Diverging Approach: Meet Me Halfway

Today my wife and I headed downtown to check out an exhibit at the Field Museum. Personally I’m more of an Art Institute or Museum of Science and Industry guy myself, but the Field is fine (and taking trips there come with the territory of marrying a science teacher). As a teacher she gets in for free, so I checked the Field’s website to see if there were any discounts for state employees (spoiler: no).

But while I was there I clicked over to their “Directions” section just for kicks. The primary mode of transportation the Field Museum expects you to take is via car (groan), but they give decent CTA directions as well.

And then there’s their section on taking Metra.

So they punt on offering directions to suburbanites who would rather not drive, adding another level of inconvenience beyond dealing with Metra’s sparse weekend schedules. An odd choice for a website that has an entire section devoted to sustainability.

Due to its geography, the Museum Campus is notoriously difficult to get to via transit. But museums like the Field should bolster their Metra directions and encourage more transit access to their facilities – doubly so for facilities with such a strong focus on environmental stewardship. (And, you know, not to beat them over the head with it, but Metra has a dedicated Museum Campus station.)

Yes, that’s the Field in the background.

The Shedd Aquarium’s website goes further and details directions to their museum from each of Metra’s downtown terminals via CTA bus connections, which is great, I’m guessing whoever wrote that part of the website either forgot or didn’t know about the Museum Campus station on the Electric Line, which at best makes directions from Millennium Station and Van Buren Street a little superfluous and at worst potentially can confuse south suburban or city ME riders.

The third museum on the Museum Campus, the Adler Planetarium, finds a new way to underwhelm with their Metra directions. Their directions page actually does instruct Metra riders to use the Museum Campus station – but makes no mention of what line it’s on, or how to get to the Electric Line from Metra’s ten other lines.

When giving directions to a wide variety of potential transit users throughout the region, it’s understandably a challenge for website authors to be clear and concise for everyone without inadvertently confusing riders. However, one of Metra’s great strength is the Weekend Pass: while most riders use it for round-trips between the city and suburbs, the Weekend Pass also includes free Metra-to-Metra transfers all weekend long, a seriously underrated perk that is also not nearly publicized well enough. The ability to transfer trains dramatically opens up the possibilities for a weekend trip without adding any cost.

For instance, if you’re heading to the Museum Campus and riding downtown on a Weekend Pass, simply walk east from the terminal to Millennium Station or Van Buren Street Station and take any ME train to the Museum Campus/11th Street stop. That’s it. Those are the only directions you need, whether your train gets into Ogilvie, Union, or LaSalle Street. (Same rules apply for the Museum of Science and Industry, but stay on until 55th-56th-57th.)

These directions are even easier now that Metra adjusted the ME schedules to offer up 20-to-30-minute regular headways between downtown and Hyde Park six days a week, one of Metra’s better schedule adjustments in recent memory. (On Sundays and holidays Electric Line riders get to “enjoy” the two-hour headways most of the rest of us get to deal with.) This trip connection is an easy opportunity to better publicize, both by the museums and Metra.

This gets into three of Metra’s more significant structural weaknesses. First and foremost, the “Metra” brand encompasses the whole system and uses a unified fare system (pro tip: your monthly pass or ten-way ticket is good on any Metra line between the fare zones listed, not just on your line), but other than that there are basically eleven almost-independent commuter rail systems operating. Whenever you ride on a Metra train, you’re riding on a Metra train, but you’re probably not traveling on Metra’s tracks – Metra only fully controls the two Milwaukee lines, the SouthWest Service (and even for those, Amtrak owns and operates Union Stations and the tracks approaching), the Rock Island, and the Electric Line – and it’s likely not a Metra employee taking your tickets (BNSF trains are staffed by BNSF employees, and Union Pacific trains are staffed by Union Pacific employees). The unified Metra branding is great from a marketing perspective, but it obscures the full complexity of the system. It also may influence Metra’s pigeon-holing of its own operations as strictly commuter rail even where the infrastructure exists for a lighter, more nimble service structure with higher service frequencies more similar to rapid transit. (A drum I beat to anyone willing to listen: the CTA’s predecessors expected the commuter rail network to carry the rapid-transit water of the Far South Side and the South Shore. Despite going with a website design that recalls the Time Cube, that often-discussed-by-us-foamers Gray Line website guy might be on to something and maybe we could save a billion dollars by running more Electric Line trains instead of extending the Red Line.)

This is one of the reasons why I noted the wisdom of the earlier Electric Line schedule revisions: a balanced schedule with lower headways between downtown and Hyde Park makes the connection a little easier to use by reducing waiting times for trains. Unfortunately the schedule accomplishes this by spreading out trains on the two branches and the main line south of 63rd, which still see off-peak headways of an hour or worse. (That, combined with Metra’s zone-based fares in an area with a strong CTA level of service, are killing ridership within the city proper, but that’s worth a post of its own at a later date.)

Secondly, schedules are based on individual lines rather than the system as a whole. Where considerations are made for other lines, it’s often to make sure the trains don’t step on each other’s toes rather than to maximize usability and transfers by riders. (Say it with me: Metra moves trains, not people.)

Case in point: this post is coming to you live from The Junction Pub at Union Station. The Junction is a great bar by train station standards: decent prices, quick service (if your order isn’t too complicated), friendly staff, and plenty of to-go options. I’m here laying over between my inbound BNSF train from LaGrange and my outbound MD-W train to Itasca. The bartenders know me now, and it’s an enjoyable place to sip a beer and offer up constructive criticism for Metra.

But I shouldn’t be here.

By that, I mean my train was scheduled to get in at 5:47 (and we know how weekend schedules go), but my MD-W train doesn’t leave until 6:40. If all goes as scheduled, I have 53 minutes to kill whenever I make this trip. And here’s the fun part: this isn’t a unique situation with just the trains I’m taking. On weekends, Ogilvie and Union combined (they’re two blocks from each other, so might as well look at them together) serve seven Metra lines. Between 6:45pm and 8:29pm on a Saturday, there is a single Metra train that leaves: the 7:35pm UP-N. But in that same time period, five trains arrive. I’m not trying to rig the schedule to make a point – none of those trains arrive later than 7:50pm. But then between 8:30pm and 8:45pm though, five trains leave. What that means is that every rider who could potentially transfer trains has no less than forty minutes to kill. For someone like me who is happy with a cold Miller Lite and a quiet bar, I can make do, but for a family of four from Palatine who wants to take the train home from Brookfield Zoo it’s a downright non-starter. (This is also a spit in the face for people around the northern Western Avenue station: no trains leave Union Station for 115 minutes, then two trains leave five minutes apart.)

Unfortunately, Metra’s off-peak schedules are built around set intervals leaving downtown: trains run every two hours (occasionally hourly, based on time of day and direction of travel), they go out to the outer suburban terminal, hang out for a bit, then come back downtown whenever they get back and wait for the next departure. While this is an efficient way to move trains, it’s not an efficient way to move people throughout the region unless they’re only going downtown. Instead, we recommend what’s called pulse scheduling: arrivals and departures at the core are coordinated, with the buffer time built in at the outer suburban terminal rather than the central core. Of course, this would imperil Metra’s sacred on-time performance metric – it’s a lot easier to pad time inbound than outbound since a typical commuter rail system focuses on suburb-to-city trips and people are generally less sensitive to suburban arrival times since trips back home have generally more flexible arrival times – but it could be a great way to boost ridership throughout the region. There are weekend non-downtown entertainment destinations easily accessible via Metra, counter-clockwise per line north to south: Ravinia; the Chain-of-Lakes; Arlington Park and the McHenry County Fairgrounds; the Schaumburg Boomers and the Grand Victoria Casino; downtown Elmhurst and the Fox River Valley; Brookfield Zoo and Hollywood Casino Aurora; [insert SWS destination here – sorry Orland Park]; that stadium the White Sox play at, the Joliet Slammers stadium, and Harrah’s Casino Joliet; and the Museum Campus, Hyde Park, and soon the Obama Library. (Rosemont is a glaring omission, but that’s a future post.) For kid-friendly places like the Zoo or (the baseball stadium formerly known as) the Cell, every kid loves a train ride; for more adult-friendly venues, the Weekend Pass is a $10 insurance policy against a DUI. (Important note: the conductors would rather not deal with raging drunks and will throw you off the train and/or get you arrested, so continue to drink responsibly.)

The third significant deficiency in Metra’s system is, for whatever reason, a regional ignorance of the system as a whole. By “ignorance” I don’t mean that suburbanites should be judged by not knowing the minutiae of the system, but rather that there’s a whole system out there that’s available to be used. Plenty of non-southern suburbanites have little to no idea there’s a train station under Millennium Park; of those that do, they might know it only from where they filmed the Batman movies and not as part of the Metra system they can take to the Museum Campus or Jackson Park. Fewer still know about LaSalle Street Station – I took some friends to a Sox game a few years ago and, after the obligatory Sky-Ride Tap stop, blew their minds by heading up a random escalator and through a weird tunnel to a whole train station. If the schedules are favorable, it’s a lot easier, cheaper, and faster to get to Guaranteed Rate Field on Metra than paying to get on the Red Line.

There’s a train station entrance in here. And this is the signed way to get to the LaSalle Street Station from the CTA and Van Buren Street.

To bring it all back, people – and especially kids – like riding trains. It can be an easy, comfortable way to travel without worrying about dealing with parking or designating drivers. If people need to do train-to-train transfers – which are already free often enough with Metra’s existing fare structure – that should be encouraged at every level. While the institutions and venues do bear some responsibility in informing their guests that these options exist, Metra needs to take a more proactive role in operating and promoting a unified regional system that can be used as such rather than running eleven separate lines connected by brand alone.

Diverging Approach: If you see nothing, say something

Jim Derwinski, Metra’s CEO/Executive Director, may or may not have stepped in it when he talked to reporters (including the Chicago Tribune) following his speech to the City Club of Chicago:

He said Metra asks customers who see a fellow passenger not paying a fare to tell the conductor, though he acknowledges that this kind of voluntary tattling is a “big lift” for riders.

So the CEO/Executive Director of Metra is kindly requesting passengers to snitch on their fellow Metra riders instead of coming up with some method of getting better fare compliance on board. In Metra’s defense, peer enforcement is how quiet cars are enforced, and there’s no shortage of people willing to shush their fellow riders, so maybe peer fare enforcement would work (this time).

The Tribune article has plenty of gems though, so it’s worth the read. I particularly enjoyed the part about how Metra was totally overwhelmed by St. Patrick’s Day this year, considering St. Pat’s is always one of the busiest days of the year, and how the years when St. Patrick’s Day lands on a Saturday are always awful on Metra, and how we reserved group tickets for St. Pat’s and no one communicated that to the train crews anyway. (Can’t prove this, but our conspiracy theory is that when St. Pat’s lands on a Saturday, first off it’s usually slightly warmer than usual since it’s a week later, and secondly it’s the only time the South Side parade is a week before the downtown parade, so drinkers can more easily do both the downtown parade and the South Side parade.)

But the article is a great chance to discuss Metra’s antiquated fare structure. To be fair, Metra is currently looking at alternatives to the current fare structure, but at this point in the study the truly groundbreaking options have been removed from consideration and the agency is considering smaller tweaks to the system rather than a full-fledged restructuring of the fare system.

The Tribune article offers up platform turnstiles as a possible alternative to the current Metra fare structure, although given Metra’s commitment to a fare structure with more than ten zones (there are currently 13), a turnstile structure would not necessarily be effective for many of the lines, especially for intermediate zone trips. Furthermore, Metra already tried turnstiles on the Electric Lines, which resulted in abandonment of that system due to either the inefficiencies of the turnstiles themselves or the perceived slights on South Side riders from some no-name state senator. (Of course, the Electric Line absolutely should have kept its turnstiles provided that Metra offered service that was comparable to rapid transit — the line was built with rapid-transit frequencies, rapid-transit station spacing, and was considered rapid transit when Chicago first considered public ownership of transit assets which helps explain why the CTA rail network never expanded south of 95th Street or east of Stony Island Avenue.) That said, turnstile systems operate best in systems like the CTA’s ‘L’ network where all (well, most) of the stations are in a single fare zone. Otherwise, in the Electric Line’s case, a rider could theoretically pay a single-zone fare to pass through the turnstile and ride the train all the way downtown. This issue is addressed in then-Senator Obama’s letter linked above, where fare inspectors were still required with the turnstile system to make sure riders weren’t over-riding their tickets. If you’re investing in fare inspectors, there are better fare payment systems out there that don’t require the capital cost of turnstiles.

The most obvious structure — which was conspicuously absent from the Tribune’s article — is proof-of-payment (POP), which is a common method of fare payment for transit systems throughout the country. CalTrain in the San Francisco Bay area uses proof-of-payment for their commuter rail operations, and the system doesn’t operate too differently than Metra’s current system in more abstract terms. Proof-of-payment systems are the epitome of the trust-but-verify conservative mantra: a glorified honor system exists in jurisdictions with POP, where riders are expected to buy their own tickets on the honor system. In fact, you could argue that Metra effectively operates a proof-of-payment system, except riders get their tickets checked on a vast majority of trains and the penalty for non-payment is minimal. However, in true POP systems, fare inspection officers are occasionally present to check tickets and issue significant violations for riders without valid tickets. To put this in Metra terms, Metra currently charges a $5 penalty if you purchase a ticket onboard from a conductor from a station where an agent was on-duty to sell you a ticket. The POP system might raise that penalty to $50, but with a tenth of the conductors deployed. The math theoretically works out such that you may ride for free nine times, but the penalty issued for the tenth offense makes up the balance for the missed fares.

That’s an extremely basic example — the break-even math based on fare zones and everything else is much more complex than that. That complexity is one of the reasons Metra has not seriously considered a proof-of-payment system. First and foremost, POP systems are predicated on the ability to purchase tickets before boarding the train. While the Ventra app does provide that ability to smartphone users with credit cards, Title VI considerations prevent Metra from switching over to a system that revolves around technology and resources lower-income riders may not have access to, such as smartphones and credit cards. Furthermore, even with the Ventra app, POP enforcement would be a challenge — if I board an MD-W train in Itasca (Zone E) and the fare checkers board my MD-W train at Mont Clare (Zone B), there’d be nothing theoretically stopping me from using my Ventra app to buy a ticket saying I boarded at Franklin Park (Zone C) instead. A more robust proof-of-payment system for Metra would require a consolidated zone structure, which is problematic in and of itself. More on that later.

But then there’s the more practical aspects of a POP implementation. First and foremost, due to the aforementioned Title VI considerations, every Metra station would need some form of a ticket vending machine (TVM). Since Metra’s been retiring ticket agents whenever they can, the future would necessarily be built around TVMs. Of course, TVMs break, which means each station would need two TVMs for redundancy’s sake. Considering Metra has 242 stations, deploying nearly 500 brand-new machines throughout the Chicagoland area would have a significant price tag. (Not to mention the inevitable maintenance needed to fix broken machines and collect cash payments throughout the RTA’s six-county service area.) CalTrain can roll out POP using TVMs relatively easily since they basically operate a single line; Metra does not have that luxury, since the agency operates 11 different lines in six counties. However, an infusion of capital funding could very easily take care of this issue — and if the Metra board and other local politicians can effectively make the case that the system would save manpower costs in the long run by deploying a region-wide system of adequate TVMs (that the CTA may or may not have already figured out how to operate), there could be the political will to roll out a full POP system.

While we’re discussing Ventra, however, it’s worth bringing up the tap-in-tap-out (TITO) system used by some other transit systems. Washington (D.C.)’s WMATA uses TITO for their subway system, as well as other networks throughout the country. The concept is simple enough: tap a farecard when you get to your station (or onboard the train), then tap your farecard when you get off the train and the computerized system calculates your fare and automatically deducts it from whatever fare media you have. On the surface, it sounds pretty straightforward and easy to implement. However, TITO still would still require occasional fare enforcement, may still run into Title VI issues (how do you tap in when you only have cash?), and would very quickly run into bottleneck issues (Union Station commuters, can you imagine trying to tap into a terminal when you’re trying to leave, or, worse, trying to tap into a terminal before heading to your train home?).

I didn’t create this blog to defend Metra — as many of you have probably noticed by now — but as long as Metra is committed to their current distance-based fare structure (or something close to it), the current antiquated hodge-podge of paper tickets and smartphone Ventra app verification may be the agency’s best bet moving forward. Of course, there’s plenty of low-hanging fruit Metra can still try to pick to improve their off-peak fare collection issues. First and foremost, from my experience, Metra conductors will not add the $5 surcharge to riders paying cash on weekend trains who are purchasing Weekend Passes, even when departing from a downtown terminal where station agents are available. That’s fine from the unstaffed outlying stations, but there’s no reason not to enforce that rule when leaving the downtown terminals, especially when the conductors are willing to show riders how to buy tickets using the Ventra app to avoid the surcharge. Here at The Yard Social Club and Star:Line Chicago we do our best to advocate for leisure and infrequent weekend riders, but there’s still no reason to give riders leaving downtown a pass on the surcharge when Metra continuously cries poor while failing to collect tickets on crowded trains. We’re going to stop short of recommending our riders narc on their fellow riders, but it’s not unfair to just bite the bullet on a $10 Weekend Pass regardless of where you’re going or where you’re coming from. Also, it seems obvious, but always bears repeating: if the train is too crowded for fare collection, run more trains. Only Metra can find a way to complain about too many people using their service.

In the long run, Metra needs a complete rethinking of their fare structure, which unfortunately the current Fare Structure Study will not address. Personally, this blog recommends a simplified fare structure that (1) includes the cost of feeder bus routes to decrease the burdens of local municipalities to provide park-and-ride facilities near their stations — which typically are in the hearts of their respective downtowns — and (2) better corresponds to physical barriers throughout the region. For instance, we live in the Midwest: as many of you have noticed, topographic restrictions aren’t exactly common in our area. However, we do have an established system of belt highways/expressways/tollways through the region. These man-made facilities form natural barriers that would be better suited to Metra fare zones than the existing system of five-track-mile bands that surround the downtown core. As a case in point, this blog post is coming to you live (well, not “live”, but this is where I am with my laptop) from Itasca, which is in Metra’s fare Zone E. Just west of me is Interstate 290/Illinois 53, which forms a significant rift in suburban geography here in northern DuPage County. However, west of I-290/IL 53 are the Medinah and Roselle MD-W stations, which are also in Metra’s Zone E. It would make more sense – and probably be more intuitive for riders – if the fare zones were bounded by those geographic features. (Plus, since they generally form significant disruptions in the suburban landscape with fewer crossings, “fare jumpers” who drive further to board at a lower fare Zone would be less incentivized to do so.) These belt highways and other physical barriers form pretty straightforward fare zones throughout the region, using the western suburbs as an example: I-294 and/or the Des Plaines River form inner belts; followed by I-290/I-355/IL 53; and then either IL 59, the CN/EJ&E railroad, or the Fox River; and finally the Randall/Orchard Road corridor out in the hinterlands.

In other words: it’s great that Metra’s looking at tweaking their fare structure, but the current fare structure study seems to be resigned to reinforce the existing fare structure with some minor tweaks. If Metra is serious about updating and upgrading their fare structure, bolder approaches to fare collection are needed. In the long run, Metra should pursue a POP system, even though the initial capital costs are not insignificant. Even then, the fare zone system should be more closely related to travel alternatives (namely driving) than straight track miles.

In the meantime, we encourage riders reading these blogs to pay their fair share — transportation operations and infrastructure as a whole need a financial boost — but don’t narc out on our fellow travelers. The one promising thing from Mr. Derwinski’s City Club speech is that Metra is finally aware of the gaps in fare collection during busy events downtown. The current fare system is by no means perfect, but we support riders paying their fair share to make the suburban transit network stronger.

(And if this article makes its way into Metra’s news clips for senior-level staff: The Yard Social Club and Star:Line Chicago is here to help you and to be a partner in making Metra a stronger, more sustainable, more robust transportation option for suburban residents. We’ve seen plenty of weekend riders who are willing to buy a Weekend Pass but never see a conductor and end up buying a one-way ticket at the end of the evening. We promote the sale of Weekend Passes. We want to help. We’re here to help. And we want to get more people onboard your off-peak trains.)

Diverging Approach: D-A-D

As many of you know, Metra is revamping the BNSF schedule in advance of positive train control (PTC) implementation. And Metra is going all-out with it: it’s got a separate part of the Metra website, there are some pretty slick videos describing what PTC is and why Metra, BNSF, and the Union Pacific are spending so much money on it, and the agency had a comment period for the public to submit their comments. You can say a lot about Metra, but you can’t say they aren’t trying to cover their bases with this upcoming schedule change on their busiest line.

But I think the proposed schedule sucks. And I told Metra I think the proposed schedule sucks.

And they responded.

First and foremost, kudos to Metra for reaching out to my (admittedly very thorough) letter and going point-by-point to try to explain why they’re making the choices they’re making when it comes to the schedule changes. I say this in all honesty, I commend Metra for seeking the input of their riders before rolling out changes wholesale. Granted, I don’t know if Metra directly responded to all of the feedback they received before the comment period ended last Sunday or if they went out of their way to respond to my letter since I posted it here, which then got picked up by Streetsblog, which then ended up on Metra’s internal daily email list of daily news that gets passed around through middle- and upper-management at Metra Headquarters. Either way, I’m impressed.

That said, I have plenty of issues with their response. Below is an annotated version of the response I received. Since Metra chose to refute my initial email point-by-point — which is fine — there will be some breaks in the below email where I’m adding my thoughts. Metra’s email will be posted in blog quotes

like this

And where they’re quoting my initial email I’m placing in italics. Otherwise, the below response has not been edited, other than reducing some of the white space in the initial email.

Mr. Presslak,

Thank you for writing in. Your letter is quite comprehensive, but hopefully the below addresses most of your comments:

Please watch this video to better understand the reason for the lengthening of flip times. PTC adds another task for the engineer to complete, and it simply takes longer. Sorry you are not convinced, but we have been testing this in revenue service, and this is what the actual operation is reflecting. Perhaps it will speed up as technology improves, but we cannot expect to run the current schedule with PTC operating as it does today. Also, I believe you may have misunderstood our explanation for “flipping” a train; the train still operates in push-pull mode, as you write. If an inbound train is pushed or shoved into Union Station by the locomotive, the train flips when the crew performs all safety checks and PTC initialization and when the engineer walks from the cab car to the locomotive for the outbound trip. Additionally, job briefings on each part of the train cycle are not only a necessary safety task, but they are also a regulation. Track conditions can change between trips, and crew members often change as well (crew cycles are not always the same as the equipment cycles). Job briefings ensure that crew members are on the same page and current with any important information on the upcoming trip.

I received a similar comment on Twitter regarding my use of the term “flipping” a train, and that’s on me for not being more clear. I’m well aware that it makes no sense to fully flip a physical consist on a commuter line; that requires some extensive track infrastructure and a lot of space that simply doesn’t exist if a train is scheduled to be short-turned in the middle of the western suburbs. That said, having watched the videos posted a few times, I still don’t understand why Metra — and, to be fair, the industry as a whole — is spending hundreds of millions of dollars to build a new safety system from scratch that requires a full reboot every time the train crew switches ends. Commuter trains on Metra operate in a push-pull configuration, where in Metra’s case the engine is always facing away from Chicago. When the train is heading outbound, the engineer sits in the locomotive cab; when the train is heading inbound, the engineer sits in the upper level of specially-designed cab cars that allow the engineer to operate the train with the engine at the rear, so the train itself never has to flip around. (This saves significant amounts of time, but also would be quite problematic downtown in terms of noise and air pollution at Union Station if the train came in engine-first.) Push-pull isn’t exactly a unique situation, so I still do not understand why the industry spent so much money on a safety system that needs to be fully rebooted every time the crew changes ends and can’t instead go into a pre-programmed “sleep mode” or something similiar that would save that extra time when the crew changes ends to continue their rush-hour service. I’m not an engineer, I’m not an electrical engineer, and I understand the freight railroads like BNSF and UP are more focused on the bottom line than operational efficiency for commuter services (which make up only a small fraction of their revenue), but I’m sincerely hoping that Metra is using their scarce capital dollars to come up with a more efficient system. If the same consist is doing the same “run” of individual trips day in and day out, pre-programming PTC at each end of the consist seems like a no-brainer: instead of booting the system up and entering the required information at the beginning of each trip, the system should be able to offer the engineer a simple yes/no for a pre-programmed trip option when (s)he enters the cab to start the trip and save plenty of time. Of course, as I mentioned in my earlier posts on the topic, Metra adding more time for crews to change ends mid-route is definitely not a negative if it’s done effectively, since it also allows for more buffer time in the schedule to absorb minor delays.

Also, it’s good to see that Metra continues to place a strong focus on safety in terms of their safety briefings. I do understand that track conditions can change while trains are operating, so I understand why Metra/BNSF continues to place a focus on dedicated briefings at each end of the trip. But now I’m curious as to how the CTA can operate a Red Line train out of 95th Street all the way up to Howard, around the balloon loop, and back down to 95th, without needing an intermediate safety briefing. That trip is definitely comparable in time to some of the short-turn trips on Metra. Or likewise when an all-stop trip to Aurora requires a single safety briefing but crews are required to have safety briefings when changing ends on short-turns — for instance, BNSF train #1233 has a safety briefing before it departs Union Station at 1:30pm and doesn’t arrive Aurora until 2:59pm (89 minutes) while train #1263 departs Union Station at 5:13pm, ends at Brookfield at 5:44pm (31 minutes) and requires a separate safety briefing before the crew changes ends and deadheads back to Union Station in ~25 minutes.

But I digress.

“Secondly, while adjusting schedules to address crowding issues in the AM Peak is admirable, adjusting schedules for PM Peak crowding is not needed”. The data disagrees. Our most extremely crowded trains are actually in the outbound peak, with some having counts of over 1,600 people. This is the reason for adjusting the stop patterns in the outbound peak. While it does introduce a new stop pattern to outbound expresses, the current scheme does not balance loads as well as the new proposal. You yourself note that Naperville and Route 59 are the top two stations in terms of ridership, so splitting those two up on the most crowded trains is a way of better matching the capacity to the demand. It is also worth mentioning that we are operating with the same equipment as before, so unfortunately we cannot simply add trains or make certain trains longer. A fair question is why the new 1277 and 1279 have the “old” stopping pattern, and that is because we do not have the equipment available to make 1279 a longer train, so it could not accommodate the passenger loads that would come with either Route 59 or Naperville. Overall, though, we believe that customers will become adjusted to the new patterns on the expresses.

I promise, I’m not here just to crap on Metra, and I’m going to compliment the agency here for using a data-based approach when appraising the afternoon rush service. Balancing service, frequency, and consist length in terms of observed ridership loads is something I will wholeheartedly support on all Metra lines to help find new efficiencies and to keep doing more with less in an era of declining revenues for capital expenditures.

That said, I think my initial point was lost, and I understand that this may be controversial and definitely counter-intuitive: afternoon peak crowding doesn’t matter all that much.

Metra is right to push back on me for that, and I don’t blame some of you reading that to take a step back and tell me I’m crazy. At a certain point, capacity issues in the PM Peak most certainly matter. If you want to grow ridership, you need to make sure there’s capacity available for more riders. Sixteen hundred people on a single train is a huge number, especially when considering that the commuter rail industry considers any peak-period peak-direction passenger load above 95% of seating capacity to be “overcapacity”.

Let’s do some math. Metra’s longest consist — which serves some of the Naperville and Route 59 “super-expresses” — have 11 passenger coaches. At a minimum, each passenger coach seats 135 people, but the older (non-ADA-accessible) coaches can seat up to 150. As any frequent (or even some infrequent) Metra riders know, there’s an additional eight locations on each car that have “comfortable” standing room: in each of the four stairwells up to the upper levels, and in each corner of the vestibule. Some riders straight-up prefer these standing spaces for a variety of reasons: quiet car rules don’t apply in the vestibules, riders getting off at an early stop can stand and be closer to the door on the way out, some people just don’t want to share seats with random riders, and so on. Either way, effective capacity of a Metra train car can be close to 160 people, so an 11-car consist with 146 people in each coach is snug, but nothing to write home about.

Besides: PM Peak crowding is not as big of a passenger concern as AM Peak crowding. In the PM Peak, since Metra does not (and is not currently physically able to practically) operate through-routing on any of their lines, trains sit at the downtown terminal until they’re ready to leave, accepting passengers as they board over anywhere between five and twenty minutes depending on how the schedule and that day’s operations work out. So if you can’t find a seat on an outbound train, you didn’t get to the station early enough. If you get to your train 90 seconds before its scheduled departure, you know you aren’t getting a seat. So afternoon train crowding doesn’t matter. If you want a seat, get to your train earlier, or head up to The Junction for a quick drink until the next train starts boarding and you can get a seat. Worth noting that Metra had no comments about AM peak boarding, which I think is more of a passenger issue since you don’t have a choice as to how crowded your morning train is: when it arrives at your station, it arrives: get on or get left behind. When you think about it, it’s stupid, but it’s human nature: give someone the option to stand and they may choose that option without thinking about it, but force that person to stand and they may be salty about it all the way downtown. Put another way, it’s a classic data issue: the raw numbers (and basic properties of mathematics) will tell you that x will always equal x, but in context of passenger experience, some x’s are more attractive than other x’s.

Moving on.

“Furthermore, the proposed schedule increases scheduled travel times from Union Station to Naperville by a full 25% (from 32 minutes to 40 minutes): and as your second-busiest station which deals with AM crowding in exchange for perhaps the best commuter rail express service in the country, this is probably a non-starter for a significant number of your riders.” The increase in time is a product of a two factors: the load balancing as mentioned in the previous point, as now the train is paired with Lisle. The other reason is that we used signal and GPS data to verify the run times, and it seems that 32 minutes is a bit aggressive. Please also note that schedules list departure times, and the times shown should be reflective of what actually is occurring.

I touched on this in a previous Diverging Approach entry: the schedule says 32 minutes from downtown to Naperville because at some point in the not-so-distant past it only took 32 minutes to get from downtown to Naperville. Now it apparently no longer takes 32 minutes to get from downtown to Naperville. That’s fine, but maybe there should be a stronger focus on why it no longer takes 32 minutes to get from downtown to Naperville instead of just throwing an extra eight minutes (and a new stop at Lisle) at the problem and considering it addressed.

“The existing schedule is complicated enough as it is — in two instances, I personally get back to LaGrange Road sooner on certain express trains that leave after earlier local trains”. We are not quite sure what to make of this criticism – express trains do have shorter run times. Express trains can utilize the third track and sometimes have to pass or “overtake” another train.

I’m all for having express trains, don’t get me wrong. Express trains are great. Every suburb wants their own express train. But this blog advocates Sustainable Transit for All Riders: Leisure, Infrequent, New, and Experienced, so we advocate for things to be as straightforward and as simple as possible. If you’re not familiar with Metra and you pull out your Ventra app to head to LaGrange from downtown during the weekday peak, here’s what you see:

BLAZE IT 4/20! #weednumber #nice

An embarrassment of riches for trains back to LaGrange. But in the above screenshot, the 4:53pm train arrives LaGrange Road before the 4:48pm, and the 5:41pm train arrives LaGrange Road before the 5:36pm train. There are plenty of very good reasons to have suburb-to-suburb local trains sprinkled into the peak-period schedule — we’ll happily advocate for that any day of the week since not everyone commutes to downtown and back — but the above is the customer interface for people who aren’t fluent in the BNSF paper schedule. If you’re trying to gain ridership, especially for infrequent riders, that should be more clearly communicated in the schedule. Furthermore, Metra customer service staff deployed to the downtown terminals for service disruptions don’t necessarily know there are express trains that will get some people home earlier than some local trains, which means sometimes staff will direct riders to the next train departing to their station regardless of whether it’s the fastest trip back to said station. And riders generally don’t like spending more time on a rush hour train than they have to. This I know from experience.

Here’s my fat ass telling a bunch of Union Station – North Concourse commuters that their commute home won’t be fun.

Express trains are good, as long as there’s a way to tell casual riders that this train is express. Metra’s network of express and local service is complicated enough as it is — another thing I’ve tried to address once or twice — and the proposed schedule just cranks up the confusion factor another notch. In an era of on-demand transportation options and flexible work schedules, pointing people to perplexing paper schedules is not an effective long-term approach to growing ridership. Find a way for the Ventra app schedules to be more user-friendly and this issue may become a moot point.

“In summary, with the coming changes of PTC, the way I see it Metra has two options: either work with the PTC implementation to fit the existing schedule as well as possible, or use this opportunity to throw out the existing BNSF schedule and rebuild it from scratch.” This is a fair description of the two options we were looking at in the beginning of this process. And to be clear, we ultimately took the former approach, as most proposed trains have an analogue in the current schedule. But we do anticipate that future schedules changes will be necessary as PTC matures.

At a high level, I think me and whoever is responding to my email are arguing two sides of the same coin: schedule revisions are not necessarily bad things, and wherever possible I agree that Metra should defer to the path of least resistance in terms of the current schedule: if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it; if it is broke, try to fix it in a way that affects the least amount of people who have built their weekly schedules around the trains. But when we’re on the edge of a precipice — changing the time to “flip”/change ends of a train from ten minutes to fifteen minutes on your busiest line, for instance — you might as well blow it up and start from scratch. Don’t be afraid to re-invent the wheel in a situation like this where a majority of your riders are going to see some impact. Metra has the data, they have a reason to change things up, they have a clear slate with CREATE to prioritize passenger trips during peak hours… be bold! Push the envelope! Try something new, call it a pilot, and see how it goes. Metra’s most vocal riders are notoriously cantankerous and will probably complain no matter what happens, so go ahead and break the commuter rail paradigm. If you’re going to change things up, lean into it and take some risks.

The suburbs want Metra to succeed. It isn’t a zero sum game. A stronger commuter rail connection to downtown and the rest of Chicago make the suburbs more livable and more attractive to the millennial demographic being priced out of Chicago but still seeking a car-optional community to move into. But that requires Metra to adapt to a changing demographic and a changing target market, a market that may not take the train downtown Monday through Friday during the traditional peaks, but is more likely to leave the car at home and take the train for fun on the weekend.

Again, thank you for your comments. We are currently evaluating the customer feedback and seeing if some of the common concerns can be accommodated.


This is admittedly a little nit-picky, but I would’ve been a little more satisfied if a personal response to my comments was signed by an individual, not by “Metra” as a whole. Granted, knowing Metra, the response was composed and vetted by a team of workers, but still, sign it as a response from a person. And that gets into a larger point of the post as well as the post title. The entire tone of the email response — while quite thorough, which is much appreciated — is focused more around justifying the decisions made in the proposed schedule and less around being open to input from the public on the process. Of course, Metra did ask for input on the proposed schedule, so that’s a good step forward, but their public involvement process hasn’t evolved beyond where the public sector was fifteen or twenty years ago. In the planning sector, we would roll our eyes and refer to this strategy as the “DAD” method: Decide, Announce, Defend. On the surface, the agency is asking for public input, but they’ve already decided what they wanted to do, announced how they’re going to do it, and are now defending how they’re going about doing it.

The more recent evolution of public involvement focuses on a context-sensitive solutions (CSS) method, which focuses on agencies focusing on building consensus with affected stakeholders rather than a top-down approach from within the agency. While CSS is a little more difficult to implement with something that requires extensive technical knowledge — such as an operational change to railroad scheduling — a public involvement process that uses community consensus is a much more successful political sell than the old D-A-D method.

Once again, I’m not here to crap on Metra: the agency is using commuter rail best practices to update their schedules in anticipation of PTC, which include a data-oriented approach to schedule revisions. While I do take issue with their mode of public engagement, the agency is (or was, since the BNSF comment period closed four days ago) seeking public input on their proposals, and I’m hoping Metra received some good, productive comments on their proposed schedule that the agency can use to make the new schedule more robust, more reliable, and more attractive to more present and potential riders. PTC implementation will be a paradigm shift throughout the commuter rail industry, and we’re here to encourage and support Metra in being an industry leader to use this opportunity to change the old commuter rail paradigm to be more rider-friendly and become a more attractive transportation alternative to Uber/Lyft and driving, both during the daily commute and for choice leisure trips during off-peak periods.

And I look forward to continued public outreach for schedule revisions to Metra’s other rail lines, since I’ll be happy to offer more constructive criticism and progressive ideas to help encourage more peak and off-peak ridership for Metra.

While you’re here, we’re announcing our first social outing for Star:Line at the new Rosemont minor league baseball stadium on Friday, June 15! Easily accessible from Metra’s North Central Service (and also accessible from CTA and Pace service to the Rosemont CTA station), come join us as we ride trains, drink beer, talk transportation, and watch baseball. Event details are over on our Facebook page.

Week Ahead In Transit – April 15, 2018

Happy Tax Day (although this year taxes aren’t due until Tuesday)! Every Sunday, I’m going to try to post a rundown of what’s ahead for next week in terms of Chicago-area transit, appropriately named Week Ahead In Transit (WAIT). Here’s what’s coming up this week.

On the ‘L’

  • Red Line trains may be single-tracked between Grand and Cermak-Chinatown overnight.
  • Blue Line trains may be single-tracked between Clark/Lake and Damen.
  • Northbound Brown Line trains may use the Red Line tracks at Belmont late night.

On CTA buses

  • A handful of minor reroutes, but nothing too major.
  • The new South Terminal at 95th/Dan Ryan is now open.

On Pace

  • Some minor reroutes and stop relocations are occurring, but nothing too major.
  • Pace and IDOT are hosting a ribbon-cutting ceremony for bus-on-shoulder operation on the Edens at 10am on Monday. Routes 620 and 626 are now allowed to use the right shoulder of the Edens between Foster Avenue and Skokie Highway.

On Metra

Diverging Approach: Schrödinger’s Delay

Metra has a board meeting coming up next Wednesday, which means @OnTheMetra will update their Twitter profile with Metra’s updated on-time performance figure, with a healthy dose of snark. (You’ll be able to livestream the board meeting here.) Metra’s on-time performance remains something of an inside joke among regular Metra commuters, since it’s always significantly higher than it feels. February’s on-time performance (OTP) was officially 92.3%, which sounds high but officially is one of Metra’s lowest OTP in quite awhile. (Metra had a streak of more than two years with OTP above 95%.) As far as peer agencies go, Metra’s OTP is actually pretty impressive: the Boston T’s commuter rail OTP is usually in the low-90s; likewise with CalTrain in the San Francisco Bay area; the Long Island Rail Road in New York City trends in the mid-80s; and Philly’s SEPTA muddles in the low-80s. So we should count our blessings that suburban Chicago has one of the best performing commuter rail systems in the country, right?

Kinda. (I mean, of course I’m grateful for Metra — believe it or not, Diverging Approach and Star:Line aren’t solely intended to crap on Metra all the time. Relative to other commuter railroads, Metra isn’t terrible. But it could be so much better and so much more user-friendly, which is where we come in.)

Let’s back up and go over how commuter rail agencies determine on-time performance. A train is considered “on-time” if it arrives at its last station within 5:59 (5 minutes, 59 seconds) of its scheduled arrival time. So for instance, BNSF Saturday train #1312 is scheduled to arrive at Chicago Union Station at 12:47pm. If that train arrives at Union Station at 12:52:59pm, that train still arrived “on time”. In the grand scheme of things, six minutes isn’t the end of the world, so on its surface it’s a decent metric for an agency that runs rail lines that can be over sixty miles long.

But Metra — and, to be fair, most other commuter rail agencies — figured out they can game the system a bit. Going back to the common thread of “Metra moves trains, not people“, the last line of the Metra schedule gets a little fuzzy as far as what it’s meant to tell you. Since no one boards the train at the last station, there’s really no incentive for the time of arrival shown to have much bearing on reality other than maintaining a respectable on-time performance. Put another way, imagine doing online tracking of a package from UPS or FedEx. They might tell you that your package will be delivered “today before 7:00pm”. Your package could arrive at 2pm or 6:59pm, and in either case, they were right. Your package arrived on-time. Again, this doesn’t seem to be that big of a deal on the surface: if Metra gets me downtown earlier than they said they were going to, cool. More time downtown to do fun stuff.

And here’s the catch: with an on-time performance goal of 95%, all Metra has to do is to make sure that last time listed on the schedule for the train is within six minutes of actual arrival times for 95% of trips. If on-time performance starts to slip, just slide those arrival times back a few minutes until 95% of the trains are on-time again, even though the train is actually slowing down for whatever reason. And again, that’s fine… if you adjust the entire schedule. Metra doesn’t.

Here’s Metra’s inbound Saturday BNSF schedule from April 2007.


And here’s Metra’s current inbound Saturday BNSF schedule.

Kudos for adding capacity for four more bikes over the last ten years.

These are almost the exact same schedule. Same number of trains, same departure times leaving Aurora, same intermediate stop times. Trains 1300, 1302, 1304, 1322, and 1324 are literally the exact same.

But look at the rest of those trains and what time they arrive at Union Station. I mentioned train #1312 earlier (and you thought it was a random example!), which still leaves Western Avenue at 12:24pm but now takes an extra five minutes to travel the four miles into Union Station. Did something happen with the tracks between Western Avenue and Union Station that dramatically slowed down trains? According to the same current schedule, Western Avenue to Union Station can be made in 15 minutes or less (weekday train #1296). So why do those middle trains take longer to go from Western Avenue to Union Station?

Three words: heavy passenger loading.

Maybe Metra’s worst excuse for delayed trains (“we didn’t anticipate so many people wanting to ride the train!”), those trains tend to be the most delayed for a variety of reasons: could be track construction, could be freight train interference, could be signal issues, could be anything, but quite often it’s because so many people got on the train earlier on the line and the train needed extra time to board everyone. (You’d think that delays frequent enough to require schedule changes would trigger someone to think that maybe there’s enough ridership to support more than one train every two hours in the afternoon, but here we are.) But once again, Metra only needs to make sure that 95% of trains get downtown before the last time listed on the schedule, so they can keep sliding that last arrival time back further and further to maintain a favorable OTP. (Construction schedules are particularly egregious in this respect. Thirty-four minutes to go from Clybourn to Ogilvie!) And this happens throughout the system, not just on the BNSF. If the train was hauling a commodity, the schedule makes perfect sense: we’ll pick up three tons of corn at LaGrange at 12:03pm; have the shipment ready at that time and we’ll pick it up then or shortly thereafter, and we’ll get it downtown no later than 12:47pm. But once again, Metra is – or at least needs to start thinking of themselves as – a transit agency, and people are not bulk commodities to be shipped. The value of time for a suburban resident waiting on a train is significantly higher than a farmer’s yield, and as we’ve seen throughout the country, transit riders aren’t afraid to pay a premium for prompt rideshare service instead of waiting.

The following graphic shows the longest duration in the current schedule between the second-to-last station and the downtown terminal for each line, and the corresponding travel time approaching the second-to-last station, including additional stops the train makes. As you can see, in some cases the schedule shows the train taking as long to travel the final few miles as it does to travel halfway down the line and make other stops on the way in.

This isn't exclusively a Metra issue, but it's still an issue.

This leads to a situation I call a “Schrödinger’s Delay” that pisses off riders and ends up being a self-inflicted wound for Metra, since the train is simultaneously delayed and on-time. Let’s go back to BNSF Saturday train #1312, which I frequently use to head downtown on the weekend. That train is scheduled to pick me up at LaGrange Road at 12:03pm, and it’s usually late. As mentioned earlier, weekday train #1296 can run Western Avenue to Union Station in 15 minutes (and that likely includes some time padding as well), but the Saturday schedule gives train #1312 a gratuitous 23 minutes. So we know there’s already at least eight minutes of time padding in there. Throw in the 5:59 grace minutes, and a train can arrive at LaGrange Road as late as 12:16pm, make all the scheduled stops 13 minutes behind schedule, and arrive at Union Station officially “on time”.

From an optics perspective, waiting on the platform in the elements (outside a station that’s locked on weekends) for a train that picks you up 13 minutes late just to have Metra tell you, “no, that train was actually on time“, is probably not the best long-term strategy for Metra and won’t help to attract new riders or make the system any easier to use. Even worse, regular riders can get used to the delay and know to show up a few minutes late until eventually the train comes as scheduled, and then people complain about Metra being on time. (Side note: be nice to @Metra on social media. There is an actual person who reads all the tweets.)

I understand that this issue is not specific to Metra, but honestly I don’t think that matters. If you want to build your ridership and make the system more user-friendly, revise your schedules regularly to reflect actual operating conditions, don’t just keep throwing extra minutes at the end of the line. If Metra wants to keep touting their on-time performance with monthly press releases (that mysteriously stopped coming out once OTP slipped below 95% starting last December), fine, but at least maintain some internal metric regarding schedule adherence and try to create some accountability to have schedules that match what riders expect, especially when you’re only running one train every hour or two hours. We live in the age of Uber and Lyft, where I can randomly choose to summon a stranger on the internet to pick me up and they’ll tell me exactly where he is and how long he’ll take to come get me; it’s not to much to ask for that, if I’m going out of my way to get on a train that comes once every two hours, that train comes when you say it’s going to come… and if it’s late, admit it’s late, and put some effort into making sure it won’t be late again.

Reminder: Metra is still accepting comments on the proposed revisions to the BNSF weekday schedule. (No changes to the weekend schedule are proposed at this time, so everything above will likely continue to be true for awhile.) We have plenty of issues with the proposed schedule, and we’ve submitted our comments, but we encourage you to give your feedback to Metra as well. The comment period closes Sunday, April 15; send your comments to BNSFservice2018@metrarr.com.

Diverging Approach: Our Map, Revisited

Editor’s Note #2: The latest and greatest (May 2019) version of the map is here. This post is maintained for posterity.

Editor’s Note: In June 2018 we released an updated version of our map, which can be viewed here.

This weekend, an old post‘s web traffic spiked thanks to some people sharing this site on Twitter. As some of you know by now, I created my own version of Metra’s system map for our use here at The Yard Social Club; and as many of you have pointed out, it’s confusing as hell. But that was also kind of the point: Metra’s system and schedules are incredibly complex, and trying to pin down what a transit map of one of America’s largest commuter rail networks would look like was a challenge. As Daniel Kay Hertz pointed out in his tweet, our map tries to show 53 different service patterns as straightforward as possible, although even that is understating the complexity: there are plenty of trains that make (or don’t make) particular stops while otherwise largely conforming to the system I came up with. And I really didn’t even bother trying to decipher the UP-N line, which any casual commuter would definitely need a timetable to fully understand since the trains don’t seem to follow any particular pattern. If you made each particular stopping pattern its own designation, you’d easily get into the hundreds.

This is because Metra says they run a railroad rather than a transit system. The commodity they haul tends to be commuters and travelers, but otherwise the historic railroad mentality is still there. Trains run per the timetable, full stop. Whether the timetable makes any sense or makes commuter rail more attractive to infrequent users is besides the point: the train runs when the train runs, get on it or don’t. The entire point of this blog is to try to nudge Metra into doing little things that would make the system more attractive to casual users without totally reinventing the steel wheel, and there will undoubtedly be future blog posts about this as well.

But in the meantime, to the map.

While the focus and the primary visual focus is on the lettering scheme, there’s more here than meets the eye. As a Facebook commenter noted:

You know, initially I wanted to make a snarky remark that your map looked like someone read Vignelli’s [landmark New York City] subway map and did away with the useful cleanliness and vomited symbols onto it, but after staring at it for a few minutes it’s actually really useful in describing the multitude of short-turns and limited services.

But buried in the legend of the map is what I think is the most useful change: changing the long name of each line away from the legacy/host railroads and into something different. The legacy/host railroad naming scheme made more sense when the RTA first formed Metra back in the early 1980s, but thirty-odd years later it leaves us with a system that’s just that much more difficult to understand unless you’re a daily commuter. For instance, today Metra has two North Lines, two West Lines, a Northwest Line, and a North Central line (which is officially named a “Service” rather than a “Line”). The Union Pacific lines don’t serve Union Station. The Heritage Corridor is named after a canal. The Metra Electric line has three distinct branches.

We can do better.

When I created The Yard Social Club’s map, in addition to the lettering scheme, I came up with ten corridor names as well. (I folded the North Central Service mostly into the Milwaukee West line, for reasons to be explained later.) In my scheme, I named the lines after a parallel road or freeway that would be used to drive into Chicago if you didn’t take the train: if you would usually drive downtown on the Edens, the Edens Corridor trains would probably be a good alternative. If you live along Ogden Avenue, the Ogden Corridor train is nearby. Of course, this system still isn’t foolproof since roads don’t necessarily parallel the rails, but by and large it works. Wherever possible I tried to use a parallel freeway corridor (so the UP-NW is the Kennedy Corridor rather than the Northwest [Highway] Corridor), with the exception of the Eisenhower since both the UP-W and BNSF lines relieve the Ike.

So here’s how it shakes out, with the lettering scheme as well:

  • A/B – Sheridan Corridor ServiceA: Union Pacific North Line trains to Kenosha
    • B: Union Pacific North Line trains to Waukegan
  • C/D – Kennedy Corridor ServiceC: Union Pacific Northwest Line trains to Harvard
    • D: Union Pacific Northwest Line trains to McHenry
  • E – Roosevelt Corridor ServiceE: Union Pacific West Line trains to Elburn
  • F – Reserved for future use
  • G/H – Edens Corridor ServiceG: Milwaukee North Line trains to Fox Lake
    • H: North Central Service trains to Antioch via Libertyville
  • I/J/K – Grand Corridor ServiceI: North Central Service trains to Antioch via O’Hare
    • J: Milwaukee West Line trains to Elgin
    • K: Milwaukee West Line trains to Big Timber Road
  • L – Stevenson Corridor ServiceL: Heritage Corridor trains to Joliet via Lemont
  • M/N/O/P – Ogden Corridor ServiceM: BNSF Railway express service, Aurora-Lisle-Downers Grove
    • N: BNSF Railway local service to Aurora and express service to Naperville-Route 59
    • O: BNSF Railway express service, Fairview Avenue-Hinsdale
    • P: BNSF Railway local service to Brookfield and express service to Highlands-Congress Park
  • Q – Southwest Corridor ServiceQ: SouthWest Service trains to Manhattan
  • R/S – Dan Ryan Corridor ServiceR: Rock Island trains to Joliet via Vincennes Avenue
    • S: Rock Island trains to Joliet via Beverly/Morgan Park
  • T: Reserved for future use
  • U/V/W/X/Y/Z – Lake Shore Corridor ServiceU: Metra Electric trains (express and local) to University Park
    • V: Metra Electric trains to Blue Island via Hyde Park
    • W: Metra Electric trains to South Chicago via Hyde Park
    • X: Metra Electric express service, Kensington-Harvey
    • Y: Metra Electric express service, Hazel Crest-Flossmoor
    • Z: Metra Electric express service, Olympia Fields-University Park
View this hot mess as a PDF.

The lettering system generally increases in a counterclockwise direction from north to south with a focus on consolidating adjacently-lettered lines into the same terminals. Extra care was taken for future flexibility: “F” is reserved for either a Milwaukee North branch extension (in which case the branch west of Rondout would change to form a useful mnemonic – “F” to Fox Lake, “G” to Gurnee) or a different stopping format on the Union Pacific West Line, which is currently completing a full third track and could conceivably host service as robust as the BNSF. When the CREATE 75th Street Corridor Improvement Plan happens and SouthWest Service trains begin terminating at LaSalle Street, the lettering scheme still holds (with LaSalle hosting Q/R/S trains). “T” trains are reserved for a potential SouthEast Service, which occasionally is brought up for consideration.

  • A/B/C/D/E – Ogilvie Transportation Center
  • G/H/I/J/K – Union Station, North Concourse
  • L/M/N/O/P/Q – Union Station, South Concourse
  • R/S – LaSalle Street Station
  • U/V/W/X/Y/Z – Millennium Station

The background shape of each letter changes based on the train’s format: circles (or parentheses) indicate a typical local service; diamonds (or angled brackets) indicate an express service; and squares (or square brackets) indicate a short-turn local service. While they’re shown on this map, they aren’t necessarily intended to be used for navigation. However, on this map they are useful to show new or infrequent riders what kind of service serves each suburban station. For instance, I grew up in Itasca; on the map, the variety of icons next to the station map show that local (J) and (K) trains will stop at Itasca, and Itasca also has express <J> service during the peak hour. I took that a step further when creating our Weekend Guides, with each train shown also represented by a lettered icon for quick reference: “oh, this is a circle train, it’ll probably make most local stops” or “this is a diamond train, it’s going to run express”. In a perfect world, Metra would have some sort of visual that could be included on the train itself for better identification purposes — every time I’m on a train passing through the Milwaukee North/West Western Avenue station, the conductor has to jump off the train and yell what kind of train it is, which probably worked fine back in the 1950s but doesn’t really pass muster in the age of the Americans with Disabilities Act.

If you love trains and like drinking (or if you like trains and love drinking, we don’t judge), check out our Weekend Guides. There’s a Google Maps version if you’re looking for bars on the go.

There’s a lot going on in our map, but that’s also kind of the point. Hopefully by showing off just how complicated the Metra network is, we can start discussing ways to make the system easier to use, easier to understand, and less intimidating for infrequent riders.

Week Ahead In Transit – April 9, 2018

Every Sunday, I’m going to try to post a rundown of what’s ahead for next week in terms of Chicago-area transit, appropriately named Week Ahead In Transit (WAIT). Here’s what’s coming up this week.

  • On the ‘L’:Red Line trains may be single-tracked between Grand and Cermak-Chinatown overnight.
    • Northbound Brown Line trains may use the Red Line tracks at Belmont late night.
  • On CTA buses: A handful of minor reroutes, but nothing too major.
  • On Pace: Some minor reroutes and stop relocations are occurring, but nothing too major.
  • On Metra: The comment period for the upcoming BNSF schedule changes is open through April 15. I whined about it on Diverging Approach earlier this week. Email your comments to Metra at BNSFservice2018@metrarr.com.
    • Modified schedules begin tomorrow (Monday, April 9) on the UP-N line to accommodate for construction. Metra will be replacing a dozen century-old bridges on the North Side of the city and will need to do some single-tracking.
  • Elsewhere:IDOT and the City of Joliet will be hosting a public meeting for the Interstate 55 at Illinois Route 59 Access Project on Wednesday (April 11) night. The meeting will be held in Building U at Joliet Junior College from 4pm to 7pm.

Diverging Approach: Getting Territorial

For weekday midday travelers on the Milwaukee North line during the month of April, Metra’s implementing a bus shuttle between Grayslake and Fox Lake to perform some track maintenance. On most other lines, when tracks need maintenance they’ll just run on a modified schedule and change tracks, but the northernmost reaches of the Milwaukee North line are a rare single-track stretch of the system. So Metra is running a bus shuttle between the four outermost MD-N stations and Grayslake instead. And, in classic Metra style, it couldn’t be more ineffective: the bus shuttle will stop at the four outlying stations at or near the scheduled train times, but inbound buses will miss the connection at Grayslake and riders are expected to wait until the next inbound train, which runs 45-60 minutes later. I can’t make this up. I’ve always joked that Metra focuses on moving trains instead of moving people, but come on man. From the schedule, it’s clear that Metra expects the (single) bus in the shuttle to operate just like the train it’s replacing, but either hold the inbound train from Grayslake to pick up the people being bused or hold the bus at Fox Lake and issue a bus schedule that makes a timed transfer to the following train at Grayslake.

But, of course, Metra doesn’t employ any staff who schedule buses like the CTA or Pace do. (Not that this would be a terribly hard schedule to come up with.) But that leads me to a more holistic question on the three transit boards that make up our Regional Transportation Authority:

What, exactly, would you say you DO here?

Let’s let the agencies tell us, in their own words.

In other words:

  • CTA: We move people.
  • Pace: We move people.
  • Metra: We move trains.

Metra digs in deeper with their corresponding vision statement, which directly jumps to “be a world-class commuter rail agency”. This kind of official mission and vision statement paints Metra into a bit of a corner: they run trains, and any solution they offer needs to be steel-wheel-on-steel-wheel. The closest Metra came to breaking that paradigm was in the old plans for the STAR Line, which would run smaller, independently-powered train cars known as Diesel Multiple Units, or DMUs, which are functionally similar to the trains on the Electric Line but powered by diesel instead of overhead wires. (This is partially why our advocacy group is named Star:Line.) The STAR Line would have run on new tracks along Interstate 90 between Rosemont and near where the Sears Center is now, then use the Elgin, Joliet, and Eastern (EJ&E) railroad paralleling the Fox River Valley down to Joliet. (The nail in the coffin for the STAR Line was the Canadian National Railroad buying out the EJ&E and using it as their freight bypass of Chicago, which greatly increased the number of trains on the EJ&E, precluding transit service.)

But now Pace is starting to creep into Metra’s wheelhouse with their express bus offerings along Interstate 55 and Interstate 94 starting next Monday. Pace, which is now allowed to pass slow traffic on I-55 by hopping onto the shoulder, expanded their bus ridership in the I-55 corridor by 600% since their on-time performance percentage jumped from the low- to mid-60s to over 90%. Simply stated, Metra can’t compete: the I-55 corridor runs through a gap in Metra service (except the Heritage Corridor, which is restricted to three inbound and four outbound trains a day due to track congestion), offers free park-and-ride lots, and has fares significantly lower than Metra from the southwest suburbs. The model probably isn’t sustainable — Pace doesn’t make money on free parking — but the numbers don’t lie, the service is successful. (It’ll be fun to watch the effect of the I-55 managed lanes once they get built — and fun to see what happens during construction, if Pace buses can maintain their priority.)

The agencies within the RTA aren’t known for their close coordination, and Pace’s downtown express services are a great example of that. Metra’s board has publicly mused as to whether Pace is “stealing” Metra riders. Luckily, the RTA’s best kept secret has the answer to that. Pace’s monthly ridership data — as well as Metra’s and the CTA’s — are all posted there on RTAMS, and the data is pretty clear: as Pace ridership in the I-55 corridor exploded, Metra’s southern feeder routes for the BNSF Line lost ridership. (See the disclosure at the end of this post for important side notes.) Intuitively, it makes sense: Pace and Metra don’t have a coordinated fare structure (other than a discounted bus pass you can tack onto a Metra monthly ticket, which is poorly publicized on Metra’s website and hides under the “Ventra app” tab), so the incentive to take a Pace feeder route to Metra depends solely on whether it’s cost-effective in some other way: if the round-trip bus trip costs less than daily parking in Naperville, Lisle, or Downers Grove (spoiler: it doesn’t), or if the park-and-ride lots in those communities fill up too early and there’s a scarcity of parking — which does actually happen. (Crazy to think that parking scarcity would encourage transit use… someone should really look into that.) So why would you pay to park at a Metra station, or take a Pace bus to get onto a Metra train, when you can just drive down to the I-55 corridor, park for free, and take a one-seat trip to downtown for less cost than a Metra trip? (The answer is “because Metra goes really really fast during rush hour“, but that’s an equation that gets less favorable the further away you live from the BNSF.)

Now we can start thinking a little more holistically: Metra is worried about Pace “stealing” Metra riders, but Metra’s train-only focus puts blinders on potential solutions. In a perfect world, with three different transit agencies under the same umbrella, the three would have better specialization of tasks. And you could argue that they are specialized: Metra runs trains, Pace runs buses, and CTA does both. But since Metra and Pace don’t have coordinated fares, the system in the suburbs will never reach its peak efficiency for the feeder route dilemma previously mentioned. But there is a solution:

Divide the three agencies by market segment, not by service offered. The old saying goes, when you have a hammer, every problem looks like a nail, and that’s what we’ve been seeing with Metra and Pace. Metra runs trains; their options to improve suburban transit service almost exclusively revolve around line extensions and capacity improvements. Pace runs buses; their options to improve suburban transit service revolve around making buses run faster and more reliably. That’s not to say either of those approaches are inherently bad, but the system can’t live up to its potential when the two systems don’t play nicely with each other.

So here’s how I would reorganize the three agencies:

  • CTA: Focus on intra-Chicago/inner-ring suburban trips.
  • Metra: Focus on suburbs-to-downtown trips.
  • Pace: Focus on suburb-to-suburb trips.

In Pace’s defense, they’ve been doing a great job with this goal already. Pulse is rolling out along the first few arterials (although it’s not true “bus rapid transit” as they’ve occasionally advertised), and the enhanced I-90 service feeding into Schaumburg and Rosemont effectively serves as the east-west portion of the original STAR Line plans. But maybe Pace would be better off leaving the feeder bus routes to Metra, so Metra could offer fare-coordinated service with better timed transfers to their trains. Metra could take over the Interstate 55 corridor buses and operate them as an extension (or even replacement) of the Heritage Corridor, freed from the restrictions of the heavy rail traffic in that corridor with more flexibility to add service to the southwest suburbs, which desperately needs more high-speed transit options to Chicago.

And then there are the off-peak potentials. This may sound sacrilege for someone who built this website around organizing train crawls, but a fleet of Metra buses could allow Metra to right-size off-peak service in the outer fringe of the service area and improve frequency in their more profitable and higher-ridership bands. For instance, imagine if instead of running weekend UP-NW trains out to Harvard, you could stop all the trains at Crystal Lake and give free transfers to buses to Woodstock and Harvard (and hell, maybe McHenry too, which currently has no off-peak service). While Harvard and Woodstock may at first resent losing rail service, stopping outbound trains at Crystal Lake would save 25-29 minutes each way, which means you could save a full hour on a round trip run. Roll that over throughout the entire off-peak and you maybe can have hourly headways all weekend long between Crystal Lake and downtown.

Although if there’s anything we can learn from Metra’s current foray into bus replacement on the MD-N, maybe we’re still a few more years away from trusting Metra with buses.

Disclosure: As a previous Metra employee, I had a small role in assisting with Metra’s Strategic Plan, but not the Mission and Vision statements. Also as a Metra employee, I performed a thorough analysis of Pace I-55 ridership relative to ridership changes on the BNSF, SWS, and HC Lines. However, as an internal document that has not been approved for public review, ethically I will not use any exact data, figures, or charts from that project here at The Yard Social Club or Star:Line Chicago. But the raw data I used remains accessible on RTAMS, if anyone wants to dive in.

Diverging Approach: A Letter to Metra

Based on our previous post, I went ahead and sent an email to Metra reflecting my thoughts on the proposed BNSF schedule. For some of you reading this, this is the inaugural post of Star:Line Chicago, so enjoy! This is the kind of advocacy we’ll be rolling out in the future. As a reminder, if you want to send in your own comments to Metra for their proposed BNSF changes, shoot an email over to BNSFservice2018@metrarr.com.

To whom it may concern:
I am writing in regards to the proposed changes to Metra’s BNSF schedule.  First and foremost, I would like to thank Metra for opening up the proposed schedule changes to public comment.  Seeking feedback from your riders on proposed schedule changes is admirable, and I sincerely hope the input you receive is both constructive and instructive as to what Metra’s ridership would prefer in changes to existing service.
Secondly, I would like to thank Metra for taking the initiative to add additional time when flipping trains. While I am aware that investments in Positive Train Control (PTC) are prompting this recommended change, additional buffer time between trains will help Metra maintain schedule adherence and help absorb minor delays when they occur so late trains don’t get any later.  This is an admirable goal, and I thank Metra for pursuing it.  However, having reviewed the proposed schedule changes, I have many concerns about how this will affect BNSF ridership — myself included as a regular commuter from LaGrange Road.
First and foremost, I don’t understand why additional time to flip trains is required as part of PTC implementation.  For Metra and the BNSF to spend tens of millions of dollars on a safety system that can’t be operated in push-pull mode seems to be a significant missed opportunity. Furthermore, while I understand both Metra and BNSF treat safety as job number one (as they should), the utility of an entirely separate job briefing when flipping a train — even if the train is deadheading back to Union Station or to an outlying terminal — seems wasteful and could easily be consolidated into a briefing at the beginning of a dedicated out-and-back run rather than a trip in each direction.  As such, I am not convinced that the BNSF requires as much additional time to flip the train as reported by Metra and the BNSF.
Secondly, while adjusting schedules to address crowding issues in the AM Peak is admirable, adjusting schedules for PM Peak crowding is not needed.  Bluntly stated, riders on outbound trains who cannot find seats during the afternoon peak simply did not arrive at Union Station early enough.  If riders barely make the outbound departure and must stand, so be it: I am sure that many Naperville/Route 59 riders would rather stand for 32 minutes than sit on a train that takes 45+ minutes to reach their stations.  However, riders on inbound trains in the morning do not have that luxury; the train is as crowded as it is when it gets to your station and boarding passengers must deal with it.  While an additional inbound express train from Aurora-Route 59-Naperville was added in the proposed schedule, the new schedule shifts the morning peak period deeper into the midday period, with some express trains arriving at Union Station after 9am.  Adding that additional Aurora-Route 59-Naperville express train comes at the expense of pushing a Lisle-Hinsdale express train to arrive at Union Station after 9am as well as pushing a Fairview Avenue-Congress Park train to arrive at Union Station at 8:59am.  As I’m sure most of the comments you’re receiving will tell you, in my experience the busiest trains of the AM peak period arrive downtown before 8:30am.  Pushing some of these trains to arrive at Union Station later will encourage existing riders to move to earlier trains, which is not only an inconvenience (no one wants to wake up earlier) but also adds additional riders to trains you want to decongest, which is counter-intuitive.  To address crowding at Naperville, I recommend instead converting the morning schedule to something more similar to the afternoon schedule, where Aurora riders utilize Lisle-Belmont-Downers Main trains and reserve dedicated express service to Route 59 and Naperville (your #1 and #2 suburban ridership stations).
Thirdly, the changes to the PM Peak schedule unnecessarily complicate the schedule, which raises an additional barrier to entry for new or infrequent riders.  The existing schedule is complicated enough as it is — in two instances, I personally get back to LaGrange Road sooner on certain express trains that leave after earlier local trains — but this proposed schedule takes that to an entirely different level.  The proposed schedule aligns express trains to arrive slightly after earlier local/other express trains, so intermediate riders who may not be coming from downtown will miss potential connections by a matter of minutes.  Currently, trains can be grouped into roughly four express zones: Aurora/Lisle-Belmont-Downers Main, Naperville/Route 59, Hinsdale-Fairview Avenue, and Congress Park-Highlands. Some trains will combine two of those zones, but otherwise the schedule is pretty consistent. Under the proposed schedule changes, however, west of Hinsdale riders will need to know what individual trains stop at their station in extreme detail, since the stopping patterns on the proposed trains do not appear to follow much rhyme or reason.  This again contributes to a significant barrier for potential new riders and makes the system much more unfriendly, and has the potential to make significant delay situations at Union Station that much more inefficient and problematic for riders.  Furthermore, the proposed schedule increases scheduled travel times from Union Station to Naperville by a full 25% (from 32 minutes to 40 minutes): and as your second-busiest station which deals with AM crowding in exchange for perhaps the best commuter rail express service in the country, this is probably a non-starter for a significant number of your riders.
In summary, with the coming changes of PTC, the way I see it Metra has two options: either work with the PTC implementation to fit the existing schedule as well as possible, or use this opportunity to throw out the existing BNSF schedule and rebuild it from scratch, focusing on existing and projected ridership habits and trends to create a schedule that prioritizes moving riders, not trains.  Instead, it appears that Metra is taking the bold approach of doing neither of those, tweaking the existing schedule somewhat arbitrarily rather than doing something truly bold and squandering an opportunity to reverse the slow loss of ridership from the BNSF we’ve seen for the past several years.  Metra’s BNSF service is an absolute asset to the entire Chicago region, and I do not see how these schedule changes improve satisfaction of existing riders or encourages other commuters to become Metra riders.
I encourage Metra to use this opportunity to reimagine the entire BNSF schedule to better serve current and potential riders and to take these considerations into account when adjusting schedules on other Metra lines as PTC continues to roll out.
Once again, I appreciate the opportunity to provide feedback on the proposed BNSF schedule changes, and I look forward to supporting Metra in the agency’s goal to provide better transit service for suburban Chicago.
As a reminder, today we’re rolling out STAR:LINE Chicago, The Yard Social Club’s new transit advocacy group focusing on the Chicago suburbs. We’re on Facebook, on Twitter, on Instagram, and right here on Diverging Approach.