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.

3 thoughts on “Diverging Approach: A Letter to Metra

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