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.