Diverging Approach: Metrathalon

On July 5, 2019, I did something possibly never done before: I went out and rode on each of Metra’s 11 lines in 11 hours. This was not a subway-challenge type of excursion where I visited every stop in the system or rode every train in service; I simply planned a schedule that involved riding on at least one train on each line, all back-to-back. The live-tweet thread of this #Metrathalon is here, and here’s the schedule I used:

7:58amMetra MD-WCUSWestern Avenue
8:17amMetra MD-NWestern AvenueCUS
9:00amMetra NCSCUSO’Hare Transfer
ORD shuttlesO’Hare TransferTerminals
CTA Blue LineO’Hare CTAJefferson Park
11:01amMetra UP-NWJefferson ParkClybourn
11:17amMetra UP-NClybournOgilvie Transportation Center (OTC)
11:40amMetra UP-WOTCOak Park
Pace #307Harlem/Lake CTAHarlem Avenue BNSF
1:20pmMetra BNSFHarlem AvenueCUS
2:45pmMetra HCCUSJoliet
4:20pmMetra RIJolietBlue Island
5:38pmMetra MEBlue IslandVan Buren Street Station
CTA #126Michigan/Van BurenCUS
6:58pmMetra SWSCUSWrightwood

This long-read post is a more in-depth chronicle of the excursion, and was a draft I’ve worked on in fits and starts over the past nine months. However, as the COVID-19 pandemic grinds everyday life here in the Chicago suburbs to a halt for weeks, this seems like the right time to polish this up and get this post out. As always, if you’d like to discuss the Metrathalon, hit up @StarLineChicago on Twitter. In the meantime, avoid unnecessary travel (like this), stay home if you’re sick, wash your hands, cover your cough, and be good to each other. We’ll get through this together.

Every so often, like most people (I think), I get a little flare-up of imposter syndrome, where I feel like my skill set is getting a little soft and I’m losing my edge. To a certain extent, I think imposter syndrome is healthy and a great motivator; of course, with my various neuroses and trust issues it’s probably a symptom of some deeper mental issues I struggle with. (Reminder: it’s okay to not be okay, and mental health issues are nothing to be ashamed of.)

Anywho, finding myself with Friday, July 5th open and with Metra inexplicably running a full weekday schedule – and, even more inexplicably, charging full fares instead of doing a 4th/5th Weekend Pass like they do for Thanksgiving and Lollapalooza every year – I decided to dive head-first into boosting my Metra bonafides: I chose to ride every one of Metra’s 11 lines in a single day.

Unlike the ‘L’ Challenge that requires stopping at every single CTA station, to make this challenge more achievable I ended up scheduling a journey that involved traveling on each line at least once. This schedule also used Metra’s official 11 lines and not our 14-line schematic, which would have taken significantly longer.

The overall journey – which took exactly 11 hours to meet my goal – reminded me of a lot missed opportunities in our commuter rail network, and provided a super-convenient framing device for a nice meaty blog post, which is nice because I’ve had about half a dozen half-written blog posts in my head for quite awhile that I can purge here.

If you’re not from Chicago – or if you’re from the city proper and you just assume everything west of Cicero Avenue is Iowa – I hope this post helps to succinctly (or not so succinctly) brings you up to speed on the state of suburban commuter rail service here. So let’s begin.

When I started this blog, I took Metra way more often because I lived in a “real” suburb. Now I live in Forest Park, the kind of suburb where my suburban friends call it the city and my city friends call it the suburbs. Here’s my first train of the day.

Chicago Union Station

My first train of the day – the 7:58am MD-W train – left out of Chicago Union Station. CUS, as the railroaders and the foamers call it, is arguably the most integral part of Metra’s system, with six of Metra’s 11 lines using the massive terminal. It’s also arguably Metra’s biggest liability, since Metra is only a tenant in the station, which is owned and operated by Amtrak. Metra and Amtrak are currently going into arbitration to settle the next lease agreement, with Amtrak wanting Metra to spend more and invest in infrastructure improvements at the station while Metra’s arguing for more control of the station; Congressman Dan Lipinski (D, IL-3) recently filed federal legislation that threatens to cut funding to Amtrak if they don’t surrender operational control to Metra. Plenty of people smarter than me on this issue are spilling more ink about this topic, so I’ll defer and move on.

The Antiquated Fleet

The MD-W train gets me to Western Avenue, where I hop off and wait for a MD-N train to take me back to CUS. At least, I assume it’s an MD-N train: there’s nothing on the outside of Metra’s diesel trains to indicate the train’s line or destination.

The Transit app says the MD-N is the second train approaching Western Avenue…
…but with the MD-N running late, a MD-W train scheduled around the same time, and two identical trains pulling into the station after the first (presumed NCS) train went through, I just assume I chose correctly.

At Western Avenue, the inbound MD-N, MD-W, and NCS lines all stop and go straight to Union Station, so unless you’re doing something incredibly stupid like riding every Metra train in a day, it doesn’t really matter which train is which line.

However, there are two issues here: first and foremost, at the station itself, schedules are shown by line instead of by time. For 99% of Metra’s stations, that’s perfectly acceptable, but for inbound riders who don’t care about line and only care about getting downtown, it’s just another little inconvenience that makes Metra just a little harder to use. A simple special inbound schedule here (and at Clybourn) based on time of day rather than each line would go a long way for people from the neighborhood taking Metra downtown.

But the bigger issue is on outbound trains, where three lines using identical equipment and no external line markings serve the same station and then head to three very different suburban destinations. In my experience, conductors – in a rare checkmark in the “for” column of keeping 2+ conductors on each train – will lean out of the doors of the train at Western Avenue and yell out the destination. “West Line to Elgin!” is a fun little antiquated throwback when riding the train, but it’s the 21st Century and there’s no way that’s acceptable for anyone with any sort of hearing disability.

A lack of external line markings on Metra’s trains is admittedly a minor inconvenience, but it’s a good example of how Metra’s 20th-Century fleet and operational model aren’t keeping up with the demands of a 21st-Century modern metropolis. Metra’s gallery cars – an antiquated design specifically designed to assist in ticket collection efforts when the wave of the future is proof-of-payment fare systems – are emblematic of Metra… for better or worse. Aesthetically, the exterior of the coaches are timeless – corrugated polished steel really never goes out of style – but the design of the coaches themselves are not intended for the high-frequency service suburban Chicago needs to survive the challenges of the 21st Century. For any weekend, or some weekdays, when just about any special event is happening downtown, Metra will regularly incur delays “due to heavy passenger loading” since each coach only has a single door leading to a steep staircase. Even with low platforms like the majority of Metra’s stations have, more modern rail car designs have multiple doors with step-free (or at least single-step) boarding. Easier boardings with more boarding locations mean less dwell time at stations, which increases speeds while improving schedule adherence.

On one hand, Metra’s making a positive move on this front by opening up their newest rail car RFP to new train car designs, which is good. But on the other hand, they’re only doing so because an RFP for gallery cars crashed and burned with only one responsive bidder.

The airport-sized elephant in the room

With the two Milwaukees down, I got back to CUS and got on the 9:00am NCS train, which I took to O’Hare. While I was planning my journey, I tried to minimize out-and-back trips (like my previous leg to and from Western Avenue) unless I could knock a second line out in doing so. I could have taken the NCS back to Western Avenue and grabbed the next train back to CUS, but that seemed boring and counterproductive since it’d be a duplicative trip on the way back inbound.

Instead, I took the NCS to the O’Hare Transfer, where I’d take the free airport shuttle bus from the station to the terminals and hop on the CTA Blue Line. When my train pulled up, the shuttle bus was waiting for me right at the station, which was pretty convenient. When the Chicago Tribune sent their reporters on a race to O’Hare last June, Mary Wisniewski had to wait about five minutes for the shuttle and ended up coming in last place by eight minutes.

Quick sidebar about the Tribune‘s race: the race was more or less rigged to give Metra a best-case scenario (there are only ten weekday trains that go from downtown to O’Hare and the contest was timed for an easy departure from CUS) and Metra still came in dead last. However, Ms. Wisniewski had to walk from the Tribune‘s offices at the Prudential Building to Union Station instead of taking a bus or a cab, so she wasn’t even onboard the train until 25 minutes into the journey whereas her competitor in an Uber was already at about Addison or so on the Kennedy. It’s easy to imagine Metra would be more competitive if there was a faster way to Union Station, and if the airport people mover was operational instead of relying on shuttle buses through the terminal core. The Tribune‘s methodology was also slanted a little bit towards the two driving modes, since the contest was run on a Wednesday afternoon instead of during a rush hour, and since the cub reporter who took the Blue Line got lost at O’Hare (and still came in second place). Watching the split-screen video of the adventure is a good way to get a feel for it, although also noteworthy is that Abdel Jimenez, who took the Blue Line, got to Block 37 a minute after Mary Wisniewski walked through it via the Pedway. The data analyst in me wishes they took the same walking path at least to that point to eliminate as many externalities as possible, but alas, it’s still a good experiment. If the writers over at Streetsblog Chicago ever want to do a more rigorous analysis of transit access to O’Hare with a little more rigor than what the Tribune did, I volunteer as tribute.

Metra to O’Hare is one of the most significant missed opportunities in our region. For all the talk about high-speed underground “skates” (that — shocker! — ended up being a load of crap) and other, ahem, fly-by-night airport express services, we as a region continually overlook an existing connection between a major downtown transit hub and the busiest airport in the Midwest/world (depending on when you’re reading this). While downtown-to-O’Hare is the regional prize in a lot of people’s minds, we can’t overlook the added values to the communities in the North Central Service corridor if they could advertise regular, frequent, direct rail access to O’Hare. Instead, communities like Vernon Hills and Buffalo Grove have fewer trains to O’Hare in a week than the number of outbound BNSF trains run in a day. It’s easier to go from Aurora to Brookfield Zoo than it is to go from any of the dozens of offices within walking distance of the Buffalo Grove station to a major international airport served by the same train line.

Fares and Fairness

By about 9:50am or so, I was on the CTA Blue Line heading towards Jefferson Park, where I’d catch the 11:01am inbound UP-NW train. This is also one of the first significant “buffer” time slots in my schedule, due both to Metra’s infrequency and Metra’s unreliability for making transit connections. With about half an hour to kill, I grab a bottle of water from 7-Eleven and muse about the $10.25 in Metra fares I’ve already spent today and how Metra probably should’ve rolled out their Day Pass pilot by now.

I’m a CTA/Pace 30-Day Pass holder, so the extra charge to grab the Blue Line at the airport didn’t apply to me; at O’Hare, it costs $5 to board the ‘L’ (compared to $2.50 at any other station) unless you’re traveling on a 1-, 3-, 7-, or 30-Day Pass. The 30-Day Pass sets me back $105 a month, which is no small amount but also significantly cheaper than any Metra monthly pass in any fare zone. My 30-Day Pass also includes unlimited rides and transfers to Pace; on Metra, that costs either an extra $30 (for only Pace) or $55 (for Pace and peak-hour CTA).

No one likes paying fares, but it’s a necessary evil for transit. (Maybe it isn’t; at current service levels, Chicago’s three transit agencies could go fare-free for the cost of about $4 per regional worker per week.) However, our fare policy is backwards from an equity standpoint: we offer the cheapest (non-special, per-ride) fares to riders who can afford to buy a lump-sum $100+ pass every month. If you’re living paycheck-to-paycheck, the CTA’s 7-Day pass ($28 each and doesn’t include Pace; $112 for 28 days vs. CTA/Pace 30-Day Pass for $105) or Metra’s 10-Ride ticket (Zone A-C $52.25; $209 for 20 round-trips vs. a monthly pass for $159.50) might be all you can afford, even though you’re clearly overpaying. For a city rider on the CTA, $7 is a meal for your family; for a city rider on Metra — there are 25 Zone C stations in Chicago proper, with 21 of those located south of 79th Street — an extra $50 a month could feed your family for a week. Having Metra and CTA/Pace fares operate in two separate vacuums doesn’t help either, and is only compounded by the fact that Metra’s only “integrated” fares are predicated on Monthly Passes.

Cook County wrapped up a study showing that lowering fares and increasing frequency on Metra through southern Cook County could net a $3.4 million profit if the agencies and the County can figure out who puts up the initial $8.5 million to implement the changes. However, Chicago’s Mayor Lori Lightfoot has repeatedly thrown cold water on the proposal in a defensive move to reduce CTA ridership losses, which is misguided since getting more riders onto any bus or any train is a net positive for our region in terms of congestion, air quality, equity, sustainable development, or just about any other metric.

A better improvement that could be rolled out relatively easily now that Ventra has strong adoption rates on Metra is fare capping, which gets rid of 10-Ride and Monthly Passes in favor of tracked single-use tickets that automatically taper down to $0 per ride based on how frequently a rider uses the service. This doesn’t take care of all equity issues — after all, a smartphone is needed, and about one in five Americans still don’t have a smartphone — but it’d be a huge step forward with direct benefits to some of the system’s most financially-insecure users. Furthermore, fare capping is not a foreign concept either: fare capping now officially exists in Illinois, as Metro Transit down in the St. Louis region now includes fare capping on their Gateway Card fare product.

But Metra’s fare policies are unfair even for the more well-off clientele that makes up their core commuter market, especially in the face of climate change, stagnant rail ridership, and declining bus ridership. (Of course, since Metra doesn’t run buses, that last one isn’t a priority for the agency as a whole.) The most cost-effective way to boost ridership during the peak period — other than just running more trains, of course — is improving accessibility to stations without adding more parking that takes up valuable real estate within the station’s walkshed. However, the Balkanized system we have in suburban transit — communities by and large own and operate park-and-ride lots; Pace owns, operates, and sets fare policy for buses; Metra operates or oversees operation of trains — pits each segment against each other in what should be parts of an integrated network. In a community like Wheaton, which has four Pace routes serving its Metra station, a quarterly parking permit costs only $60, or $20 per month. Even with a $30 PlusBus add-on to a Metra Monthly Pass, the suburbs are actively subsidizing driving over taking transit, which then actively undervalues some of the most valuable land in their community (parcels of land that can be developed within walking distance of a train station) by devoting more and more space for parking. Even in places like Lisle and Naperville which, to their credit, at least charge more than the $30 PlusBus pass (but still less than the $55 CTA/Pace LinkUp pass, just in case you don’t work within walking distance of Union Station), parking is so undervalued that Naperville’s parking permit wait list is seven years long.

So we’re actively pricing low-income transit users out of the market while we’re actively subsidizing suburbanites to drive more. Great. And my train’s late.

[Editor’s note: this section was written before the Active Transportation Alliance released their Fair Fares Chicagoland study last fall, a much deeper dive into fare equity issues in our region. Star:Line Chicago contributed to the report.]

Adventures in Reliability

Metra prides itself on its on-time performance; Metra CEO Jim Derwinski recently boasted to a congressional subcommittee that Metra has averaged 93% or better on-time performance for every year since 1984. Railroads — not just Metra — already play a little fast and loose with “on time”; the industry standard is that a train is consider on-time if it arrives at the last scheduled stop within six minutes of the published scheduled arrival time; Metra gives itself more wiggle room by padding the travel time between the penultimate and last stops, occasionally by laughable amounts of time. Even just a cursory look at the published schedules like the BNSF summer schedule gives up the game by adding more time for local trains or busy weekend trains than for peak-hour express trains.

TrainStationTerminalInbound Travel Time
BNSF #1292Western AveCUS9 min
BNSF #1224Western AveCUS10 min*
BNSF #1268Western AveCUS14 min
BNSF #1266Western AveCUS15 min
BNSF #2004Western AveCUS17 min
BNSF #2014Western AveCUS23 min
* includes a stop at Halsted St

Midday trains do occasionally run a little behind schedule, for various reasons. Maybe a big group all got on at once (and as discussed Metra’s fleet is not optimized for loading and unloading large groups all at once). Maybe there’s some track work that needs to be done between the peaks. Maybe there are speed restrictions due to summer heat. While there’s no shortage of things that go wrong, when there’s only one train an hour, an accurate schedule isn’t too much to ask for. However, simply throwing extra minutes at the end of the schedule is a good example of our #MovingTrainsNotPeople criticism of the railroad mindset. If you order something online and the site tells you that the package will be delivered before 7pm on whatever date, if it comes in at 2 or 3pm instead, that’s great, but that’s freight. When you placed that order, you chose your delivery option based on your specific needs: if they’re promising delivery by 7pm but you need it at 5pm, that’s not the option you’re choosing for delivery even if it will probably make it there early.

In 2020, when 81% of Americans have a device in their pocket or purse that has access to the entirety of human knowledge, including probable guesses on travel times by various modes of transportation, unnecessarily padding a train schedule only hurts Metra’s standing in mode choice decisions. If I’m starting from, say, Healy on the MD-N and heading to Union Station, Metra’s current construction schedule (track work from Northbrook to Healy) says I’ll spend 31 minutes onboard the train. This, of course, is extremely unlikely: that inbound train is far more likely to be late when it picks me up at Healy (since the construction zone is before Healy). According to the regular schedule, the trip from Healy to Union Station should take about 20 minutes, although even that is probably overly cautious since it only takes about 14 minutes to go from Union Station to Healy in the outbound direction.

What this means is that a trip that, for a trip that probably takes about 15-20 minutes, Metra is telling their riders that they need to literally double that travel time to make their trip; in turn, if that’s what Metra says on their GTFS feeds, that’s what Google and Transit and other apps will pick up as the predicted travel time, which directly affects whether or not some riders will choose to take the train or if they choose to drive instead. What Metra should be tracking and focusing on is schedule adherence, which provides a much stronger correlation to passenger experience than on-time performance. It’s a less sexy talking point, construction schedules would be tougher to push out and require more variability week-to-week, and I’m sure the initial results would not look terribly good for the agency, but more accurate, more reliable schedules will lead to stronger gains in ridership than continually moving the goalposts for a metric that’s become a Twitter punchline.

Back to the Metrathalon. My initial schedule called for taking the 11:01am UP-NW from Jefferson Park to Clybourn (scheduled arrival: 11:12am), changing trains, getting the UP-N from Clybourn (11:17am) to Ogilvie (11:28am), and transferring to the 11:40am UP-W train. The UP-NW inbound train eventually arrived in Jeff Park at 11:08am, which severely threw the connection to the UP-N into jeopardy. However, the UP-N was also running late (track construction), so while I was able to make the UP-N connection, the UP-W 11:40am connection now was in serious doubt.

Pictured: serious doubt.

Luckily, the Transit app shown above was working with Metra’s padded schedules, not actual travel times, so that UP-N train ended up getting into Ogilvie precisely at 11:39am.

Time to run.

Finger on the Pulse

I’m not a terribly fit person, which is one reason why it’s just a little ironic that I happen to run the Twitter account for a protected bike lane downtown. But, like just about anyone else who has ever taken transit, I can sprint when I need to. So when my scheduled 12 minute layover turned into a layover of about 45 seconds, I was still able to make it by running through the Ogilvie Transportation Center, albeit by a very slim margin. However, as I caught my breath in the vestibule of that 11:40am UP-W departure, I noticed something very unexpected:

Four other passengers taking a breather next to me.

Had I been more observant and less focused on keeping my Metrathalon schedule alive, I may have noticed that the other four people who were in the late UP-N vestibule with me as that train rolled in 11 minutes late were just as nervous and just as ready to hit the ground running as I was.

I didn’t actively plan it as such, but I stumbled into a rare time in Metra’s systemwide schedule that operates on something close to a pulse schedule, something I’ve discussed before on this blog. In a nutshell, pulse scheduling is a strategy of maximizing transfer potentials for transit systems that run with low frequencies, and they work particularly well with hub-and-spoke systems like Metra. The idea is that all the service comes into one central point all around the same time, have a small amount of time available to make transfers, and send the trips back out again, similar to how a heart pumps blood (hence “pulse” scheduling). In this case, there’s a UP-NW inbound train that’s scheduled to get in at 11:23am, a UP-N inbound train that’s scheduled to get in at 11:28am, and a UP-W outbound train that’s scheduled to leave at 11:40am, which means that if you’re going from, say, Evanston to Elmhurst, it can — theoretically — be a very simple, straightforward, easy connection to make.

Pulse scheduling can be a little tricky, since leaving too much time to layover makes the trip take longer and become less attractive for riders; leaving too little time risks missed connections if the inbound train gets delayed for whatever reason. However, if there are significant financial constraints that make adding service cost-prohibitive, adopting pulse scheduling is a cheap — it literally costs next to nothing since there’s no actual added service — way to make the network as a whole more usable and accessible for travelers.

Metra does not use pulse schedules, and they’ve shown little interest in doing so. Even my connection at Ogilvie here was a fluke since there’s no similarly scheduled connections between the UP-W and the UP-N in the other direction; in fact, UP-W inbound trains are scheduled to arrive at Ogilvie only 10-15 minutes after corresponding UP-N and UP-NW outbound departures, a slap in the face to anyone who actually tries to make those connections, especially when those two-hour headways creep up.

Look, scheduling trains is hard, especially through the Chicago area where passenger trains have to share tracks with freight trains and frequently cross other rail lines at grade. That said, a quick look at Metra’s weekend schedules shows that, actually, the schedules aren’t that complicated at all. For instance, here’s our Milwaukee West Travel Guide, where I lay out the schedules in something that looks a little more like a string chart than a traditional railroad schedule that splits trains up by direction. You can see it in the Saturday schedule too, but the Sunday schedule makes it painfully clear: trains leave downtown, go to Elgin, wait 10-25 minutes, then turn around and head back downtown. Once they get downtown, the train and its crew sits and waits until the next departure — which could be well over an hour — and then the cycle repeats. And that’s how most of Metra’s weekend lines operate. (The UP-N and UP-NW lines are somewhat of outliers here since there are multiple yards for each line out in the suburbs, and since they share consists.)

In other words, pulse scheduling — at least for weekend and off-peak trips — probably wouldn’t be too hard at all to actually roll out: instead of building an entire network based on what time hourly or every-two-hourly trains leave downtown (almost every weekend train that isn’t the UP-N, the ME, or the Suburban Branch of the RI leaves on a :30, :35, or :40 — and the Suburban Branch leaves on the :10 specifically to meet the Main Line RI :40 departure at Blue Island), plan the schedules around having the lines converge downtown at the same time, have a 20-30 minute layover period, and then send them back to the hinterlands. I’m sure the train crews would not be a fan of this set-up — I’d much rather kill an hour in downtown Chicago than downtown Elgin or Elburn — but Metra operates to serve passengers, not their crews.

This system would also have an extra benefit of increasing inbound on-time performance during the off-peak, since the buffer time in the schedule would be built into the suburban side of the flip, rather than the city side. For instance, let’s say an outbound train takes a 30-minute delay in service (and if you’ve taken Metra on the weekends, you know that’s definitely in the realm of possibility). Currently, let’s say that train has a scheduled 15-minute flip to become the next inbound train. That means the inbound trip is starting 15 minutes late, right off the bat. Not only is that inconvenient, but knowing Metra’s core constituency is still suburbanites going into the city and back, that will actively discourage people from using Metra for that trip. But if that hour-plus of flip time is on the suburban side, that 30-minute outbound delay has no effect on the following inbound trip, which boosts reliability and encourages more people to take the train.

Of course, then the counterargument is: what happens if the 30-minute delay happens on the inbound side? The short answer is: the same thing that happens now. While pulse scheduling would greatly improve connectivity and transfer opportunities, most passengers are still just heading downtown and don’t need to worry about a connection. (Riders who are already downtown looking to head home are more of a captive audience and are more tolerant of a short delay than suburbanites arriving at an inbound station and waiting for a delayed inbound train.)

For those that are on a delayed inbound train and do have to make a connection though, one of two things can happen: (1) the connection is missed and they have to wait for the next train — which, again, is a status quo situation — or (2) for connections that are close to happening, the railroad takes a second delay.

This is where I think I lose the last remaining railroaders who are still reading this far. But there is such a thing as a good delay. If there’s a train that’s coming in within five minutes of another departure on a line that only runs once every two hours — ready for this? — hold that departing train. With technologies like GPS, radios, and just communicating with your passengers, there’s no reason someone somewhere can’t just hold the outbound train, especially if they know someone’s transferring. Here’s how it could work in practice:

  1. An inbound BNSF train is running 20 minutes late. An outbound MD-W train is scheduled to depart 20 minutes after the BNSF train gets in.
  2. After the BNSF train passes Western Avenue, the conductor makes an announcement: “If anyone is transferring to a different Metra train at Union Station, please tell a conductor.”
  3. One of two things happen:
    • No one says anything; trains operate as scheduled. End.
    • Someone says they’re connecting to the MD-W train.
  4. The conductor calls a control center to tell them to hold the MD-W for a transfer.
  5. The control center tells the MD-W train to wait for a transfer from the late BNSF.
  6. A conductor on the MD-W announces that the train — still about ten minutes out from its scheduled departure time — will be slightly delayed since someone is connecting from a late train.
  7. One of two things happen:
    • A massive passenger mutiny on the MD-W for waiting at Union Station for an extra five minutes. Society breaks down onboard the train; each car becomes its own faction to fight for survival; someone blows into a conch shell.
    • Passengers barely notice and go about their conversations/drinking their train beers. Maybe someone runs up to The Junction for a refill.
  8. The BNSF train gets in and the transferring passenger(s) quickly make their way to the waiting MD-W train.
  9. The MD-W train leaves a few minutes late.

Now, maybe those few minutes start some huge butterfly-effect ripple through the entire network because a freight train can’t get into the Bensenville Yard on time or the Metra train ends up waiting for a CN freight at Spaulding or something. But more likely, probably not, and either way, that sort of stuff happens all the time now anyway, because maybe there’s a huge group getting off at a station and Metra’s fleet is not physically designed to handle large groups of people boarding/unloading all at once, or maybe there’s track work, or maybe there’s a slow zone, or maybe there’s whatever.

The point is, Metra probably could do pulse scheduling if they wanted to, and if there’s a good reason for them not to do pulse scheduling, it’s not public knowledge.

And, at the very least, if someone sees a group of people darting off a late inbound train and running through Ogilvie trying to make a train that’s about to pull out, maybe make sure the train sticks around for an extra minute or two just in case there’s someone with a disability or otherwise lacking my superior level of fitness.

Also, a quick note on fare policy: officially, I evaded a fare by using an active but unexpired Ventra one-way pass on the UP-W: Metra’s official fare policy requires a second full fare when changing trains downtown, which is not a good policy and should be shunned since it actively discourages using the system for anything other than trips to/from downtown. (I also don’t feel bad about this “fare evasion” because I still spent over $35 on fares for this excursion and the Day Pass should’ve been released by now.)


I got into Oak Park just before noon. It’s been four hours and I’ve already knocked out six different Metra lines in this grand excursion; five to go. It also means it’s halftime in this magnum opus as I sit here writing this well over a month two months six months nine months after I made the journey. As I hopped on the Pace 307-Harlem bus to head down to the BNSF back on that warm July day, and now as I sit in my unemployed COVID-19 self-isolation, clacking away on the keyboard, I have the same thought:

I’m tired. And maybe this was a stupid idea.

On the Metrathalon, the 307 runs tantalizingly close to my house in Forest Park; indeed, when I’m headed up to the MD-W to head out to the burbs on a Saturday, the 307 is the bus I usually use to get up to the Elmwood Park station. I have an extra hour of downtime in the schedule, and I was planning on getting lunch, so maybe I should just go home, grab a sandwich, take a breather on the couch…

And as I blog, I realize I haven’t written half of what I need to do to document the excursion. Believe it or not, I don’t take any particular joy in complaining about our suburban transit network. I don’t like always being negative; it takes a lot of time and energy to point out issues that are obviously totally out of my control and still try to be productive with offering potential solutions or at least opportunities for improvement. There’s no shortage of people who take Metra to task online, I’ve been blogging much less regularly these days, and it’s entirely possible all of this is a liability as I hunt for a new job, so maybe I should just let this languish in the draft folder and move on to a new hobby…

Both those paths lead to the same point: a better universe where I’m better at knowing when to cut my losses, letting someone else quixotically tilt at the extremely niche windmills of suburban transit, and just having some normal hobbies like a normal person. Maybe I’d paint or know how to play piano or get really into fantasy sports or, you know, something… normal.

But this isn’t that universe. And I’m not that normal person. July 5th was my 34th birthday, and I spent my birthday riding trains for eleven hours without getting further than Joliet, and rather than just nerd out and enjoy it like a good railroad aficionado I decide to spill thousands of words worth of digital ink about how most of it kinda sucked as I scream into the void a greatest-hits epic long post that doesn’t really shed any new light on anything for anyone who has read anything I’ve written before.

Why do I do this?

Five minutes pass. The cursor patiently blinks at me, as if it knows the answer to my question but prefers to wait and let me figure it out on my own.

Five more minutes pass. I don’t figure it out.

Why do I do this? This blog (and honestly, the entire site) is a liability; I’m probably burning bridges I haven’t built yet in my professional career for a few occasional rants and repackaged information about train schedules and bars that anyone with a few minutes on Google can figure out on their own.

I wish I was normal.

Actually, that’s a lie. I wish I wished I was normal.

I’m not normal. Normal means keeping your head down, not making too many waves, and taking what you can get. Normal means knowing the difference between what you can change and what you can’t change and planning accordingly. Normal means letting someone else tilt at those windmills, letting someone else take big risks, letting someone else figure out what’s wrong with the system, and letting someone else try to fix it.

I’m not normal. I’m not good at just keeping my head down, going with the flow, and trying to nibble on the edges to change what we have out here in the suburbs. I believe in going straight at the paradigms we have today, assessing their strengths and weaknesses, and making a call for action to change them for the better, even if I’m just a small voice in a crowded room.

These windmills are my windmills to tilt at. This is what I do. Some people paint, or play the piano, or get really into fantasy sports, or whatever it is that normal people do. But I’m not normal. I help people plan train crawls, because I like helping suburbanites discover things to do throughout our region that don’t require getting behind the wheel of a car. I plan train crawls for people because I believe that the easier we make it for someone to have a good time hopping on transit and seeing the opportunities that are out there, the more likely they’ll be to ride transit more often on their own. I write this blog not because our transit agencies are necessarily failing or bad at what they do, but because the paradigm they serve isn’t suited for the challenges of the 21st Century and we all can be doing so much more for so many more people throughout our region, whether that’s big things like commuter rail electrification or organizational restructuring or small things like tweaking fare policies and getting schedules to line up.

I’m not normal. But if you’re reading this and you made it this far, you’re probably not normal either. You wouldn’t still be reading this if you also didn’t have thoughts on how to improve your community, ideas on how to get people out of their cars and exploring their communities, and strategies to do big crazy things that only seem silly until someone does them.

I’m not normal. And I’m not alone.

I pulled the stop request cord on the bus. There’s work to be done, and I have a train to catch.

The Racetrack

Getting off the UP-W in Oak Park and with 80 minutes to kill before I had to catch the next train — the BNSF at Harlem Avenue — squeezing in lunch should’ve been no problem. Oak Park has just about everything under the sun in terms of food options, all in a nice walkable neighborhood to boot.

But I didn’t eat in Oak Park, because even with 80 minutes to go about four miles, there were three factors working against me: the frequency of the 307 bus is only every 12-15 minutes (I really should put “only” in quotes; for midday service in the suburbs that’s as good as it gets); traffic issues on Harlem Avenue that increase the unpredictability of bus schedules (although Pace is working on it); and the BNSF tracks themselves, since Harlem Avenue crosses at grade and there’s a high frequency of long freight trains that use the tracks.

So instead of bougie Oak Park, I scarfed down lunch at the White Castle at Harlem and Ogden. (To be fair, I enjoy White Castle; I am a person with many flaws.) It was out of my way and took time off my schedule, but it was on the south side of the tracks, which means backtracking to the station would be a more predictable trip since I most certainly did not want to miss my 1:20pm train, since on Metra’s busiest line trains run on two-hour headways in the middle of the day. (Honestly though, two hours at The James Joyce or Quan’s Oasis wouldn’t have been the end of the world.)

Pictured: why you safely cross the BNSF tracks when you can.

The BNSF line, from Union Station to Aurora, is by far Metra’s busiest in terms of passenger loads. It’s also one of the four lines Metra has the least control over, since it’s operated under a purchase-of-service agreement where Metra pays the BNSF Railway to run Metra’s trains and reimburses BNSF for whatever losses they take on the operation.

The line itself can best be thought of as four different, distinct segments that all lie along the same set of tracks. Two of these segments I think Metra and the BNSF would argue are the ideal model for commuter service: the section between Union Station and Cicero, where trains basically just get the hell out of the city as fast as they can; and the Aurora-Route 59-Naperville section where stations are spaced relatively far apart (each station is in a different fare zone) and surrounded by massivebordering-onobscene amounts of parking.

The remaining two segments put commuter rail operations more directly at odds with good urban planning. The third segment, which I’d call Downers Grove to Lisle, is somewhat similar to the outer stretch albeit with more development and less parking. Downers Grove and Lisle both built town centers around their train stations which means parking has to be limited but ridership remains robust and being able to easily walk to trains is a major selling point for local residents. However, that still didn’t quench the insatiable thirst for more parking, so stations like Belmont and Fairview Avenue are also included, almost exclusively to serve park-and-riders. The fourth segment, from Westmont through Berwyn, is what BNSF really dislikes: small whistle-stop towns with classic development patterns and not nearly as much parking as they’d like. As a result, there are 15 stations in the 10.3 miles of track between (and including) Westmont and LaVergne. Average station spacing of seven-tenths of a mile is ideal for rapid transit, but not for diesel locomotives pulling eight coaches. As a result, there’s only two trains a day that actually make all 15 stops (#1202 in, #1233 out), with all other trains either skipping a few of the stops or operating on express patterns that split the segment in two at Congress Park.

BNSF Railway — the corporate railroad itself — doesn’t particularly like this stretch of operations. With the purchase-of-service agreement, BNSF basically can only break even on passenger operations; they’re a freight railroad and they make their money hauling freight. Freight trains operate at slower speeds than passenger trains, and as inefficient it is for a diesel commuter train to decelerate, make a stop, and accelerate back up to running speed, doing so with a freight train is significantly more costly and inefficient. On stretches where passenger stations are few and far between — like the Aurora-Route 59-Naperville stretch — it’s easier for freight and passenger service to coexist: since passenger trains can go faster than freights, a freight train can cruise along at 40-50 mph behind a commuter train that will occasionally slow down, stop, and speed back up to its top speed of 70 mph. But when that passenger train has to start making one stop every mile and never able to get back up to that top speed, freight performance behind it suffers and more time is needed before a freight train can run in that slot.

Railfans call this stretch “the Racetrack” because of how many trains BNSF crams into this corridor every day. Honestly, there’s a definite art to it, especially during rush hour when there’s 23 outbound trains crammed into a two-and-a-half hour window. But as beautiful as this ballet is, it’s also ripe for errors. A train experiencing even a minor issue can quickly snowball into a crippling series of delays through the rush period, and an inconsistency in the stopping patterns used to try to squeeze every last ounce of efficiency out of the peak period leads utter confusion for non-proficient riders and just another barrier to entry at a time when ridership is stagnating at best or slightly declining. Remember those 23 outbound trains? They operate on 19 different service patterns!

BNSF Railway would happily consolidate many of these stations, and indeed, one of the reasons why Metra’s undergoing a station optimization study is to help make decisions like these. However, as we’ve discussed before, boiling station performance down to a single ridership metric is challenging at best and fatally flawed at worst. For instance, let’s take me waiting at Harlem Avenue for this 1:20pm train. The Riverside station is 4,900 feet to the west and the Berwyn station is only 2,500 feet to the east. Obviously, three stations in 7,400 feet (or honestly any distance where feet are more logical units than miles) is too many. An urban planner will say to kill the Harlem Avenue station and maintain stations around the existing walkable cores of Berwyn and (to a lesser extent because of its lower density) Riverside; a transportation planner will say to keep Harlem Avenue since the region is sorely lacking in north-south transit connectivity and Pace is already planning on improving service in this corridor that also links up with Milwaukee West, Union Pacific West, and Heritage Corridor trains. Just over the Des Plaines River, Brookfield has a similar dilemma: Congress Park is already a peak-only station, so a full closure wouldn’t move the needle too much; however, the Hollywood and Brookfield stations are only half a mile apart, but the former is a family-friendly walking distance from a major suburban attraction (Brookfield Zoo). Do you close Hollywood and start running bus shuttles from Brookfield station? Who operates them? Who pays for them? Would a bus shuttle change the mode choice decision a family makes to take the train to the zoo on the weekend? And just west of there you have another tough decision with two LaGrange stops just five blocks apart from each other: do you keep the busier LaGrange Road stop and lose all the parking offered at Stone Avenue, or do you make people going to and from downtown LaGrange walk further and make Stone the primary station?

This is typically the part of the blog post where I make some sort of call to action on how things can be made better, but honestly there are no good choices here. BNSF will likely argue that station consolidation needs to happen before passenger service frequency increases dramatically in the off-peak (although modest service increases from last year’s summer schedule were made permanent, which is great) so that passenger service doesn’t interfere too extensively with freight movements, but each possible candidate for station consolidation would have serious negative impacts to either the regional transit network and/or for the walkable, sustainable suburban communities we need to be supporting and promoting. Even the cop-out “just get rid of the freight trains” argument fails here, since that would either require offloading more intermodal freight onto trucks (which increases roadway wear-and-tear and adds to regional pollution and congestion) or building new dedicated grade-separated freight-only tracks in the region, which would be incredibly expensive and disruptive to plenty of suburban communities.

In the meantime, I made it to Union Station on-time and now have just under an hour to kill before I hop on the Heritage Corridor. Time to grab a cold one at The Junction and head to the south suburbs.

Choose Your Fighter

[Editor’s Note: this section was written before the more recent blog post on this very topic.]

For those of you unfamiliar with Metra’s system, of the railroad’s 11 lines, the Heritage Corridor is barely one of them. It’s easy to overlook though: with seven stations and seven trains a day (total, not seven round-trips), it’s quite possibly the worst single commuter line in the country. That’s not hyperbole; the closest lines with comparable service that I could find are commuter railroads that are hardly Metra’s peers: the Altamont Corridor Express in the Bay Area operates eight trains a day and the Sounder between Seattle and Everett, Washington, which also has eight dedicated trains a day but the good sense to work with Amtrak to provide additional commuter service.

Like many — but most certainly not all — critiques this blog has, this issue is not solely Metra’s fault. The Heritage Corridor line between Chicago Union Station and Joliet is extremely heavily traveled by freight trains and Amtrak; the four at-grade crossings with other freight railroads don’t do the line any favors either. To Metra’s credit, they’re doing what they can with the corridor: a new station opened in 2018 in Romeoville, and a new afternoon outbound trip was added in 2016.

That added train — that leaves at 2:45pm on weekday afternoons — is the train I took for the Metrathalon. Since my previous BNSF train got into Union Station at about 1:50pm, it was very unstressful to get to the Heritage Corridor train. The Heritage Corridor, as the least-utilized line in Metra’s system, also operates with some of the shortest consists. My train had only three coaches; being basically a holiday weekend, I was one of about five people in my car, and yet Metra still had their usual crew of a trainman, conductor, and an engineer.

The trip itself was uneventful — with no delays at all, we got into Joliet eight minutes early. For me, it was an easy trip and, when the train’s running on time, plenty convenient. However, since the line runs so infrequently, communities like Summit, Willow Springs, Lemont, Lockport, and now Romeoville miss out on the benefits a suburb like LaGrange or Palatine or Glenview get with off-peak and weekend service, even though the Heritage Corridor communities are still on the hook for a station building, park-and-ride facilities, and everything else needed for train service.

Of course, there’s an easy solution to this problem, and it lies within five minutes of most of the corridor: over the last few years, Pace has expanded their express bus service on Interstate 55, which parallels the Heritage Corridor. Ridership has gone gangbusters since Pace and IDOT worked out bus-on-shoulder operations: since 2011, Pace’s ridership in the corridor increased by 600% as on-time performance went from 65% to over 90%. Pace recently opened a new park-and-ride facility in Plainfield to handle the demand, and daily ridership on Pace’s I-55 service now significantly exceeds the Heritage Corridor. With a managed lanes project planned for Interstate 55 that will increase speeds and improve reliability even more for Pace buses in the corridor, there are challenges ahead for the Heritage Corridor.

But herein lies the problem: we really shouldn’t be worrying about two separate transit facilities competing against each other, but the structure we have for suburban transit in Chicagoland unnecessarily puts Metra and Pace in adversarial positions for corridor services like these. While the agencies do overwhelmingly play nice with each other — Metra heavily relies on Pace for weekday shuttle services to and from many suburban stations, especially along the BNSF line — since each agency still needs to hit its individual farebox recovery ratios and balance a budget to the RTA’s approval, Metra and Pace fares are not integrated and services like the Heritage Corridor and Pace I-55 express service become a zero-sum game. I can’t imagine a scenario anywhere else where supplemental bus service to augment constrained commuter rail service would be seen as a negative because it’d “cannibalize” service, yet that’s what we see in this corridor and elsewhere in the region, where Pace and the Tollway invest heavily in upgraded service on the Interstate 90 corridor while Metra still has the east-west I-90 STAR Line officially on their planning books.

I’m old enough to remember Pace Route 835, which was a Metra-subsidized bus route that operated to boost capacity on the SouthWest Service before Metra expanded the infrastructure needed to operate more trains. However, these days we’ve seem to settled into a paradigm where Metra runs trains and Pace runs buses, and never the twain shall meet. I believe the core of the conflict remains finances and fare policy: even with Rebuild Illinois, Metra is so deep in the state-of-good-repair hole that Metra’s board would be reluctant to invest in a fleet or services that aren’t a train, and Metra doesn’t want to lose fares from riders switching to Pace buses (and likewise Pace probably isn’t too wild about sharing fares with Metra from a corridor that continues to show ridership growth).

But now is the time for the RTA to step in and work with Metra and Pace to determine a larger strategic plan for the southwest suburbs, before the managed lanes on Interstate 55 get built and change the overall commuting patterns in these parts of Cook and Will Counties. The paltry train service offered on the Heritage Corridor is nonetheless an essential link to downtown for communities in the Des Plaines River valley (with much, much higher capacities than buses can provide); we cannot risk losing it to service cuts. Likewise, those same communities can be much better served for every trip that isn’t a traditional commute by more robust transit service off-peak and weekends, especially considering how downright laughable weekend service is on the nearby SouthWest Service.

Metra and Pace are both huge assets for the Chicago suburbs, each in their own right, but if we want to take congestion, livability, and climate change seriously, we need a fully integrated transit network that prioritizes mobility and accessibility rather than one where occasionally the bus schedule lines up with the train schedule to provide a “transfer” that requires a second full fare. Right now we have one agency that runs suburban trains and one agency that runs suburban buses. We need transit agencies that move people instead.

We do have coordinated signage now though, so that’s something.

Rock Out

After a short layover in Joliet, I hopped on an inbound Rock Island train. Previously, I hadn’t taken the Rock Island south of Blue Island, so I was a bit startled when I quickly discovered yet another one of Metra’s little idiosyncrasies.

Pictured: short layover.

As many riders already know, most of Metra’s lines operate “right-handed”: that is, where there are multiple tracks, the train generally operates on the right-most track in the direction of travel, similar to how American drivers drive on the right side of the road. However, as a legacy of the Chicago and North Western railroad, the three Union Pacific lines run left-handed, which is a peculiar bit of history and a bit of a barrier to entry for unfamiliar riders.

And then there’s the Rock Island.

Quick glamour shot in Joliet.

If you were designing a transit system to be as confusing as possible, the Rock Island is the gold standard: the track inbound or outbound trains use changes by the time of day. There’s an odd beauty in it: typical 9-to-5 commuters get to board their morning train and alight their evening train from the same platform at their home station. But if you’re unfamiliar rider — maybe a parent taking their kids to a museum or a few bros playing hooky to go to a Sox day game — it’s quite easy to show up at the right station at the right time and still miss your train because you’re trapped on the wrong platform when the train pulls in.

This may be a good example of the divide between operations and capital in our transit funding models. This midday track change likely occurs because trains of a certain length need to use the longer platform at each station, but rather than lengthening the platforms (a capital cost, of which Metra has many others competing for priority), a suboptimal operational model is used instead that may have an impact on ridership (which thus influences the operations budget). In the long run, this is a relatively minor issue and doesn’t compare with functionally-obsolete 100-year-old bridges, but it’s still important to identify these small issues that can pose any barrier to entry for infrequent riders, as it’s easier and more cost-effective to make an infrequent rider a regular than it is to try to win over a new non-user.

Speaking of the need for consistency, the train I was on was not scheduled to stop in Robbins because I guess that one minute travel time savings was crucially important somewhere else along the line.

Sorry Robbins. Nothing personal.

It’s Electrifying

With nine lines officially in the books, it was time to change trains at Blue Island and transfer to the Metra Electric. Blue Island functionally should be considered a terminal, and in our maps we portray the station as a three-line transfer station between Rock Island Main Line trains, Rock Island Suburban Branch trains (which we consider an additional line), and Metra Electric Blue Island/City Main line trains. In practice, however, the station area is… well, it’s a very unique setup: the central “station” is between two sets of double tracks, but there’s only a single platform serving each set of tracks, and they aren’t island platforms. This arrangement greatly restricts operations and the ability to add more diesel trains, since regardless of direction only one train on the main and one train on the sub can use the platform at once. In the meantime, the Electric Line terminal is across Vermont Street from the Rock Island station and across the main line from the platforms. As a pedestrian, it’s a very unwelcoming environment with cars and trains just sort of all over the place.

The Electric Line does have an elevated island platform, however. So there’s that.

Once I boarded the Electric Line train and we departed, however, the strengths of the Electric Line were immediately apparent. After about eight hours of riding diesel trains, the quick acceleration and deceleration of the Highliner electric multiple unit trains was very noticeable — and much appreciated. Even with the additional stops, the trip just felt quicker, and it likely was quicker, since with level boarding and better acceleration and deceleration there’s less dwell time at each station. I’m not going to spill much more ink on the Electric Line as a whole — there’s plenty to read on the topic from some great advocates — other than to say that the Electric Line is an underutilized South Side asset because we keep trying to operate commuter rail over a rapid transit line.

I’ll also use this opportunity to support electrifying the Rock Island, or at least the suburban branch, where diesel trains stop every half mile between 87th Street and Blue Island. While widespread electrification of Metra’s system shows up on plenty of advocates’ wish lists, starting with the suburban branch of the Rock Island makes the most sense: the stop spacing of the branch is well-suited for the quick acceleration and deceleration provided from electric multiple unit trains; higher frequencies on the South Side and the south suburbs are important from a regional equity standpoint; and the Blue Island branch of the Electric Line means Metra could share a fleet (and shops) between lines rather than starting elsewhere in the network in relative isolation.

I got off at Van Buren Street, which… well, if you’re a tourist or a suburbanite coming into downtown Chicago for the first time in awhile, just push through to Millennium Station.

This is one of the entrances to Van Buren Street station from Michigan Avenue.

Last Call

From Van Buren Street I hopped on a CTA bus and got back to Union Station for a quick out-and-back on the SouthWest Service to Wrightwood. I always hate ending these grand adventures on an out-and-back trip because it’s very anti-climactic: I rode on 11 Metra trains on 11 Metra train lines in 11 hours exactly, and I’m getting off in Wrightwood to… wait a few minutes and get back on an inbound train.

This is what success looks like.

Overall, I’m glad I made this excursion. Even though it ended up costing me $36.50 when it should’ve costed me about $16.50 for the Round Trip Plus day pass (get it together, that pilot was approved in 2018), I was glad I was able to practice what I preach by getting out there and using Metra as a unified system. While there’s no shortage of things that can be improved, it’s also important to appreciate the strength of the system that allowed this to happen. We as Chicagoland residents are blessed to have a wide-reaching commuter rail network that spans 242 stations throughout the city and suburbs. It’s a network that we critique and complain about because we appreciate it, we want it to be successful, and we know how much better it someday could be.