Diverging Approach: The Wonderful World of Weekend Work

It’s June! Summer’s here, and just like everywhere else it’s construction season on Metra. Weekend construction is nothing new: it makes sense to do maintenance and improvements when the trains run the least frequently, and since most commuter rail lines run right through the heart of suburban downtowns, overnight work may not be politically feasible. Besides, in an era of constricting budgets, any investments in maintaining a state of good repair are welcome and encouraged.

But no good deed goes unpunished, so let’s dive into the travesty of Metra’s “construction schedules”. Obviously, when people are working on the tracks, trains will need some extra time: they may need to operate on a single track, where trains in opposite directions can’t pass; they may need to operate on the center express track, which means only one or two cars will open at some stations and thus passenger loading/unloading times increase; or even if the tracks are unobstructed, for obvious reasons trains will need to slow down to pass workers on the tracks. All good reasons to delay trains and to manage expectations for ridership and to issue construction-specific schedules.

But rather than trying to provide accurate delay estimates along the line based on where the construction is happening and what kind of work is being done, Metra’s slavish devotion to on-time performance rather than schedule adherence means “construction schedules” just throw 10-20 minutes into the gap between the penultimate station and the final destination of each trip. Keep in mind, officially any commuter train that arrives at its final destination within six minutes of its scheduled arrival time is officially on-time, regardless of what time the train showed up to pick passengers up. Given that weekend schedules are already heavily padded, throwing on extra time for “construction schedules” leads to a few egregious schedule issues. Here’s this weekend’s Saturday inbound BNSF construction schedule, which is being rolled out so BNSF crews can replace the Main Street crossing in Downers Grove.

Wait for it…

First and foremost, this schedule is tougher than it should be to find on Metra’s website. It’s Tuesday. This is this coming Saturday’s schedule. There’s no warning or alerts in the Ventra app.

Smooth sailing through calm seas. (For what it’s worth, the notices are included on the BNSF Railway portion of metrarail.com, but the construction schedules are not included in the alert.)

There’s no press release listed.

We’ll get to the added service. Check back Friday.

The only way to find this schedule – on the mobile site at least, I left my laptop at home – is to know where to find the Construction Notices on the front page, then click through to find your line.

“Good to Know” indeed.

Anyways, that’s where it is. If you’re planning on riding Metra on any summer weekend, or doing something like, say, planning a train crawl (and who would care about anything like that?), check out the Construction Notices to make sure there are no unpleasant surprises coming up.

Planning a train crawl around a 17-minute pedestrian detour in Brookfield to replace a crossing on June 16 would qualify as an “unpleasant surprise”. Also worth noting this project isn’t listed in the BNSF’s construction notices yet, although there is a service alert regarding this project on the BNSF schedule page of metrarail.com – but not in the Ventra app.

Alright. So ride at your own risk, listen to platform announcements, check the Metra website a few days before your trip, use the Ventra app for real-time schedule information, leave some flexibility in your schedule, etc. etc. etc. Buyer (or traveler) beware.

Speaking of schedule flexibility, let’s go back to that BNSF construction schedule. Computer, enhance the inbound schedule between Western Avenue and Union Station:

There we go. This is a good time to point out that (1) BNSF weekday schedules are changing on Monday, June 11, and (2) Metra inexplicably didn’t use this opportunity to adjust weekend schedules to reflect current average arrival times with less schedule padding.

Thirty-three minutes! Metra somehow isn’t the fastest transit option between the Western Avenue Metra station and Union Station, according to Google (which goes off of Metra’s published schedules). It’s also not even the second-fastest transit option, which is kind of impressive when you think about it.

On paper, Metra is the third-fastest public transit (and the most expensive!) transit option for a trip between two Metra stations. Grabbing a Divvy would be 15 minutes faster than riding a Metra train, according to Google.

Obviously it’s not going to take you over half an hour to go the last four miles on the BNSF. The train is scheduled to arrive Western Avenue at 11:24am, but with the construction delays that train probably won’t roll in until 11:40am. And that’s fine, delays happen when you’re rebuilding infrastructure. But Metra puts the onus on its passengers to get to their inbound station “on time”, grind through whatever the delay is before boarding, and assume they’ll be happy as clams as long as they get to Union Station “on-time”, which in this case can be as late as 12:02:59pm (about 40 minutes after a passenger arrives at 1800 S. Western Avenue). We call it a “Schrödinger’s Delay“, and it’s a great way Metra pisses off riders without even trying.

Pointing to Google travel times may be a bit of a strawman argument, but it reflects a 21st-Century reality of how suburban travelers behave. If someone is on the fence as to whether they’ll take Metra downtown or drive, it’s entirely likely they’ll throw their trip into Google and see what the travel times look like. Extra travel time padding – both the standard schedule padding plus the additional construction schedule padding – may change someone’s calculus on whether or not to take Metra before they even get to the station. Is off-peak on-time performance worth losing potential riders because the on-paper in-vehicle time needs to cover 95% of the potential trips? It already takes special effort to plan a weekend trip on Metra: plenty of potential weekend riders are scared off by infrequent outbound trains, and while unfortunately we don’t have any hard statistically-significant data to back it up, plenty of anecdotal knowledge is out there that says an unknown number of weekend Metra trips never happen because suburbanites don’t want to risk missing an outbound train and being forced to wait two hours for the next train.

n = 15 suggests we need more Twitter followers, and these results suggest 14% of our current followers are trolls.

Construction is unpredictable. We get that. But if Metra wants riders to keep coming back on the weekend – especially summer weekends, when demand to head downtown for leisure trips are highest – the railroad needs to be willing to sacrifice their precious official on-time metric in favor of schedule adherence and letting riders know when they can reasonably expect to board their trains to the city. If weekend on-time performance declines but ridership increases because schedules and operations are more convenient and attractive to weekend riders, this blog will be Metra’s first and loudest defender to claim that on-time performance is not as important of a metric during the off-peak provided schedule adherence is strong and evening/late-night frequencies improve.

But that would require some effort on Metra’s part to put themselves in the shoes of their weekend riders and to better understand what that ridership experience is like. When the train comes once every two hours and the train is routinely late by a few minutes (but maybe not “officially” late because we all know it doesn’t take 25 minutes to go from Western or Clybourn to the downtown terminal regardless of what the schedules say), don’t just throw ten extra minutes at the end of the schedule and call the construction mitigated. In this weekend’s case on the BNSF, since this track construction is happening back in Downers Grove and since the agency is already issuing a construction schedule, just go ahead and add an extra five minutes to the arrival times between Main Street and Hinsdale or so, and pro-rate the other five minutes between Western Springs and Berwyn. If the train has to burn an extra minute in Westmont and Clarendon Hills to maintain schedule adherence, so be it (but it probably won’t). That will provide the same ten minute buffer time, but won’t lead people to spend extra time waiting on the platform for trains we know will be delayed anyway.

A final important note: I used the BNSF as an example here, and this kind of stuff happens on many of Metra’s lines. However, this is one of Metra’s purchase-of-service lines (along with the three Union Pacifics), which means Metra doesn’t have much control over what’s going on. In the case of that Brookfield crossing closure (and the Downers/Main Street closure, for that matter), that will be BNSF crews doing construction on BNSF tracks, delaying BNSF trains. But since Metra is the unified regional commuter rail brand, someone at Metra headquarters will be reading angry tweets all week long when the agency unfortunately has their hands tied. The BNSF is hanging Brookfield in particular out to dry with that 3/4-mile “pedestrian detour”, and Metra will bear the public-relations brunt of it. That’s not fair to Metra, and Metra should also do whatever they can to pressure their host railroads to better accommodate their (own!) riders during significant construction projects like these.