Diverging Approach: Greatest Hits

I’m looking forward to an upcoming event on Wednesday, “A Discussion of the Chicago Sustainable Transportation Platform”, being co-hosted by the Midwest High Speed Rail Association’s Young Professionals Board and Young Professionals in Transportation (YPT). The 5:30pm panel will feature Steven “Abolish Metra” Vance, Yonah “Metra is where innovation goes to die” Freemark, and Lynda Lopez, a Streetsblog Chicago writer who I unfortunately am not familiar enough with to give a fun Metra-related middle name. (Lopez brings a valuable voice to the Streetsblog table, focusing on urban equity issues in transportation.)

While I’m sure Wednesday’s session will focus primarily on urban Chicago transportation issues, especially in light of the upcoming mayoral elections, you can’t talk sustainable, equitable transportation in Chicago without talking about Metra on the South Side (and elsewhere in the city), and you can’t talk about Metra without talking about the agency’s suburban focus, so tonight I wanted to (1) give a signal boost to Wednesday’s event (it’s free!) and (2) briefly go over a deceivingly simple question:

What should Metra do differently?

It’s a deceivingly simple question because literally everyone who has ever ridden Metra has no shortage of ideas on how it can be better, and because to fully dive into the topic would be a semester-length urban planning grad school course. In the interest of letting you, the reader, digest this post in a single sitting (editor’s note: this post ended up being very long anyway, apologies), and in the interest of keeping my blood pressure at a reasonable level, here’s our basic five-point plan on how to fix Metra, with the caveat that these may evolve as I go on future rants about suburban transit.

1. Metra needs to understand they are a transit agency, not just a railroad.

The leading thought process at Metra is that Metra is a railroad, which seems fine on the surface: they do run a whole bunch of trains on tracks they share with freight railroads, of course. However, that same mindset leads to Metra focusing on running trains rather than moving people. While reliability is undoubtedly a big part in mode choice decisions made by travelers, I’m not sure if Metra understands that a 95% on-time performance rate (that is easily gamed anyway) with ongoing ridership losses is nothing to celebrate. From my observations, there are two prevailing schools of thought out there: (1) Metra’s overwhelmingly core demographic is suburb-to-downtown peak-period trips and thus ridership losses can be remedied with additional capital funding that allows Metra to modernize its fleet without needing to continually raise fares annually by providing more reliable locomotives and upgraded coaches with 21st-Century amenities; or (2) Metra’s entire structure and business model are in danger of collapsing due to demographic shifts and changes in commute patterns, options, and preferences, and thus the agency needs totally shift its entire operating paradigm beyond basic infrastructure improvements to catch up with the 21st Century to stay relevant.

Probably doesn’t need to be said that this blog believes in the latter. And perhaps it’s a little cynicism (or nihilism) on my end, but unless the latter takes precedence over the former, tax hikes to fund Metra’s serious capital backlog will be at best insufficient to reverse ridership losses… and at worst counterproductive as drivers see their tax dollars going to improve a service that continues to lose riders, because white-collar Millennials in the suburbs can do things like work remotely or use flexible work hours that allow them to commute outside the traditional peak period (or not at all).

So let’s talk about shifting paradigms and moving people, not trains.

2. Metra’s schedules need a total reconstruction and modernization based on observed and predicted trends throughout the region.

Metra is the fourth-busiest commuter railroad in the country, with 11 lines connecting 242 stations throughout the third-largest metropolitan region in the country. It also does not have a dedicated service planning department. The service planning Metra does have is more or less just scheduling trains and is officially part of the Transportation branch of the Operations division. Strategic Capital Planning (SCP) at Metra (of which I am an alumnus), which includes long range planning and data collection/analysis, is in a totally separate part of the agency, under the Administration umbrella. What this means is the SCP group collects data on ridership, fare collection, and demographic trends, analyzes the data, presents the data to the Board of Directors, and then… every 18 months or so a new schedule might come out that looks a hell of a lot like the old one but adds a few minutes to each train to maintain an acceptable on-time performance rate or, more recently, consolidates a few trains or accidentally screws up the busiest line on the system that ends up prompting Congressional intervention.

Moving scheduling into the existing SCP structure would likely encourage more frequent and more substantial schedule updates that would allow Metra to better tailor their schedules to data from the field to optimize efficiency and boost ridership. While Metra’s data collection efforts in the past have been poor (there were no actual on-off counts performed between 2006 and 2014; Metra’s month-to-month ridership estimates are based on ticket sales, which may actually overstate ridership due to the multipliers used for monthly passes), the news out of the last board meeting that Metra is purchasing automatic passenger counters (APCs) that can provide much better station- and train-level ridership data much more quickly is exciting.

While that’d be a pretty significant improvement inside of Metra, this is also a good time for us to bring up, yet again, or oft-repeated call for pulse scheduling. In a nutshell, pulse scheduling would greatly enhance the reach of the Metra system for minimal cost by realigning the schedules to have trains meet downtown and leave shortly thereafter, allowing passengers to make easy, quick connections between trains throughout the day. While it’s a far cry from MHSRA’s Crossrail Chicago proposal to through-route some trains on the Electric Line to O’Hare via new electrified track in Union Station and on the Milwaukee West/North Central Service corridor, letting a family from Deerfield cross through Union Station to get on a waiting BNSF train to easily go out to Brookfield Zoo would surely kick up off-peak ridership a smidge while changing next to nothing in terms of operation costs.

3. Fix the Chicago Problem.

Metra is a suburban railroad currently structured around three service patterns: very fast trains from the far reaches of the region to get downtown early in the morning Monday through Friday; very fast trains to the far reaches of the region to get out of downtown in the evening Monday through Friday; and just enough service any other time of the day to justify the operational subsidies Metra receives through the Regional Transportation Authority’s sales tax revenues. Metra is also the only form of rail transit in significant parts of Chicago’s Far South Side and the Northwest Side. (72 of Metra’s 242 stations are within Chicago’s city limits.) The CTA’s rapid transit system is located where it is — or rather, it’s not located where it isn’t — directly due to commuter rail services making rapid transit duplicitive and a more challenging market to serve back in the interwar period of the 1900s. Of the original four elevated railroad companies that eventually became the CTA’s ‘L’ service, none of them went south of 69th Street. However, during early planning for the city’s ultimate rapid transit network, commuter railroads were expected to adequately serve those Chicago neighborhoods not served by the ‘L’. As a legacy to that network, the CTA now wants to invest in a $2.3 billion extension of the Red Line to 130th Street that more or less parallels the Metra Electric main line. In the meantime, off-peak Metra service on the three branches of the Metra Electric operate hourly at best. (While it’s great that Metra finally got around to coordinating the schedules to provide 20-30 minute headways between Millennium Station and Hyde Park, it’s worth noting that CTA fares cost half as much as Metra’s while providing service at least twice as often, albeit a bit slower.)

Metra has a Chicago problem: despite having 72 stations, the City of Chicago has a single seat on Metra’s 11-person Board of Directors, and Cook County’s five board appointees are explicitly prohibited from being City of Chicago residents. With 91% of the Board comprised of suburbanites, it’s hard to get the Board’s attention for issues within the City of Chicago outside of the downtown core. (For what it’s worth, suburban CTA riders have the opposite problem: the CTA’s seven-member board is comprised of four mayoral appointees and three appointees from the Governor of Illinois, so suburban representation is not necessarily guaranteed.)

What we’re left with are four significant transit corridors that have rail infrastructure and trains but not actual rail transit service: the Metra Electric main line from Hyde Park through Kensington-115th and beyond; the Metra Electric South Chicago branch; the “Suburban” Branch of the Rock Island through Beverly and Morgan Park; and the Milwaukee West line between Western Avenue and Mont Clare. It’s probably no coincidence that all four of those corridors run through significant communities of color. (I left out the Metra Electric Blue Island branch due to its short length and single-track grade-level operations and I also left out the Milwaukee North between Western Avenue and Forest Glen since there’s significant overlap with the Blue Line and UP-NW service, but both of those corridors could be contenders as well.)

Metra has two options for those corridors: start putting real investments and initiatives in those corridors to boost service levels and lower fares to something more competitive with the CTA, or just admit defeat and let someone else handle operations in those areas. A new division of the CTA — or a new branch of the RTA — that uses smaller multiple-unit trains on these corridors at 15-minute frequencies would be fascinating to see, revolutionary for these neighborhoods, and would free up Metra to run more express service on these corridors to lower travel times and headways for their suburban riders. In the meantime, Metra’s going with neither approach, and the city and the region suffers for it.

4. Metra needs a totally revamped proof-of-payment fare structure that is fully integrated with Pace and Metra’s suburban partners.

Every Metra train, from nine-car packed-to-the-gills Schaumburg express trains on the Milwaukee West to two-car late night trains on the Metra Electric have at least two conductors onboard the train, a colossal operational expense. (Metra’s busiest trains are 11-car Naperville express trains on the BNSF, but those trains are staffed by BNSF employees, not Metra employees.) Metra claims there’s a mandate from the Federal Railroad Administration that requires three-person crews on each train (the third person being the operator in the cab); however, I’ve done a decent amount of searching online and haven’t found any rule making that kind of requirement. Meanwhile, CalTrain out in the San Francisco Bay Area operates similar service to Metra (right down to the gallery car bilevel coaches) using a proof-of-payment fare system that drastically reduces the amount of manpower required to operate trains. Proof-of-payment would also allow Metra to more easily move on to more modern rail car designs and not stay so invested in the old, inefficient gallery cars. I’ve written about proof-of-payment before, and if you’re reading this, you’re enough of a transportation nerd that you probably know about proof-of-payment anyway, so I won’t rehash it too much.

But the Metra fare structure can be improved in so, so many other ways as well. First and foremost, Metra — and Pace, and the CTA — should immediately move towards implementing fare capping strategies to make the system less expensive and more accessible for people with lower incomes.

(For the uninitiated: fare capping uses electronic fare media — in this case, Ventra cards — to track a rider’s fare purchases over a set period of time and automatically provides discounts at certain threshholds rather than relying on expensive upfront purchase prices for multi-ride or multi-day passes. For instance, currently a Metra one-way Zone B fare is $4.25 and a monthly pass is $123.25. A monthly pass is priced at 29 one-way fares, so in a 20-workday month it’s a definite discount over the one-way fares. However, for lower-income people, $4.25 a day is easier to budget than a $123.25 lump-sum payment all at once. A basic fare capping system would charge all Zone B riders $4.25 per ride for every ride through their 29th ride of the month, and then allow free rides for the rest of the month. Unfortunately instituting fare capping is not revenue-neutral since there are some riders who cannot afford not to do pay-as-you-go today, which puts transit providers in the awkward position of disproportionately profiting off their poorest riders.)

A lack of fare integration between the three service boards is a well-documented failure of the system so I won’t get too deep into it here, other than to say it’s a no-brainer. But just as important — and something that flies under the radar much more often — is the awful park-and-ride system that exists at Metra’s suburban stations. Most of Metra’s park-and-ride facilities are owned and operated by the various suburban municipalities which means, unless a community has more than one Metra station, parking policies are often done in a near vacuum with no standardization even between adjacent stations. This creates unnecessary issues where parking may be undervalued (to the point where communities lose money on their parking lots due to required maintenance), riders may be incentivized to use stations other than their nearest station (which increases driving and suburban congestion), and perverse disincentives to using other transit (for instance, Pace feeder routes with higher round-trip fares than the cost of daily fee parking). As the common thread linking the network of park-and-ride facilities, Metra should take a more proactive approach in recommending parking policies near their suburban stations.

I have plenty of other fare fodder for Metra, but I’ll save that for a different post.

5. Metra — and Pace — need to create a joint regional suburban transit plan based on holistic needs and travel patterns first and mode choices second.

Metra runs trains; Pace runs buses. However, Pace is being innovative with their bus fleet and finding new partners to stretch their capabilities, such as their upgraded offerings along the Jane Addams Tollway. (Shameless plug: check out the I-90 corridor first-hand at our first-ever Pace Bus Crawl on Saturday, January 19!) In the meantime, Metra is… purchasing second-hand locomotives from Amtrak and is being told by the entire industry that their bilevel coach design is functionally obsolete. However, in the absence of an integrated fare structure with Pace, the two systems will never fully reach their combined potential (see previous point).

But there’s nothing that forces Metra to be a rail-only agency. Right now, Pace operates feeder bus service to and from several Metra stations throughout the region. Metra operating their own buses is a stupid-easy end-run around everyone’s lack of interest in full fare integration between the three service boards while allowing for better transfers between buses and trains and broadening Metra’s overall operational flexibility across the board.

Think about Metra with a dedicated fleet of buses and some of the potential modifications they could do:

  • Fully fare-integrated feeder service to decrease the need for park-and-rides in the heart of suburban downtowns. (Freeing up park-and-ride facilities for development close to suburban train stations and applying some sort of value capture on the development would be a massive, sustainable funding source for Metra.)
  • Off-peak downtown Loop Link shuttles between the downtown terminals and the ‘L’ combined with pulse scheduling for easy, fast regional connections.
  • Taking over Pace’s successful I-55 corridor as a companion service to the freight-congested Heritage Corridor.
  • Running far-out shuttle service in places like Harvard and Woodstock, shaving an hour off off-peak UP-NW runs to increase frequencies to Palatine and Arlington Heights, with the potential added perk of giving McHenry off-peak service.
  • Finally getting Metra service into Kendall County through timed-transfer bus shuttles to/from Aurora.

While I’m sure Pace wouldn’t like Metra encroaching on their turf — the same way Metra has never been terribly happy about Pace’s Interstate 55 service siphoning off BNSF and Heritage Corridor riders — a directive from the RTA that defines Metra’s market as suburbs-to-downtown trips and Pace’s as suburb-to-suburb trips, as well as a joint effort between Metra and Pace to plan for an integrated future together would be downright revolutionary for suburban transit. (And maybe — just maybe — Metra could finally admit that the STAR Line is dead in the water if Metra and Pace can determine logical north-south high-speed Pace corridors that would link various Metra lines by building off of Pace’s successful partnership with the Illinois Tollway on Interstate 90.)

I’m looking forward to Wednesday’s event. It should be a great panel with a good mix of strong opinions and passion on how to improve the transportation network in Chicago. If you’re there, please be sure to find me and say hello. (I’ll also be around on Friday afternoon for our Ho’L’iday Happy Hour event, if you want to skip out of work a little early and dive into the weeds of suburban transit while we chase down the CTA Holiday Train.) At the end of the day, I can (and will!) continue to shout my opinions into the void about how we can make suburban transit more attractive, more sustainable, and more equitable for the region as a whole, but the only way any changes will happen is by having these kinds of conversations and discussions with everyone — academics, professionals, riders, staff, everyone — to form some excitement for a bold new vision forward.