Diverging Approach: Kaizen

While I was working at the state, they had me sit in on an internal seminar series about kaizen, or the Japanese business philosophy of continuous improvement. For me, the process came somewhat naturally: as long-time readers of this blog are no doubt aware, continual reassessment of existing conditions and trying to find more effective and more efficient ways to get things done are a regular topic of conversation in Diverging Approach blog postings.

Of course, continual improvement is something that I also like to do in my personal life as well, which means we’re going back to the map. Our Metra map has gone through several iterations in the past, and while this year’s version of the map is stylistically similar to the most recent version, I’ve gone ahead and — based on Metra’s reduction/simplification of services during the pandemic — restructured how the various lines and stopping patterns are identified from the ground up.

Grab the PDF to zoom in (or to print it out yourself at home).

If there’s a silver lining to the pandemic, it’s that Metra has committed to being open to significant changes in their schedules to make them easier to understand and to remember, which we’re already starting to see in the latest version of the previously-notoriously-complex Union Pacific North line schedule. The Metra Electric suburban express zone consolidation from three express zones to two also simplified the schedule, as well as the BNSF Line going to a reduced two-track schedule.

Here’s a crash course in how this map works:

  • Each line is identified by a color, a logo, a unique name, and letters to indicate simplified stopping patterns. Metra’s existing line naming process — based largely on legacy (or present) railroad companies is not intuitive for new riders and can occasionally be confusing even for long-time customers. This map simplifies all that and presents the same data in different ways, since everyone processes information in different ways and an all-of-the-above approach can reduce barriers to entry for new and infrequent riders. Lettered services generally run alphabetically from north to south, with “A” trains to Kenosha and “W” trains to 93rd/South Chicago, with groups of letters departing from the same downtown terminal: A-F trains use Ogilvie; G-Q trains use Union Station; R and S trains use LaSalle Street Station; and U-W trains use Millennium Station. (This system is also forward-compatible with moving SouthWest Service (Q) trains to LaSalle Street Station, as well as for future SouthEast Service (T) trains using LaSalle Street Station.)
  • Line colors and “boldness” indicate how frequently service operates. The more a train line looks like a transit line on a CTA map, the more frequently trains run. As the colors wash out, trains run less frequently: outlying stations with decreased frequency are shown as thinner lines (like UP-N north of Waukegan and MD-W west of Elgin); weekday-only lines are less colorful (see the weekday-only SWS); and peak-only services are shown more faintly as white and gray lines that fade into the background (see the HC, NCS, and express services).
  • Similarly, colors of the “roundels” used for trains also indicate service frequency. The full-color roundels show trains that run the most frequently; gray roundels indicate trains that only run during peak periods, and the “outline” roundels indicate more limited extended services that do not run as frequently for either peak or off-peak trips.
  • Letters refer to different stopping patterns. Ideally, letters could be used to identify trains themselves (e.g., “This is an R train to Joliet” or “This train will make all scheduled M, N, and O stops to Aurora”). New in this version is an expansion of the “combined service” local model on the Rock Island (RS) and Metra Electric (UV) lines systemwide, with two- (or three-) lettered trains on most lines indicating local services that more intuitively assigns stations to “service zones”: for instance, at Itasca — a “K” station — both (K) express trains and (KL) local trains serve the station.
  • The shape of the background of a lettered route indicates a deviation from the normal stopping pattern. Taking a page out of the New York City Subway system’s design manual, stopping patterns shown as a diamond rather than a circle indicate a limited-stop express train within that service zone (e.g., <U> trains only serve Homewood-University Park rather than the full Kensington-University Park (U) zone). Likewise, short-turn trains that don’t make all stops in the service zone — usually the counterpart to the diamond trains — are shown as a square (so [U] trains serve the Kensington-Homewood stations the <U> trains bypass). Also, as shown above, these shapes translate well into normal type, using parentheses for circles, angle brackets for diamonds, and square brackets for squares.
  • The map itself is formatted to be printed at home, formatted for legal-size (8.5″ x 14″) paper. In the near future I’d like to make a version of this map that isn’t constricted by the size of a page, but for now this page size matches our four-fold Travel Guides, which will be updated next summer hopefully after the dust settles from the pandemic. It’s also easier for anyone interested to print at home, if they so like.

Our unique line naming system is back, too: each line is named after a passenger train that previously operated on all or part of the line, but without directly referring to the heritage (or current) operator, which often leads to confusion, like how there are three “Union” lines that do not actually serve Union Station, or how there are two North Lines, two West Lines, and both a Northwest Line and a North Central line, the latter of which shouldn’t be confused with the old Illinois Central lines, which run in a totally opposite direction… and so on. Like before, each line has its own logo (and here’s your annual reminder that I’m not the best graphic designer out there), and each line also has a corresponding standard-issue emoji, because this is the 21st Century, after all.

Ashland Line (Union Pacific North) 🎣
History: The Ashland Limited was a Chicago & North Western train to Lake Superior. Also known as the Fisherman’s Special, hence the logo and emoji of a fish on a hook.
Services: (A) weekday peak express trains to Waukegan, (B) weekday peak local trains to Highland Park, (AB) daily trains to Waukegan with continuing service to Kenosha, <B> special event outbound trains to Ravinia Park

North Western Line (Union Pacific Northwest) 🧭
History: The North Western Limited was a Chicago & North Western train to the Twin Cities. The line is also known as the Northwest Line, it follows Northwest Highway, etc.
Services: (C) peak express trains to McHenry (weekdays) or Crystal Lake (daily), with continuing service to Harvard; (D) daily peak local trains to Des Plaines (weekdays) or Arlington Heights (weekends); (CD) daily local trains to Crystal Lake with continuing service to Harvard

Kate Shelley Line (Union Pacific West) 🌩
History: The Kate Shelley 400 was a Chicago & North Western train to Iowa. Kate Shelley was an American railroad heroine who prevented a train crash after a bridge washout during a storm, hence the thunderbolt logo and emoji.
Services: (E) weekday peak express trains to Elburn, (F) weekday peak local trains to Elmhurst, (EF) daily local trains to Elburn

Marquette Line (Milwaukee North) πŸ›Ά
History: The Marquette was a Milwaukee Road train to Iowa, via Madison. Named for an early Midwestern explorer, the logo and emoji is a canoe.
Services: (G) weekday peak express trains to Fox Lake (with differing stopping patterns between AM and PM peaks), (H) weekday peak local trains to Lake Forest, (GH) daily local trains to Fox Lake

Laker Line (North Central Service) β›΅
History: The Laker was a Soo Line train to Duluth. The North Central Service operates over the former Soo Line, which is now owned by Canadian National. Logo and emoji of a sailboat.
Services: one round-trip peak (J) local train to Antioch each weekday, one <J> express round-trip peak train to Antioch each weekday

Arrow Line (Milwaukee West) 🏹
History: The Arrow was a Milwaukee Road train to Omaha. The logo is an arrowhead facing west; the emoji is a bow and arrow.
Services: (K) weekday peak express trains to Big Timber Road, (L) weekday peak local trains to Franklin Park, (KL) daily local trains to Elgin with extended weekday service to Big Timber Road

Western Star Line (BNSF Railway) ⭐
History: The Western Star was a Great Northern train to the Pacific Northwest that locally ran on the Chicago, Burlington & Quincy (a predecessor of the BNSF Railway). Logo and emoji is a star.
Services: (M) weekday peak express trains to Aurora; (N) weekday peak express trains to Fairview Avenue; (O) weekday peak local trains to Brookfield; (MNO) daily local trains to Aurora. Some combined (MN) express trains also operate during weekday peak.

Abraham Line (Heritage Corridor) 🎩
History: The Abraham Lincoln was an Alton Railroad train to St. Louis that continues in modern times as Amtrak’s Lincoln Service. Logo and emoji is a formal hat.
Services: two round-trip (P) local trains to Joliet each weekday

Blue Bird Line (SouthWest Service) πŸ”΅πŸ¦
History: The Blue Bird was the Wabash Railroad’s train to St. Louis that operated on the present SouthWest Service tracks. Logo and iOS emoji is a bird’s head; on Android, a two-part blue circle and the default bird is used.
Services: (Q) weekday local trains to 179th/Orland Park with continuing peak service to Manhattan; one round-trip <Q> express train each weekday

Rocket Line (Rock Island) πŸš€
History: The Rockets were the Rock Island’s signature passenger trains that criss-crossed the Midwest. Logo and emoji is a rocket.
Services: (R) daily express trains to Joliet; (RS) daily local trains to Joliet via the Suburban Line (see below)

Suburban Line (Rock Island) 🏠
History: The Suburban Branch is the long-time name of the local Rock Island line through Morgan Park and Beverly. Logo and emoji is a single-family house.
Services: (S) daily local trains to Blue Island; (RS) daily local trains continuing to Joliet

Panama Line (Metra Electric) 🚒
History: The Panama Limited was a legendary Illinois Central passenger train to New Orleans, named after the Panama Canal. Logo and emoji is a container ship.
Services: (U) weekday express trains to University Park; <U> weekday peak limited-stop express trains to University Park; [U] weekday peak short-turn express trains to Homewood; (UV) daily local trains to University Park (see below)

Magnolia Line (Metra Electric) 🌸
History: For a little over a year, the Illinois Central added some standard coaches to the Panama Limited; not wishing to sully the prestige of the Panama Limited name, the IC designated the coaches as a separate “train” called the Magnolia Star. The logo is a simplified magnolia blossom, and the emoji uses a flower.
Services: Prior to the pandemic, (V) local trains made all stops to 115th/Kensington; currently, that particular service pattern no longer exists. However, (V) extended local service to Blue Island and <V> weekday peak express service to Blue Island continue to operate, with (UV) local service operating north of Kensington daily.

Diamond Line (Metra Electric) πŸ’Ž
History: The Green Diamond was Illinois Central’s train between Chicago and St. Louis. The logo and emoji is a diamond-like gem.
Services: ( W ) daily local trains to 93rd/South Chicago, with <W> weekday peak express trains to 93rd/South Chicago

Click here to download the full PDF, which can be printed at home on 8.5″ x 14″ paper.