A recent filing at the U.S. Surface Transportation Board (STB) reveals a potential, budding conflict between Metra and Amtrak involving Metra's use of the Chicago Union Station. Amtrak owns the station and Metra is its largest tenant. Their lease arrangements, dating back to 1984 and renewed periodically, are scheduled to end in April 2019.

The STB is a small federal agency that is little known outside of railroad transportation circles. A small cadre of well-regarded experts is responsible for administering the regulatory laws that have continued to govern freight railroads even after Congress abolished the Interstate Commerce Commission. (The ICC was the first independent regulatory agency, created in 1887 to respond to complaints about railroad pricing and practices.) The STB's overwhelming focus is on freight transportation, but it has a few important powers relating to intercity passenger and certain commuter rail operations.

In a carefully framed petition, Metra has asked the agency to issue a declaratory order finding that Amtrak is subject to certain narrow legal limitations on its ability to control Metra's use of Union Station.

For decades, Metra has been a tenant of an Amtrak subsidiary company that owned Union Station. However, Metra recently discovered that that subsidiary had been merged into Amtrak. Here's where it gets interesting. The subsidiary was a railroad common carrier and subject to certain duties, enforced by the STB, to allow commuter lines like Metra to use its facilities at charges that can be set by the STB. Metra contends that Amtrak is now taking the position that Metra lost those rights when the merger occurred. Metra's petition asks the STB to declare that its rights remain.

To lend weight to its petition, Metra cites the give-and-take between Amtrak and a different commuter line in Washington, D.C. well over a decade ago. A news report included in Metra's STB filing describes events in which Amtrak is said to have threatened to stop the commuter line from using Washington's Union Station as negotiating leverage in a contract dispute.

Now, no one seriously believes that Amtrak would attempt to stop Metra from operating into Chicago's Union Station until a new lease could be reached. Metra's petition indicates that 41 percent of its passengers to and from downtown use Union Station. Over 100,000 passengers ride 286 Metra trains on six separate routes to and from Union Station weekly. Both Amtrak and Metra are politically savvy organizations and both are dependent on government funding. As difficult as the negotiations for a new lease might become, a shutdown in Metra's access to Union Station isn't going to happen. But these kinds of arrangements inevitably contain provisions allocating responsibilities, including liability for accidents. In the absence of a new agreement, or at least some agreed-upon interim arrangement, things could get very interesting as the deadline approaches next year.

For its part, Metra goes out of its way to assure the STB that it is optimistic that an extension of its rights in Union Station will be reached without regulatory intervention. However, it is clear that Metra wants to make sure that it has a legal remedy if its discussions with Amtrak prove unsuccessful.