Pop quiz, hot shot: What’s Metra’s busiest corridor?
You probably guessed the BNSF, which definitely has the highest ridership (by a long shot) and the highest number of daily trains: 47 round trips, or 94 individual in-service trains.
But what if I told you there was a corridor with a whopping 111 scheduled trips each weekday?
And now what if I told you it was the Heritage Corridor?
It’s obviously a laughable claim. Metra recently announced that they’re open to adding an eighth daily train (yes, the current service is that infrequent), and a recent rider survey about a potential change generated a whopping 2,000 entries. So where am I getting an extra 104 daily trips from?
This blog post started as a hypothetical experiment. Earlier this week, since I have some time to kill for the indefinite future, I woke up bright and early to make a pre-dawn trip down to the Interstate 55 corridor. I figured the trip would be good field research for at least two potential posts: one discussing how bad the BNSF reverse commute offerings are (seriously, look at this outbound morning schedule, to get from Berwyn to Naperville it’s somehow faster for me to take a train to Union Station and get right back on an outbound train than it is for me to try to get a single-seat outbound train), and one discussing some idyllic future state where Metra could get buses like Pace’s express coach buses to bolster and improve exurban service that reduces the reliance on diesel consists to pick up a handful of people off-peak when it makes more sense to bus them to a convenient transfer point and increase train frequencies where the vast majority of the riders are instead. (Looking at you, Union Pacific Northwest).
What I found instead are three separate service providers with a whole bunch of service offerings that overlap and could actually complement each other if it wasn’t for our siloed fare policies and service planning procedures.
Too Many Cooks
Let’s identify all the players really quickly. There’s obviously Metra, with their seven Heritage Corridor trains per weekday. Train service is crucial: Metra’s diesel consists are great for moving large numbers of people very fast with few intermediate stops, which describes the Heritage Corridor perfectly; unfortunately, the tracks are crowded with plenty of slow-moving freight cross-traffic, so adding train service is a significant challenge. But there’s also the suburban bus operator Pace, with a variety of express premium services along Interstate 55 where buses operate on the inside shoulder when the expressway is congested:
- Pace Route 755, which runs from Plainfield to Chicago Union Station with stops at the Old Chicago park-and-ride, the Damen Pink Line station, and a bunch of street stops on the West Side;
- Pace Route 850, which runs from Bolingbrook (more specifically, the Canterbury park-and-ride) to the Magnificent Mile;
- Pace Route 851, which does basically the same thing as the 850 except starting from the White Fence Farm park-and-ride instead of Canterbury; and
- Pace Route 855, which runs from Plainfield to the Magnificent Mile with additional stops at the Burr Ridge park-and-ride and supplemental service to the Bridgeview Transit Center.
- Note: there’s also Pace Route 754 in this corridor, but since it only operates a single reverse-commute round-trip and only serves Lewis University, for the purposes of this conversation I’m not including it.
Then there’s also Amtrak, which shares the tracks with Metra (technically, both Metra and Amtrak have trackage rights; Canadian National controls the tracks). Amtrak runs ten trains a day between Chicago and Joliet: eight Lincoln Service trains — which are primarily funded by IDOT — one daily round-trip for the long-distance Texas Eagle train. Lincoln Service trains also stop at Summit, although inbound Amtrak trains are prohibited from picking up anyone at Summit and stop to discharge passengers only. Also note that there are more Amtrak trains in this corridor than Metra trains, so finding a way to tap into Amtrak’s regional service to also provide commuter service — which has been done elsewhere — would be a massive benefit.
And then there’s also Pace again, which runs two additional routes that conveniently connect to BNSF trains: the 825 provides weekday peak service from Canterbury to Lisle (with timed transfers), and the 834 provides local service six days a week between Joliet and Downers Grove with stops at the Lockport Heritage Corridor station, the Old Chicago park-and-ride, and the Canterbury park-and-ride. When the BNSF is running expresses, these trips are competitive with Pace’s express bus service to downtown; however, the lack of fare integration can make these trips more cost-prohibitive for regular commuters.
Put them all together and there’s a robust corridor of 111 transit trips every weekday, which also includes off-peak and reverse commute schedules as well. That doesn’t even include a bunch of convenient connecting services to Summit, such as Pace’s 307 (which connects to the BNSF at Harlem Avenue as well as the Bridgeport Transit Center) and the CTA’s 62H (which connects to the Orange Line at Midway Airport).
It’s important to note that these are existing services and current conditions: unlike plenty of other entries on this blog, I didn’t crayon out any service expansions or extensions or add any trips that aren’t currently operating. If anything, there might be a few more trips than what’s shown here since I didn’t include any 834 trips during the peak (since there are faster ways to/from downtown) or any trips that required a transfer of more than 20 minutes. These are existing conditions, but since Pace does Pace stuff and Metra does Metra stuff, they’re almost never presented as a unified system.
That said, a quick look at the combined schedule just begs for some minor tweaks that could dramatically enhance the service even further. Just a few low-hanging fruit scenarios:
- Could those eight Amtrak trips make flag stops at the other Heritage Corridor stations? Can this suffice as weekend service for the Heritage Corridor?
- Could some 834 trips cross the Des Plaines River at Romeo Road and serve the Romeoville station off-peak as well?
- Could Burr Ridge runs be extended to stop at Willow Springs and Lemont?
- When the I-55 managed lanes project ends up happening, can a mainline station similar to Barrington Road open to allow transfers between West Loop trips and Mag Mile trips?
Of course, as long as the fare policy stays the same — where Metra and Pace more or less pretend there are two separate networks rather than one unified network unless you have a monthly pass AND you’re willing to pay an extra $30 — the full potential of this corridor will remain unrealized. That’s an awful shame since Pace service in this corridor is busting at the seams — a 600% increase in ridership since 2011 — and the Heritage Corridor is one of Metra’s few bright spots in regards to ridership growth as the only line that didn’t lose riders between 2018 and 2019.
This corridor is an ideal candidate for an integrated fare pilot project, and in the meantime if Metra’s willing to pop the hood on the Heritage Corridor schedule to add another train or two, now’s the time to work with Pace (and maybe IDOT) to approach the schedule change in a more holistic way that improves mobility and accessibility for commuters throughout the southwest suburbs.