Diverging Approach: Summer Pilots

A few months back post-polar vortex, Metra gave the region the “pat on the back” weekend where riders could ride for free, systemwide, all weekend long as a sort of “thank you” for coping with the challenges Metra faced during the cold snap. While it was a great way to gin up some off-peak ridership following a few brutal weeks (and months of slow but steady declines), what struck me was a particular quote from Metra’s press release:

“We survived the polar vortex – now let’s have some fun,” said Metra CEO/Executive Director Jim Derwinski. “There is a lot to do in Chicago and the suburbs and Metra can take you there. We’re hoping this weekend will convince people who have never ridden Metra or who haven’t ridden Metra in a while to become paid customers in the future.”


That line perked my ears up because it sounds pretty familiar to why I run The Yard Social Club: I believe that, if I can help people explore the suburban transit network in fun group settings where they feel comfortable and have a positive experience, they’ll be more likely to choose to take transit for their next trip on their own.

I had a similar bout of deja vu last week with Metra’s latest announcement:

Metra this summer will increase weekend service as a pilot project on two lines – Rock Island and UP Northwest – to give customers more options to enjoy all the activities that the Chicago area offers. “Our goal with these new summer weekend schedules is to give our customers along these lines more options and make it easier than ever to ride Metra to the Chicago area’s many summer events and attractions,” said Metra CEO/Executive Director Jim Derwinski.


While I’m hardly the only voice calling for better weekend service — a whopping 88% of respondents in a Metra survey earlier this year said increasing weekend frequency was one of the top three weekend service priorities Metra should consider — I’m pretty sure I’m one of the loudest voices advocating for those changes, so it brings me joy to see Metra making some serious efforts at improving weekend service offerings. (Not that I think my insistent yelling into the void had any actual impact on these pilot projects, of course.)

It’s also good to see Metra being a little more proactive on improving weekend service. Above and beyond the schedule pilots, Metra also announced that monthly passes now include Weekend Passes. My favorite thing about that rollout is that it really doesn’t do anything: the vast majority of weekend Metra trips are still to and from the urban core, trips that would already be covered by the monthly pass of a suburban Metra rider. The best value with this new initiative would be for transfers to different lines (which, as we’ve discussed in the past, require pulse scheduling for effectiveness), going to destinations along someone’s home line further out into the hinterlands (which generally requires dealing with even longer headways than the trip home from downtown), or, of course, train crawls (in which case, my friend, you are in the right place).

Speaking of which, with new schedules come new Weekend Guides. If you’re new around here, or if you only read the blog and don’t dig into the rest of the site, our Weekend Guides (and our map — no, not that one, this one) generates a good amount of web traffic for people who are interested in organizing or participating in a train crawl. As someone who wants to see Metra succeed with these weekend pilots — albeit with a few reservations, which I’ll get into later — I went ahead and put together new, special Summer Weekend Guides for the three affected lines (the BNSF is also having a summer pilot, but with only one additional round-trip each Saturday and Sunday). The schedules take some getting used to at first: since they’re designed as an aid to planning train crawls, more focus is put on what time trains serve individual stations rather than what individual trains serve each station, so the schedules aren’t formatted like Metra’s traditional schedules. (For the transit nerds in the audience, it may be helpful to think of the schedules as text stringline charts.)

Let’s dive in.

Union Pacific Northwest

Check it out as a PDF. (And feel free to print it yourself! They’re formatted for 8.5×14 legal sheets; print them double-sided, flip on the short side, and fold into fourths.)

The UP-NW summer weekend pilot, in my opinion, has the most promise: Metra’s adding a full five round-trip trains to their Saturday schedule, which already was one of the more robust weekend offerings in their system. Sundays are also getting three new round-trips, including express trains to/from Arlington Heights. The express trains here are going to be interesting to keep an eye on, since previously Metra’s only weekend express options have been on the BNSF (and I suppose the split operations on the RI and ME that allow suburbanites to fly through the South Side of Chicago, which honestly brings up a few uncomfortable equity issues, but that’s another post).

What I’m personally excited about is the later evening outbound departures: my hypothesis has always been that going from two-hour headways to one-hour headways after 9pm is the best bang for the operational buck since suburbanites will no longer have to worry about just missing a train and being stuck at a quiet West Loop terminal for two hours before the next train leaves. (Not that an hour is a terribly easy amount of time to kill either, but it’s much more palatable than the length of a feature film.) I think those 9:30pm and 11:30pm departures are going to do well, but I’m also not sure how well Metra has gotten the word out about those new trains other than the occasional social media post.

The schedule as a whole is good, not great: it doesn’t address most of my longstanding concerns with the UP-NW weekend schedule. First and foremost, there’s still way too much variation between the Saturday and Sunday schedules, and for seemingly no good reason. Metra’s schedule, with separate Saturday and Sunday listings, hides the issue a bit, but our version puts it a little more front and center: some trains leave or arrive at Ogilvie at the same time on Saturdays and Sundays, but either start or end at different stations each day. Likewise, Harvard and Woodstock each have ten inbound trains on Saturdays and seven on Sundays, but only four trains leave at the same time on both days. There are also a few holdovers from where trains run at two-hour headways both days but on staggered hours: there’s an evening train that arrives Ogilvie at 7:23pm and 9:23pm on Saturdays but not Sundays, but there’s an evening train that arrives Ogilvie at 8:23pm on Sundays but not Saturdays. It might seem overly pedantic to be this concerned about a relatively minor thing like that, but any effort to make the schedule easier to use and, more importantly, easier to remember should be taken seriously. Every time someone reaches for a paper schedule is just one more small barrier to entry for people unfamiliar with the system. In a perfect world, trains come so often that schedules aren’t needed, but given the political realities of the Metra network, settling for consistent times for hourly or bi-hourly headways will have to do. (This is also one of my critiques of the standard Milwaukee West schedule: departures skip from the :30s to the :40s after 6pm, which is needlessly complicated, especially since the Milwaukee North runs on the :35s all day long.)

There’s also still the obnoxious three-hour headway between the 8:30pm and 11:30pm outbound trains on Sunday nights. Come on.

All in all though, the UP-NW has a lot of promise, especially considering the summer attractions along the line, whether that’s suburban street fests or Cubs games (transfer to #80-Irving Park buses at Irving Park) or races at Arlington Park.

Rock Island

Check it out as a PDF.

Metra’s adding six round-trips on the Rock Island on Saturdays and leaving the Sunday schedules as-is. Going back to the text stringline chart concept, it’s easy to see here with the color-coded Saturday-only service how the new service operates as two new consists working their way to Joliet and back.

What’s more interesting here though is what’s not shown. I mentioned in the last post about how I made my Metra map with Rock Island split into two separate services, and that divide is front-and-center here: the Rocket trains (Blue Island-Joliet) see all the added service, and the Suburban Line (Chicago-Blue Island) doesn’t see any additional service. I understand the goal is to serve where the people are and Metra feels added service out in the Cook and Will suburbs will spur more ridership than the Morgan Park/Beverly neighborhoods of Chicago, but it just feels wrong from an equity standpoint that Chicago — and the South Side in particular — isn’t seeing any service enhancements as part of this pilot program.

Also worth noting another untouched three-hour headway (between the 8:10pm and 11:15pm departures) for Suburban Line riders while in that same window Rocket riders see an added Saturday train that cuts a two-hour headway into two one-hour headways. I feel like pushing that 10:00pm Main Line express departure up 20 minutes to 9:40pm and making Suburban Line stops would be a better option for train #729 without significantly affecting operations.

BNSF Railway

Check it out as a PDF.

The BNSF’s summer weekend pilot is much more understated than what’s getting rolled out on the UP-NW and RI; indeed, it’s buried in a separate press release about other tweaks to the BNSF weekday schedule and starts a week later than the UP-NW and RI weekend pilot, a difference I did not notice until this very moment and I’m not going to go back and change my Weekend Guide because by the time I correct it and republish everything it’ll be next week anyway.

The added service is pretty straightforward: a new Saturday outbound train at 11:40am for reasons I don’t fully understand; a new Saturday inbound express train in the mid-afternoon; and an extra Sunday round-trip that corresponds with two trains that run on Saturdays. The meat of the added service is that afternoon express train; however, by not adding any additional outbound options in the evening, Metra won’t be able to realize the full benefits of that express train since it doesn’t address those awful two-hour headways on the busiest line in the system. Think of it this way: the new express train arrives Union Station at 4:23pm, but the only outbound options (assuming whoever is coming downtown isn’t doing so just for an hour or two) are the 8:40pm, 10:40pm, and 12:40am trains. It’s extremely informal, but last week we ran a quick Twitter poll that found 90% of suburbanites chose not to take Metra downtown on a weekend at least once in the last year specifically because of the return trip two-hour headways.

n = 51 suggests we need more followers.

That poll is hardly scientific and it’s hardly representative, but this is the flip side of induced demand and shows one way that less service leads to fewer riders.

Metra’s adding weekend service, which is a good thing, full stop. Could it be better? Sure, but let’s not have perfect be the enemy of good here. It’s also promising to see that Metra is taking off-peak service seriously and is starting to at least tinker with schedules. Jim Derwinski and Metra staff should be proud of this modest schedule pilot, and I hope this is the beginning of many more schedule analyses and pilot projects throughout the system.

And if any of you are reading this: may I suggest a pulse scheduling pilot next?