Diverging Approach: Metra and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Week

It’s Thursday night, or at least it is right now as I write this. There’s a good chance you’re reading this on Friday, or maybe you’re stumbling upon this page in the future as you poke through our archives or because this page was linked somewhere else or whatever. Either way, it’s Thursday. I know a lot of people love Fridays, and there’s plenty of obvious reasons to be a Friday fan as long as you don’t work in the service industry. But for me, something about Thursday nights make them my favorite night of the week. Maybe it’s the anticipation of big weekend plans building, or maybe it’s because it’s a great night for an after-work happy hour, or maybe you’ve just had a rough week and Thursday night is the first time all week long you can just relax, take a breath, and talk yourself into dealing with just one more day before the weekend comes.

Metra is having a very rough week. And it wasn’t supposed to be like this.

The week started with what should’ve been cause for celebration: after many years of work (and tens of millions of dollars spent), Metra’s first fully-operational Positive Train Control (PTC) line was coming online. This federally-mandated-but-unfunded technology will help keep passengers safe by reducing the likelihood of train accidents. The only catch was that — for reasons we still don’t fully understand — the time it takes to initialize the PTC system at the beginning of each trip requires “flipping” times to increase from 10 minutes to 15 minutes, so the schedule for trains needs to be spread out a bit more.

No issues yet. Metra also decided that, since the BNSF is their busiest line, this would be a great opportunity to adjust the schedules to accommodate passenger loads. Again, terrific idea, and ideally that kind of schedule modification is done relatively frequently so trains are better matched with operating conditions.

But then Monday morning hit, and it’s been downhill since then. We won’t go into the nuts and bolts of how the wheels came off over the last few days — especially since we already touched on the topic earlier in the week — but suffice it to say, this is one of Metra’s worst nightmares come to life, full of unforced errors, including the following:

  • Using their busiest line to be the PTC guinea pig;
  • Soliciting input on the proposed schedules but making no significant changes based on the input received;
  • Ostensibly creating a schedule to accommodate overcrowded trains, only to severely underestimate passenger loads the first day out;
  • Publicly issuing a statement that seems to put the onus for overcrowding on the riders instead of the schedulers;
  • Using the same statement to strongly suggest that no significant changes will be made regardless of what kind of passenger loading conditions persist; and
  • Insisting on staying the course despite three consecutive days of local media reports of overcrowded trains and man-on-the-street interviews at Union Station.

But lost in all the noise of the first half of the week — and drowned out by today’s announcement that Mayor Emanuel is going to let Elon Musk build his Galt’s Gulch Express under the City of Chicago (which is also kind of a bad news scenario for Metra if you think about it) — is a fascinating article about Metra from the Better Government Agency (BGA), a government watchdog organization. The article is a great read and comes to a startling (well, maybe if you don’t read this blog) conclusion: much of Metra’s issues are at least somewhat self-inflicted based on fiscal mismanagement. In this case, “fiscal mismanagement” means under-investment in the system as a whole, even as fares have steadily increased over the last few years. The BGA article also discussed what was an open secret in the Chicago transit community: while it’s true that Metra cries poor, discusses their “fundamentally unsustainable” revenue model, and preaches fiscal responsibility to the extreme (side note: Metra employees are required to pay full fares when riding Metra), the agency also has $1 billion in bonding power available and uses precisely $0.00 of it. While debt spending isn’t really something to celebrate, having those resources available for capital improvements and not using them is borderline malfeasance. Hell, when a government watchdog is taking a government agency to task for not spending enough money, that’s quite the indictment.

To put it another way, imagine you live way out in the suburbs and you drive an old car. It still runs, but it’s not getting any younger, and it’s been breaking down more and more often. Obviously you need to get the car fixed to keep it running, and on paper just about any repair at the mechanic is cheaper than buying a new car. Besides, you don’t have $20,000 in cash sitting in your checking account, so you talk yourself into just fixing the car as it breaks until some far-off day when you have that kind of walking around money on hand to buy a new car.

Now imagine that you also have a credit score of 820 and your house is paid off, and you’re still refusing to get a loan to get a new car, even though a new car would be more reliable, less expensive to maintain, and allow you to be more efficient and productive. That’s basically what Metra’s doing with their capital program. Obviously in this scenario you also wouldn’t go ahead and blow your credit on a Maserati, but it’s definitely not unreasonable to float a loan for a reliable car that no longer requires duct-taping the seats back together every few weeks.

Metra’s spending money on improving their car rehab facility, which will allow them to refurbish more cars at once, which is all well and good, but it’s still just more duct tape on the seats. (Sometimes literally.) Some of the cars on the BNSF Line date back to the 1950s, and these refurbishments aren’t going to make them ADA-accessible or more passenger-friendly above and beyond maybe a USB outlet at every other seat on the lower level. The Gallery Car model itself is inefficient: a single doorway in each car and several steps to step up into the train increase the time it takes to load and unload trains. Long trains with diesel locomotives take longer to speed up and slow down than their more nimble electric counterparts such as the Highliners on the Metra Electric. The BGA article reports that Metra is actually looking to flash the credit card soon, albeit very underwhelmingly: $27 million to buy 21 locomotives. Not new locomotives; second-hand locomotives.

Which brings us around to maybe a super-hot take: what if Metra can’t be trusted with increased funding? It’s sacrilege to say, and we’re by no means arguing to cut funding to Metra. There’s plenty of parts of the system that do need upgrading: modernized signals, bridge replacements, expanded fleet and yard capacity, station and accessibility improvements, the list goes on. But investing in more Gallery Cars means doubling-down on conductor-based fare collection, which is very labor-intensive. Track improvements in Chicago on the MD-N and especially on the UP-N seem to preclude a potential future three-track main line in many places within the city, severely restricting possible express operations for peak periods. (Three-track operation is very successful on the BNSF, MD-W, UP-NW, and soon on the UP-W.)

This also goes back to a recurring theme here at Diverging Approach: there’s plenty of efficiencies Metra can gain on the operating side of the house without worrying about any new capital expenditures anyway. Changing the way fares are paid for and collected that doesn’t require conductors to check each and every ticket, each and every time. (Side note: Metra is suspending 10-ride and monthly ticket sales from vending machines on the Metra Electric due to fraud; this seems like it could have significant Title VI legal issues and is yet another argument for fare capping.) Adjusting off-peak schedules to better accommodate non-commuter riders and encourage more off-peak ridership. Schedule padding that makes Metra less attractive in the age of Google Maps. Pulse scheduling to better accommodate inter-line transfers.

Tomorrow is Friday, and the weekend can’t come soon enough for Metra (or any of us, of course). And as we’ve discussed in previous posts, when we advocate for change at Metra, it’s not meant to be some kind of existential threat. Metra’s ridership is passionate about the railroad because we understand what kind of an asset it is — and more importantly, what kind of asset it could be — for our region. We want the railroad to be more user-friendly, more accessible, more reliable, and something we can take pride in. Give people a reason to choose Metra, and they will.