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.