Diverging Approach: Meltdown

It’s been an impossibly long summer for BNSF riders. Tonight’s collapse, a signal issue near Union Station that resulted in multiple cancelled trains, was the second time in a week the dreaded Union Station overcrowding plan was rolled out to try to avoid commuters getting trampled in Chicago’s busiest train station.

I’m not going to go into too much depth on tonight’s particular failure – this is one of those things that just seems to happen a few times a year, and local media just loves running pictures of the throngs of humanity shoulder-to-shoulder in the South Concourse, so it’s well-publicized and documented. But on one of the hottest days of the year, it’s yet another chapter in a 2018 Metra wants to forget. Besides, this is one of those failures where Metra can wash their hands of it and trot out yet another non-apology apologies because it (probably) wasn’t a Metra signal that failed – Amtrak owns Union Station and the last mile of track – and it wasn’t a Metra-operated line – BNSF operates and dispatches their trains, Metra just owns the fleet – so really, what can Metra do about it?

The short answer is, Metra can actually do a lot about it, but (1) it involves playing the long game, and (2) it involves doing something different.

Metra is a tenant in Union Station, and basically something less than a tenant on the BNSF. (Metra has a similar agreement with Union Pacific for the three UPs, but Union Pacific has the added perk of also owning Ogilvie Transportation Center, so they’re a little better vertically-integrated in that operation.) Like all tenants, they have to deal with a landlord who throws nickels around like they’re manhole covers and keeps the purse strings tight. In this case, it’s hard to blame Amtrak too much for the state of Union Station: at any given time, Amtrak is one or two Congressional elections from ceasing to exist. Furthermore – stop me if you’ve heard this one before – Metra is a railroad. They can’t just pick up their tracks and move to a different train station if they wanted to. (Actually, that’s literally what they’re doing with CREATE on 75th Street, but still.) The relationship with BNSF is even more one-sided: Metra having their busiest, most profitable line operate under a purchase-of-service agreement is borderline extortion. “Either pay us money to run your trains or we’ll stop doing it” is a hell of an incentive for Metra to play nice with BNSF, although the potential political fallout makes that more of a nuclear option than a trump card for BNSF.

But, like any other lease, eventually they have to be renewed. Those renewals are Metra’s best chance to flex some muscle and at least try to play a little hardball. Even though it often doesn’t feel like it while you’re riding, Metra is in the year 2018. This is the age of budget constraints, but it’s also the age of Big Data and the age of asset management. It’s never been easier to integrate some sort of performance metrics into these third-party financial agreements. While Metra’s hand isn’t strong enough to say “we won’t pay you if on-time performance dips below 95%” (and that metric can be – and already is – easily gamed anyway), Metra could easily frame whatever performance measure they wanted as a bonus incentive. Maybe there’s a 5% payment bump if X number fares are collected, and a 5% penalty if more than 25% of the fleet has broken heat/air conditioning at any given time. In my personal ideal world, there should be ridership incentives: if we’re paying BNSF to run trains and ridership is declining on those trains, give the BNSF a reason to get some more skin in the game and get more people on their trains. (Since Metra has settled into an unfortunate habit of raising fares annually, it may not be fair to penalize BNSF solely for ridership losses.)

The RTA and the three service boards have recently been rolling out their #InvestInTransit initiative to shore up more funding to, well, invest in transit. And it’s absolutely true that transit is extremely underfunded: there’s no regular dedicated funding stream for capital improvements like new trains or upgraded signals. This blog obviously supports it wholeheartedly.

But.

There shouldn’t be a but, and before I started this blog there wasn’t.

But now there is.

Trains need to be safe. Trains need to be reliable. Ideally, trains need to be cheaper to maintain, which is generally what you get with a newer fleet.

But what kind of return on investment are we getting by spending tens of millions of dollars on new trains that run on schedules without significant changes since the 1980s? Do we need new signals to cram one more rush-hour train in as more people telecommute or work flexible hours as trains run only once every two hours the rest of the day? Will concrete ties and continuous welded rail change the requirement of three-person crews on each train, two of whom (the conductors) routinely only check tickets maybe only three or four times on the entire trip? Will more ADA-accessible train cars actually make it easier for disabled riders who are stuck with uncoordinated (and non-fare-integrated!) bus transfers to trains?

Maybe that’s the pessimistic side of the coin, so let’s look at the more optimistic side of things: literally anyone who has spent any amount of time on our transit network knows how underfunded is. (Okay, maybe that’s a downer of a way to start the “optimistic” argument, but hang in there.) What kind of changes can Metra make today that would get more people using the system? And likewise, wouldn’t it be a much easier political lift to go to elected officials with numbers showing more people using the system DESPITE its condition? Instead, Metra’s entering death spiral mode: fares go up, ridership goes down, service gets cut, ridership goes down more, so fares go up again and service gets cut again…

But to get out of that spiral, Metra needs to do something different, and they’re making the bold decision not to do that. And yes, doing nothing is a choice, and it’s a decision actively being made. When the house is burning down it’s hard to say where’s the best place to start spraying water, but you have to at least try reaching for the hose.

Today’s meltdown wasn’t Metra’s fault. But last week’s was (a SouthWest Service train crapped out on the approach into Union Station, blocking the tracks). Metra should’ve had a better handle on BNSF’s crappy record with air conditioned cars this summer. Metra definitely could’ve handled the PTC schedule rollout better. Then there was the phantom tornado warning. And to top it all off, Metra probably didn’t need to raise fares last February. (A blog post for another time.)

A quick glance on social media shows that riders are getting more and more impatient, sick and tired of paying more and more for declining service on the BNSF.

So why isn’t Metra?

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