At February’s Metra board meeting, the Regional Transportation Authority (RTA) presented their draft recommendations outlying how the RTA plans to divvy up $486.2 million from Round 2 of the federal Covid-19 assistance package, which was passed in December. The RTA plans on using what they call Critical Need Areas (CNAs) to help allocate the financial assistance between the three service boards. These Critical Need Areas are identified throughout the region based on three factors. Here’s how the RTA defines these factors, quoted from their pretty spiffy interactive story map on the topic:
transit propensity, which considers who is most likely to use transit to commute before the pandemic and now;
regional equity, which explores who is most likely to need transit to access essential goods and services in our region in general; and
high-mobility industries, the industries most likely to need workers on-site and in-person to perform their jobs.
Of the remaining funds, CTA gets the lion’s share of the funding (77.5%, or about $350-360 million). Since the CTA didn’t really cut any service during the pandemic, even with this extra funding in place the RTA is projecting a $372 million deficit in the CTA’s budget.
Next up is Metra (17.9%, or about $80-83 million). It’s unclear how this impacts the existing $70 million operational deficit that was included in the FY2021 budget, but the RTA says even with these additional funds Metra will be in the hole somewhere between $70 and $155 million based on “full schedules”, since Metra sliced operations roughly in half during the pandemic.
Finally, Pace would get the remaining funds (4.6%, or $21-22 million). While this is the smallest wedge of the pie, it’s also enough to get Pace to a breakeven budget, according to the RTA’s memo.
These figures aren’t set in stone: the RTA is soliciting public input through this Friday (March 5), so if you’d care to make a comment about how the RTA is splitting the pot, you are encouraged to send your comments via email to firstname.lastname@example.org.
First and foremost: the RTA needs to be commended for taking an equity-centric approach to distributing these important funds. Having a process that’s open, transparent, and data-driven to try to guide funds to the areas where they are needed is exactly the kind of approach our region needs to allocate funds more equitably, and here’s to hoping more of these types of interventions and guides are used moving forward for other purposes as well.
That said, Metra needs a bigger piece of the pie.
It’s clear from the numbers that all three service boards need far more assistance than what was provided in the last round of federal assistance, and we all have our fingers crossed that more help is on the way. It’s important to note that, since there’s a finite amount of funds available, boosting Metra’s percentage can only come from taking funds away from the CTA and/or Pace. However, a quick look at the map above shows that Metra’s services reach more than 18% of the identified CNAs throughout the region, and in areas where Metra overlaps with other transit services — such as parts of the City of Chicago south of 95th Street and in the Grand Avenue corridor west of Cicero Avenue — Metra is often the only rail transit provider in the area. This is especially important to consider along the Rock Island and Metra Electric lines, areas currently part of the South Cook Fair Transit pilot program that finally puts Metra closer to fare parity with the CTA. Furthermore, there are dozens of suburbs where Metra is the only transit service that reaches the City of Chicago, or the only transit service still operating at all. There’s an awful lot of suburban Chicagoland that’s highlighted as a CNA but beyond the reach of the CTA and with only limited service options provided by Pace.
The Metra board took the RTA to task for the “transit propensity” metric at the February board meeting, and while it’s true that historically Metra’s target clientele has always been white collar 9-to-5ers who probably have other transportation options available in a pinch, it’s also true that Metra needs more resources than it currently has to successfully transition from a commuter rail model to a more modern regional rail model that will be needed post-pandemic to broaden their ridership base beyond traditional commuters: as this blog has said in the past, riders can’t ride trains that don’t run. Regular Metra riders have already made significant sacrifices throughout the pandemic in the form of service suspensions/cuts, and every effort needs to be made to provide Metra with the resources it needs to start expanding service offerings again.
That’s not to say the RTA should just throw a few more bucks at Metra and call it a day, however: the RTA is right to prioritize equity throughout the region with the limited funds it has to distribute, and it’s important that critical coronavirus assistance doesn’t end up only funding more express trains from Barrington or some other service enhancement that doesn’t target the neediest travelers in the region. However, there is likely a compromise solution where the RTA can leverage its power of the purse, and I encourage them to do so: if Metra can demonstrate how these additional coronavirus assistance funds can be used to specifically target service enhancements to better serve these Critical Need Areas, the RTA should be willing to swing the needle further into Metra’s direction.
The RTA is accepting public comments on their distribution plans through this Friday, March 5. Members of the public who wish to comment can submit comments via email to email@example.com.
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-standingtradition, 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.
Transit, bars, and restaurants are all experiencing extreme financial hardships throughout the pandemic. The Yard Social Club remains committed, now more than ever, to use our unique little corner of the internet to help all three by providing up-to-date resources and services to help Chicago-area residents ditch their cars for an afternoon and enjoy a transit-focused pub crawl. If you’d like to support our operations to help support sustainable suburbia, be sure to follow @YardSocialClub and @StarLineChicago on Twitter.
At today’s board meeting, Metra’s board finally marked the beginning of the end of the loathed gallery cars by approving an (up to) $1.8 billion contract with Alstom to build new, modern, bilevel passenger coaches. These low-floor coaches will include more modern amenities, including dedicated bike racks, powered doors throughout the coach (including lavatories and between coaches), partially-heated floors and more. Other than the unwieldy boxy design (that is apparently intentional to make them better blend in with the existing gallery car fleet), this procurement is a massive step forward for a more modern, more accessible, actual 21st-Century fleet.
Check out the video here:
The initial contract is for a base order of 200 coaches, with options for up to 300 more; Metra’s existing fleet is 840 cars, so even if the contract is maxed out we’ll still have gallery cars around for many more decades.
To be clear, the procurement still is far from perfect: cycling advocates have pointed out that the vertical bike racks as shown can be difficult to use with heavier bikes; this fleet of unpowered cars does nothing to create a more nimble, more flexible fleet of multiple-unit coaches that can be more efficiently used for “milk run” all-stop operations that would be important for better off-peak frequency; and this blog is still concerned with spending $61.6 million on new coaches in FY2021 while the railroad reports a $70 million as-yet-unaccounted-for gap in operations funding for the same duration.
But it’s important to not let the perfect be the enemy of the good and still celebrate success stories like these. This is a huge step forward for Metra, and while there are still lots of operational deficiencies that need to be addressed post-pandemic, everyone involved — including all of us squeaky wheels who did bend the board’s ear — should be proud of the work done to make this procurement a reality and to finally roll out a 21st-Century fleet befitting one of the nation’s largest passenger railroads.
There’s still much work to be done in terms of modernizing operations to make Metra the regional rail provider it needs to be for a post-pandemic suburban Chicago: pulse scheduling, proof-of-payment, integrated transfers, and increased service are all pressing needs, as well as the looming shadow of the aforementioned $70 million budget hole this year. But today is a day for celebration and appreciation. Today is a victory, and tomorrow we keep pushing forward.
A thank you to friend-of-the-blog @inaoifeble who kept tabs on today’s board meeting and live-tweeted the spectacle. The video of the full board meeting is available on Metra’s website (meeting starts at about 1:23:40).
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 severaliterationsin 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.
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) 🛶 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) ⛵ 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) 🔵🐦 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) 🚀 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) 💎 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
It’s budget season, and as expected, Metra’s proposed 2021 budget represents the ongoing struggles the commuter railroad is having during the COVID-19 pandemic. It’s not Doomsday yet — despite a $70 million projected hole in the budget, Metra is not raising fares in 2021. That’s not to say the outlook doesn’t still remain grim, of course: Metra’s anticipating only getting back to 50% of pre-pandemic ridership by the end of 2021, and not approaching 100% until 2024 at the earliest.
While the global pandemic has changed many things, one thing has remained unchanged: Metra’s commitment to the commuters and the communities we serve. From the beginning of the crisis to today, Metra never stopped running. We couldn’t. The essential role we play in the lives of our citizens and the economy of our region is simply too important.
Metra 2021 Proposed Operating & Capital Program & Budget, emphasis original
It goes downhill from there. The document is available here, but here’s what I think the important bullet points are in terms of operations:
Metra is projecting a $700 million operating budget with a $70 million shortfall in 2021. Absent additional aid from another unit of government (likely Congress), Metra will need a combination of cuts and fare increases to plug the hole since they are required by state statute to have a balanced budget. The $700 million operating budget represents a 15% decrease from the budgeted 2020 operating budget.
That $70 million hole does not include $51 million in CARES Act funding that is being carried forward to 2022.
Metra is anticipating rebounding to 20% of pre-pandemic passengers by the end of 2020; 50% by the end of 2021; and 80% by the end of 2022. Ridership is then forecast to stabilize at about the 80% level through 2023.
Service levels — as measured by vehicle revenue miles — are expected to remain at current levels through 2021, with service gradually increasing in 2022 and 2023, but remaining 15% below pre-pandemic levels until at least 2024.
Despite the almost certain anemic ridership levels over the next few years, with guaranteed ongoing service cuts and as we adjust to a post-COVID world, Metra wants to spend $594.6 million over the next five years to start replacing and expanding their fleet of bi-level gallery cars, an obsolete design that nearly every other North American commuter railroad has evolved beyond the need for. (And make no mistake that this is a fleet expansion, not just a replacement: the budget specifically says the intent of the program is to “increase the spare cars ratio”.)
This blog has discussed the flaws of the gallery car design previously, but in a nutshell the major issues of the car involve a single entry/exit point per car that also requires traversing four steps, which increases station dwell times as passengers take longer to load and unload, while also creating more significant issues for disabled riders, the elderly, cyclists, families with strollers, riders with luggage, and just about everyone else. The biggest strength of the gallery car design is that you can fit a lot of riders on each coach and conductors can easily check each rider’s tickets, and if you think committing to a vehicle design that encourages more crowding and more face-to-face interactions is a little misguided following a year or more of social distancing and mandatory mask use during a global pandemic, you might be on to something.
Our friends over at Streetsblog Chicago have one of the more definitive takedowns of the gallery car style. The epilogue to that blog post is that Metra had to cancel a 2017 procurement because they literally could not find a suitable manufacturer willing to build gallery cars for them. The nearly-$600 million procurement Metra is currently planning is based on a 2019 RFP (request for proposals) that permitted additional coach design styles to be considered, and while a selected bidder has not yet been chosen, it appears that Metra is teaming up with Virginia Railway Express (VRE) — one of the only other commuter railroads that also still use gallery cars — to have a joint procurement of, you guessed it, more gallery cars. (If you do listen to that podcast episode, skip ahead to the 35th minute or so to listen to VRE’s executive director discuss the procurement and the gallery car style.)
In the 2021 budget, Metra wants to spend $61.6 million on new gallery cars. In the same year, Metra is targeting only 50% of pre-pandemic ridership levels and a $70 million operations budget hole. This is not an argument against continuing to make important investments in state of good repairs during the pandemic recovery, but this gallery car order looks like the perfect opportunity to easily fill this short-term gap in funding: squeezing another year out of the old fleet while maintaining acceptable levels of service will have far better returns on investment in terms of long-term ridership and fares than shiny new coaches that may rarely run after draconian service cuts.
Furthermore, as a procurement launched pre-pandemic, it’s entirely possible — if not probable — that the onboard rider amenities scoped out in the original procurement are no longer relevant, or cater to the white-collar commuters who will make up a far smaller share of riders post-pandemic. Do we need cup holders if masks are mandatory onboard for the foreseeable future? Are additional armrests a good investment while the agency is spending $1 million on an ad campaign to remind potential riders how the agency is focusing on continually cleaning high-touch surfaces? With cycling up throughout the region, do we still want to commit to a fleet that requires bikes and disabled passengers to compete for space or do we want to create a more bike-friendly fleet like other peer agencies have done over the last decade? As Metra has said numerous times throughout the pandemic, ridership shifts “that would normally take 10-20 years seem to have occurred in 10-20 weeks.” Do we really want to commit to another five decades of gallery cars for nearly $600 million at this point in history?
To be clear, using capital funds to cover operational expenses is a dangerous game to play, especially given Metra’s history in doing so. However, there’s a significant difference in regularly using capital funds to plug systemic deficits in the operational budget and delaying a fleet expansion project during the most seismic societal shifts in our lifetimes to ensure a half-billion-dollar investment can be used for proper rolling stock on the railroad of the future, not on coaches that are parts of museum fleets. (Besides, Metra’s explicitly used fare increases since 2015 to help fund capital improvements, so it’s that much more unreasonable to ask ridership to once again pay through service cuts.)
Cancelling — or at least delaying — Metra’s $61.6 million capital outlay for new gallery cars in 2021 would fill 88% of the projected $70 million budget deficit; using an additional $8.4 million of CARES Act funding, or 16% of the $51 million of CARES Act funding Metra is planning on carrying forward to 2022, would entirely mitigate any service cuts in the absence of additional aid from the federal government. Deep service cuts right as ridership is just starting to return to Metra’s service post-pandemic will have far more dire long-term consequences to our region than just grinding out another year with the existing fleet. (Also note that Metra will still be spending nearly $70 million on rehabilitating and rebuilding locomotives and coaches in 2021.) In the meantime, Metra should use this opportunity to seek input from current and potential riders to better understand what a post-pandemic fleet should look like to cater to a more diverse base of ridership, rather than doubling down on an outdated 20th Century design now, 21 years into the 21st Century.
Metra’s draft 2021 budget is available to review here. As a draft document, Metra is seeking comment from members of the public via a virtual public hearing on Thursday, November 5, 2020, from 4pm to 7pm. Comments can also be submitted between now and 24 hours after the end of the public hearing via email.
As the COVID-19 pandemic rages on, the only certainty we have these days is uncertainty. 2020 has, without a shred of hyperbole, been the most challenging year that most of us have had to persevere, on multiple fronts.
That challenge has come down hard on transit agencies across the U.S. and, locally, Metra has been hit hardest.
Metra’s core market historically has been white-collar suburbanites commuting to and from the Loop for 9-to-5 Monday-through-Friday jobs. This market was already shrinking pre-pandemic as more workplaces offered remote work flexibility. Now, many more of these residents have the privilege to work from home full-time. Those who do not often have other transportation options – namely driving.
With the Loop a virtual ghost town, even workers who may have to go into the office a few times a week can find faster commutes on the expressways and cheap parking rates downtown.
As a result, Metra ridership remains down more than 90 percent six months into the pandemic. In response, the agency slashed service across the board. While traditional rush hour service remains relatively frequent on most lines, reverse-commute and off-peak service are barely hanging on.
For months Metra’s strategy has been to take a wait-and-see approach. The agency remains committed to its core market of white-collar suburban riders, hoping ridership will gradually return as more offices open up and people feel more comfortable riding transit.
But the time for waiting is over. There is a clear need for Metra rethink its approach to delivering service and build a suburban transit network that works for all residents.
Chasing an already dwindling market of privileged riders isn’t working financially. More importantly, it doesn’t help address the growing racial and social inequities in our regional transit system.
As recently as August, Metra claimed that “if [a traveler’s] business has not returned to the workplace, they are not a potential customer,” a wildly short-sighted claim that overlooks multiple core constituencies that can prove essential to a stronger, faster, more robust recovery for the agency.
There were glimmers of hope at Metra’s September board meeting, however. The agency appears ready to forego the previous schedules entirely, many of which have not been significantly changed since Metra’s creation back in 1984. They are considering creating line-by-line service restoration plans that, among other things:
Provide consistent and frequent service throughout the day;
Create easily understandable models of service with memorable service patterns;
Include new express services, where appropriate;
Consider Metra-to-Metra transfers as well as transfers to and from other service providers;
Explore additional reverse commute markets and other new ridership markets; and
Metra is also willing to pop the hood on their existing fare model, including new loyalty programs for monthly pass holders; lower monthly pass costs and additional multi-day fare products; a new individual weekend day pass; new peak and off-peak pricing; and more.
Active Trans made several recommendations for more equitable Metra fare offerings in the Fair Fares Chicagoland report published last fall.
Additionally, Metra announced that Romayne C. Brown would succeed Norm Carlson as the chair of Metra’s board of directors, effective November 1. Ms. Brown has decades of experience working in transit, including climbing the career ladder at the CTA from beginning as a rail conductor in 1978 to completing her CTA career as Vice President of Rail Operations in 2010.
Ms. Brown – who will also be Metra’s first female African-American chairperson – has already prioritized implementation of the South Cook Fair Transit pilot. This crucial project aims to lower fares for Metra Electric and Rock Island commuters on the South Side of Chicago and in the south suburbs while also promoting convenient transfers and integration with Pace and CTA.
It is exciting to see Metra openly discuss so many important parts of an equitable recovery and restoration for all. However, things will almost certainly get worse before they get better given short-term ridership projections and fiscal outlooks. It’s clear that Metra’s current fiscal outlook is grim.
Tomorrow is Metra’s August 2020 board meeting, their fifth since the first COVID-related shutdowns of Illinois began in the middle of March. As you may know, transit ridership across the board nationwide remains in the toilet, with Metra in particular getting their teeth kicked in (who could’ve seen that coming?) with ridership around 10% of pre-pandemic levels. What’s worse for Metra is that their ridership seems to be stabilizing at that level rather than rebounding like some other transit networks have seen.
Metra is, of course, well aware that this is a bad situation, with ridership bottoming out rather than rebounding. Each board meeting since March has had a similar call to action during the financial reporting segment of the meeting:
April: “We need to actively innovate to meet the changing public needs”
May: “We need to actively innovate to meet the changing public needs”
June: “We must innovate and transform to meet the new reality”
July: “We must innovate and transform to meet the new reality, and then let the riding public know we have innovated and transformed”
August: “We must innovate and transform to meet people’s needs where we can, then let people know what we have done to meet their needs”
You can feel the backsliding beginning already (“meet people’s needs where we can”), given that thus far “innovating and transforming” has only resulted in service cuts and a Weekend Pass you can use on a weekday.
In August’s presentation though, they lobbed this grenade:
Under the heading “who is a potential Metra rider”, they give the game up as succinctly as I’ve ever seen: “If their business has not returned to the workplace, they are not a potential customer”. In the midst of what should be an existential crisis for the commuter rail model as a whole, the commuter railroad that serves the nation’s third-largest market cannot fathom anyone using their service for anything other than commuting. This is a blind spot big enough to park a freight train, and for all the talk of “innovating” and “transforming”, it is downright concerning that the sole transit provider in dozens of suburban communities remains all-in on the Loop white-collar 9-5 Monday-Friday commuter market that – by the most optimistic outlook – is months or years away from returning to pre-pandemic levels: Metra’s projecting only 31% of their “normal” daily ridership will be back by the end of the year.
This is not just a crisis for Metra’s bottom line: if Metra goes belly up or rolls out doomsday cuts that kills most or all off-peak operations, our region as a whole suffers. My spouse and I live in the suburbs, and having convenient access to Metra outside the typical commute is a big reason why we chose to become a one-car household earlier this year. (A lack of existing off-peak service on Metra was also a critical reason of why we moved to a more CTA-friendly community.)
Metra is essential to the livelihood and mobility of suburbanites and city-dwellers alike. Since Illinois has entered Phase 4 of COVID recovery, I’ve personally used Metra dozens of times already, and Metra’s staff deserves a lot of credit for operations so far: trains are spotless, conductors have and use adequate PPE, and mask usage among riders is quite good. I’ve recommended using Metra during the recovery to just about everyone I’ve talked with since, and I’ll continue riding trains regularly.
And yet, no matter how many $10 Weekend or Day Passes I buy, I am apparently not a potential customer since I’m unemployed. If anyone else out there is a frequent-but-not-potential Metra customer, you have until 5pm today to get a comment into Metra’s board meeting to let them know that yes, you exist and yes, you rely on Metra outside of commute hours.
As Illinois and Chicago barrel forward into Phase 3 of the coronavirus recovery, our world is slowly starting to get back to normal – or at least, our new normal that will follow COVID-19 is coming into clearer focus.
Unfortunately, despite our hardest efforts, transit has become something of a public health punching bag, with a common sentiment that public transit (and/or those who use it) are unclean or unsafe in light of the ongoing pandemic. Even worse, just when there was a light at the end of the tunnel, Chicago executed its first-ever citywide shutdown of all transit in an (ill-advised) attempt to quell protesting and looting following the George Floyd murder: CTA and Pace stopped running entirely overnight, while Metra shut down for over 60 consecutive hours.
While Metra’s long-term strategy should be acknowledging a new normal with much more work-from-home for their white collar commuter base and adjusting schedules accordingly to flatten the peak while adding off-peak service to attract new non-traditional commuters (or riders who travel for reasons unrelated to commuting entirely), even systems like the CTA and Pace, who have had far fewer service reductions during the pandemic, will continue to struggle getting ridership back as riders stay home and as commuters have less reason to commute with work-from-home opportunities.
Work-from-home can be great on occasion, and as workplaces reopen it’s likely that many will still require workers to work from home several times a week. Transit’s recovery – if it ever comes – will be a slow, drawn-out, painful affair.
But work from home has no shortage of downsides, too. Beyond issues of distractions and productivity, it’s healthy to have some distance – figuratively and literally – between your work life and your home life. Whether that’s the idea that you can get just one more task done before calling it for the night, or that your boss now feels comfortable calling or texting you on your personal cell phone whenever, or just a little spike in anxiety you get whenever you pass your laptop during your “off” hours, some sort of buffer space is good for you and your health.
That’s why The Yard Social Club and Star:Line Chicago is finally launching our Commit to the Commute campaign. Commuting – especially on foot or on transit – shouldn’t be a chore as much as it is a release: catch up on a podcast, read Twitter, dive into a book, or just stare out the window and daydream. Commuting is “me” time, and the best part is at the end of the day, you can leave work at work and disconnect once more on your way home.
Our Commit to the Commute campaign has three prongs:
Tag us on social media. Show us what you enjoy about your commute! What can you do on transit that you can’t do while working from home or when you’re driving? Tag us on Twitter or Instagram (@StarLineChicago), use the #CommitToTheCommute and #LeaveWorkAtWork hashtags, and we’ll share.
Join us for Happy Hours. Once indoor bars get rolling again (hopefully later this summer), we’ll be hosting a few regular downtown meetups to connect commuters and grab a quick one before heading home.
Hop on a train crawl. When Illinois moves into Phase 4 and groups of up to 50 are allowed again, we’ll help ease you back into a comfort zone using transit with our famous train crawls throughout the city and suburbs. Get reintroduced to our region’s transit system with a safe, fun way to explore where the buses and trains can take you.
These are challenging times, but here at The Yard Social Club and Star:Line Chicago, we want to do whatever small things we can to bend the commuting curve back and remind everyone in Chicagoland how vital our transit network is to everyone.
This blog’s “lane” is suburban transportation, but we cannot discuss transit service disparities and regional inequities in infrastructure without recognizing the systemic racism inherent in our region’s society, in our region’s history, and in our region’s geography.
While the events of recent days were ostensibly kicked off by the murder of yet another unarmed Black person at the hands of police in Minnesota, the resonance these protests have had right here in our own backyard is a testament to the ongoing failures in equity and tolerance right here in Chicago.
And right now, our city and our transportation agencies are letting us all down, at this time when we need them most.
As a pandemic continues to ravage the state of Illinois with over 5,000 lives lost and an estimated unemployment rate of nearly 17%, disproportionately affecting the poor and communities of color, it is absolutely unconscionable for our leaders to shut down our public transit network entirely in some misguided effort to quell civil unrest that still reaches as far as Waukegan, Aurora, and northwestern Indiana anyway.
At 6:30pm on May 31, for the first time at least since the South Side Elevated started 24-hour service in 1893, and possibly dating as far back as the 1871 Chicago Fire (or even earlier), there was not a single transit vehicle in revenue service in Chicago, despite decades of fires, floods, blizzards, frigid cold, sweltering heat, 9/11, and even the last round of riots in 1968. After nearly three months of what is now clearly just kabuki theatre of “the importance of serving essential workers”, our transit service was – and in many areas, still is – nowhere to be found when workers and residents most needed safe, reliable passage through our region. Three days later, transit access to the urban core still does not exist, with CTA providing no bus or rail service in the area bounded by Fullerton, Western, 47th, and the lake; and our commuter railroad has ceased operations entirely.
I do not pretend to know who made the call to cancel service, but I do know that it doesn’t matter: in this moment when so many are in the streets marching to protest a system that has failed to protect them, our transportation system is letting them down once more, and they will not forget. To add insult to injury, in some communities of color the only buses local residents see on their streets right now are filled with police officers dressed in full riot gear, traveling to square off with mostly-peaceful protesters.
After decades of structural racism and systemic disinvestment, we owe it to our region’s most vulnerable residents to declare that mobility is a right: public transit is not some commodity to be rationed, but rather a public utility that is essential to the well-being of all. Pulling the rug out from these residents right now, during an ongoing pandemic and with the wildest future uncertainties most of us have experienced in our lifetimes, is nothing short of negligence. The absolute last thing we want to do is give people one less certainty they can count on.
In the short-term, we’re just encouraging people to drive more, which just fuels the existing perpetuating cycles of inequity, as the “haves” can continue to self-segregate away from the “have nots” while contributing to existing pollution and health impacts that continue to plague the most vulnerable among us. But in the long-term we are not only continuing but exacerbating the disinvestment in these communities, with inevitable deferred maintenance and service cuts “due to low ridership”.
Our transit agencies need to immediately restore service to all parts of our region and assert that mobility is a right for everyone in Chicagoland.
Illinois’s Stay at Home order is now confirmed to stretch well into May as we struggle to contain COVID-19. While today’s announcement is hardly unexpected, it does drive the point home that the inevitable recovery will not be easy or quick, but painful and protracted no matter what steps we take now.
It’s also abundantly clear that we’ll never go back to where we were two months ago, even when the coronavirus wanes and we get “back to normal”. So let’s take a quick look into the almost-guaranteed-to-be-wrong crystal ball on three predictions and more positive possibilities, and what this could mean for suburban transportation.
Prediction: CTA and Pace will struggle, but Metra will absolutely get their teeth kicked in
I take no joy in writing that, but that’s the way I’m reading the tea leaves. A large majority of service-sector workers, some of whom we’ve (finally) established as “essential”, will continue to work in-person jobs doing tasks that need to be done in-person. We can’t stock shelves via Skype, bank tellers can’t telework, and bartenders can’t pour new pints through a Zoom meeting. However, most white collar workers will likely never spend five straight days working from an office again.
While this new normal will require some dramatic changes for city dwellers on the CTA and blue-collar workers who rely on Pace’s arterial services in inner-ring suburbs, it will absolutely decimate Metra’s entire model of shuttling 9-to-5 upper-middle-class white collar workers from the burbs to the Loop five days a week. All three service boards are undoubtedly in for a world of pain in regards to fare revenue, but Metra is uniquely positioned to get utterly blown out as the remaining monthly pass market – which already needed 15 commuting days each calendar month to justify a high-upfront-cost ticket – vaporizes overnight.
Possibility: A dramaticreinventing of the commuter rail model as a whole (or at least trying something new every once in awhile)
Metra’s held onto operational models, fare models, funding models, and literal equipment from the 1950s for far too long, and the day of reckoning is here. (Has anyone ever tried bringing that up before?) A bold reimagining of literally everything is warranted, but there are a few pieces of low-hanging fruit to pluck right away with fare policy and operations.
With the monthly ticket market functionally wiped out, now is the time to implement some form of fare capping that gives riders more flexibility with ticket options while also lowering barriers to entry for new potential riders. As social distancing becomes part of the new normal, fare parity with the CTA in areas served by both providers will take on a new urgency as a way to better balance passenger loads, and likewise new integrated fare products for CTA and Pace transfers are required as the monthly-dependent Link-Up/PlusBus market also dries up.
Metra will also need to acknowledge that they will likely never again need all of the peak-period capacity that they previously ran. However, this can be an opportunity: they will be able to save on operation costs over time and should then be able to expand off-peak services to attract new ridership markets. Additionally, instead of simply reverting back to the old schedules, Metra should consider a phased quarterly approach to adding peak service back into the current “temporary” schedules through the recovery. Doing so would also create a new corporate culture of regular internal ridership analyses and subsequent schedule updates based on recent and projected ridership demand.
There’s also the good news that Metra currently has a unique opportunity to field-test new ideas or operational changes with minimal impact to riders. So try something new. Try anything new.
Prediction: We’ll eachdrive less, which means we’ll all drive more
As Illinois stays all-in, car traffic on our highways is a fraction of what it used to be, and for good reason: demand for lane space is in the toilet right now because no one is leaving home. But that won’t last, because once we do start going places again, we’ll get right back on the roads since gas will continue to be absurdly cheap and traffic is light. As transit riders shift away from monthly passes for commutes, the old monthly riders will have even less incentive to take transit when traffic is light (since the marginal cost of using off-peak transit went from $0 with a monthly pass to the full fare price without).
Traffic congestion is not an issue that needs solving by engineers, but rather a natural condition of a market reaching an equilibrium: when cost (time and money) is less than benefit (whatever value a driver assigns to wherever they’re going), a trip is made; when costs are too high relative to benefits, the trip either doesn’t happen or gets otherwise altered such that benefit > cost some other way and the modified trip gets completed. (That’s also a crash course in induced demand.)
In other words, just because some people will go out less frequently after quarantine lifts or some people will work from home more often, over time other drivers will inevitably appear to fill those gaps.
Possibility: Claw back road capacity now before the market finds a new equilibrium
Bus lanes, buffered bike lanes, woonerfs, traffic calming… for any ped-, bike-, or transit-oriented plan that was already on the books, do it all now and let post-pandemic traffic react to the new road designs instead of the vice-versa status quo of the last 60 years. (Infrastructure spending will hopefully be part of future Congressional recovery bills.)
Most importantly, do it for good (in an equitable manner with as much local buy-in as possible) and do it for good (run a few pilot programs if needed, but every new implementation should have a realistic chance of becoming a permanent change instead of an “emergency use only” application that disappears when we’re no longer in crisis mode).
Prediction: An already-hostile image of transit will get ramped up on steroids
Transit has been “othered” for decades, but now stereotypes about transit as a last-resort are going to go into overdrive in the age of social distancing. As the job market falters with homeless shelters already at capacity, complaints about “unsafe” and “unclean” riders on the CTA will (and have already started to) skyrocket, further depressing any demand for rapid transit. Additionally, Metra physically cannot social distance so long as they continue to rely on a conductor-based method of fare collection that relies on a face-to-face transaction with each and every rider.
After years and years of stripping transit funding down to the bone, riders and non-riders alike are accustomed to cramped, full buses and trains. This becomes a lose-lose situation for post-pandemic transit: any crowding means transit agencies can’t adequately social distance and thus are mismanaged to a fault, but empty buses and trains must mean our agencies are already supplying plenty of transit capacity so the only reason why they would want more operating funds is because they are mismanaged to a fault.
Possibility: Manage expectations, but be proactive
Transit will be in a dark place for the foreseeable future. Even when COVID-19 is behind us, the money we aren’t spending now in fares and sales taxes will manifest in the budgets of upcoming years. Homelessness in Chicago and on the CTA has been an issue for quite some time already, with no easy solutions then and even fewer now. These times will not be easy and there will be some very tough decisions that will need to be made, but it’s crucially important to remember – and hammer home the point with messaging – that public transit is essential to everyone in a functioning modern metropolis: it was essential before the pandemic, it’s essential during the pandemic, and it will be absolutely essential to an equitable, successful recovery.
The one thing we all can do right now – and this “we” involves the agencies themselves and the rest of us who care enough to fight for better transportation solutions – is to be good communicators and advocates for public transit. The CTA, Metra, and Pace are all expending plenty of manpower and financial resources to keep buses and trains safe, clean, and reliable for transit-dependent essential workers right now, and those efforts will need to continue (and need to continue to be highlighted) through the recovery. While the need to maintain social distancing efforts remains crucial to fighting the pandemic, there are ways to effectively communicate that without declaring that “public transit is unsafe for the foreseeable future”, which only serves to stigmatize those who depend on transit while tainting the well for transit’s potential market share post-pandemic. To that end, Star:Line Chicago and The Yard Social Club will be launching our #CommitToTheCommute campaign as the recovery begins, a multi-pronged campaign to do the following:
Share and promote what our agencies are doing to keep riders safe and get people back on transit, both locally and nationally
Highlight the benefits of commuting on transit at least a few times a week rather than driving or shifting to full-time work-from-home
Hosting frequent transit-based social events to help new or infrequent users feel comfortable using transit again (while supporting local bars and restaurants as well)
While we all have a new normal to get used to, and while there are most certainly challenges ahead of all of us, now is the time to look forward (and to have something to look forward to). Stay safe, stay well, and stay at home. We’ll get through this together.
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:
CTA Blue Line
Ogilvie Transportation Center (OTC)
Harlem Avenue BNSF
Van Buren Street Station
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.
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.
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.
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.
Inbound Travel Time
* 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.
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 mostofMetra’sweekendlinesoperate. (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:
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.
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.”
One of two things happen:
No one says anything; trains operate as scheduled. End.
Someone says they’re connecting to the MD-W train.
The conductor calls a control center to tell them to hold the MD-W for a transfer.
The control center tells the MD-W train to wait for a transfer from the late BNSF.
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.
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.
The BNSF train gets in and the transferring passenger(s) quickly make their way to the waiting MD-W train.
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 monthtwo monthssix 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.
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.)
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 massive–bordering-on–obscene 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
As the covid-19 pandemic spreads and as a ground stop on just about all aspects of American life sets in, we’re facing a lot of unknowns in the world of suburban transit these days. The bottom is falling out of mass transit demand as workplaces shift to work from home or mass layoffs as schools, bars, restaurants, and just about everything else shuts down. While no service reductions are scheduled for CTA, Pace, or Metra — yet — they are likely on the horizon. BNSF conductors reportedly announced to morning commuters that service reductions will start Wednesday; Metra meanwhile refuses to confirm or deny any upcoming service changes.
My guess is that Metra will very shortly announce that they’ll go to their alternate schedules, which generally are reserved for significant weather events. (It’s not guaranteed that they’ll do this, of course, but the BNSF, MED, MD-N, MD-W, Rock, UP-N and UP-NW alternate schedules have all been updated within the last 72 hours, so make what you will of that.) The alternate schedules are good: off-peak cuts are minimal (except for late night trains, which are mostly cut), with most of the changes happening at the peak of the peak. Metra deserves credit for maintaining those off-peak runs, however in the era of flattening the peak and social distancing there are a few other immediate changes we would recommend for all our transit agencies:
Suspend face-to-face fare collection. With other agencies like the Illinois Tollway taking the dramatic step to go towards all-electronic tolling and closing manned toll booths, and while transit agencies will likely be running a fare surplus as monthly passes go unused (or unrefunded), keeping riders and front-line employees safe from the coronavirus should take precedence over fare collection. Metra’s conductors serve important safety functions onboard trains: performing inspections, communicating with dispatch and the operator, operating wheelchair lifts, etc. Suspending fare collection can also lower the number of conductors needed on each train, which allows for smaller crew sizes and once again, fewer front-line contacts with potentially infected riders.
Open all the coaches in each consist. One of our Metra pet peeves for years, this recommendation takes extra urgency now: open every coach in every consist to allow passengers to spread out (maintain six-foot separation) rather than opening coaches as needed. This also goes for CTA service: don’t cut off-peak trains into smaller 4-car consists. Now is not the time to try to save a few bucks on electric.
Maintain off-peak service. While most of us hunker down and while social attractions shut down through the end of the month, there are still plenty of workers who do need to get to jobs, and plenty of them have untraditional hours. The front lines of a pandemic are first responders and health care workers, of course, but janitorial staffs, grocery store workers, supply chain employees, etc. are also vitally important. Off-peak service is crucial to serving all of these off-hour commuters.
Plan ahead. While the bulk of the disruption will likely occur between now and the end of March, it’s important to remember that there’s no toggle switch that magically gets flipped on April 1 that gets everything back to normal. Having a smooth transition to normalcy will be important to getting riders back on transit. To that aspect, seeing NICTD’s announcement today that March monthly passes will be good through April is a smart strategy that doubles as a ridership appreciation tactic.
Don’t panic. The ridership numbers are going to drop dramatically. It’s okay. Most of them will come back in a few months.
Think outside the box and take notes. While public health is obviously the top priority for everyone during a pandemic, these are also unique circumstances for unplanned pilot projects. Want to change staffing models? Try a new fare collection technique? Work out an operational issue? Now’s the time to try with limited impacts on ridership.
For the rest of us: wash your hands, cover your cough, avoid unnecessary travel, and make good choices. We’ll get through this together.