killed 25 in LA, the National Transportation Safety Board says “Positive Train Control would have prevented the accidents and saved lives.

For its part, Metra tells FOX 32 it’s been working on PTC for the last eight years. Meanwhile, Kuk just wishes it was all implemented sooner.

“Put the braking system on. Inconvenience, we're going to have them all our lives. Save somebody else from going through the torment,” Kuk said.