Diverging Approach: Back to the Map

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

Last year, we created our own map of the Metra network in an effort to highlight the complexities of the network as a whole. We rolled out an updating naming system for the lines involving single- (or double-) letter indicator paired up with line names based on parallel highways. The map was created with two, maybe conflicting, goals: first and foremost, to showcase how complicated Metra’s schedules can be; and second, to simplify the line naming structure away from the legacy railroad naming scheme.

Metra responded by making the BNSF schedule more complicated, which takes effect in just under two weeks.

Back when Metra was soliciting input on the proposed schedule changes, we recommended Metra stop trying to tweak the current schedule to fit the limitations of the Positive Train Control rollout. (Metra was kind enough to respond to explain why my recommendations couldn’t be included in the final schedule.)

But with the schedule changes on the horizon, we decided to take our own advice and remake our map from scratch. In doing so, we tried to improve the map in a few different ways while handling the new BNSF schedule.

One of the biggest changes in the new map is the concept of split consists. Taking a look at the new BNSF schedule (and much of the existing UP-N schedule), the stopping patterns of many trains make more sense when multiple trains are considered as part of the same run. In simpler systems, this is known as a skip-stop arrangement, similar to what used to be run during rush hour on the NCS: two trains leave within a few minutes of each other, which the lead train skipping every other stop and the following train making the stops the leading train skipped. This system has a few advantages: the trains can operate within the same gap in freight traffic, on the same track; capacity is enhanced on the run since there are now two trains; and travel time is slightly reduced since each train makes fewer stops. The CTA used an “AB” skip-stop system on many of their ‘L’ lines starting in the late 1940s and lasted well into the 1990s.

Metra is using this system in a few areas, including on the UP-N — where there is no express track available — and on the new BNSF schedule, where ridership levels are extremely high. The issue with Metra’s schedules, however, is that the schedules are inconsistent between trains. If you squint, you can see what we’re calling split consists: two trains that serve the same stretch of line, but with different stopping patterns.

Also new in this version of the map are a few larger classifications of line service patterns:

  • Basic Service indicates lines that have little to no weekend service with lower off-peak service on weekdays.
  • Core Service indicates lines that have service seven days a week with average headways of two hours or better.
  • Supplemental Peak Service indicates additional service operated for peak service, generally express trains (denoted with diamonds) or additional local trains (squares).
  • Extended Service indicates a line where some trains terminate short of the ultimate terminus, but some trains do continue on at lower frequencies.
  • Combined Service indicates that some trains may accommodate multiple service patterns, and are indicated by the two letters of the services combined.

With these service groupings and the concept of split consists, we were able to greatly simplify the map by removing most of the duplicate indicators throughout the map. For kicks, we also improved the stylizing of the map by throwing out any semblence of geographic accuracy and scale, and by rotating the map 90 degrees. (We’ve nicknamed this the “lotus map”.) It’s not perfect and there are still plenty of issues — we use a free vector cloud-based program, not Illustrator — but we think it’s a good step forward.

RailMap_v2_FullView this map as a PDF.

These changes will eventually be rolled out to the Weekend Guides as updates are made over time. In the meantime, enjoy the new map, and let us know your thoughts.

Diverging Approach: The Freakin’ Weekend

This post originated as a (buzzed) thread on @StarLineChicago‘s Twitter account. It is mildly edited. Follow us on Twitter for more suburban transportation content and critiques.

First and foremost: it’s a long weekend. Stay safe, party responsibly, and remember that Metra Weekend Passes are good Saturday, Sunday, AND Monday this weekend. Give your car a break and ride the train!

Since it’s a long weekend, Metra also rolled out “early release” schedules for those of us who had to work on Friday. Unfortunately there is no default “early release” schedule system-wide, which seems like a missed opportunity to make the system more rider-friendly, but I digress.

I’m writing this onboard the BNSF 7:00 local to Downers Grove, which was “packed” with inbound riders when it arrived at Union Station. (“Packed” was in quotations due to the artificial scarcity Metra routinely uses where additional coaches don’t open up until the train is almost at standing-room-only passenger levels. I understand it makes life harder for the conductors to deal with a full consist with only a handful of people on board, but still, opening up an extra car or two would greatly improve the customer experience if you can find a seat without sharing or if your group can sit together when the train is at 50% capacity.) But that’s not terribly important (even though there was one afternoon inbound delay due to “passenger loading”), and there was also an inbound train that had to express due to freight train interference, and BNSF threw on an extra train to accommodate (according to Twitter, at least).

All this brings up a useful conversation on a holiday weekend: kudos to Metra for adding service for commuters quitting work early, but what about suburbanites heading downtown for the holiday weekend? People in the suburbs like going downtown. Especially on Friday nights. Especially on holiday weekends. And especially especially when the weather is decent. Metra knows their bread and butter is people from the burbs heading downtown and taking the train back home when they’re done, and they usually focus on the work commuter rush. Which is fine and will always be Metra’s core constituency. But the leisure rider component can’t be overlooked. On weekend nights, suburbanites like going downtown to have fun, and if they take Metra downtown they’ll take Metra home.

Metra needs to run more frequent outbound evening trains on weekends. Ask any suburbanite about trips to the city, and the refrain is overwhelmingly common: “I want to take the train, but I don’t want to wait two hours if I miss my train home.” So they drive.

On Fridays, the opposite is true: there are generally plenty of trains to get home, but getting downtown requires a little more strategy. (And it’s more expensive because Metra doesn’t start their Weekend Passes on Friday nights, which they should.)

So for holiday weekends when demand is high – or maybe every summer Friday – here’s an easy fix for Metra: open up the deadheads. When Metra adds afternoon service to trains leaving downtown, that train ends up empty somewhere down the line. Then that train closes up and runs express back downtown to make the next outbound run. (That empty trip is a “deadhead”.) This means Metra is running more inbound trains on Friday afternoons before long weekends, and generally (because it’s a special “early release” schedule) there’s more flexibility in the schedule itself to add some time to make a few more inbound stops.

Open up the trains and advertise that Metra is offering additional/express service to the city in advance of the holiday weekend. It costs Metra nothing extra, since that train and that crew is deadheading anyway. Even if it only picks up 30 riders on that inbound train, whatever, that’s 30 new riders who are going to also take Metra back home at the end of the night. If Metra is going to alter service for a holiday weekend, leverage that opportunity to get more people from the burbs downtown instead of focusing almost exclusively on getting commuters home.

From a financial perspective, the early release service for regular commuters largely serves the monthly pass or 10-Ride crowd, whereas additional inbound afternoon service serves the one-way crowd, which means Metra can earn higher per-passenger fares for those Friday leisure trips. We encourage Metra to accommodate those riders heading downtown for fun: an underutilized market to tap in an era of declining ridership. Open up the deadheads and see what happens.

Have a safe Memorial Day weekend, and we’ll see you on the train!

Diverging Approach: Eat Elon Musk’s Lunch

The O’Hare Express project is back in the news now that Elon Musk and his Boring Company is bidding for the project. The project, which started as a pet project from the second Mayor Daley to get express rail service between downtown and O’Hare Airport, most recently ended up with the CTA holding the bag on a $400-million hole in the ground underneath what’s now known as Block 37. Since Elon Musk walks on water in the tech community, his interest in the project is nothing to scoff at. A subset of urban planners fawn over his every move in regards to electric vehicles (which are good), autonomous driving (which will probably be a mixed bag), and his Boring Company’s tunnels (which are currently actively sabotaging a subway expansion project in Los Angeles) as a total paradigm shift in how we move around our cities, and they’re probably right: there’s no going back at this point, for better or worse.

Back to Chicago. The O’Hare Express project is back from the dead, with three corridors under consideration: a corridor paralleling the northern half of the Blue Line; a corridor paralleling the southern half of the Blue Line, then following a freight corridor through River Forest, Melrose Park, and Franklin Park; and the existing Metra North Central Service corridor.

The northern Blue Line corridor obviously already connects downtown and O’Hare in a pretty straightforward alignment. Chicago’s aviation commissioner proposed simply double-decking the Blue Line for express service, which is an, uh, interesting proposal given that the Blue Line runs in a subway, and as an elevated, and in the median of the Kennedy.

In the past, I’ve argued that the most feasible alignment for any airport express service would parallel the southern Blue Line in the median of the Eisenhower, which was built extra-wide to host the Chicago, Aurora, and Elgin interurban tracks before that railroad ceased operations during construction of the Eisenhower. From there, the airport express train would operate along the freight line connecting Forest Park and O’Hare (which is part of the southern alignment under consideration), but running at-grade through River Forest’s residential neighborhoods would probably be a non-starter. Furthermore, this line would open up new transit opportunities for developments and institutions in the near western suburbs (notably Triton College) under a more local service pattern, which of course is not being considered as part of the project.

But this entire conversation misses a huge point: Metra is already in a perfect position to offer premium service to O’Hare over existing trackage. Indeed, the NCS does serve O’Hare and, if you’re able to catch the train, it’s faster to downtown than the Blue Line: trains 102 and 108 make the trip from O’Hare to Union Station in 33-35 minutes, compared with 40ish minutes on the Blue Line from O’Hare to Clark/Lake.

In the past, the Metra “connection” to O’Hare hasn’t been more than an afterthought: yes, Metra ostensibly serves the airport, but requires transferring to a bus to transfer to the Airport Transit System people mover in Remote Parking Lot E before you get to the terminals. This extra time on-property at the airport kills any time savings compared to the Blue Line, and given Metra also charges a significant price premium — O’Hare is Zone D, so one-way tickets are $6.25, which is even higher than the CTA’s $5 boarding charge at O’Hare — it’s not a realistic alternative for travelers. Besides, running only ten trains each day in each direction on the NCS means travelers probably would need to do some contortions to get a Metra train that works with their flight schedules. And, of course, the NCS doesn’t offer weekend service, which is a huge shortcoming on the line and the source of ire for many northern suburbs along the line, which are proactively working with the RTA to study potential funding options that would allow for expanded NCS service. This blog wholeheartedly supports these communities in pursuing innovative financing options to expand off-peak service opportunities in this corridor.

It’s easy to sit here and say “run more NCS trains”, and just about every regional transit advocate has said that at one point or another. However, Metra’s behind the 8-ball a bit since they don’t actually control the line. Let’s back up a second for an explainer.

Most people think of Metra as a monolithic entity that runs the region’s 11 commuter rail lines, and to a significant extent that’s true: Metra has a unified ticketing system (and yes, your ticket is good on any line as long as you stay within the zone pair on the ticket), Metra’s planning staff oversees capital planning efforts throughout the region, Metra’s social media person has to deal with complaints from all the lines, etc. However, the actual system is much, much more complicated.

Generally speaking, there are three types of agreements Metra has for actually running the trains:

  • Full control. On the two Milwaukee lines, the Rock Island, the SouthWest Service, and the Electric, Metra owns and controls everything: they own the tracks, they own the trains, engineers and conductors are Metra employees, etc. (In the case of the SWS the tracks are actually leased to Metra, but it functions the same.) Even then though, Metra may outsource some things like dispatching to other railroads.
  • Trackage rights. On the Heritage Corridor and the North Central Service, Metra owns and staffs the trains but a freight railroad owns the tracks and as such Metra has to play by their rules. This is one of the reasons why HC service is almost non-existent (and why we think Metra should work with Pace or run their own buses to offer complementary bus service under the Heritage Corridor brand) and why it’s difficult to add train service to the NCS. Technically, since Amtrak owns Union Station and a mile of track in either direction, the Milwaukees and the SWS occasionally have to deal with that as well.
  • Purchase-of-Service. When the RTA was first organized in the 1970s to subsidize commuter service, they paid the freight railroads to operate commuter rail service. Over time, four lines – the BNSF Railway and the three Union Pacifics – still use this set-up. On these trains, Metra owns the trains themselves, but everything else – including staff – is under the jurisdiction of the host railroad. Metra has the least control over these lines: since they’re owned and operated by freight railroads, it’s not surprising that those railroads tend to prioritize their profitable freight operations rather than passenger service that was mostly grandfathered in from previous railroads they purchased and merged with over the years.

Back to the NCS: Metra initially launched the North Central Service under trackage rights with the Wisconsin Central Railroad. Since then, however, Wisconsin Central was bought by the Canadian National (CN) Railroad, which is less-receptive to expanding passenger operations. For instance, in 2006 Metra invested in additional stations and significant (but not full) double-tracking through the corridor in an effort to raise the number of daily trains from 10 to 22. However, to hit that magic number of 22 trains, Metra had to operate rush-hour skip-stop trains, which did speed up operations a bit but also allowed Metra to operate two trains within a single window of time. (The skip-stop trains have since been consolidated into a single all-stop to cut costs.) The 22nd (now 20th) train also required some creative scheduling: the last inbound train each night serves Antioch, Lake Villa, Round Lake Beach, and Washington Street before switching to the MD-N and running express into the city the rest of the way. This effectively leaves most of the corridor without an inbound train after 6pm.

Whenever additional NCS frequency comes up, the response is usually a quick “no” from either Metra or the CN, since the corridor is a key part of moving CN freight trains from points north into Chicago, including freight yards in Bensenville and Schiller Park (the former of which requires trains reversing down the MD-W through Franklin Park, leading to some notorious street delays in that community). Since railroads generally don’t play nice with each other, re-routing CN freight trains off the corridor using a different railroad’s tracks is frowned upon (although the CN did purchase the Elgin, Joliet, and Eastern (EJ&E) railroad to allow them to bypass Chicago as needed – and more or less killed the actual STAR Line proposal at the same time).

But what if the focus was less on getting all the way to Antioch and more on just getting service to Rosemont and O’Hare? Two new developments are making that a more attractive possibility.

First and foremost, O’Hare is nearing completion of their consolidated rental car facility adjacent to the O’Hare Transfer NCS station. Most importantly in this context, O’Hare’s people mover is also being extended to the facility. Now Metra riders will be able to walk from train to tram and go straight to the terminals without a bus connection. While dealing with the people mover is still less desirable than going straight into the terminal core like the Blue Line does, it’s worth noting Terminal 5 fliers will still need to use the people mover, and Terminal 5 will start to see more domestic flights as part of the “Global Terminal” core revisioning the city’s Department of Aviation is currently working on.

Second, the Village of Schiller Park applied for an RTA grant to create a transit-oriented development plan on the site of the current CN yard. If the yard is expected to wind down operations in the near future, additional land could be reserved for Metra-dedicated trackage. There would still be constraints at the B-12 Junction (where the NCS splits off the MD-W), but it’s not unreasonable to consider the possibility of Metra-dedicated track from O’Hare to River Grove and using the existing three-track MD-W main line the rest of the way to Union Station. (A stub track at the O’Hare Transfer station would also be needed to allow crews to change ends off the main line.)

It’d be great to roll out full weekend service to the entire NCS corridor, but that’s a heavy lift due to freight implications (and at-grade railroad junctions with the UP-NW and MD-N). But in the meantime, Metra can eat Elon Musk’s lunch and operate dedicated express service to O’Hare in the very short-term future. Current travel times to O’Hare from Union Station are officially as low as 32 minutes including stops at Belmont Avenue, Schiller Park, and Rosemont, which means direct service could break the half-hour mark. While O’Hare express is the target of the current plans the city is pushing, being able to directly serve the Rosemont entertainment district would broaden the customer base and potentially tap another funding source in the Village of Rosemont, which hasn’t shied away from kicking in for transportation infrastructure improvements especially as their “Pearl District” continues to develop and come online.

If you want to see how easy this trip could possibly be, join us for Star:Line Social on Friday, June 15 as we take the NCS to Rosemont to check out the Chicago Dogs. A limited amount of tickets are still available!

Diverging Approach: Passenger Manifesto

This post was initially published as a tweet-storm on our Twitter account, @StarLineChicago. Some edits are included to enhance readability and to add just a little of our trademark flourish.

I’m writing this onboard tonight’s 8:40pm Metra BNSF departure leaving Union Station, riding in the last car in the direction of travel. However, Metra changed the consist (so our car, which was formerly the second car, is now the cab car) but didn’t change the Quiet Car signage. No matter; Quiet Car hours ended after the 6:22pm departure.

Anywho, some hipster dipshit is sitting in one of the four-pack seats, taking up all four seats by himself: backpack and his feet on the opposite bench. And he’s talking loudly on his cell phone as douchebaggedly as possible. (As an example, he called Warren Buffett “just a guy who got lucky a few times” because Buffett called Bitcoin “rat poison squared”. “Whatever, it’s still above $9,000”, the dude laughed into his phone.)

At this point, a guy – who I’m guessing is pushing 60 years old – yells out from three rows back: “Hey! It’s a quiet car! The sign is right in front of you!”

The hipster scowls, grabs his stuff, and is overheard complaining into his phone about the “old fart” as he switches cars.

This car is still not quiet and has filled up with a variety of additional riders as we get closer to departure time. A father and son discussing their evening in the city. Two co-workers from southern Asia discussing their day at the office in their respective heavy accents. Two teenagers in the upper level who didn’t want to pay a scalper $80 each to get into the Cubs game. But now the older gentleman is just reading stuff on his phone, and hasn’t said boo to anyone else.

I’m guessing he knows this particular coach shouldn’t be a Quiet Car and that it’s too late for Quiet Car rules to be in effect anyway.

A lot of people who don’t ride Metra frequently (or at all) give the “Quiet Car Nazis” crap all the time, but there are plenty of times – like now – when they use their powers for good as well. It’s a suburban thing, and this is the kind of stuff that happens on off-peak Metra trains, for better or worse.

I started Star:Line because there is no suburban voice for suburban transit. There are plenty of (great!) city voices to promote better transit within the city, and Metra can – and should – be a key component to those plans. The writers over at Streetsblog Chicago are a great example of these kinds of advocates. Obviously Streetsblog doesn’t intend to be exclusively a city-oriented advocate, but due to the sheer number of urban residents who rely on transit, cycling, walking, and so on, urban-centric articles make up the lion’s share of content. But again: definitely not a bad thing as a whole.

Likewise, there are advocates like the dedicated folks over at the Midwest High Speed Rail Association who push Metra to be a better host and a stronger regional player, using the agency’s network and resources to better connect regional destinations throughout the Midwest. Again, a worthy goal that absolutely needs strong advocates, and definitely a role Metra should be more proactive in pursuing.

But Metra is, at its core, a suburban agency for suburban riders, and (beyond the public commiseration forum of @OnTheMetra) lacks an advocate for the thousands of suburban riders who use and rely on Metra day in, day out. Likewise for our fellow suburban transit riders on Pace’s suburban bus service.

This is what we intend Star:Line to become: a suburban voice for suburban solutions for suburban transit.

Suburbanites get plenty of grief – and undoubtedly much of it is well-deserved, whether we’re talking NIMBYism or restrictive zoning or a near-total reliance on personal vehicles – from urbanites and transportation advocates. And at a high level, there’s always room for big plans and big ideas: run Metra like Paris’s RER, or with half-hour off-peak headways like Toronto’s GO Transit. (We have discussed “borrowing” GO Transit’s bus shuttling service method in the past.) These are great ideas and would absolutely shift the suburban transit paradigm here in metropolitan Chicago, but may not be directly applicable at our scale. For instance, Metra’s 487 route miles dwarfs Paris’s RER (383 mi) and GO Transit (281 mi)… and New York’s Metro-North (385 mi) and the Long Island Rail Road (321 mi) and Boston’s commuter rail (368 mi) and… well, just about every North American commuter rail system except for New Jersey Transit, which serves both New York City AND Philadelphia.

But in the meantime here in Chicagoland, there’s so much low-hanging fruit that needs to be picked before we start pushing revolutionary ideas. Yes, Metra keeps raising fares, and yes, Metra is now cutting service (and will likely soon have a list of expendable stations to mothball or close once the Station Optimization Study concludes). Hell, some of Metra’s BNSF fleet dates back to the 1950s, which means some of the coaches I use in my daily commute are older than the expressways that cannibalized the local commuting market and led our state and local governments to subsidize commuter rail as a whole.

Undoubtedly, Metra has economic challenges ahead of it. Going through metrarail.com and looking for the phrase “unsustainable” in regards to funding might as well be a drinking game. Absent a massive political paradigm shift locally (or regionally, or nationally), big-ticket revolutionary ideas like full-system electrification or downtown through-routing remains in the domain of academics and urbanites who want to reimagine the system as a whole as an exercise but don’t necessarily reflect politically- or financially-feasible fixes for the foreseeable future.

I don’t want to throw cold water on out-of-the-box ideas, of course. Do we need big plans and long-term vision? Absolutely! If the funds ever appear because politicians are going to tax the rich or stop subsidizing private vehicles and single-family homeownership, it’s great to have a plan in hand to hit the ground running.

But in the meantime, Metra’s status quo needs addressing. Even within Metra’s current financial constraints, there’s so much the agency can be doing to get more riders on more trains. Pulse scheduling. Fare system changes. Weekend schedules prioritizing the leisure riders who use the system. Better outreach. Simpler service patterns and identification.

That’s where we come in, and that’s who we are. We definitely support some of the big-picture, paradigm-shifting plans. But we also focus on short-term, fiscally-constrained goals and objectives to get more suburbanites on transit today and tomorrow rather than waiting until next week for a more-perfect system.

This is Star:Line Chicago.

We advocate for supportive transit for ALL riders: leisure, infrequent, new, and experienced.

We are suburban Chicago’s transit advocate.

And we’re here to make a difference.