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.

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