Diverging Approach: The Purge

Editor’s Note, 1/22/20: The PABST Report has been updated with 2018 data, optimized for mobile use (with the Google Sheets app) and now features generated reports for each station. If you already know our methodology, feel free to go straight to the report.


Metra’s draft Station Evaluation Policy procedures are out, and Metra’s encouraging the public to review and comment on them by April 15. From Metra:

The policy establishes a plan to review existing stations at least every two years.  Metra will collaborate with community stakeholders to create plans of action for stations with low ridership, in order to increase ridership, improve customer experience, and build support for Metra service among nearby residents.  The policy also identifies a process for working with communities to address stations where ridership is not able to be improved.
In addition, the policy provides guidance for consideration of infill stations (that is, new stations on existing Metra lines, between existing stations).  Proposals for new access points to the Metra system must weigh the potential benefits to new riders against drawbacks to existing riders, before they can proceed.


https://metrarail.com/node/6609

Metra taking a data-driven approach to analyze current levels of service and assessing their built assets (in this case, stations), is most certainly a good thing and fits in quite well with the Metra Board’s ongoing pursuit to run service as efficiently as possible despite a chronic lack of funding for operations and capital improvements.

Unfortunately, the draft plan as written leaves plenty to be desired. Metra’s triage method of analyzing stations relies on a single metric: weekday boardings. Regardless of how many trains a day serve each station, all the stations are measured against each other looking only at raw utilization. The first pass of the analysis is simply assuming the top half of all stations are “Sustainable”, whether that’s the thousands of people who board at Route 59 every day or the 410 boardings per day for the median station. The bottom half of stations are thus considered “Underperforming” by default, which means each station in the bottom half effectively needs some additional analyses to determine ways to boost ridership. While this will undoubtedly keep Metra’s planning staff (or Metra’s consultants) busy for each two-year cycle, it may be a little bit of overkill. Of course, the meat of the Station Evaluation Policy comes for the stations that fall in the bottom 10% of boardings, the “Unsustainable” stations. While the plan is ostensibly written as a way to boost ridership systemwide by performing deep-dive data analyses at Metra’s worst-performing stations, cynically it’s also easy to see how this overall plan will be used to simply produce a list of stations for the Board to cull.

I have three major issues with the “Unsustainable” stations. First and foremost, publicly branding a station as “Unsustainable” (or “Underperforming”, for that matter) could potentially be kryptonite for potential transit-oriented development projects, which is a bitter irony: TODs are potentially a great way to boost ridership at a station by creating newer, denser development within walking distance of the station, but it may scare a developer away if they think the station itself is threatened. Second, since “Unsustainable” is defined as the bottom ten percent of the system, there will always be a significant number of “Unsustainable” stations regardless of ridership levels. The assumption with this kind of system is that Metra inherently has too many stations, which may not actually be the case. In a worst-case scenario, with an iterative process that shuts down the bottom ten percent of stations every other year (an unlikely scenario, but not impossible), Metra could theoretically declare 80 of their 242 stations “Unsustainable” within the next decade.

And the third reason I’m not a fan of the “Unsustainable” branding is, well, when you map everything out, this process targets Chicago’s South Side with almost surgical precision. By relying on this mathematical method, Metra may be able to meet Title VI standards that are intended to prevent disporportionate negative impacts to majority-minority populations. (Stations that could potentially be slated for closure would still need to pass a Title VI analysis before the Board could vote to close those stations.)

I’m not accusing Metra of specifically targeting neighborhoods of color for service cuts, of course; half-mile spacing for rail stations through an urban area does not fit Metra’s commuter rail service model and invariably leads to waste regardless of the demographics of the neighborhoods served: more maintenance costs, longer travel times, and significant costs to bring these grade-separated stations up to Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) standards. However, what I fear is that Metra will move to close and remove many of these South Side stations, which would significantly raise future costs if the Electric Line ever goes back to a more rapid transit-style service that the South Side sorely needs. (Two numbers to keep in the back of your mind when discussing a modernized Metra Electric service on the South Side: $2.3 billion, the CTA’s projected cost of extending the Red Line to 130th Street, and $931 million, Metra’s projected cost of the “Modern Metra Electric” alternative in the recent cost-benefit analysis. And if you really want to make yourself mad, check out these 1957 Illinois Central timetables that included 24-hour service and 20-minute off-peak headways on what’s now the Metra Electric.)

The “Chicago problem” is something this blog has discussed in the past: upwards of 70 of Metra’s 242 stations are within the City of Chicago, but the Metra Board is statutorily restricted to only a single member who lives in Chicago proper. Furthermore, the above map is a great example of why I tend to see how Metra operates their service differently than Metra’s official count of 11 lines: I consider Metra to operate no fewer than 14 distinct services, and it’s more effective to think of the Metra Electric in particular as three separate lines rather than a single operation: the Suburban Main Line, which operates similar to the rest of Metra’s suburban services; the City Main Line/Blue Island Branch, which has station spacing more similar to rapid transit service but operates with commuter rail headways (and fares); and the South Chicago Branch, which operationally is similar to the City Main/Blue Island Branch but is distinct for its mostly street-running operations down 71st Street and Exchange Avenue through a denser built environment. To help illustrate this, I went back and updated our infamous map. (A forthcoming blog post will dive deeper into the new map, but in the meantime, here’s a sneak peek.)

Check it out as a PDF.

Back on topic for the Station Evaluation Policy: the draft also includes a recommendation for infill stations, which would require that any new infill station would have to be projected to make it into “Sustainable” (top half) station territory within the first decade the station is open, which seems unrealistic since none of Metra’s seven new/infill stations that opened in 2006 met that standard themselves. While it’s good that maybe Metra is trying to avoid the lackluster performance of these new stations, I worry that requiring a station to make it into the top 50% within a decade will require a massive coordinating development like Lincoln Yards or a massive sea of parking like the “Sustainable” 80th Avenue, Pingree Road, or Route 59 infill stations to meet those projections. (Of course, with Metra’s capital funding shortfalls, maybe that’s a feature of the analysis, not a bug.) It’s also worth noting that some of these recent infill stations were either poorly executed or victims of just bad luck: Rosemont was built in the middle of nowhere and lacks off-peak service for potential riders heading to the entertainment district; Schiller Park is more or less inaccessible from the east side of that community due to the existing rail yard in that location; Belmont Avenue is walking distance from the Franklin Park MD-W station, which sees significantly more service and is the first station served for peak-period expresses; the two SWS stations opened just in time for the housing bubble to cool off the Will County market; and so on.

StationOpening Year2016 BoardingsDraft Classification
Grand/Cicero MD-W200696Underperforming
Belmont Ave NCS200632Unsustainable
Schiller Park NCS200636Unsustainable
Rosemont NCS200635Unsustainable
Washington St/Grayslake NCS2006110Underperforming
Laraway Road SWS200624Unsustainable
Manhattan SWS200622Unsustainable

If you’re reading this, whether you agree with me or not, I encourage you to review the draft proposal yourself and shoot an email to Metra to let them know your thoughts — good or bad — before the April 15 deadline.

It’s been just about a year since this blog barged in with my two cents about the BNSF’s new Positive Train Control (PTC) schedule, wrote a letter to Metra about it, got my comments more or less dismissed, and observed the predictable shenanigans that followed last summer. I was going to do something similar this time around, but (1) I know there are a few people at Metra who read this blog anyway, and (2) if I’m going to give Metra some constructive criticism, I want to be able to offer up some justifiable, productive alternatives as well. So, as a self-appointed Blue Ribbon committee of one, I brainstormed what I’d want included above and beyond triaging the system based on boardings alone and seeing where the chips fell from there. I came up with five key performance indicators (KPIs) that I think should be used to give an easy, high-level assessment of each station:

  • Parking. Since I know Metra historically hasn’t met a parking lot they didn’t like, I wanted the assessment to see how efficient parking is at each station that has it: does the station have an appropriate amount of parking or is the station overparked? How well are parking permits utilized, and can changes to parking lot management help improve the efficiency of existing parking lots to grow capacity without actually adding new hardscape?
  • Accessibility. Is the station currently ADA-accessible? If not, would it be relatively easy to bring the station up to accessibility standards or would it require a significant investment?
  • Boardings. Do a lot of riders use the station? Do more people board or alight at each station?
  • Service. How many trains serve each station? Are the trains themselves relatively busy (which can increase dwell times and decrease service reliability), or is there a surplus of service, which suggests ridership issues at that station are not related to service levels?
  • Trends. Is ridership increasing or decreasing at each station? While ridership decreases are obviously a more pressing issue, are there stations that have significantly gained ridership? Can we determine why ridership increased in those locations, and are there any lessons learned we can take away to apply to other stations for improvement?

Then I realized that all that data is already accessible (at least for 2016; still waiting on 2018 to get published) over on RTAMS. Instead of telling Metra what they should do, I could just do it myself.

Thus the PABST Blue Ribbon report was born. It’s nothing fancy: basically just a glorified spreadsheet that ranks each criteria on a 5-point scale for a quick and simple station assessment to provide a quick snapshot of each station. Go ahead: try it out for your station, and let’s talk about it over on Twitter. If you’d like the direct link to open it up on your own (or if the drop down menu isn’t working for you), check it out here. If you’re on a smartphone or tablet, make sure to download the Google Sheets app for best results. For a systemwide snapshot report, check out the “Scorecard” tab.

This report isn’t meant to make recommendations for station closures or station improvements (although in a few circumstances, a few standard recommendations will automatically pop up in the report), but rather a simple snapshot of KPIs to help guide conversations. So go ahead, play around with it (but try not to break it), and see how your station rates. And don’t forget to let Metra know your thoughts on the real Station Optimization project as well.

Diverging Approach: Investing In Transit

John Greenfield over at Streetsblog Chicago posted a good article today about Metra’s awful start to 2019 and the desperate need for more capital funding. It’s a good read if you’re unfamiliar with the trials and tribulations Metra’s dealt with this year (much of it beyond Metra’s control, including a freight derailment that knocked out the overhead catenary on the Metra Electric and Amtrak’s now-infamous clumsy employee who accidentally killed the Union Station signaling system for a day).

Metra’s Twitter account boosted the Streetsblog article with a thread about the need to solve the capital crisis Metra currently faces:

It’s good that Metra is taking their arguments for more funding straight to the people and encouraging more direct action to get a capital bill passed. To be clear: our region — and our state, and our nation as a whole — needs to invest more in transportation infrastructure at just about every level to keep the built environment safe and productive while providing healthier, more environmentally-friendly alternatives to driving that are efficient, practical, and useful. Metra’s rolling stock is downright ancient, and their current strategy of just going second-hand everything is obviously not sustainable.

It’s no secret: Metra’s capital needs are dire. The fleet experiences regular breakdowns; signal systems routinely cause significant delays; there are currently in-use bridges that are over 100 years old.

And Metra has used 0% of their bonding authority, in favor of trying to rally ridership to lobby Springfield on their behalf.

Now, there’s a definite argument for fiscal restraint in the face of an uncertain future. As Metra’s tweetstorm points out, we’re on the wrong side of a decade since the last state capital bill was passed, and “it is understandable fewer people choose to ride Metra when half our assets are in marginal or worn conditions”. But if the needs are so dire and the potential outcomes so negative, why not pull out the credit card for some fleet upgrades? Why teeter on the brink of a death spiral of increasing fares and decreasing ridership when Metra could finance some important capital improvements today that could start to turn the ship around? When the Better Government Association, a government watchdog charged with calling out wasteful government spending, publishes an editorial basically saying a unit of government isn’t taking on enough debt, it’s quite the statement.

But it’s also worth asking if more sustainable capital funds are the only thing that’s needed to save Metra. In other words, a sustainable capital funding source is no doubt important, but are outdated and unreliable infrastructure the primary causes of Metra’s ridership losses? Undoubtedly, it has no small impact on ridership (and rider morale); a quick perusal of @OnTheMetra‘s Twitter mentions will make that abundantly clear. But just a few years ago Metra rolled out a brand-new fleet on the Metra Electric line and the Electric Line is losing ridership faster than any other line, with a whopping 18.1% drop in ridership from 2014 through 2018. Will new locomotives and coaches boost ridership elsewhere in the system?

Metra, as an agency, was formed to bail out Chicago’s failing commuter rail network with public subsidies back in the 1980s. The state’s fatal flaw in creating the Regional Transportation Authority was setting up a (mostly) sustainable operations subsidy, but no corresponding capital improvement subsidy. That’s not Metra’s fault, of course; the CTA and Pace also have to deal with the lack of dedicated capital funding. Metra has done an absolutely stellar job of maintaining the Chicago commuter rail network since the 1980s, maybe to a fault: as the CTA and Pace innovate with new service patterns, new service options, and service expansions, Metra keeps grinding on with mostly the same network and very similar services it inherited. (While Metra is able to claim that they’ve opened a truly-new rail line more recently than the CTA has — the NCS opened in 1996 compared to the Orange Line’s opening in 1993 — since then the CTA has also totally rebuilt both branches of the Green Line, most of the Brown Line, what’s now the Pink Line, all of the Dan Ryan branch of the Red Line, and is about to embark on a Red Line extension deeper into areas that would probably be better served by increased frequencies on the Metra Electric instead.)

If Metra was formed to bail out a fiscally-failing commuter rail model with public subsidies and now, 35 years later, finds itself in a fiscally-failing commuter rail model that requires additional public subsidies to bail itself out, perhaps now is the time to refresh that model as a whole. It’s okay to start small with incremental improvements: Metra needs a new fleet, no doubt about that, but a stronger pitch for more investment in transit includes what Metra will do more effectively with that new fleet, or plans Metra has to modernize their service that they can’t do because of capital limitations. A new fleet that pushes on-time performance from 92% to 96% won’t get anyone excited — nor should it, because that 4% is probably not why ridership is dropping. However, rolling out something like pulse scheduling — one of this blog’s favorite topics because it doesn’t really change operating costs but creates convenient transfer opportunities to expand Metra’s reach and passenger mobility throughout the region — alongside the reliability improvements a modernized fleet would bring to help guarantee convenient transfers could be made can turn some heads and pique some interests. Likewise, if Metra can pitch a capital improvement as making a significant positive impact on operating costs — like, say, a new fare collection system that would reduce the need for conductors — that proposal would likely be a lot more palatable to politicians regardless of political party. Metra has plenty of fun ideas in the queue to enhance or expand service systemwide, yet they stick with a message of maintaining a (declining) status quo as their lead argument to rustle up some new capital funds. Get people excited about the future and they’ll probably be more motivated to pick up the phone and call their representatives.

Increasing capital funding to Metra is a good idea, full stop. Our region depends on Metra, and investing in transit is a good investment. However, a new capital bill out of Springfield that lets Metra buy a few new trains, swap out a few signals, and replace a few bridges but doesn’t encourage Metra to update their operational structure to reflect the shifting demographics and travel trends in the Chicago region just kicks the can down the road a few more years and we’ll just end up in the same spot all over again. After all, a capital bill that brings Metra into the 21st Century is already 19 years out-of-date.