Diverging Approach: What’s NEXT?

The RTA’s pandemic-era strategic plan, Transit Is The Answer, recently dropped and is currently out for public comment through the weekend. As a whole, I think the strategic plan is well done and is very much appropriate for this moment in our region’s history. The strategic plan strikes the proper balance that every good strategic plan should strike: ambitious and visionary, while also realistic and clear-eyed about the notable challenges we need to overcome in the near future.

While the plan does spill a good amount of ink about the “whats” — what operational changes need to be made, what improvements need to be built, what issues need to be addressed — in my opinion the plan’s strengths really come from the “hows”, spending considerable time confronting the elephant in the room: funding and funding sources. Our pre-pandemic funding paradigm was shaky in its best years (I’m old enough to remember Metra raising fares to try to cover additional capital expenses and God knows how many CTA “doomsday” budgets), but now in the pandemic era where transit is going through something of an existential crisis (who saw that one coming?) as hybrid work becomes the norm for the white-collar workers who used to drop $200 a month on Metra monthly passes, the RTA’s existing 50% mandatory farebox recovery ratio seems like even more of a pipe dream.

It’s true that Transit Is The Answer focuses on funding at high levels, specifically focusing on ways to generate more revenue from public sources to reduce the three service boards’ reliance on farebox recovery, but it doesn’t go too deep on revenue changes at an agency-by-agency level. With the most complex fare system in the region, modernizing Metra’s fare structure seems ripe for the picking. In Metra’s defense, they’ve made some great moves in the pandemic era: the $10 Weekday Day Pass introduced in 2020 has been extremely successful, especially following the expansion of the program to include $6 Weekday Day Passes for three-zone trips, closing something of a “donut hole” the initial flat-fare $10 pass opened up. (While it’s unfortunate that Day Passes have since been locked behind the Ventra app “paywall”, the passes themselves are terrific additions to Metra’s fare structure.) The creation of the new flat-fare $100 Super Saver Monthly in 2022 — combined with the new $30 Regional Connect Pass that finally creates a unified three-agency all-day fare product — has been similarly successful, to the point where Metra’s board literally brought it back by popular demand for 2023.

Unfortunately, simpler is not always better. Similar to the Zone A-B donut hole initially formed by the $10 Day Pass rollout (the initial $10 Day Pass was still more expensive than a two-zone round-trip and thus offered no cost savings to city riders), the current structure also opens up some gaps in the system. For instance, the current distance-based 10-zone system for one-way trips (and cash round-trips), a 2-zone Day Pass system that requires a smartphone to access, and a flat-fare $100 systemwide monthly pass, provides far more value to riders in the collar counties than Zone A-C riders in the city and inner-suburban Cook County.

ZoneOne-Way Trips to Justify a $100 Super Saver MonthlyDay Passes to Justify a $100 Super Saver Monthly
A-A2617
A-B2417
A-C1917
A-D1711
A-E1511
A-F1411
A-G1311
A-H1311
A-I1211
A-J1111
This chart does not include Rock Island or Metra Electric fares, which are currently covered by the South Cook Fair Transit Pilot program. Note that Day Passes are more affordable than 10-Rides for all same-day round-trips, except in the South Cook Fair Transit Pilot area.

What makes this system unfortunate is that a Super Saver Monthly is required to be eligible for the Regional Connect Pass, and the current fare structure least-incentivizes the Zone A-C riders who would be most likely to benefit from all-month CTA and Pace use. The current fare zone structure also still doesn’t address larger issues, such as Metra’s most basic fare (a one-zone one-way, guaranteed to be less than five miles) is still twice as expensive as a comparable bus trip on CTA or Pace.

Since this is a time of transition and change, and with Metra likely going to a new fare structure of some sort in 2024 — Super Saver Monthly was intended to be a pilot program; Metra staff presented a new fare structure draft for 2023 before the board chose to extend the current structure through the year; and Metra is currently facing an unfunded budget gap once pandemic relief funding runs out in 2024-2025 — I decided to try my hand at a crayon for a totally new fare structure for Metra: the Near-term Equitable eXpress Ticketing (NEXT) Plan.

Near-term

First and foremost: NEXT is what we on Transit Twitter call a “crayon”: while it reflects a larger plan and idea, it’s essentially just lines on a map, with no in-depth analysis performed in terms of how much revenue would be generated, what kind of ridership impacts it’d have, cost projections to implement, estimates of revenue-neutrality, or anything like that — I’m happy to leave those analyses to the professionals. The larger point of the exercise is to illustrate a concept and to spark conversations and discussions, rather than trying to gift-wrap an immediately-implementable product (although it is intended to be realistic and plausible). In this spirit, this plan also uses current* schedules and stopping patterns, and makes no recommendations or suggestions in terms of service changes. This plan also assumes that Metra’s overall fare collection systems and policies (conductor-based, Ventra app-compatible, new TVMs coming online this year, no integrated transfers with CTA/Pace beyond Regional Connect, etc.) would be maintained and does not make any recommendations for new fare media or fare infrastructure (e.g. tap-on/tap-off, fare gates, etc.).

(* NEXT was created prior to Metra’s recent announcement of new schedules for SouthWest Service trains. This plan and map have not been updated to accommodate the new schedule.)

Equitable

Coming into this exercise, creating a more equitable fare system for Metra was at the forefront. As such, the following core principles were used:

  • Neighborhood-to-neighborhood and suburb-to-suburb trips should have (relative) fare parity with CTA and Pace local service. In parts of the city or inner suburbs where Metra functions as neighborhood-level rapid transit (e.g., Grand Avenue corridor between Franklin Park and Grand/Cicero, Rock Island Suburban Branch, both Metra Electric branches), costs should be comparable to CTA and/or Pace service.
  • Headways notwithstanding, Metra does offer a superior transit product when it comes to trips to and from the central business district. As such, price premiums for trips all the way to or from downtown are still warranted, although suburban passengers who board or alight outside downtown should have a lower fare absent of full transfer integration with the CTA.

eXpress

Continuing the “equitable” goals from above:

  • Express trains should be priced at a premium to reflect the significantly higher quality of service, considering by their very nature they can only be utilized by collar-county commuters to and from the city and are also the most expensive style of service to operate while also excluding inner-suburban and city riders. Express trains also operate when driving to and from downtown is least competitive, when congestion is highest. In terms of times, the overall cost structure is entirely inverted: Metra’s shortest trip times are provided when road traffic is heaviest, and Metra’s longest trip times — all-stop off-peak trains — operate when road traffic is lightest. Imagine if, during the busy holiday season, the U.S. Postal Service offered Priority Mail, Express Mail, and Overnight shipping products all for the same price as a first-class stamp. That’s effectively how our commuter rail network is currently priced.
  • The corollary to the above is that collar county riders should not be charged higher fares off-peak or during reverse-commute periods when travel times on local trains to and from downtown are far less competitive relative to driving.

Ticketing

While fare parity for local trips and premium pricing for express trips are core parts of the plan, the plan was also created in an attempt to still overall simplify the existing fare structure. To do so, the ultimate fare table focuses on only six “levels”: three zone-based Basic Fares, and three distance-based Premium Fares. Additionally, not only are Premium Fares only required during the peak, they are also only required during certain parts of certain trips during the peak. For all other trips and segments, the three-zone Basic Fare structure applies at all times.

To further simplify the system, a comprehensive Train Directory is included that clearly identifies which trains use which types of fares, Basic or Premium. Additionally, Premium Fares are only required for transit through the express zone. Outside of the express zone — for instance, intermediate trips between suburbs, or between a city stop and the downtown terminal — Basic Fares are still valid.

The Map

This is what you came for. Click here to see a larger version of this image.

How it Works

At its core, NEXT compresses Metra’s existing ten-zone system into three basic zones, using Roman numerals:

  • Zone I is the downtown zone, and includes only the four terminals (plus Van Buren and Museum Campus on the Metra Electric).
  • Zone II is the inner zone, which includes the rest of Chicago and most of the inner suburbs. Generally, Zone II is the area that express trains do not serve.
  • Zone III is the outer zone, which generally encompasses all of the collar counties as well as some outlying parts of Cook County.

To expand the reach of one- or two-zone tickets, there are also two “flex zones” as well. In these flex zones, stations can be in either neighboring zone (with some exceptions) based on whichever zone is more advantageous to the rider.

  • Zone I/II can be in either Zone I or Zone II for all trips. This allows single-stop trips from the downtown core to be considered one-zone Zone I trips (and thus have comparable fares to the CTA), while also expanding the fare Zone II range for reverse commuters or “traditional” commuters who board/alight early to transfer to CTA for last-mile connections.
  • Zone II/III likewise can be in either Zone II or Zone III for local trips only. Zone II/III in the northern suburbs generally corresponds to suburban job centers (e.g. the Lake-Cook Road corridor or O’Hare), and in the South Suburbs allows for Rock Island/Metra Electric transfers between Joliet and University Park via Blue Island and Kensington to remain entirely in Zone III. On express trains, all Zone II/III stations are considered to be in Zone III, as all express zones begin (inbound)/end (outbound) in Zone III.

Using the latest version of our (in)famous Yard Social notation, trains are grouped into 52 different classifications, based on individual stopping patterns. (Note that, since Metra uses 142** unique stopping patterns — that’s not a typo, one hundred forty-two** unique stopping patterns — many trains shown above still make slightly different stopping patterns than what’s shown on this map.)

(** The number will tick up to 143 later this month once the new Palos Park express pattern starts operating on SWS.)

For a quick crash-course in this year’s Yard Social updated notation: each station is assigned a letter, which corresponds to a stopping pattern. Using the Rock Island as an example, stations are either “R” stations, “S” stations, or both. “R” trains will stop at (most) “R” stations but not “S” stations; “S” trains will stop at “S” stations but not “R” stations, and “RS” trains will stop at both “R” and “S” stations. All-local trains are shown with a circular background; express trains are shown with a diamond background. Symbols shown in full-color operate both peak and off-peak; symbols shown in dark gray only operate during the peak, and symbols shown in light gray only operate at select times during the peak. With a more comprehensive branding effort, these symbols can easily be appended to individual trains in printed media like schedules (and our Weekend Guides, which admittedly haven’t been updated in way too long, although weekend schedules have not changed since their last update).

This dovetails into NEXT, since “diamond” express trains will require Premium Fares through the express zone, while “circle” local trains only need Basic Fares for the entire trip. Express zones are assigned one of three classifications, increasing in price for transit through the zone (since the respective zones get longer).

  • The standard Expresses are shown in purple on the map and requires any Express Fare for transit through the zone. Generally, these trains will make all Zone III stops but skip most or all Zone II stops.
  • The next level, Deluxpresses, are shown in pink on the map and requires a Deluxpress Fare for transit through the zone. These trains generally make outer Zone III stops, but will also skip inner Zone III stops in addition to Zone II stops.
  • The fastest trains, Superexpresses, are shown in teal and make only the furthest Zone III stops before running express the rest of the way to or from downtown, and as such require the highest premium fare, the Superexpress Fare. Superexpress trains are only (currently) in service on the BNSF Line, where trains will only stop at Aurora, Route 59, and Naperville before running express all the way to Chicago Union Station.

Two important clarifications for Premium Fares: the Premium Fares listed above are only needed in the express zone only; riders traveling between intermediate stations without going through the express zone need only a Basic Fare. Additionally, while Premium Fares are the most expensive one-way tickets, there are also steeper discounts for multi-ride tickets to offset the cost premium for frequent riders.

Additionally, since all one-way fare products are separated by a consistent $1.50, one-trip incremental “upgrades” can also be purchased. For instance, a three-zone rider who usually only travels off-peak (and therefore usually only needs a Basic Fare) can purchase a one-time $1.50 incremental upgrade to transit the Express Zone. Upgrades are additive, so the same rider could purchase two $1.50 incremental upgrades to transit a Deluxpress Zone.

The fare table itself is meant to be straightforward: a $2.50 base fare (Quick Trip, single zone) with $1.50 incrementals to scale up to the next ticket level. This allows NEXT to reach its goal of fare parity with the CTA for single-zone trips; the $4.00 Local Trip (two zones) is also a discount for all current riders, since the current two-zone fare starts at $4.25; and the three-zone Standard Trip is priced at the same current three-zone one-way (but on NEXT a three-zone trip covers the entire region).

Multiple-trip fare products would also be made available, with discounts similar to current offerings. For the three Basic Fares, a Daily Pass is priced at a single round-trip. For single-zone trips this achieves parity with the CTA’s Day Pass (also priced at $5), while the other Daily Passes would be slightly increased from the current $6/$10 pandemic-era levels (that may not be sustainable long-term anyway) to $8 for a two-zone Daily and $11 for a three-zone Daily.

Ten-Ride Basic Fare tickets would also be made available, with a flat $5 discount at each price level. This once again provides single-zone fare parity with the CTA/Pace 7-Day Pass, priced at $20, assuming five travel days per week. 10-Ride Local Trip (two-zone) tickets would be priced at $35, and Standard Trip three-zone 10-Rides would – theoretically – be priced at $50. (More on that later.) To simplify monthly ticketing, a single $75 Monthly Pass would be offered for all three Basic Fare levels which, once again, reaches parity with CTA/Pace 30-Day tickets. A single flat-fare $75 also allows Regional Connect Passes to be sold by the CTA, offering the same $105 total price for unlimited CTA, Pace, and (local) Metra service regardless of which agency sells the “core” ticket.

For Premium Fares, the scale simply continues: $7.00 for the Express Zone, $8.50 for the Deluxpress Zone, and a flat $10.00 for the Superexpress Zone. These fares are a modest increase over current one-way fares but are only in effect during the peak (and only on certain trains), so the fare increase would only be borne by riders who already receive the highest quality service.

To balance out the one-way premium fare for, uh, Premium Fares, multi-ride tickets would have better discounts than Basic Fares. Daily Passes would still be priced at the round-trip level, but the return trip is priced as a $5.50 Standard Fare rather than a second Premium Fare, even though the Daily Pass is still valid for other express zones at that level. For instance, a commuter who rides two “normal” Express Zone trains would only pay $6.25 per ride with a Daily Pass (a current Zone A-D fare). Likewise, per-ride costs on Deluxpress round-trips drop to $7.00, and $7.75 for Superexpress round-trip riders.

Premium Fare 10-Rides would also be priced at a steeper discount: the cost of four Daily Passes (assuming a 10-Rider in the collar counties rides round-trips each travel day). For Deluxpress riders a 10-Ride would be $56.00 and $62.00 for Superexpress riders. For Express riders the price comes out to the same $50.00 level as a Standard Fare 10-Ride; this is why a Standard Fare 10-Ride would not be offered (or, to frame it another way, a 10-Ride Standard Fare ticket includes Express Zone trips for free).

Monthly Premium Fare tickets would be priced at the cost of two 10-Rides. This math works out nicely in that most collar county commuters – using “normal” Express trains – would be at the same $100 Super Saver Monthly price point. Monthly riders on higher-class trains would pay slightly higher Monthly fare prices, but would still be a steep discount from pre-pandemic fare prices.

For all tickets, the root pricing would change from a “per segment” basis to fixed-duration ticketing. All tickets would now be good for three hours after activation, which would thus accommodate transfers between lines. (To reduce the likelihood of “leave behinds”, one-zone one-way Quick Trips would only be valid for one hour.) Additionally, round-trips on a single fare would also be prohibited – and mobile activations enforced – by including the name of the origin station on all tickets. In this case, that ticket would not be valid on any train heading towards the station printed on the ticket.

Ridership Implications

As I mentioned earlier: I’ve done zero ridership evaluations or projections on how this would affect ridership, either overall or on a line-by-line/station-by-station level. However, this system probably would improve overall efficiency of the network by (1) pushing discretionary trips off of the peak by offering lower fares for non-express trains, and (2) incentivize more efficient utilization of peak-period trains by providing discounted fares for “lesser” express trains, decreasing the need to run more complex or longer-distance express trains (which, again, operationally are the most expensive trains to run from a labor and utilization perspective). This system is also scalable with flexibility to accommodate up to three different express patterns per line, providing plenty of future scheduling flexibility.

Known Issues

Like any attempt at a one-size-fits-all system, especially retrofitting a new system on a network as complex as Metra’s, there will be some gaps in coverage and inefficiencies. For instance, from an equity perspective, it’s hard to explain how it’d pass the sniff test for UP-N trains – which pass through some of the wealthiest communities in the state – to not require Premium Fares at all during the week. (UP-N’s strong bidirectional market combined with only two tracks available makes scheduling express trains challenging.) Likewise, there would be some issues when (if?) the South Cook Fair Transit Pilot wraps up***. However, these are issues that may be out of scope for a “crayon” like this, and would require more complex analyses (that’d probably require more detailed data than what gets made public) to reconcile.

(*** – My personal preference would be to segue directly into a fare capping pilot for South Cook Fair Transit 2.0, in which case NEXT would still be compatible for more equitable deployment since so many fare levels are indexed to CTA fare products.)


I don’t envy the task Metra (and the other service boards, and the RTA) has ahead of it when it comes to long-term fiscal planning. We have another year or two with pandemic funds keeping the budget balanced, but the cliff is coming, and there are tough decisions to be made. But now’s the time to think big, think bold, and think outside the box to try and find innovative ways that not only bring in sustainable revenue streams, but also create a more equitable network that better serves riders throughout the region for all trip purposes, rather than the traditional 9-to-5ers heading to a Loop office. Maybe NEXT is what’s next.