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.

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