The light at the end of the tunnel that is the COVID-19 pandemic gets a little brighter by the day. The holidays are behind us and, thankfully, Illinois did not appear to have as large of a post-holiday spike in cases as was anticipated. Vaccines are slowly being rolled out, case positivity is falling, and most regions of the state are moving forward to lower tiers and fewer restrictions. Of course, days are also getting longer and, while we’re still most definitely in the depths of winter, calendar pages keep turning towards warmer days and being able to spend more time outside. There’s plenty to be optimistic about.
Also cause for optimism are recent statements (and a few actions) by our commuter railroad. As we celebrated last week, Metra announced their intent to move forward with the first non-gallery-car coach procurement in the agency’s history, and more recently, Metra’s CEO Jim Derwinski mentioned that Metra would “love to start experimenting… with one of our partners on something that I’ll call regional rail, where trains are much more frequent,” going on to suggest half-hour off-peak headways and fifteen-minute peak headways. The article also says that the CEO alluded to flattening the peak a bit: “[Peak] Trains may be shorter, they may not be as frequent, but definitely [will address] the things that people want — express trains from where they’re at, the busiest stations downtown, that sort of thing.”
This is, of course, good news. Leadership at Metra is certainly starting to talk the talk, and there’s plenty of reason to hope and believe that in the very near future the railroad will start to walk the walk as well. Unfortunately though, some of the recent service changes we’ve seen don’t fully match that ambition: added service on the Milwaukee North that went into effect last week, for instance, brought back the odd one-direction semi-skip-stop pattern on morning trains that just about exactly matches the historic MD-N schedules (but still lacking the more robust reverse-commute trains that were being piloted in 2019).
There is also — in this blog’s opinion — cause for concern to focus so many resources on peak-period express services. While it’s true that everyone loves riding on an express train, while the agency still has a $70 million operational budget gap to address, adding service that by definition only benefits a select few riders does not seem to be an efficient use of funds.
For instance, today Metra announced that, beginning February 1, the Rock Island will be adding several new trains, including a second express round-trip to/from 80th Avenue. This means that, effective February 1, the Rock Island line will have more express trains now than it did before the pandemic hit. While it’s true that 80th Avenue was one of the busier stations on the Rock Island in pre-pandemic times, it’s also true that a majority of riders who rode the RI boarded downstream of 80th Avenue. Social distancing is of course important these days, but crowding onboard RI trains does not appear to be a significant issue according to Metra’s data.
A similar trend is evident throughout Metra’s system: long-distance express trains most benefit riders who live furthest away from the downtown core, even though (using 2018 data) 45% of Metra’s ridership came from Zones A-D, with an overall plurality of riders boarding in Zone E.
The other issue with focusing on restoring peak period express trains — and, in some cases, peak service in general — is a raw inefficiency with scheduling crews. Metra’s service area is robust, with lines that extend as far as 65 miles from the downtown core (UP-NW). What this means is that scheduling peak-only service means most trains can only get a single revenue run in before the peak ends: a crew begins out in the hinterlands and makes their trip into the city and, in most cases regardless of local or express format, there simply isn’t enough time to deadhead the train back out to the end of the line with enough time to still arrive downtown by 9am or so. That crew and the train then sit idle for several hours until the evening rush period, where they make an outbound run and, once again, run out of time to make it back to the city for another evening peak trip.
Local media taking Metra to task for spending too much on onboard labor costs is something of a long-standing tradition, and to be clear this post is not accusing the agency of waste or accusing workers of any fault of their own. Conductors and engineers are essential, safety-critical staff that are necessary to the ongoing safe operation of trains and the safe loading and unloading of passengers throughout revenue service. (Conductors on Metra also collect fares and check tickets, but in more modern networks this is done differently and as such they really shouldn’t be considered essential duties in the 21st Century.) Likewise, onboard staff and their unions should always fight for the best pay and working conditions they can negotiate.
What this post is arguing for instead is using post-pandemic service restoration plans to totally reimagine scheduling as a whole, including how crews and equipment are deployed and operated throughout the system. To that point, the upcoming service change on the Rock Island is also somewhat promising: while there is the new express round-trip scheduled and even though the added two consists and crews still have to deal with midday downtime, it appears that the same consist and crew will be operating an early-morning round-trip, and additional added peak-period service on the suburban branch also includes filling some existing holes in the midday schedule.
Below is a stringline chart of service on the Rock Island, a draft of a larger project I’m working on to try and determine the most efficient use of crews and equipment on each of Metra’s lines using published schedule data. (There are a few reasons why this post is titled “downtime”, after all.) The dashed consists below (pink and lime) reflect the new service that will be added on February 1: note how adding two new consist/crews will serve ten new runs.
Also note that there are still two black “unpaired” peak trips, which suggest a long layover during the midday, and likewise note the long layovers for the pink, blue, and gold consists. Based on my estimations, Metra needs to operate eight consists throughout the day to provide scheduled service on the Rock Island, and despite that there’s still a gap from 11:50 to 12:10 every weekday where there are zero trains in service anywhere on the line.
These charts are also useful because they very easily show not only where there are gaps in service, but also what resources are available to fill them: in this case, Consists Pink and Blue (or one of the two peak-only consists) could be used to interlace service through the midday period to halve the midday 2-hour headways on the main line and, depending on labor rules, the only added cost to Metra would be fuel.
For the record: while added service is always great, it’s nonetheless concerning that there’s little if any public feedback loop on these schedule changes. On the aforementioned Milwaukee North changes, for instance, several stations actually lost service as part of the schedule update (Deerfield, Lake Forest, Prairie Crossing, Grayslake, Round Lake, Long Lake, and Ingleside each lost one inbound train; Libertyville lost two inbound trains). We’re all blazing new trails as the pandemic continues and the “new normal” still feels very fluid and elusive, and — as we’ve literally told Metra before — it’s important now to work with the communities most impacted by service changes to help determine the best ways to make service more responsive and efficient.
It’s been nearly a year since the pandemic first ground life in Chicagoland (and around the world) to a halt, and faced with some of these catastrophic changes we’re all forced to adapt to, our local transit agencies deserve no shortage of credit for the work they’ve done to keep transit (mostly) operating for essential workers, with Metra in particular deserving additional credit for indicating that the agency is open to the seismic shifts that will be necessary to keep the railroad relevant as we eventually transition back to whatever the “new normal” looks like. In the meantime, the need to find new ways to operate and to leverage assets — both capital assets and human assets — to provide robust, responsive service to help ensure an equitable recovery for everyone in our region.
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