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.

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