Diverging Approach: Metra’s Proposed BNSF Schedule Changes

I was initially planning on using my next Diverging Approach entry to discuss fare capping, which is a new kind of fare structure that gets rid of ten-ride and monthly passes in favor of a system of tracking fare purchases which then apply automatic discounts when a rider reaches a certain number of purchases in a designated period of time. Fare capping is a great way to make transit more affordable and attractive for lower-income riders without actually changing ticket prices, since riders no longer need to pay a large up-front fee for a monthly or weekly pass and discounts are automatically applied. GO Transit up in Toronto currently uses this system for their commuter rail service. (GO Transit also uses a proof-of-payment fare collection system similar to CalTrain in the Bay Area rather than Metra’s antiquated conductor system.)

However, two things happened: first, other people in the transit blogosphere created far better media than I could; and second, Metra decided to slide out a new proposed weekday schedule for the BNSF due to Positive Train Control (PTC) coming online. Go ahead and take a look, and compare it to the current schedule. (Weekend schedules are not affected at this time, thankfully.)

With PTC coming online, trains will need more time to flip at the end of their respective trips. According to Metra’s dedicated FAQ on the updates, BNSF anticipates a minimum required flip time of 12-15 minutes for the train crew to clear the train, check the brakes, have the engineer change ends of the train, initialize PTC, and perform a job briefing before the train can restart. (Why each flip requires a separate job briefing, I don’t know; seems to me like trains can be organized into runs like CTA trains and transit buses and have a single job briefing before the run as a whole instead of at the beginning of each trip.) Giving more time between flips is definitely worth looking at, PTC or not, just to ensure a higher level of service reliability and give trains more buffer time in case they start to fall behind, rather than the cascading delays that are relatively frequent along the congested BNSF corridor.

While popping the hood on the BNSF schedule, Metra rightfully chose to take a look at what can be done about passenger crowding as well, and that’s where things take a very ugly turn. Metra is proposing this new schedule to ease crowding with a particular focus on Naperville and Route 59, and they missed the mark pretty dramatically while making things objectively worse for just about every other station on the line.

One thing to make clear, from a mid-route rider’s perspective: trains feel more crowded in the morning than in the afternoon, whether or not there’s actually more people on the train. The reason is simple: in the morning, whenever you get on the train, if you want a seat you have to find what’s available based on passenger loads from the stations served by the train before it gets into your station. In the afternoon, on the other hand, if you want a seat, all you have to do is get to the train a little earlier since the train starts out empty in Union Station.

Any regular commuters from Naperville will tell you that even with the Aurora-Route 59-Naperville super-express trains in the morning, seats can be tough to come by. The proposed Metra BNSF schedule does not do much to address this: a ninth inbound express train was added to the schedule, but at the expense of moving the last inbound express train later to arrive at Union Station after 9:00am, as well as moving a second express train serving Lisle-Hinsdale after 9:00am, and moving a third express train serving Fairview Avenue-Congress Park to 8:59am. If your workday starts at 9:00am and you currently take those late expresses (which I would guess is a not-small portion of the downtown workforce), the proposed schedules will push those riders back further into the meatier part of the peak period, which may be counter-intuitive if you’re trying to decongest the trains. A better alternative would be to divorce Aurora from the Naperville-Route 59 trains, similar to the existing outbound express scheme. While this would require additional operating time to allow the train to travel the extra distance, it would give greater capacity to your busiest- and second-busiest stations outside of downtown on Metra’s most premium service.

There’s also a bizarre shadow express train running right behind a local-express train (Trains 1248 and 1250, if you’re playing along at home) between Fairview Avenue and LaGrange Road. Train 1250 almost catches train 1248 at LaGrange Road (eight minutes behind!) then follows in 1248’s wake even after 1248 stops at Western Avenue and Halsted Street to arrive at Union Station only five minutes behind 1248. I have no idea what’s going on with that train, other than potentially adding capacity to a handful of stations in the middle of the line (which probably could be accommodated by a longer train instead).

And then there’s the afternoon service, which is supposedly based on passenger loading but looks like Metra’s schedulers just drew stops out of a hat for the express peak service. When you’re trying to get more people to ride your trains, don’t make the schedule more intimidating and complicated.

Metra’s current outbound express pattern on the BNSF is plenty complicated, of course, but it can be grouped into the following general categories (as we’ve done on this site):

  • Downers/Main-Lisle + Aurora express trips (M trips)
  • Naperville/Route 59 super expresses (N trips)
    • Downers/Main-Aurora trips (MN trips)
  • Hinsdale-Fairview Avenue express trips (O trips)
  • Congress Park-Highlands express trips (P trips)
    • Hinsdale-Congress Park express trips (OP trips)
  • Brookfield local trips ([P] trips)
  • Full locals

The proposed schedule has the following trip formats for the far-out stations, moving from early to late:

  • 2 Downers/Main-Aurora express trips (not bad on the shoulders of the peak)
  • A Fairview Avenue-Aurora express trip (which, for extra credit, arrives at Fairview Avenue 9 minutes before the local train behind it, which precludes intermediate local trips through Downers Grove)
  • A Naperville-Aurora express trip (Aurora was split off of these trips a few years ago due to overcrowding issues…)
  • 3 Lisle-Naperville-Aurora express trips
  • 3 Downers/Main-Belmont + Route 59 express trips
  • A Hinsdale-Route 59 express trip (that doesn’t stop at Belmont, because reasons)
  • One last super-express Naperville-Route 59 trip
  • One last Downers/Main-Lisle + Aurora trip

If you live east of Downers Grove, the proposed changes are less dramatic, but maybe more significant. What we call the O-P zone (Congress Park-Fairview Avenue) lose express trains departing Union Station before 5:00pm, with the possible exception of a significantly-later limited train between Union Station and LaGrange Road, moving from 4:37pm to 4:52pm. Congress Park, which has shown relatively dramatic gains in ridership, is rewarded by losing an outbound train. West Hinsdale and Highlands also each lose an outbound afternoon train.

All in all, Metra has an opportunity to dramatically reshape the entire structure of the BNSF schedule to better serve riders (both current and potential new riders) with the introduction of PTC. However, the schedulers are still stuck in the mindset of simply tweaking the current schedule resulting in stopping patterns that resemble Swiss cheese and significantly raise the learning curve for new riders rather than throwing the whole thing out and starting new, which is what needs to be done. Instead of sneaking new trains in here and there and moving station stops from train to train, wipe the slate clean and try something bold. Metra will attract new riders if they made the BNSF easier and more intuitive to understand; or, in the absence of that, if they found a way to tighten up that 12-15 minute flip time and keep the current schedule that we’ve more or less gotten used to. (I’m currently writing this onboard an Amtrak train that flipped in Bloomington-Normal in about seven minutes while discharging and boarding passengers; not sure why that couldn’t be done on a Metra train.)

This schedule is going to really, really piss off people in Naperville, which may not be the constituency you want to piss off since they’re your second-busiest outlying station. Naperville riders deal with crowded morning trains to get their super-express service that gets you from Union Station to Naperville in 32 minutes; they will get their four super-expresses cut in half, with service instead stopping at Lisle and adding eight minutes to the trip – a 25% increase over today’s schedule. Route 59 riders — at Metra’s busiest outlying station — probably won’t be too pleased either, since their trains will also add a stop (Downers/Main and Belmont instead of only Naperville).

Faced with an opportunity to either strengthen the status quo or try something dramatically progressive and different, Metra is taking the bold stance of doing neither. Unfortunately, BNSF riders will bear the brunt of these changes and ridership will suffer.

TL;DR: Metra is making the schedule needlessly more complicated and should be using PTC implementation as an opportunity to reimagine BNSF service from scratch rather than moving the same trains around to make slightly different stops.

If you’d like to give Metra your two cents on the proposed service modifications, send an email to BNSFservice2018@metrarr.com by April 15. Or, if you want to make a scene about it, there’s a board meeting tomorrow morning at 10:30am.

St. Patrick’s Day Post-Mortem

First and foremost, thank you to everyone who tagged along on this year’s Itasca St. Patrick’s Day Parade. We had a great year, and this was one of our most well-attended St. Patrick’s Days in recent memory. The Yard Social Club began organizing Metra trips following the last “perfect storm” year where St. Patrick’s Day landed on a Saturday and the trains and downtown were far too crowded for our liking.

And, of course, this year was just like that as well.

First and foremost, even though we planned ahead and negotiated an official 65-person group rate with Metra, the railroad was still caught off-guard by just how deep we rolled from Itasca. While some of that was no doubt part of overall crowding on the system — our 9:23am train had a whopping ten cars, compared to the MD-W’s typical 6- or 7-car consist — no one told our train crew that they had a large group boarding at Itasca. Likewise for the flip trip on the 4:30pm train out of Union Station. I’m looking forward to touching base with Metra and giving them some constructive feedback based on our experience.

Secondly, I apparently wildly misjudged the level of interest in discounted tickets this year. Probably a combination of the Weekend Pass going up to $10 this year and me scaling back our group size after eating a few tickets last year, we had 63 of our 65 tickets spoken for before I arrived at the pre-party. While I’m happy that so many of you chose to use our online registration to get your tickets before the day of the event, having a better idea of the level of interest further ahead of the event would’ve allowed me to change the group size with Metra before the event and get more people in the discounted rate. (Metra’s Group Rates rules require any changes in group size to be submitted no later than 21 days before the event, and requires payment in full no later than 14 days before the event.) While I don’t think the base price will change for 2019, here’s an early warning: prices for tickets will go up for people who aren’t registered by the end of February.

Thirdly, downtown was far too crowded. I will give the Berghoff kudos for expanding their bar area, which made our traditional first stop much more enjoyable. However, our secret is officially out in regards to The Bar Below: while the bar wasn’t that crowded at first, bringing a group of 80 people to a single bar will wildly swing how crowded that bar feels and how fast we can get drinks at the bar.

The good news is, thanks to some upcoming leap years, the next “perfect storm” year won’t happen until 2029. Hopefully next year will be a little less crowded downtown. That said, I did have a few ideas to make next year run smoother for all of us:

  • Earlier coordination with Metra. I plan on working more closely with Metra next year to make sure Metra has a better idea of what to expect when we roll into Itasca. We get our discounted ticket rate by using Metra’s group fares, which means Metra (theoretically) knows to expect a huge group to board on certain trains. While Metra can’t guarantee private train cars for groups (obviously), if the train crew knows ahead of time to expect a group of 80 people, they usually try to hold a car for us. (Each Metra car officially seats about 125 people.)
  • Variable trains home. Every year, some people opt out of our discounted group tickets since that 4:30pm outbound trip isn’t attractive for many people. (I know others of you just humor me and buy our discounted tickets, knowing you’ll need an extra fare to get back to the suburbs — and I thank you for that.) However, with a large enough group, we may be able to reach a critical mass to allow for variable trains home: Metra’s group fare rules won’t let the group rate be a blank slate for any train you want (as someone inevitably finds out the hard way every year, no matter how many warnings I put on the registration forms and the tickets themselves), but I may be able to finagle splitting our group up onto two or three different trains home. Of course, this involves ticket holders to plan ahead and anticipate what train to take home — and y’all aren’t the best planners in the world, and definitely not moreso after a day of drinking. Furthermore, there needs to be a certain critical mass of people in the group for Metra to entertain group rates. Here’s my proposed set-up for next year; please leave me some comments and feedback on your thoughts and how interested you would be in the various options:
    • 9:23am inbound: We all leave Itasca on the 9:23, per tradition.
    • Early outbound: small group (25% or so of the total group) gets the 1:30pm departure, which lets you join us for the Berghoff and The Bar Below, then head back to Itasca early.
    • Traditional outbound: reserved for about half of the group, our traditional 4:30pm departure gets us back to Tree Guys by 5:30.
    • Late outbound: the last 25% of the tickets would be reserved for people spending extra time downtown and taking the 8:40pm train home.

As always, your thoughts and feedback are always appreciated, so contribute your two cents in the comments below, or send your hate mail straight to scott@yard-social.com. I’d like to thank the entire McDonald family once again for being such gracious hosts, for starting this tradition years and years and years ago, and for continuing to put this great event together year after year. See you next year!

Diverging Approach: The Monthly Pass

Daniel Biss, a sitting Illinois state senator and a Democratic candidate for governor, duffed a transit question in a televised debate this week. A moderator asked Biss how much he believed a monthly CTA Pass costs. Biss’s response:

“A monthly CTA pass. Now, let’s see. My Metra pass now comes pretty close to $50 a month. So A monthly CTA pass I would guess is probably around $35.”

A CTA 28-Day Pass costs $105, more than three times Biss’s guess. Following the debate, Biss’s campaign tried to explain the discrepancy, but duffed that too:

Biss’ campaign later said the Evanston senator “mixed up” the weekly and monthly pass prices, and was referring to the weekly Metra pass at $55, and the weekly CTA pass at $35.

Metra does not offer “weekly” passes. Metra does offer a 10-Ride Ticket, but if a rider is using all ten rides in a single week, a Monthly Pass is a more cost-effective alternative.

However, it does bring up a valid question for many Metra commuters: when should I buy a monthly pass, and when should I just use 10-Rides?

As part of the most recent (February 2018) fare hikes, Metra adjusted their ticket structure slightly. (Metra is currently studying a more dramatic shift to their overall fare structure.) All Metra fares are based on one-way ticket prices between five-mile-wide fare zones throughout the region, starting downtown at Zone A and radiating out to Zone M in Harvard. From the one-way ticket price, 10-Ride tickets are priced at 9.5 times the cost of a one-way (up from 9x) and monthly tickets are priced at 29 times the cost of a one-way (up from 28.5x).

Since there is a discount for 10-Rides and 10-Rides are good for a full year (except when purchased in January, when many riders try stockpiling to beat the annual February fare increase), a 10-Ride will always be the most affordable per-ride ticket for infrequent riders. However, for more frequent riders, the “sweet spot” is your 30th ride: if a rider takes 30 or more Metra rides in a calendar month, a Monthly Pass will be the better per-ride value. In other words, if you’re commuting downtown at least 15 days in a month, buy a Monthly Pass. This is true regardless of the fare zone.

Of course, since Metra sells Monthly Tickets based on calendar months, even if your work schedule never changes, you may want to change your ticket. A typical month includes 20-22 workdays, but thanks to holidays, vacations, etc. a 18- or 19-day workday month is not unusual. Add in flexible work assignments and that 15-day target can easily become variable between months.

Granted, if it’s that close, you’d probably only save a few bucks here or there, but every dollar counts.

Next up: DA will offer up an interesting tweak to the fare structure that’s probably revenue-neutral but more equitable for lower-income riders.