Diverging Approach: Shot and a Chaser

Happy Pride Weekend, Chicago! While it (hopefully) doesn’t need to be said, The Yard Social Club and Star:Line Chicago proudly support the LGBTQ+ community, and we believe everyone deserves the right not only to be themselves but to also be with the person they love and to be able to go where they want, when they want without fear.

As it’s Pride Weekend, all eyes will be on the Northalsted district, especially on Sunday for the parade. Of course, if you’re coming in from the suburbs, Metra is your best choice to head for the parade – or really for anything in the city. (Head over to the Brown Line on the Loop or the Red Line in the State Street Subway for the easiest ways to get to the parade.) And for you BNSF and UP-N/NW/W riders, good news: Metra’s running extra service on Sunday.

If you’re lucky enough to be on the Union Pacific North Line, rejoice: Metra is doing what they should be doing and slotting the extra outbound train at 7:35pm, midway between the 6:35 and 8:35 trains. If you aren’t on the UP-N, well, enjoy the shot-and-a-chaser service.

Believe it or not, Metra is actually pretty good about adding service for weekend events, at least in the fact that they actually add trains for busy weekends. And, since in Chicago there’s basically always something going on, between Memorial Day and Labor Day Metra adds trains on average every other weekend. On its surface, that’s great! More weekend service for people going downtown to have fun is literally what we’re all about. But the problem is that, when Metra adds weekend service, it’s almost always to handle capacity rather than to accommodate riders.

If that sounds like gibberish because I basically said the same thing twice, that’s understandable, so let me explain myself. When Metra adds service, the service added is almost always added in such a way to add capacity to an existing train rather than to accommodate new passengers. For example, here’s Sunday’s additional service for the BNSF.

The added trains (shaded) are what we call shot-and-a-chaser trains: rather than slotting an additional local train in that two hour gap, an express train (the shot) is lined up right in front of the usual local train (the chaser). Metra and their BNSF/UP host railroads generally prefer this setup because the new express train generally fits into the same track window as the regularly-scheduled local train, which means the host railroads can keep moving more profitable freight trains relatively unimpeded by the additional passenger service. Good for them.

There’s a major problem with this: Metra really isn’t adding any usable service their riders. In Sunday’s example, it’s true that a Naperville rider will save 24 minutes on their ride home, but it doesn’t change the fact that their trains back to Naperville only leave every two hours. This comes back to our usual refrain of Metra moving trains rather than moving people: if the regularly scheduled train is going to be crowded, just add cars to it and call it a day. If you can’t add cars, send out the shot train to take pressure off the chaser.

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: suburbanites want to take Metra. They – we –like taking Metra to and from the city. We can relax, have a drink or two, not worry about parking, and get back home all for the low cost of $10 per person all weekend long. It’s a hell of a bargain, but you need to be willing to be on Metra’s schedule, which is where the railroad actually loses a lot of potential weekend ridership. On Saturday evenings and all day on Sundays, the Metra lines with weekend service only offer outbound service every two hours. Even more frustrating, on many Metra lines, Saturday outbound service operates hourly between noon and 6pm, but not later. Why does Metra believe the demand for hourly trains increases in the afternoon but not in the evening on a Saturday?

I’ll answer my own question. In the planning world, transportation planners – and, come to think of it, some economists – are well-versed in the concept of induced demand: if you drastically increase the supply of something in certain cases, new demand will sprout up to take advantage of it. Highways are the usual example transportation planners offer up, and it goes like this. (Trigger warning: drunk economics and algebra.)

If there’s a six-lane stretch of freeway that’s congested, free market principles dictate that people making that trip, sitting in traffic, are only doing so because they can still profit from it. Let’s call the time it takes to drive between home and work on that highway (x). If the state DOT adds a lane in each direction, congestion will initially decrease and travel times will decrease to (x – y). With the new travel time of (x – y), that initial driver will find additional profit… but so will other drivers who were priced out of the market (the highway) at a travel time cost of (x), but can afford to re-enter the market at a lower cost of (x – y), which is the induced demand. With those additional users, the time savings (y) will decrease as the highway becomes more congested again, eventually settling back at (x) where the travel time takes the same as it did before the widening.

From a highway perspective, this is generally seen as a negative outcome: additional public costs – financial, environmental, societal, a bunch of different costs – to ultimately result in no net change is not an efficient use of public resources. But leveraging the same forces to add capacity during semi-peak times on Metra could be a net positive for the region, as more people would be willing to head downtown without driving while increasing Metra ridership (and fare collection).

Our theory is that Metra could induce additional weekend demand by repositioning their weekend trains – both regularly scheduled Saturday outbound trains and special service for special events. We strongly believe the latent demand is out there, based on personal and anecdotal experience with Metra’s awful two-hour outbound evening headways. Two Saturday examples to consider:

A night baseball game. If you’re coming in from the northern suburbs, there’s a good chance you’re going to a Cubs game. (Fun fact: Chicago has a second MLB team too! And their stadium is directly accessible from a Metra station!) Assuming a typical night game start time of 7:10pm, and a three-hour typical game duration, a game would end around 10:15 or so. Metra has a Saturday pulse-point of 10:30-10:45, where the following trains leave Union or Ogilvie:

  • 10:30pm: SWS
  • 10:30pm: UP-NW
  • 10:35pm: MD-N
  • 10:40pm: MD-W
  • 10:40pm: BNSF
  • 10:40pm: UP-W

Fifteen minutes from Guaranteed Rate Field to Union Station or Ogilvie is a pretty aggressive timetable, and from Wrigley Field it’s damn-near impossible without an Elon Musk underground magic sled. And if you miss those 10:30-10:45 trains, you’re stuck downtown until the 12:25-12:40s, unless you can take the 11:00pm UP-N. Why would you risk being stuck in the Loop on a weekend night for two hours?

An evening at the theatre. Maybe a night at the ballpark is too low-brow for you; maybe you’re catching a show in the Loop. If there’s a 7pm start time with a 90- to 120-minute run time, you’re done by 9pm or so. And guess what? You’re stuck with that same 10:30-10:40 pulse point as the Sox fans are in the first example, since there is only one train that leaves Union Station or Ogilvie between 8:41pm and 10:29pm (a UP-N train that leaves Ogilvie at 9:35pm).

For either of those situations – hardly unique things to do in downtown Chicago – why would you choose to take Metra? I say this as an advocate: you have to try really hard to make Metra work for your weekend plans. Meanwhile, on Saturdays, there are hourly outbound trains during the late afternoon. Why is there a 3:30pm UP-NW train but not a 9:30pm train? Why are there TWO BNSF trains at 5:35pm (the shot, express to Downers Grove) and 5:40pm (the local chaser), but no 11:40pm train (which also operates during the week)?

It’s great that Metra adds capacity for busy weekends, but tweaking the schedule just a little bit with hourly locals instead of shot-and-a-chaser split trains every two hours could make almost every weekend a busy weekend.

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