By Jon Hilkevitch
7:09 PM CDT, October 31, 2013
CTA employees are being “verbally attacked daily by angry riders’’ who are blaming them for problems with the new transit fare-payment system, the rail worker union’s leader said Thursday, calling on the agency to scrap Ventra until all the bugs are worked out.
“The Ventra program is not working. There are people who are getting triple-, double-, quadruple-billed. Their credit cards are being billed that shouldn’t be. People are mad, they’re angry,’’ said Robert Kelly, Local 308 president of the Amalgamated Transit Union.
“But they are mad at the wrong person,’’ Kelly said at union headquarters downtown. “CTA should stop (Ventra) now, pull back, until they can work out all the kinks.’’
CTA officials said they have no intention of delaying the four-month rollout of Ventra through the end of the year.
The headaches started in September, when thousands of Chicago Card customers either didn’t receive Ventra cards as promised or they could not activate them. It was followed by difficulties loading the cards with money and using them on buses and trains.
“We are working on solutions to address problems with Ventra,’’ CTA spokesman Brian Steele said Thursday. “Kelly’s voice is new to this issue.’’
Kelly said widespread rider frustration over trying to use the Ventra system, including waiting in long lines at rail station turnstiles and fare vending machines, has the potential to “set people off,” and the CTA’s front-line workers are on the receiving end.
“You don’t know who is coming through that turnstile,’’ he said. “You don’t know if they are having a bad day. But when you put a system in place that doesn’t work, and then you tell all the customer service assistants, ‘Well, figure it out as people come through?’”
Steele said the CTA has no evidence of an increase in threats or violence against CTA workers in connection with Ventra. The CTA bus driver’s union, ATU Local 241, did not immediately respond to an inquiry about whether the union supports its affiliate’s call for the CTA to temporarily suspend Ventra in favor of the old fare system.
Meanwhile, Kelly also said the CTA has disciplined a rail switchman in connection with an empty runaway train that crashed into a train that was in service on the Forest Park branch of the Blue Line on Sept. 30.
The union chief said the CTA violated rules of the National Transportation Safety Board investigation by placing the employee, who cooperated with investigators, on a three-day unpaid suspension for allegedly leaving the train powered up in the Forest Park rail yard. Kelly also said the switchman did nothing wrong and followed CTA policy.
Kelly said the CTA used the employee as a scapegoat after a preliminary report by the safety board found that the CTA routinely left out-of-service trains with the power on and the brakes not fully engaged to prevent movement. The CTA disputed the NTSB finding, but it immediately made changes in procedures.
The CTA confirmed that it took action against the unidentified switchman but also contended that the employee was also being disciplined because he didn’t notify a supervisor of his role in the incident and that the runaway train should never have been powered up because it was in storage. Steele called Kelly’s account “nonsensical (and) factually incorrect.’’
Steele said the transit agency is pursuing discipline against “a small number of employees it has determined played a role in the Blue Line incident. The NTSB is aware of the discipline, which is ongoing.’’
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