Diverging Approach: Reboot

They say, “write what you know.” For me and this blog, that usually amounts to my variety of (mis)adventures on Chicago-area transit. I originally started this site as a suburban advocate for transit, providing train crawl resources to make it easier for suburbanites to plan fun outings on Metra in the hope that, if someone has a good time on transit when they’re just hanging out in the suburbs on a weekend, they’ll be more likely to choose transit for future trips. Earlier this year, I realized that being a suburban advocate for transit wasn’t enough; I also needed to become a suburban transit advocate, someone who fights for a better transit system to serve the suburbs. That’s when I launched Star:Line Chicago and this blog, as someone who knew just enough to be dangerous with my modest background working at the CTA and Metra.

I enjoy running this blog, and I’ve gotten a lot of productive feedback from friends, industry peers, and a few laypeople who have stumbled upon the site.

But, as regulars know, I became somewhat less of a suburbanite this summer, when my wife and I bought our first house and moved from our rented two-flat in LaGrange to our bungalow in Forest Park. In doing so, I traded in my Metra monthly for a CTA/Pace 30-Day pass. If you’re not familiar with Forest Park, the village lies in one of the grayest areas of suburban living: our taxes don’t go to CPS and we’re not officially Chicagoans, but we ride the CTA, our houses have city lot sizes and alleys, and our neighborhoods are very diverse. The difference for a childless household in Forest Park and in a neighborhood like Jefferson Park is basically where our property taxes go and what color the streetlights are.

And Jefferson Park has Metra.

As some of you have probably noticed, since the move I’ve blogged (and tweeted) more frequently about Pace than Metra, since that’s my experience now. Living in Forest Park is a great opportunity for me to get to know the Pace system better, an important part of going car-less or car-light in the suburbs. Expect more Pace material in the future; I’m hosting our first-ever bus crawl in January if you want to experience Pace first-hand.

But I’m still a Metra regular; I’ve simply gone from a “normal” Metra commuter to an off-peak specialist. I’m writing this on the Milwaukee West right now.

And off-peak is Metra’s biggest weakness and greatest opportunity,

Earlier this week I put together a Crawl Concierge request for someone out in Geneva who wants to crawl the UP-W. The UP-W – officially my nearest Metra service, in Oak Park and River Forest – ‪is apparently on a construction schedule (which didn’t show up as a service alert on the Ventra app or on Metra’s website), which means the official schedule says inbound trains get to Ogilvie on even hours,‬ instead of on the odd :50s as scheduled. ‪To put it another way, according to the published schedules, an inbound rider from Elmhurst could get off at Oak Park, wait 8 minutes, transfer to the Green Line, make all 13 stops to Clinton (the stop before Clark/Lake) and beat the UP-W train to Ogilvie.‬

‪Of course, it doesn’t actually take 32 minutes to go the 9 or so miles from Oak Park to Ogilvie; Metra adds the time padding to maintain its on-time performance. Likewise, the train probably won’t actually get into Oak Park as scheduled at 3:28pm.

The national standard for on-time trains is as long as the train reaches its final destination within 5min 59sec of the published arrival time, the entire train is on time; tacking on extra minutes at the end of the run is an easy (and lazy) way to maintain on-time performance.‬ It also leads to what I call “Schrödinger’s Delays”, where in this case a train can come into Oak Park well behind schedule but magically makes it downtown on-time. The customer experience is waiting longer on a cold platform for a train that could arrive 15 minutes after when the schedule says it’ll get to the station, just to see Metra present a stellar on-time performance at the next board meeting.

Whether Metra wants to believe it or not, it’s almost 2019, and people use technology and transportation apps to help make their mode choice decisions when they travel. Construction schedules that provide for more realistic arrival/departures at intermediate stations would have shorter in-vehicle times and can help make transit more attractive, even if it means getting downtown a little later. ‪During the week, Metra has an inherent competitive edge: going downtown requires driving through heavy traffic and paying for expensive parking, giving the train a speed and cost edge, especially considering Metra runs frequent express trains on many lines. But off-peak, Metra needs to be more aggressive in courting ridership.‬ ‪Trains run slower (more stops) and less conveniently (higher headways), whereas there’s less road traffic and cheaper parking. And sure enough, by time period off-peak is where Metra’s seeing the worst losses. ‬

Courtesy of Metra’s September 2018 Ridership Report.

‪Of course, Metra’s Weekend Pass went up 25% this year ($8 to $10) so that undoubtedly plays into those ~10% year-over-year ridership losses for Saturdays and Sundays, but that’s all the more reason why Metra can’t afford to slack off on weekend schedules.‬

Metra needs to run more weekend trains. Full stop. And, let’s be honest, there’s zero appetite for that from the board due to budget issues. But the next best thing is doing a comprehensive audit of weekend service and modernizing the schedule.‬ ‪Growing up in Itasca, I got to know the weekend schedule of the Milwaukee West pretty well, and as far back as I can remember the only difference between 1989’s schedule and 2019’s schedule is a few minutes here and there.‬ Thirty years ago, ‪hourly inbound morning trains and hourly outbound afternoon trains make sense if “banker’s hours” were needed for Saturday half days. But Metra needs to realize that in 2019 their core market on weekends is leisure riders and families, not white-collar downtown workers.‬ ‪Suburbanites make a definite choice in how they get downtown outside of rush hour, and they choose not to ride Metra on weekends because two-hour headways to come home at night are insufficient. ‪

Metra needs to better understand how travelers use their system when they don’t have the inherent advantages of the rush hour market. Off-peak, people take Metra either because they absolutely have to or because they absolutely want to, with not many riders in between.‬ Adding later trains would get more people on morning trains, an induced demand Metra fails to tap.‬ ‪Kill the outbound 1:30p, 3:30p, and/or 5:30p Saturday afternoon departures on each line that has them and replace them with 7:30p, 9:30p, and/or 11:30p and see what happens. (Hint: more people will choose to ride the train.)‬

‪In this era of funding constraints, Metra’s (rightfully) trying to pick off all the low-hanging fruit they can when it comes to fleet maintenance (rehabs, buying second-hand, etc.), but on the schedule side all they have in their toolbox is botching PTC rollouts and ongoing threats of service cuts.‬ ‪Metra’s greatest opportunities for growth are off-peak and reverse commutes, but their bread-and-butter continues to be peak hour peak direction commuters that is almost the sole focus of the agency as ridership slides.‬

Off-peak ridership boosts aren’t the silver bullet Metra needs for everything to be okay; as the Metra board says at every opportunity, Metra’s underlying funding model is outdated and inadequate. But that’s no excuse for Metra’s off-peak service to run on outdated and inadequate schedules. Nibbling on the edges of the margins is not a long-term way to run a railroad, but Metra has to accept they aren’t just a railroad any more. Metra needs to think of themselves as a suburban transit provider first and a railroad second.

But they don’t. And they won’t.

Which is why I still tilt at these windmills. Being able to take Pace to Metra is a big reason why my wife and I will be a one-car family after the new year – even though we don’t live in a Metra community – and every day there seems to be a new, dire warning about how man-made climate change will doom us all. Metra needs to evolve to better serve the suburbs for 2019, not 1989.