Diverging Approach: Lighting a Fire

As the polar vortex leaves Chicago in its wake again and we all thaw out, something very interesting is happening in the south suburbs tomorrow. The weather has obviously been brutal and the deep freeze landed Chicago in the national spotlight, and Metra’s switch heaters at Tower A-2 are going viral because, holy crap, Chicago lights our train tracks on fire. It’s almost custom made for the Internet age with a ready-to-go clickbaity headline, short cell phone videos of trains rolling through fire and brimstone, and plenty of fodder for professional photographers to work with to show how Chicago deals with mind-numbingly cold temperatures (or, you know, normal winter temperatures below 40°F).

Metra’s leaning into the national stories, I imagine happy for something to distract from the mechanical failures, emergency track repairs, and signal problems that most rational people would logically expect from 36 straight hours below 0°F with wind chills befitting a Martian hellscape.

And kudos to Metra’s social media team for using the newfound attention to try to pivot and bang the #InvestInTransit drum again. It’s absolutely the right thing to do here. While the flaming switch heaters are cool to look at, they’re also emblematic of just how antiquated the incredibly-complex A-2 junction is (where the Milwaukees cross the Union Pacific West at Western Avenue). A-2 is one of the most complex interlocking plants in North America, and a significant operational chokepoint that needs improvement if Metra wants to increase frequencies on any of the lines passing through it, or simply to improve reliability for the current schedules. Arguably, it’s Metra’s most important capital improvement systemwide.

Many plans to improve suburban transit options throughout the region have to deal with the A-2 gauntlet of crossovers and switches, including the Midwest High Speed Rail Association’s CrossRail Chicago vision to electrify parts of the Milwaukee West and North Central Service to ultimately through-route future high-speed rail trains through McCormick Place and Union Station to O’Hare Airport.

But the Metra Electric is the backbone of the CrossRail Chicago plan, and the polar vortex has not been kind to the MED. In case you were too busy watching the A-2 videos, a one-two punch of the cold wreaking havoc on the catenary and a freight derailment taking out an overhead truss in Harvey has shut down the Metra Electric for the last two days, with the shutdown continuing at least through tomorrow. (The South Shore Line, which uses Metra’s tracks north of Kensington/115th, is also suspended.) With all the other problems the MED has in terms of ridership losses outpacing the rest of the system and the overall levels of disinvestment in the MED’s marketshed as a whole, a three-day shutdown is the last thing the line needs.

Not great.

But as I said earlier, something very interesting is happening in the south suburbs tomorrow, and it’s shaping up to be a mini pilot study of a lot of the things this blog routinely offers up. Included in the mitigation plan for tomorrow is the following:

  • Fare integration with Pace and the CTA. The three service boards inevitably get caught up in “who takes the loss?” tit-for-tats whenever an actual fare integration plan gets floated, but Pace, Metra, and the CTA have something of a gentlemen’s agreement when it comes to service disruptions and accepting tickets from sister agencies. While the shutdown contingency plan on the MED is far from a real fare integration scheme, Pace and the CTA opening their (bus and Red Line) doors to Metra fares on a handful of routes is a good start.
  • Timed, free bus shuttles to Metra trains. Metra’s working with Pace to provide limited bus shuttles between pairs of MED stations and Rock Island stations, and they’re running them for free! There are only three sets of shuttles being offered, and schedules are not perfect – looking at you, half hour layover in Oak Forest – but it’s a start.

It’s not a perfect plan – there’s a glaring hole in free bus coverage south of 95th Street in Roseland and Pullman, the small-but-non-zero group of Rock Island riders who transfer to the Metra Electric in Blue Island and head to Hyde Park are still screwed, there are a lot of suburban MED stations with no transit alternatives at all, etc. – but I hope Metra, Pace, and the CTA collect some data from tomorrow’s experiment to see what works, what doesn’t, and what takeaways there are for similar contingency service in the future. While Metra likely hopes tomorrow is a one-off situation, this is a unique opportunity to gather and analyze data that can be used to bolster future contingency plans or even make its way into regular service some day.

Diverging Approach: The Sandbox Gang

Northwestern University’s Transportation Center hosts the Hagestad Sandhouse Rail Group (informally known as the Sandhouse Gang) regularly throughout the year since 2002. Back when I used to work at Metra, I went to a few of their events, which were quite interesting. As their home page states, the “sandhouse” is an old railroading term for a building where sand was dried and, since it was one of the few warm places on cold nights like tonight, folks who did the hard work on the railroad in the yards and on the trains would meet up in the sandhouse and, more or less, shoot the shit.

Northwestern’s Sandhouse Gang carries on that noble tradition, mostly for railroad alumni and grad students. Topics are a mix of the locally-relevant (“A Tale of Two Stations: Construction challenges associated with the new CTA Wilson and 95th Street stations”), the high-level theoretical (“Transit Network Design Under Stochastic Demand”), and good old-fashioned foamer deep dives (“Rail/Air Competition in the New York-Chicago Market, 1945-1970”). The events are free, but generally hosted at 3pm on weekdays in Evanston.

The Sandhouse Rail Group steering committee is composed of Diana Marek, the “NUTC’s cornerstone for more than forty years”; William Sippel, an attorney who co-founded a law firm dealing exclusively with railroads; and Norman Carlson, who chairs the board of directors of everyone’s favorite commuter railroad. They know their stuff and have decades of railroading experience.

In the meantime, right now you, dear reader, are reading this blog, written by someone who washed out of Metra a year and a half after washing out of the Chicago Transit Authority (whose employ I was also under for about a year and a half). I have ideas, and the point of this blog is to get them out there and start discussions on how things could be better out here in the Chicago suburbs, but I’m by no means an expert. I’m just someone with a passion for quality transit, someone who spent too much time driving for the last fifteen years or so, and someone with just a little too much time on his hands. I’ve been doing this because I didn’t think there was an adequate forum to discuss suburban transportation in the Chicago region.

But I admit, it’s been pretty one-sided. I’ve had a few good conversations over on the @StarLineChicago Twitter account, but otherwise Diverging Approach is mostly me just screaming into the void.

At the same time though, you’re reading this now, so you care about transportation in the Chicago region, too.

So let’s make this interesting. And interactive.

The Sandhouse Gang has over a century of railroad experience at the helm and the support of a Big Ten university; I have a cheap laptop, the internet, and a bunch of opinions. But you, dear reader, probably also have a cheap laptop, the internet, and opinions on ways to improve Chicago transit. While this blog usually focuses on — and occasionally gets criticized for — pragmatic, short-term solutions that can thoretically be done cheaply and easily by transit providers (cough cough Metra pulse scheduling cough cough), a wise man once said that little plans have no magic to stir men’s blood. So let’s think big.

Instead of the sandhouse, we’re heading to the sandbox.

This link will take you to a Google Map I’ve prepared of the current state of Chicago-area transit. It includes just about every CTA, Metra, and Pace transit route that isn’t a local bus. Open it up and copy it to your Google Drive, or download it as a KML/KMZ for Google Earth.

Then change it.

Go wild with it. Finally build the Ashland BRT. Run a streetcar down Lake Shore Drive. Build the STAR Line. Run a water taxi down the Fox River. Extend the BNSF to Oswego (Ugh.) Run a Tesla tunnel out to O’Hare. (Double ugh.) This is your chance to figure out what you think the Chicago region needs and see how it looks on the map.

But it’s also important that we all share and discuss our individual transit futures, bounce ideas off of each other, see what sticks, see what doesn’t. So to facilitate that discussion — and just to have a little bit of fun as we enter the duldrums of winter — we’re launching the Star:Line Chicago Transit Throwdown. Finish your plan and send it back to me (via Twitter or email) by Tuesday, February 26. I’ll review all the submissions and post them all in a single Diverging Approach blog entry by Friday, March 1.

Then, just in time for March Madness, the bracket begins using Twitter polling on Monday, March 4. (Bracket format will depend on number of entries received.) Last map standing at the end of the bracket will win a brand-new Ventra card with $20 of transit value ready to go.

You care about Chicago-area transit; after all, you’re reading this blog. I’m offering you my soapbox — small as it may be — to get your ideas out into the world and to help make the world around you a better place. Let’s see what you got!


Map Notes and Contest Notes

Express buses that only serve a single employer are not included on the map. The X9-Ashland Express and X49-Western Express buses are not included because, come on, we all know they aren’t actually express buses. If your plan involves changing frequency, fares, schedules, or other things that don’t show up well on the map, float a bottle out on the lake and add details as needed.

Each person can submit up to three different maps, and you can continue editing your maps even after submitting them to me (up until the deadline). Teams are welcome and encouraged; however, the winning prize will still be capped at $20 for the team as a whole.

If you have any other questions or suggestions, send me a Tweet or DM @StarLineChicago, or email me.

Diverging Approach: Carrots and Sticks

Pace, like the rest of Chicago’s transportation agencies, faces some daunting capital funding challenges. However, Pace is doing something quite savvy: today, which also happened to be J.B. Pritzker’s inauguration, Pace got two pretty positive write-ups in both of Chicago’s newspapers of record, despite asking for $1 billion in new capital funding, posting a 3% slide in ridership, and openly cutting service including totally axing 12 routes.

They did it by talking up their recent improvements, touting their successful experiments with bus-on-shoulder, and getting some excitement building about launching Pulse service on Milwaukee Avenue (despite Pulse’s launch being two years later than expected). Pace’s I-55 service has exploded, with daily ridership up 750% since 2011. That’s not a typo — Pace ridership on I-55 went from 400 daily riders to 3,000 in eight years. (Well, it may be a typo: the Trib says it’s 750%; the Sun-Times says it’s 600%. Some digging through RTAMS would probably tell us who is correct, but right now we don’t need to dive that deep into the weeds.) The articles are a great example of an effective way to appraise the state of Pace’s operations and show how Pace as an agency is constantly reimagining and retooling their service to better serve their constituency through innovation and adaptation. One of the routes Pace is cutting, the 304, dates back to the days of streetcars through the near western suburbs, but that historic lineage isn’t enough to save a route simply hemmorhaging riders. No one wants to cut service, but when the agency can make a convincing case that (1) those riders will be otherwise accommodated and (2) the resources freed up by those cuts will be used to improve service elsewhere where capacity is limited, it’s a lot easier to accept.

(For what it’s worth, even though the Chicago region desperately needs north-south transit options west of Ashland Avenue, I’m a bit skeptical about how belt bus service would work on Interstates 294 and 355, but that’s a blog post for another time.)

Compare and contrast that approach with that other suburban transit board, which has been more or less going with a doomsday approach to trying to secure more capital funds, threatening significant (but unidentified) service cuts and continued fare increases for what more or less amounts to simply maintaining the status quo in terms of service schedules and service options moving forward. No one gets excited about only maintaining the status quo (especially when there are plenty of issues with current service anyway) and it’s a lot harder to drum up good press. It’s also a particularly bitter pill to read about Pace’s dramatic growth on the I-55 corridor the same day all Heritage Corridor service gets cancelled.

The good news is, at Metra’s Wednesday board meeting, there’s a chance to get people just a little more excited. Metra is (finally) releasing their Cost-Benefit Analysis, which looks at a whole bunch of Metra improvements and gives some data about, well, basic cost and benefit projections to help Metra prioritize their capital improvement plans moving forward. I don’t want to give too much away — I saw some earlier drafts back in my days working at Metra — but a lot of the pie-in-the-sky projects we transportation nerds discuss amongst ourselves are included, including some strategic triple-tracking projects and actually adding some real service to the Metra Electric.

Metra has a chance here to get people excited about capital improvement projects, and this blog certainly hopes the board sees the cost-benefit analysis as a way to publicly advance some bold, exciting plans. While we don’t advocate for all the projects in the cost-benefit analysis — a moratorium on line extensions further into the hinterlands should be seriously considered since projects like pushing the BNSF out to Oswego or Sandwich will just encourage more sprawl and make it more challenging to reduce headways in the middle zones where Metra sees most of their ridership anyway — it’s at least a starting point to see what’s realistic, what’s possible, and what would give our region the best bang for our capital buck. This will likely be more palatable to riders and potential riders as well, given that Metra’s more recent efforts to drum up support for new capital are somewhere between holding riders hostage (“look, nothing’s going to get any better unless we get a bunch of new money”) and extortion (“the service is fine for now, but it’d be a shame if something were to… happen to it”).

The cost-benefit analysis will be a good first step to making some real positive improvements to the Metra system, but all it is is a first step. Not following through on the projects, or going back to doomsday scenarios while this report languishes, should be considered a failure. Every project in the cost-benefit analysis will have some merit, and while Metra’s staff is doing the right thing by using a data-driven approach to help prioritize their plans, each of those projects will also need champions — both internal and external — to bring those projects to fruition. The cost-benefit analysis will be a huge asset for Metra and their staff should be proud of what it represents, but staff and the board need to make sure they stay excited and keep pushing these projects forward.

So to Metra’s staff and board: I just want to tell you both good luck — we’re all counting on you.


Speaking of Pace, our Pace Pub Crawl is this Saturday, January 19! You’ve read about Pace collaborating with the Illinois Tollway on the Interstate 90 corridor, so here’s your excuse to come on out and check it out first hand, and otherwise nerd out about suburban transit with us over food and drinks. The crawl starts at the Rosemont CTA station at 11:00am. Check out our Facebook event for more details!