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.