It’s been an impossibly long summer for BNSF riders. Tonight’s collapse, a signal issue near Union Station that resulted in multiple cancelled trains, was the second time in a week the dreaded Union Station overcrowding plan was rolled out to try to avoid commuters getting trampled in Chicago’s busiest train station.
I’m not going to go into too much depth on tonight’s particular failure – this is one of those things that just seems to happen a few times a year, and local media just loves running pictures of the throngs of humanity shoulder-to-shoulder in the South Concourse, so it’s well-publicized and documented. But on one of the hottest days of the year, it’s yet another chapter in a 2018 Metra wants to forget. Besides, this is one of those failures where Metra can wash their hands of it and trot out yet another non-apology apologies because it (probably) wasn’t a Metra signal that failed – Amtrak owns Union Station and the last mile of track – and it wasn’t a Metra-operated line – BNSF operates and dispatches their trains, Metra just owns the fleet – so really, what can Metra do about it?
The short answer is, Metra can actually do a lot about it, but (1) it involves playing the long game, and (2) it involves doing something different.
Metra is a tenant in Union Station, and basically something less than a tenant on the BNSF. (Metra has a similar agreement with Union Pacific for the three UPs, but Union Pacific has the added perk of also owning Ogilvie Transportation Center, so they’re a little better vertically-integrated in that operation.) Like all tenants, they have to deal with a landlord who throws nickels around like they’re manhole covers and keeps the purse strings tight. In this case, it’s hard to blame Amtrak too much for the state of Union Station: at any given time, Amtrak is one or two Congressional elections from ceasing to exist. Furthermore – stop me if you’ve heard this one before – Metra is a railroad. They can’t just pick up their tracks and move to a different train station if they wanted to. (Actually, that’s literally what they’re doing with CREATE on 75th Street, but still.) The relationship with BNSF is even more one-sided: Metra having their busiest, most profitable line operate under a purchase-of-service agreement is borderline extortion. “Either pay us money to run your trains or we’ll stop doing it” is a hell of an incentive for Metra to play nice with BNSF, although the potential political fallout makes that more of a nuclear option than a trump card for BNSF.
But, like any other lease, eventually they have to be renewed. Those renewals are Metra’s best chance to flex some muscle and at least try to play a little hardball. Even though it often doesn’t feel like it while you’re riding, Metra is in the year 2018. This is the age of budget constraints, but it’s also the age of Big Data and the age of asset management. It’s never been easier to integrate some sort of performance metrics into these third-party financial agreements. While Metra’s hand isn’t strong enough to say “we won’t pay you if on-time performance dips below 95%” (and that metric can be – and already is – easily gamed anyway), Metra could easily frame whatever performance measure they wanted as a bonus incentive. Maybe there’s a 5% payment bump if X number fares are collected, and a 5% penalty if more than 25% of the fleet has broken heat/air conditioning at any given time. In my personal ideal world, there should be ridership incentives: if we’re paying BNSF to run trains and ridership is declining on those trains, give the BNSF a reason to get some more skin in the game and get more people on their trains. (Since Metra has settled into an unfortunate habit of raising fares annually, it may not be fair to penalize BNSF solely for ridership losses.)
The RTA and the three service boards have recently been rolling out their #InvestInTransit initiative to shore up more funding to, well, invest in transit. And it’s absolutely true that transit is extremely underfunded: there’s no regular dedicated funding stream for capital improvements like new trains or upgraded signals. This blog obviously supports it wholeheartedly.
There shouldn’t be a but, and before I started this blog there wasn’t.
But now there is.
Trains need to be safe. Trains need to be reliable. Ideally, trains need to be cheaper to maintain, which is generally what you get with a newer fleet.
But what kind of return on investment are we getting by spending tens of millions of dollars on new trains that run on schedules without significant changes since the 1980s? Do we need new signals to cram one more rush-hour train in as more people telecommute or work flexible hours as trains run only once every two hours the rest of the day? Will concrete ties and continuous welded rail change the requirement of three-person crews on each train, two of whom (the conductors) routinely only check tickets maybe only three or four times on the entire trip? Will more ADA-accessible train cars actually make it easier for disabled riders who are stuck with uncoordinated (and non-fare-integrated!) bus transfers to trains?
Maybe that’s the pessimistic side of the coin, so let’s look at the more optimistic side of things: literally anyone who has spent any amount of time on our transit network knows how underfunded is. (Okay, maybe that’s a downer of a way to start the “optimistic” argument, but hang in there.) What kind of changes can Metra make today that would get more people using the system? And likewise, wouldn’t it be a much easier political lift to go to elected officials with numbers showing more people using the system DESPITE its condition? Instead, Metra’s entering death spiral mode: fares go up, ridership goes down, service gets cut, ridership goes down more, so fares go up again and service gets cut again…
But to get out of that spiral, Metra needs to do something different, and they’re making the bold decision not to do that. And yes, doing nothing is a choice, and it’s a decision actively being made. When the house is burning down it’s hard to say where’s the best place to start spraying water, but you have to at least try reaching for the hose.
Today’s meltdown wasn’t Metra’s fault. But last week’s was (a SouthWest Service train crapped out on the approach into Union Station, blocking the tracks). Metra should’ve had a better handle on BNSF’s crappy record with air conditioned cars this summer. Metra definitely could’ve handled the PTC schedule rollout better. Then there was the phantom tornado warning. And to top it all off, Metra probably didn’t need to raise fares last February. (A blog post for another time.)
A quick glance on social media shows that riders are getting more and more impatient, sick and tired of paying more and more for declining service on the BNSF.
Join The Yard Social Club for our third annual OktoberWest train crawl on Saturday, September 8. Whether you’re a seasoned veteran of our crawls or you’ve never tried a train crawl before, OktoberWest is a great way to spend your day in the suburbs. We’ll make stops at a Polish bar in Chicago; an Irish bar and a Mexican bar in Franklin Park; an Italian “pizza pub” in Itasca; and an American railroad-themed bar in Hanover Park before heading back to Itasca and wrapping up at the village’s Oktoberfest street festival.
The festivities officially begin at 11:45am at Eva’s Sports Bar, two blocks from Mont Clare. (Some of us may head up there early for breakfast/lunch before the crawl kicks off.)
It’s been a long summer for Metra. And it’s still just the middle of July.
Yesterday, Metra had their second board meeting since the new BNSF schedules took effect on June 11. While the woes of the BNSF were discussed at the previous board meeting on June 13, the change was still pretty fresh and it was generally understood that there’d be a few kinks to work out. (Well, a few kinks for riders to work out.)
Unfortunately for Metra, things on the BNSF haven’t really improved in the last month. Peak period trains are still packed on the best of days; throw in a fleet that isn’t getting any younger, aging air conditioning units on board, and a summer packed full of hot and humid days, and it’s been downright miserable for a lot of BNSF riders. (And, to be fair, riders on other lines have also been complaining about broken air conditioning throughout the system, so that particular issue isn’t unique to the BNSF. Old fleets break more often; unfortunately, it’s to be expected.) But the busiest commuter rail line in the region having chronic month-long overcrowding issues following a schedule rollout that was specifically designed to address existing overcrowding was eventuallty going to get some attention from local media, and local media did not disappoint.
So why is this such an issue now? Sure, the fleet’s older than ever before and the BNSF is by far Metra’s busiest line both in terms of passenger volume and number of trains operating, but ridership is stagnant or dropping and Chicago’s had plenty of hot summers before. No, there must be something different about this summer, but I just can’t put my finger on it…
Luckily Metra understands that the new BNSF schedule fails to accommodate the demands of the riders who rely on the service, and the agency said they would try harder to make changes to the new schedulhahaha, just kidding, Metra blamed riders again. From the Tribune:
“This line has grown and grown and grown over the years, and we’ve completely saturated this line,” Metra CEO Jim Derwinski told reporters after the meeting.
Derwinski said one reason why complaints have increased so much in the last month is that some riders have shifted to different trains because of the schedule change, so there is now crowding on trains not seen before.
On the bright side, the Metra board is starting to feel the heat. From the same article:
“I’ve heard more in the last 30 to 60 days from disgruntled passengers than I’ve heard in five years on the board,” said Metra board member John Zediker, who called for a “deeper dive” into the line’s problems. “What’s going on on that line is unacceptable.”
Good news, Director Zediker: your friends here at The Yard Social Club and Star:Line Chicago performed a deeper dive into the line’s problems. We crunched the numbers between the old and new schedules, and we found that Mr. Derwinski is right: riders are indeed shifting to different trains and showing different crowding patterns. It’s a shame no one saw this coming before the new schedule took effect, and it’s even more of a shame no one tried to warn Metra this would happen. While we don’t have ridership data by train, comparing and aggregating the old and new schedules provided some great insights into where riders are shifting their travel patterns and why some trains are getting crush-loaded while others are well undercapacity.
We broke down the morning and afternoon peak periods into fifteen minute increments to help compare between the two schedules, with the assumption that a change of 15 minutes or less is considered “reasonable” for most people.
For the morning commute, we worked backwards, looking at what time trains were scheduled to arrive in Union Station, then noting what stops that train made, regardless of whether the train ran express, local, or some combination of the two. In the below table, each light green cell represents one “station pair” that gets a rider into Union Station within the time period listed on top, so if you need to get to work by 8:30am and you work 15 minutes from Union Station, a green cell in the 8:01am-8:15am period indicates there’s a train from your station that will get you downtown and to work with time to spare. (Dark green cells indicate there are two trains from that station that get downtown in the particular time period.) The numbers in each cell indicate the change in trains between the old schedule and the new schedule, so a “1” indicates the new schedule has added a train serving that station pair at that timepoint, and a “-1” indicates a train at that timepoint was lost in the schedule change.
The chart shows a few interesting issues with the new schedule. First and foremost, Metra did do their best to minimize overall service levels: no stations lost more than one train in the morning; of the stations that did lose service, there’s a train that will still get you downtown within the next 15-minute period. As a LaGrange Road rider, I do appreciate that we were one of the four stations that actually added a new morning train.
But the chart also shows just what we warned way back when: to accommodate the longer times to flip trains with PTC, Metra tried to “flatten” the peak: early trains got earlier and late trains got later, and the hope was that riders would simply go along with their old train. The blue cells show where a train was moved forward and arrives in the earlier 15-minute interval; purple cells show where a train was pushed back to the following 15-minute interval. While this does keep the overall balance of trains the same more or less, it doesn’t take into account basic human behavior: no one wants to wake up any earlier than they have to, and generally speaking most office workers still have a somewhat firm starting time in the morning. In other words, many riders will find those early blue-cell trains unattractive (need to wake up earlier) and those late purple-cell trains are also unattractive (need to stay at work longer or take a shorter lunch to make up for coming in later), so riders will pile onto the remaining trains in the center of the peak, which makes the peak even “peakier”, exacerbating the very congestion Metra was trying to relieve.
Metra thought they could balance out the morning peak service by adding trains on the shoulders of the peak, and it’s backfiring. If you’re looking for one takeaway statistic, check out the bottom row, which is a sum of the changes by time period. In the peak-of-the-peak, which we defined as 6:30am-8:30am, a whopping 45 station pairs were removed while only six were added. In particular, check out all those red -1s in the 7:45am-8:30am periods for stations between Congress Park and Lisle. All those Zone C/D/E riders went from three trains every morning in that sweet-spot time range to only one or two. Sure, Metra made up for it by cramming a few late-peak express trains in there, but what’s the use of a train that arrives at Union Station at 9:00am when you had to be at work at 8:30am?
The PM peak is a little more challenging to analyze, since there are now two time periods to track: what time riders board at Union Station, and what time they arrive back home. To analyze the PM peak, we took five sample stations and charted Union Station departure times and outlying station arrival times, then calculated the minutes of travel. Otherwise, the same assumptions apply: people generally want to get home from work as soon as they can, and it’s inconvenient to get home any later than the old schedule. Likewise, for some riders, earlier departures would also be inconvenient, since work schedules may not allow riders to make it to Union Station in time for the train.
We looked at five stations in five different zones: Route 59 (Zone G), Naperville (Zone F), Downers Grove (Zone E), Hinsdale (Zone D), and LaGrange Road (Zone C). Gray cells indicate the schedule pairs in the previous schedule; green cells indicate the schedule pairs in the new schedule. The numbers in each cell indicate scheduled travel times; bolded trains are expresses and italicized trains are locals. Where trains overlap between schedules, the new schedule is shown as a slightly darker font color.
The first observation is to note that, for four of the five stations, there were actually a few trains that straight-up improved: left downtown at about the same time and got back to the suburbs in the earlier 15-minute interval. (Reminder: that doesn’t mean it’s 15 minutes faster, just that those riders are getting home notably earlier.) Good on Metra for that.
Other than that, more of the same from the morning peak analysis: late trains get later. Average travel times for each of these five stations increased in the 5-10% range; unlike the extra PTC time required to flip trains, these longer travel times are based solely on in-service operations. While some of the delay is likely due to changes in stopping patterns (Naperville lost most of their super-express trains), this is hard to explain by anything other than atrophy of the system. Metra will occasionally make “schedule adjustments to better reflect operating conditions”, which usually means tacking on time to the end of the run to keep the train on-time, but sometimes they also go through and balance the schedule at each stop. The catch is that nothing is really changing out in the field: the same trains are running on the same tracks, making the same stops, so there’s no good excuse for why trains are gradually getting slower, unless ridership is increasing and it’s taking trains longer to load and unload passengers. (But again, ridership is flat or declining.)
The most interesting observation though is Zone D (Hinsdale) and Zone C (LaGrange Road) losing an afternoon peak train in the new schedule. While the loss isn’t terribly significant from a time management perspective — in both cases, there’s still a train making the same connection in the same time periods — it does shed some light on new potential crowding issues.
And there’s the rub: yes, the BNSF is crowded. But it was crowded before. Naperville riders have known all too well that the line is overcrowded; even with the old schedule it wasn’t uncommon for morning trains to essentially load-and-go, leaving passengers on the platform to hope for better luck on the following train. The difference is now, different parts of the line are feeling the pinch thanks to the new schedule. Zone C/D riders are getting pinched both in the morning and in the afternoon more than they were previously used to, and sure enough, the Trib‘s token complaining commuter comes from LaGrange Park:
Brian Pitts, a 48-year-old resident of La Grange Park who has commuted on Metra since 1998, said that both he and his wife, Carla Pitts, have seen “out of control” crowding on express trains with people “packed like sardines.”
“They lost thousands of $$$s by not collecting fares,” said Pitts in an email to the Tribune, referring to the problem of conductors not being able to get through the train aisles to collect tickets.
It’s clear that Metra is hoping BNSF riders are simply accepting that this will be the new normal and they’ll just change their work schedules to take advantage of the later, less-crowded express trains and just go back to complaining about fares and the fleet on Twitter. But this time riders are pushing back, going straight to the Metra board — or straight to the Tribune and Channel 2.
The new schedule stinks — and after the deep dive we can say that objectively, not just subjectively — and to date Metra and the BNSF aren’t exactly showing any urgency about fixing it. Oh, well, it’s crowded because the fleet’s old. It’s crowded because there are problems with the air conditioning. It’s crowded because passenger trains get delayed by freight trains. It’s crowded because the signals need upgrading. It’s always something, and Metra’s standard recommendation is to just throw more money at it:
But Metra is limited on how much it can do because it has a limited number of cars and old equipment, Derwinski noted. The ultimate solution is more money, he said, and the state legislature has not passed a capital bill to pay for transportation infrastructure work since 2009.
Derwinski noted that the Metra Electric District, which has new cars, is not having the reliability problems seen with older, diesel locomotives.
“One of the things we’re definitely going to need is a capital bill and start replacing a big chunk of our fleet,” Derwinski said.
But all those excuses miss a central point: the new schedule ignores how riders actually use the system. Yes, having an old fleet with crappy air conditioning isn’t helping anything, but the larger current capacity issues are pretty clearly a result of supply and demand: the schedule changed to offer less supply (fewer trains) at the highest period of demand (peak of the peak period). That’s all there is to it, and now there are more standing-room-only trains.
That brings up another thing we can learn from the above analysis: look at how basic and simplistic the schedule changes were. Trains were simply moved around within the old schedule. Sure, some trains added a few stops and some trains dropped a few stops, but otherwise it was just a matter of shuffling the same old trains around so they could have 15 minutes to flip instead of ten, then inexplicably changing consist lengths without trying to forecast how many people would take which trains.
What Metra should do is start with a clean slate and totally reimagine the schedule from the ground up. Pretend this is a brand new commuter line being started (except with decades of data about ridership patterns) and make a new schedule. Be bold.
Or Metra can keep trying to fit this square peg of a schedule into the round hole that is ridership demand, which honestly is the more likely path forward for the agency. But hey, the good news is, the overcrowding issues will take care of themselves as Pace keeps adding more I-55 express bus service and more people start working from home because, honestly, who wants to deal with the BNSF any more?
Today is June 30, and right now I’m onboard a fairly crowded Saturday BNSF train heading into the city. It’s one of the hottest days of the year, and unsurprisingly a handful of cars don’t have working air conditioning. This is the last of the Saturday morning hourly inbound trains; from here on out, trains will run only every other hour.
Today is my last official day riding Metra on a monthly pass. I’ve been a monthly pass holder since I moved from Portage Park to Itasca in March of 2014; since summer 2015 I’ve lived in LaGrange and I have been spoiled by frequent peak-period express trains to and from work downtown. But on Monday, my wife and I are closing on our first home. We’re buying a small bungalow on the south side of Forest Park, a ten-minute walk from the Blue Line.
Obviously we’re not moving closer to the city just because it’s increasingly frustrating to rely on Metra. But I can’t say that switching to the CTA instead of Metra didn’t have some impact on our decision.
If you’re reading this, you know that I have plenty of ideas on how to improve Metra; and if you’re reading this, you probably have some ideas of your own as well. Fares continue to increase as Metra keeps duct-taping their vintage fleet together as the credit card gathers dust. Schedules that adequately handle Monday-through-Friday 9-to-5ers but barely provides basic service for anyone else. The disastrous rollout of the new BNSF schedule and the self-inflicted damage control wounds.
While Metra has plenty of financial challenges ahead of them, the inverse Laffer Curve where Metra can keep nudging fares up with no clear return on investment for their riders because it’s still cheaper than driving into the city for work keeps any sense of agency urgency at bay, even as ridership stagnates or declines in most of the region and straight up bottoms out on the South Side and in the southern suburbs.
Work schedules are shifting to allow more workers to stay home, while demographics are changing as Millennials and Gen Xers (and even some Boomers) favor on-demand, responsive, reliable non-driving transportation throughout the day, not just for work trips.
In the face of all these changes, Metra makes the bold choice to just keep grinding on with the same model the commuter railroads have used since the 1950s. Well-dressed conductors punch paper tickets on train cars specifically designed around the conductors’ ability to check every ticket, every time. Never mind that most other transportation agencies have figured out how proof-of-payment ticketing works, dramatically lowering manpower costs, or that newer vehicle designs have wider, lower doors that allow faster, easier boarding and alighting. Entire outings need to be planned around the limited number of times trains run, and those schedules make transferring between lines extremely difficult with long layovers.
This week, my wife commuted with me downtown since she had a week-long intensive class at Roosevelt University to wrap up her master’s degree. On Monday, in the rain she stumbled on the stairs stepping into the car, since the floor is high relative to ground level. On Tuesday, the train was so crowded I had to stand in the aisle on the other side of the car from her. On Wednesday, she took a later train since they were meeting in Pilsen; she missed the train because it left LaGrange Road early. On Thursday, her train left early again, but she planned ahead and reworked her schedule to get to the station sooner.
Friday was fine though, so there’s that.
On the way home yesterday, she told me, “I don’t know how you do it every day.” And now I won’t have to.
I’m going to keep this blog going, of course; I’ll still be a frequent Metra weekend rider, planning train crawls, exploring the suburbs, and all that good stuff. I fully understand I’m in a position of privilege to be able to pick up and move; I still believe that there are plenty of common-sense improvements Metra can make relatively easily to make the suburbs a more attractive place for people who choose to live car-free.
This is my shot across the bow. I never thought I’d say it, but I’m looking forward to no longer being a regular Metra commuter. I want Metra to do better for the suburbs; for better or worse, I’m a suburbanite for life, and Metra remains an underutilized asset for the entire region. I want Metra to succeed. I want Metra to be a stronger amenity for everyone in the suburbs, not just white-collar 9-to-5ers five days a week. I want to want to ride Metra again.
Happy Pride Weekend, Chicago! While it (hopefully) doesn’t need to be said, The Yard Social Club and Star:Line Chicago proudly support the LGBTQ+ community, and we believe everyone deserves the right not only to be themselves but to also be with the person they love and to be able to go where they want, when they want without fear.
As it’s Pride Weekend, all eyes will be on the Northalsted district, especially on Sunday for the parade. Of course, if you’re coming in from the suburbs, Metra is your best choice to head for the parade – or really for anything in the city. (Head over to the Brown Line on the Loop or the Red Line in the State Street Subway for the easiest ways to get to the parade.) And for you BNSF and UP-N/NW/W riders, good news: Metra’s running extra service on Sunday.
If you’re lucky enough to be on the Union Pacific North Line, rejoice: Metra is doing what they should be doing and slotting the extra outbound train at 7:35pm, midway between the 6:35 and 8:35 trains. If you aren’t on the UP-N, well, enjoy the shot-and-a-chaser service.
Believe it or not, Metra is actually pretty good about adding service for weekend events, at least in the fact that they actually add trains for busy weekends. And, since in Chicago there’s basically always something going on, between Memorial Day and Labor Day Metra adds trains on average every other weekend. On its surface, that’s great! More weekend service for people going downtown to have fun is literally what we’re all about. But the problem is that, when Metra adds weekend service, it’s almost always to handle capacity rather than to accommodate riders.
If that sounds like gibberish because I basically said the same thing twice, that’s understandable, so let me explain myself. When Metra adds service, the service added is almost always added in such a way to add capacity to an existing train rather than to accommodate new passengers. For example, here’s Sunday’s additional service for the BNSF.
The added trains (shaded) are what we call shot-and-a-chaser trains: rather than slotting an additional local train in that two hour gap, an express train (the shot) is lined up right in front of the usual local train (the chaser). Metra and their BNSF/UP host railroads generally prefer this setup because the new express train generally fits into the same track window as the regularly-scheduled local train, which means the host railroads can keep moving more profitable freight trains relatively unimpeded by the additional passenger service. Good for them.
There’s a major problem with this: Metra really isn’t adding any usable service their riders. In Sunday’s example, it’s true that a Naperville rider will save 24 minutes on their ride home, but it doesn’t change the fact that their trains back to Naperville only leave every two hours. This comes back to our usual refrain of Metra moving trains rather than moving people: if the regularly scheduled train is going to be crowded, just add cars to it and call it a day. If you can’t add cars, send out the shot train to take pressure off the chaser.
I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: suburbanites want to take Metra. They – we –like taking Metra to and from the city. We can relax, have a drink or two, not worry about parking, and get back home all for the low cost of $10 per person all weekend long. It’s a hell of a bargain, but you need to be willing to be on Metra’s schedule, which is where the railroad actually loses a lot of potential weekend ridership. On Saturday evenings and all day on Sundays, the Metra lines with weekend service only offer outbound service every two hours. Even more frustrating, on many Metra lines, Saturday outbound service operates hourly between noon and 6pm, but not later. Why does Metra believe the demand for hourly trains increases in the afternoon but not in the evening on a Saturday?
I’ll answer my own question. In the planning world, transportation planners – and, come to think of it, some economists – are well-versed in the concept of induced demand: if you drastically increase the supply of something in certain cases, new demand will sprout up to take advantage of it. Highways are the usual example transportation planners offer up, and it goes like this. (Trigger warning: drunk economics and algebra.)
If there’s a six-lane stretch of freeway that’s congested, free market principles dictate that people making that trip, sitting in traffic, are only doing so because they can still profit from it. Let’s call the time it takes to drive between home and work on that highway (x). If the state DOT adds a lane in each direction, congestion will initially decrease and travel times will decrease to (x – y). With the new travel time of (x – y), that initial driver will find additional profit… but so will other drivers who were priced out of the market (the highway) at a travel time cost of (x), but can afford to re-enter the market at a lower cost of (x – y), which is the induced demand. With those additional users, the time savings (y) will decrease as the highway becomes more congested again, eventually settling back at (x) where the travel time takes the same as it did before the widening.
From a highway perspective, this is generally seen as a negative outcome: additional public costs – financial, environmental, societal, a bunch of different costs – to ultimately result in no net change is not an efficient use of public resources. But leveraging the same forces to add capacity during semi-peak times on Metra could be a net positive for the region, as more people would be willing to head downtown without driving while increasing Metra ridership (and fare collection).
Our theory is that Metra could induce additional weekend demand by repositioning their weekend trains – both regularly scheduled Saturday outbound trains and special service for special events. We strongly believe the latent demand is out there, based on personal and anecdotal experience with Metra’s awful two-hour outbound evening headways. Two Saturday examples to consider:
A night baseball game. If you’re coming in from the northern suburbs, there’s a good chance you’re going to a Cubs game. (Fun fact: Chicago has a second MLB team too! And their stadium is directly accessible from a Metra station!) Assuming a typical night game start time of 7:10pm, and a three-hour typical game duration, a game would end around 10:15 or so. Metra has a Saturday pulse-point of 10:30-10:45, where the following trains leave Union or Ogilvie:
Fifteen minutes from Guaranteed Rate Field to Union Station or Ogilvie is a pretty aggressive timetable, and from Wrigley Field it’s damn-near impossible without an Elon Musk underground magic sled. And if you miss those 10:30-10:45 trains, you’re stuck downtown until the 12:25-12:40s, unless you can take the 11:00pm UP-N. Why would you risk being stuck in the Loop on a weekend night for two hours?
An evening at the theatre. Maybe a night at the ballpark is too low-brow for you; maybe you’re catching a show in the Loop. If there’s a 7pm start time with a 90- to 120-minute run time, you’re done by 9pm or so. And guess what? You’re stuck with that same 10:30-10:40 pulse point as the Sox fans are in the first example, since there is only one train that leaves Union Station or Ogilvie between 8:41pm and 10:29pm (a UP-N train that leaves Ogilvie at 9:35pm).
For either of those situations – hardly unique things to do in downtown Chicago – why would you choose to take Metra? I say this as an advocate: you have to try really hard to make Metra work for your weekend plans. Meanwhile, on Saturdays, there are hourly outbound trains during the late afternoon. Why is there a 3:30pm UP-NW train but not a 9:30pm train? Why are there TWO BNSF trains at 5:35pm (the shot, express to Downers Grove) and 5:40pm (the local chaser), but no 11:40pm train (which also operates during the week)?
It’s great that Metra adds capacity for busy weekends, but tweaking the schedule just a little bit with hourly locals instead of shot-and-a-chaser split trains every two hours could make almost every weekend a busy weekend.
If you came here for the usual round of Metra-bashing, you may be a bit disappointed. I’d like to talk about something a little different tonight.
If you’re reading this, you probably already know this because you’re most likely either a transit enthusiast or a transit employee, but should this post make the rounds in the next twelve hours or so, tomorrow is National Dump the Pump Day, an American Public Transportation Association “holiday” where transit agencies try to encourage drivers to switch to transit for a day, usually with some freebies thrown in to sweeten the deal. (The RTA is giving away coffee and donuts to transit commuters tomorrow morning at Ogilvie, the Rosemont Blue Line station, and the Roosevelt Red/Orange/Green Line station, and sponsoring Free T-Shirt Thursday at Guaranteed Rate Field at night, which also happens to be Transit Employee Night.)
Meanwhile, in Daley Plaza tomorrow evening, the Active Transportation Alliance is hosting their Chicago Bike Week Rally from 5pm to 7:30pm. (I’ll be holding down the fort at the IDOT table and giving away free Chicago-area bike maps, so come say hi!)(Ed. Note: the Bike Week Rally has been officially postponed due to weather.) Active Trans’s Bike Week (actually two weeks) is one of their marquee events, so they’re pulling out the stops. Active Trans is a great organization and I’ve been a card-carrying member since about 2012 or so, and ostensibly their focus is on all non-motorized transportation throughout the Chicago region. But in practice, their work is, well, focused on active transportation (cycling and, to a slightly lesser extent, pedestrians), and overwhelmingly focused within the City of Chicago, which is one of the reasons why we launched Star:Line Chicago explicitly as a suburban transit advocate. But we’re all on the same team, and they’re great at what they do.
So tomorrow we have Dump the Pump, and Bike to Work. And the events for the two inexplicably don’t overlap at all. Of course, the host agencies — the American Public Transportation Association and the Active Transportation Alliance — have their own self-explanatory focuses. Of course, Active Trans is a little more progressive in communicating and advocating for how improved bike and pedestrian facilities better integrates public transportation into communities and makes transit more effective, whereas the American Public Transportation Association’s annual report barely makes any mention of non-transit modes, even though obviously no one just magically shows up at a transit stop. (Even a quick scan of that document for “bike” or “last mile” comes up with no hits.)
These kinds of silos are endemic in the transportation sphere throughout the country, but particularly pronounced here in Chicago. While the three transit boards of the Regional Transportation Authority are officially under a single umbrella, it’s no secret that they don’t play too nicely with each other. But it gets even worse once you start looking at some non-transit roles in our network. Divvy, Chicago’s bike share, is technically under the Chicago Department of Transportation, even though one of the key uses for Divvy is connecting people to and from transit stations. Divvy turns five this year (and yes, there’s a party), and yet signage to Divvy docks from CTA and Metra stations is still non-existent. Granted, Metra signage leaves much to be desired within its own system anyway, but the CTA or the RTA really should be doing more to highlight those links.
Not that CDOT or other city agencies go too far out of its way to help the CTA either. Sure, the Loop Link — which officially was a CDOT project, with coordination from the CTA — is a nice addition to Loop streets for semi-dedicated lanes for buses, but enforcement of drivers on the Loop Link streets is minimal, judging by the number of people driving through the bus lane or making turns against red arrows at intersections. But the near total lack of dedicated bus lanes elsewhere in the city makes it seem that transit users are not in the forefront of CDOT’s mind, even as the city has rolled out hundreds of miles of protected bike lanes as part of an Emanuel administration initiative.
And then there’s IDOT as an additional key player. (Editor’s note: as a current employee of IDOT, my editorial policy of this blog is to abstain from commenting on any current or former IDOT policies or projects; since I work as part of the Office of Communications on a variety of projects and initiatives at IDOT, I feel it is important to remain as impartial as possible when the agency seeks public input and comment. I may also use this blog to notify readers of upcoming outreach activities that may be of interest and encourage readers to attend or submit their own comments. That said, if someone has an opinion regarding IDOT’s transportation policies in the suburbs, this blog would be happy to host a signed guest post.)
It’s hard to say what it is that makes it so difficult for the various agencies to work together more closely, since so many different agencies have similar goals and ultimately help each other reach their goals. Given this is Chicago, I’m sure much of it comes down to pure politics. For instance, the CTA is helmed by a seven-member Board of Directors: four appointed by the Mayor of Chicago, and three appointed by the Governor of Illinois. Metra, meanwhile, has an 11-member board: the Mayor of Chicago selects one board member; each of the five collar county boards select one board member each; and suburban Cook County gets the other five seats, with the seats evenly distributed geographically by township. Since the Mayor effectively has control of the CTA board but only 9% of the Metra board, it’s hard not to be a little cynical as to why Metra never was really considered for the O’Hare Express project, even though they are by far the best suited to make immediate improvements.
The individual service boards do a pretty good job serving their parts of the region at a basic level, but integrating between them is typically a significant problem. But maybe we’re actually making it worse by pretending everyone is working together and trying to brush it under the rug instead of leaning into it and exposing the challenges we face.
Take Metra, for instance. (Remember when I said I wasn’t going to bash Metra in this post? I lied.) We’ve touched on how Metra is actually several different systems that use the same fare media and professional staff: the BNSF Line is owned and operated by the BNSF Railway; the three Union Pacific Lines are owned and operated by Union Pacific; the North Central Service and Heritage Corridors are operated by Metra on tracks owned by other railroads; the Milwaukee North, Milwaukee West, Rock Island, and SouthWest Service are wholly owned/leased and operated by Metra; and then there’s the Electric Line, which is also Metra owned and operated but unique enough to warrant its own entry in this list. But Metra also doesn’t own or control most of the park-and-ride lots at their suburban stations. Those lots are overwhelmingly owned by the municipalities they serve, which means Metra can’t really control what the towns are charging or how they manage their lots. On top of that, some stations have Pace feeder routes to connect with trains; however, since Metra and Pace don’t share a fare structure and since Metra doesn’t own the park-and-ride lots serving their stations, the system often ends up giving a financial incentive to people who drive to their station instead of using feeder bus service. This can lead to a few downward spirals: bus ridership drops, which is its own death spiral if service cuts follow; and more people park at the station, which encourages local communities to build more parking rather than develop more sustainable development near their train stations.
This isn’t really Metra’s fault and, to be fair, Metra is generally supportive of transit-oriented development projects, although there’s more Metra could be doing. For instance, I don’t think there’s any RTA legislation or anything that would prohibit Metra from operating its own bus fleet; if Metra and Pace can’t figure out how to share a fare structure (which, to be clear, it’s mindboggling that a system beyond the monthly pass Link-Up option isn’t offered), make the feeder routes officially part of Metra and integrate fares that way. Likewise, while Metra can’t control what municipalities charge for their parking lots, the municipalities generally give Metra plenty of deference when setting rates; if, for example, Metra is willing to take a slightly stronger stance and encourage municipalities who have feeder bus service to price their parking above the cost of a round-trip bus fare, that creates more of a financial incentive for riders to use the buses rather than driving themselves without having to figure out how to coordinate fares with Pace.
At the end of the day, the overall goal should be to reduce the region’s reliance on driving everywhere, and it should be a team effort. The RTA, the CTA, Metra, Pace, Divvy, and even CDOT with their extensive on-street bike network under the Emanuel adminstration are all key players in making the Chicago region a more sustainable, healthier region for all of us who choose to live here. But circling back to Dump the Pump Day, I wanted to call out the RTA one last time for this Twitter post that made me irrationally mad.
Look, I get it. While the RTA is the umbrella agency that CTA, Metra, and Pace all fall under, the RTA’s primary job is getting money to run transit and dispersing that money to the boards, so they have to do ads like these to remind non-transit-users why transit is valuable and why there’s a regional sales tax to support transit. But this is not the kind of messaging that is beneficial long-term. When I first saw this post Monday night, I was sitting in one of the 60-year-old Metra BNSF cars, sweating because the air conditioning wasn’t 100% effective, dealing with a bunch of cranky fellow riders still sore about last week’s BNSF schedule changes. Do I really care that my train is saving some guy driving down the Eisenhower back to his Naperville McMansion 75 cents on tonight’s commute? Likewise, does he care (or even realize) that his average speed is something like two miles per hour faster because of all of us riding Metra?
What’s worse, this kind of presentation just reinforces the perception that transit is something drivers are forced to subsidize with the hard-earned money they pay in fuel taxes, even though we’ve long since passed the point where road and highway costs were 100% covered by fuel taxes anyway. Furthermore, the RTA is basically coming right out and offering that one of transit’s primary benefits is to make it easier for other people to drive, which is the exact wrong message to send.
A better message to send would be that investments in a functional, efficient mass transit network gives everyone in the region more options on when to travel, where to go, and how to get there. What we need is an integrated system of various transportation modes to give everyone who lives in our region choices. We shouldn’t have to pick between Dumping the Pump for transit and Biking to Work. We shouldn’t have to pick between bike lanes or bus lanes on our arterial streets when there are still two or three lanes available for cars. We shouldn’t have to pay more to take a bus to the train instead of just driving ourselves. We shouldn’t have to pick between improving transit speeds and reliability for current riders and making driving easier by herding more people into trains and buses.
We can do it all, and giving people options when it comes to their transportation choices is imperative to a sustainable region. But the first step is making sure everyone’s on the same page and moving in the same direction.
It’s Thursday night, or at least it is right now as I write this. There’s a good chance you’re reading this on Friday, or maybe you’re stumbling upon this page in the future as you poke through our archives or because this page was linked somewhere else or whatever. Either way, it’s Thursday. I know a lot of people love Fridays, and there’s plenty of obvious reasons to be a Friday fan as long as you don’t work in the service industry. But for me, something about Thursday nights make them my favorite night of the week. Maybe it’s the anticipation of big weekend plans building, or maybe it’s because it’s a great night for an after-work happy hour, or maybe you’ve just had a rough week and Thursday night is the first time all week long you can just relax, take a breath, and talk yourself into dealing with just one more day before the weekend comes.
Metra is having a very rough week. And it wasn’t supposed to be like this.
The week started with what should’ve been cause for celebration: after many years of work (and tens of millions of dollars spent), Metra’s first fully-operational Positive Train Control (PTC) line was coming online. This federally-mandated-but-unfunded technology will help keep passengers safe by reducing the likelihood of train accidents. The only catch was that — for reasons we still don’t fully understand — the time it takes to initialize the PTC system at the beginning of each trip requires “flipping” times to increase from 10 minutes to 15 minutes, so the schedule for trains needs to be spread out a bit more.
No issues yet. Metra also decided that, since the BNSF is their busiest line, this would be a great opportunity to adjust the schedules to accommodate passenger loads. Again, terrific idea, and ideally that kind of schedule modification is done relatively frequently so trains are better matched with operating conditions.
But then Monday morning hit, and it’s been downhill since then. We won’t go into the nuts and bolts of how the wheels came off over the last few days — especially since we already touched on the topic earlier in the week — but suffice it to say, this is one of Metra’s worst nightmares come to life, full of unforced errors, including the following:
Using their busiest line to be the PTC guinea pig;
Using the same statement to strongly suggest that no significant changes will be made regardless of what kind of passenger loading conditions persist; and
Insisting on staying the course despite threeconsecutivedays of local media reports of overcrowded trains and man-on-the-street interviews at Union Station.
But lost in all the noise of the first half of the week — and drowned out by today’s announcement that Mayor Emanuel is going to let Elon Musk build his Galt’s Gulch Express under the City of Chicago (which is also kind of a bad news scenario for Metra if you think about it) — is a fascinating article about Metra from the Better Government Agency (BGA), a government watchdog organization. The article is a great read and comes to a startling (well, maybe if you don’t read this blog) conclusion: much of Metra’s issues are at least somewhat self-inflicted based on fiscal mismanagement. In this case, “fiscal mismanagement” means under-investment in the system as a whole, even as fares have steadily increased over the last few years. The BGA article also discussed what was an open secret in the Chicago transit community: while it’s true that Metra cries poor, discusses their “fundamentally unsustainable” revenue model, and preaches fiscal responsibility to the extreme (side note: Metra employees are required to pay full fares when riding Metra), the agency also has $1 billion in bonding power available and uses precisely $0.00 of it. While debt spending isn’t really something to celebrate, having those resources available for capital improvements and not using them is borderline malfeasance. Hell, when a government watchdog is taking a government agency to task for not spending enough money, that’s quite the indictment.
To put it another way, imagine you live way out in the suburbs and you drive an old car. It still runs, but it’s not getting any younger, and it’s been breaking down more and more often. Obviously you need to get the car fixed to keep it running, and on paper just about any repair at the mechanic is cheaper than buying a new car. Besides, you don’t have $20,000 in cash sitting in your checking account, so you talk yourself into just fixing the car as it breaks until some far-off day when you have that kind of walking around money on hand to buy a new car.
Now imagine that you also have a credit score of 820 and your house is paid off, and you’re still refusing to get a loan to get a new car, even though a new car would be more reliable, less expensive to maintain, and allow you to be more efficient and productive. That’s basically what Metra’s doing with their capital program. Obviously in this scenario you also wouldn’t go ahead and blow your credit on a Maserati, but it’s definitely not unreasonable to float a loan for a reliable car that no longer requires duct-taping the seats back together every few weeks.
Metra’s spending money on improving their car rehab facility, which will allow them to refurbish more cars at once, which is all well and good, but it’s still just more duct tape on the seats. (Sometimes literally.) Some of the cars on the BNSF Line date back to the 1950s, and these refurbishments aren’t going to make them ADA-accessible or more passenger-friendly above and beyond maybe a USB outlet at every other seat on the lower level. The Gallery Car model itself is inefficient: a single doorway in each car and several steps to step up into the train increase the time it takes to load and unload trains. Long trains with diesel locomotives take longer to speed up and slow down than their more nimble electric counterparts such as the Highliners on the Metra Electric. The BGA article reports that Metra is actually looking to flash the credit card soon, albeit very underwhelmingly: $27 million to buy 21 locomotives. Not new locomotives; second-hand locomotives.
Which brings us around to maybe a super-hot take: what if Metra can’t be trusted with increased funding? It’s sacrilege to say, and we’re by no means arguing to cut funding to Metra. There’s plenty of parts of the system that do need upgrading: modernized signals, bridge replacements, expanded fleet and yard capacity, station and accessibility improvements, the list goes on. But investing in more Gallery Cars means doubling-down on conductor-based fare collection, which is very labor-intensive. Track improvements in Chicago on the MD-N and especially on the UP-N seem to preclude a potential future three-track main line in many places within the city, severely restricting possible express operations for peak periods. (Three-track operation is very successful on the BNSF, MD-W, UP-NW, and soon on the UP-W.)
Tomorrow is Friday, and the weekend can’t come soon enough for Metra (or any of us, of course). And as we’ve discussed in previous posts, when we advocate for change at Metra, it’s not meant to be some kind of existential threat. Metra’s ridership is passionate about the railroad because we understand what kind of an asset it is — and more importantly, what kind of asset it could be — for our region. We want the railroad to be more user-friendly, more accessible, more reliable, and something we can take pride in. Give people a reason to choose Metra, and they will.
Day 2 of the Metra PTC era is just about in the books, and the rollout on the BNSF has been about as expected. The trains are going out, relatively on schedule, and there are a few classic cases of Metra shooting themselves in the foot: pretty dramatic overcrowding (which we definitely warned them would happen) and the subsequent “apology”, which was, well, we’ll just reprint it here:
Please accept our apologies for the crowded conditions on your train this morning, the first day of the BNSF Line schedule. As you probably know, this schedule revision was prompted by the needs of the new federally mandated Positive Train Control (PTC) safety system. In addition to adjusting the schedule for PTC, Metra and BNSF Railway made other changes to relieve overcrowding on some of the busiest trains, match the schedule to actual operating conditions and reduce bunching at a choke point near Cicero.
So far so good. But the second paragraph is where it starts to come off the rails.
Major schedule revisions are always difficult, because we know our customers are accustomed to the old schedule and will have to change their commuting habits. Metra and BNSF Railway tried our best to estimate how trains on the new schedule would be used and to assign our finite number of railcars accordingly. We know we may not have estimated correctly and some adjustments to train sizes may be needed. However, we would first please ask for your patience. Before we start making changes, we want to give customers more time to adjust to the new schedule and to make decisions on more than one day’s experience. We are monitoring the situation very closely.
Thank you for your patience and understanding, and thanks for riding Metra.
Did you catch that? I’ll repeat it and add emphasis, since we’re not known for subtlety around here.
Before we start making changes, we want to give customers more time to adjust to the new schedule and to make decisions on more than one day’s experience.
Metra’s official apology says that the new schedule was designed around expected passenger loads, the fleet was deployed based on their expected passenger loads, the expected passenger loads were apparently way off of what actually happens during commutes, and now the path forward is to wait for the passengers to figure out what other options they have. When ridership has been flat or declining and fares have been increasing steadily, maybe the best approach isn’t an official statement of “take it or leave it, this is the new normal until when or if we change the schedules.” It’s 2018: Metra’s competition is no longer just sitting in their riders’ garages; it’s also riding down the shoulders of Interstate 55 or, even more threatening, a just laptop VPN connection away.
Again, definitely not a smooth rollout, but sadly unsurprising. We did our part to sound the alarm – along with more than 2,000 other BNSF commuters – and Metra went full speed ahead anyway and here we are. The good news is that Metra will be tweaking the consists tomorrow to give the busiest morning trains more capacity, so that’s a good start.
It doesn’t change the ugly irony of advertising a schedule change with a stated secondary goal of alleviating onboard crowding and immediately getting hit with crush loads the very first morning of service (and again, that apology, woof), but it highlights an important aspect of running Metra:
This stuff is hard. And it’s thankless.
My professional philosophy as a planner is that, if I’m doing my job right, nobody notices. But if something goes wrong… well, if there are any aspiring planners out there, start growing a thick skin because you’re going to need it. (The secret is to try not to take it personally, even though angry constituents will take out their frustrations on you. If you succeed in doing this, tell me how.)
Even here at this blog, I see it and hear about it. In a past post, I’ve mentioned how Metra should look to pulse scheduling during off-peak periods to better facilitate transfers, which has a net-zero change to operating budgets but dramatically increases the usefulness of Weekend Passes and the future Day Pass. However, I’m not satisfied to run a blog that says “go do this” and leave it at that; I’m working on fleshing out some exhibits and spreadsheets and doing the whole deep dive treatment. It’s a lot of work – I’ve been working on the draft in fits and starts for the last two weeks or so – but it’s worth it because this blog isn’t only meant to advocate, but also to teach and explain. The transportation wonks reading this will pick up on the concept pretty quickly, but an audience of the 50th birthday train crawl who requested a Crawl Concierge will get a lot more out of the blog post if I take the time to explain why pulse scheduling is valuable (easier transfers using a single ticket!), why Metra doesn’t do it now (history of multiple railroad companies that didn’t share a fare structure before the RTA era, historically not considering suburb-to-suburb trips, institutional inertia, etc.), and how easy it would be to roll out (probably pretty easy, since the only change would be having crew layovers be at the outer terminals instead of downtown).
But even something like pulse scheduling gets a mixed reaction from readers: the Old Guard railroaders clutch their pearls and come up with excuses why it can’t or shouldn’t be done, while the hardcore activists complain that I’m not going all-in on through-routing instead. Horseshoe theory at work.
And that’s just what I have to deal with as one person who runs a site and blog with a goal of getting more people to use suburban transit and likewise nudging suburban transit providers to improve service. My recommendations don’t really carry a lot of weight and I understand that. This blog is meant for comment and discussion, not for carrying out policy (although we wouldn’t mind if some of our ideas got picked up!).
Then there’s Metra. Metra has to deal with all the same stuff this blog deals with, just at higher stakes: the old-school railroad mentality still is the dominant paradigm; staff has to deal with all the freight railroads, the politics of the region, and Metra’s own board; and the delightful social media users who forget that there’s a real-live person reading all those Facebook and Twitter posts that get way too personal. (Seriously, I know the social media person there, they’re cool, cut them some slack.) What’s worse is that this is probably Metra’s most feared result: not ridership loss – although that’s still important – but negative media attention, which ultimately we fear will make the railroad even more risk-averse when it comes to trying new things.
Again: this stuff isn’t easy. But just because something’s hard doesn’t mean it isn’t worth doing, and very often the hardest thing to do is to take a risk. Execution aside, Metra took a risk with the schedule modifications for the BNSF and tried to make positive changes. They didn’t do a great job of it and the Old Guard mentality was still alive and well throughout the process, but it still represented a pretty significant (if not dramatic) shift in the corporate mentality.
And that brings me back around to explaining why I keep tilting at windmills/pissing into the wind/pick your futile-effort metaphor. Everything here is a labor of love, from this blog to the Weekend Guides to the system map to our Star:Line Social outings and our Crawl Concierge service. It’s time-consuming, it’s challenging, and honestly it’s frustrating from time to time. But I do it because I honestly believe that the work I do makes something easier for someone else, and that’s my part in driving positive change in the suburbs. There are really no suburban transit advocates in our region, and there’s no way we can be successful if we half-ass the effort.
On the surface it’s understandably a challenge to see The Yard Social Club’s efforts in organizing train crawls, where people spend an afternoon drinking their way up and down a train line, as real advocacy; honestly, I refuse to take myself too seriously anyway. But if we can get a group of suburbanites (or Chicagoans, for that matter) to try Metra for an afternoon of exploring the suburbs in a safe, fun environment without worrying about who has to drive, maybe the suburbanites will be more willing to take Metra next time they head downtown and maybe the Chicagoans will realize there’s cool stuff to do and neat places to visit in the suburbs.
And on the flip side, these blog posts and our Star:Line Chicago outreach and advocacy is to try to start more serious conversations with riders and professionals alike to highlight opportunities for improvement. Sure, some of the suggestions are extremely esoteric with slim-to-no chance of implementation (hello, line renaming!), but we strive for pragmatic, budget-constrained solutions that ideally nudge decision-makers to stop accepting the status quo as good enough, to encourage our transportation agencies to take risks, and to be a partner for change that makes the suburbs stronger and more resilient in the face of a changing future.
Maybe I’m just naïve, thinking my silly little hobby will drive any real change, but someone has to try.
Metra tried with the BNSF schedule changes. They made a good faith effort to use the PTC rollout to try to better accommodate peak-period passenger loads, even though the overcrowding issue was staring everyone right in the face. We told Metra they needed to put a stronger effort into improving peak-of-the-peak capacity rather than trying to flatten the peak with later express trains and not overcomplicate the afternoon peak schedule with too many new stopping patterns; they politely but firmly told us to pound sand, and here we are. And yes, the new schedule is a hot mess, and yes, they’re getting dragged over the coals by their riders on social media. But Metra at least tried, which deserves some small amount of credit.
This blog doesn’t exist to pat Metra on the back – and offering the railroad suggestions for improvement is a well that will never go dry – but we will provide cover for Metra at least making an attempt, and we encourage Metra’s riders to at least try to remember there’s a real person on the receiving end of all those Facebook posts and tweets. That said, honest feedback, constructive criticism, and pictures/video of conditions onboard trains and transit are useful and illustrative. The Metropolitan Planning Council (MPC) has an entire social media campaign highlighting the inadequacies of our transportation network (#bustedcommute) in an effort to shine a light on what commuters have to deal with in light of constrained budgets and limited resources.
We support MPC’s initiative, but our mission is broader and encompasses all suburban travelers, not just commuters. Leisure riders are a huge underserved market for Metra, and it’s a lot easier to convince someone to start commuting on transit if they already have positive experiences using transit for fun.
We’re all in this together. It’s easy to throw stones at Metra, but nothing will change unless we’re willing to put some work in as well. This blog and our varioussocialmediachannels aren’t meant to just be a platform for me to get up on my soapbox, but a place to have discussions about transit or suburbia or whatever and how it can be better. (I can also routinely be found at The Junction in Union Station, if these conversations would go better over a cold Miller Lite.)
If there’s something that comes out of productive conversations we have some point in the past, present, or future that makes the job of someone at 547 W. Jackson Boulevard a little easier by offering our support for something new or something risky or something progressive, that’s why The Yard Social Club and Star:Line Chicago exist: because we want to believe that tomorrow Metra will run faster, stretch out its arms farther… and one fine morning—
It’s June! Summer’s here, and just like everywhere else it’s construction season on Metra. Weekend construction is nothing new: it makes sense to do maintenance and improvements when the trains run the least frequently, and since most commuter rail lines run right through the heart of suburban downtowns, overnight work may not be politically feasible. Besides, in an era of constricting budgets, any investments in maintaining a state of good repair are welcome and encouraged.
But no good deed goes unpunished, so let’s dive into the travesty of Metra’s “construction schedules”. Obviously, when people are working on the tracks, trains will need some extra time: they may need to operate on a single track, where trains in opposite directions can’t pass; they may need to operate on the center express track, which means only one or two cars will open at some stations and thus passenger loading/unloading times increase; or even if the tracks are unobstructed, for obvious reasons trains will need to slow down to pass workers on the tracks. All good reasons to delay trains and to manage expectations for ridership and to issue construction-specific schedules.
But rather than trying to provide accurate delay estimates along the line based on where the construction is happening and what kind of work is being done, Metra’s slavish devotion to on-time performance rather than schedule adherence means “construction schedules” just throw 10-20 minutes into the gap between the penultimate station and the final destination of each trip. Keep in mind, officially any commuter train that arrives at its final destination within six minutes of its scheduled arrival time is officially on-time, regardless of what time the train showed up to pick passengers up. Given that weekend schedules are already heavily padded, throwing on extra time for “construction schedules” leads to a few egregious schedule issues. Here’s this weekend’s Saturday inbound BNSF construction schedule, which is being rolled out so BNSF crews can replace the Main Street crossing in Downers Grove.
First and foremost, this schedule is tougher than it should be to find on Metra’s website. It’s Tuesday. This is this coming Saturday’s schedule. There’s no warning or alerts in the Ventra app.
There’s no press release listed.
The only way to find this schedule – on the mobile site at least, I left my laptop at home – is to know where to find the Construction Notices on the front page, then click through to find your line.
Anyways, that’s where it is. If you’re planning on riding Metra on any summer weekend, or doing something like, say, planning a train crawl (and who would care about anything like that?), check out the Construction Notices to make sure there are no unpleasant surprises coming up.
Alright. So ride at your own risk, listen to platform announcements, check the Metra website a few days before your trip, use the Ventra app for real-time schedule information, leave some flexibility in your schedule, etc. etc. etc. Buyer (or traveler) beware.
Speaking of schedule flexibility, let’s go back to that BNSF construction schedule. Computer, enhance the inbound schedule between Western Avenue and Union Station:
Thirty-three minutes! Metra somehow isn’t the fastest transit option between the Western Avenue Metra station and Union Station, according to Google (which goes off of Metra’s published schedules). It’s also not even the second-fastest transit option, which is kind of impressive when you think about it.
Obviously it’s not going to take you over half an hour to go the last four miles on the BNSF. The train is scheduled to arrive Western Avenue at 11:24am, but with the construction delays that train probably won’t roll in until 11:40am. And that’s fine, delays happen when you’re rebuilding infrastructure. But Metra puts the onus on its passengers to get to their inbound station “on time”, grind through whatever the delay is before boarding, and assume they’ll be happy as clams as long as they get to Union Station “on-time”, which in this case can be as late as 12:02:59pm (about 40 minutes after a passenger arrives at 1800 S. Western Avenue). We call it a “Schrödinger’s Delay“, and it’s a great way Metra pisses off riders without even trying.
Pointing to Google travel times may be a bit of a strawman argument, but it reflects a 21st-Century reality of how suburban travelers behave. If someone is on the fence as to whether they’ll take Metra downtown or drive, it’s entirely likely they’ll throw their trip into Google and see what the travel times look like. Extra travel time padding – both the standard schedule padding plus the additional construction schedule padding – may change someone’s calculus on whether or not to take Metra before they even get to the station. Is off-peak on-time performance worth losing potential riders because the on-paper in-vehicle time needs to cover 95% of the potential trips? It already takes special effort to plan a weekend trip on Metra: plenty of potential weekend riders are scared off by infrequent outbound trains, and while unfortunately we don’t have any hard statistically-significant data to back it up, plenty of anecdotal knowledge is out there that says an unknown number of weekend Metra trips never happen because suburbanites don’t want to risk missing an outbound train and being forced to wait two hours for the next train.
Construction is unpredictable. We get that. But if Metra wants riders to keep coming back on the weekend – especially summer weekends, when demand to head downtown for leisure trips are highest – the railroad needs to be willing to sacrifice their precious official on-time metric in favor of schedule adherence and letting riders know when they can reasonably expect to board their trains to the city. If weekend on-time performance declines but ridership increases because schedules and operations are more convenient and attractive to weekend riders, this blog will be Metra’s first and loudest defender to claim that on-time performance is not as important of a metric during the off-peak provided schedule adherence is strong and evening/late-night frequencies improve.
But that would require some effort on Metra’s part to put themselves in the shoes of their weekend riders and to better understand what that ridership experience is like. When the train comes once every two hours and the train is routinely late by a few minutes (but maybe not “officially” late because we all know it doesn’t take 25 minutes to go from Western or Clybourn to the downtown terminal regardless of what the schedules say), don’t just throw ten extra minutes at the end of the schedule and call the construction mitigated. In this weekend’s case on the BNSF, since this track construction is happening back in Downers Grove and since the agency is already issuing a construction schedule, just go ahead and add an extra five minutes to the arrival times between Main Street and Hinsdale or so, and pro-rate the other five minutes between Western Springs and Berwyn. If the train has to burn an extra minute in Westmont and Clarendon Hills to maintain schedule adherence, so be it (but it probably won’t). That will provide the same ten minute buffer time, but won’t lead people to spend extra time waiting on the platform for trains we know will be delayed anyway.
A final important note: I used the BNSF as an example here, and this kind of stuff happens on many of Metra’s lines. However, this is one of Metra’s purchase-of-service lines (along with the three Union Pacifics), which means Metra doesn’t have much control over what’s going on. In the case of that Brookfield crossing closure (and the Downers/Main Street closure, for that matter), that will be BNSF crews doing construction on BNSF tracks, delaying BNSF trains. But since Metra is the unified regional commuter rail brand, someone at Metra headquarters will be reading angry tweets all week long when the agency unfortunately has their hands tied. The BNSF is hanging Brookfield in particular out to dry with that 3/4-mile “pedestrian detour”, and Metra will bear the public-relations brunt of it. That’s not fair to Metra, and Metra should also do whatever they can to pressure their host railroads to better accommodate their (own!) riders during significant construction projects like these.
Every year in Washington, D.C., the White House Correspondents’ Association hosts their dinner, nicknamed the “Nerd Prom” in the D.C. media elite from its history as a wonkish if inward-looking celebration of the media industry as a whole.
Here in the Chicago transportation planning industry, our Nerd Prom is the annual Transport Chicago conference, a one-day conference on a sunny Friday in June where planners and other transportation professionals from throughout the Chicago region meet up and boast to each other all the ways we’re awesome and pat ourselves on the back for being so awesome and progressive. It’s a great place to meet and mingle with many of the regional decision makers who help guide the various facets of transportation infrastructure throughout our region, so we highly recommend it for students and non-professionals who have a vested interest in the Chicagoland transportation network.
It’s a great conference that this blog highly recommends, but many years it ends up being an echo chamber of things most of the planners already know. Heading into this year’s conference, which was held last Friday, I expected more of the same.
I was pleasantly surprised.
Two moments stuck out in my mind, two moments while I’ll remember for quite awhile and which added immense value to this year’s conference. The first moment — not chronologically first, but still first — was the lunch keynote by Olatunji Oboi Reed, the founder of Slow Roll Chicago and Equiticity, two organizations devoted to promoting social equity through improved and context-sensitive transportation infrastructure in low- and moderate-income neighborhoods of black, brown, and indigenous persons of color. Reed pushed most of the room — especially the majority of us who were, as Reed said, “stale, pale, and male” (present company included, for better or worse) — out of our collective comfort zone to acknowledge the disparities between transportation infrastructure and indeed the entire planning process itself in white communities of moderate or significant wealth compared to what goes on in marginalized communities. It was eye-opening and a great perspective that often gets overlooked.
This leads us to the second memorable part of the conference, which immediately preceded the lunch keynote. Streetsblog Chicago‘s John Greenfield moderated a five-person panel weighing the merits of extending the CTA Red Line down to 130th Street compared to a modernization of the Metra Electric line to provide enhanced transit service to Chicago’s Far South Side. The panel was pretty well-balanced with two Far South Side community leaders (one pro-CTA, one pro-Metra), two (white) transportation policy wonks (Daniel Kay Hertz arguing for Metra modernization and Yonah Freemark arguing for Red Line extension), and one Cook County DOT member reminding the panel and audience to be mindful of the variety of workplaces that remain inaccessible to the Far South Side since they are outside of downtown, which either infrastructure improvement will continue to underserve.
The panel was enlightening for several reasons: first and foremost, kudos to the conference organizers to reaching out to members of the local community to come represent their transportation interests and desires from beyond the transportation planning industry standpoint. That in and of itself helps to break the stale/pale/male paradigm Reed discussed at lunch by bringing in local voices to advocate for better improvements based on the wants and needs of the local community rather than planners like us handing down decisions from on high and expecting the local community to not just go along with it, but to be grateful for the improvements and the chance to be a very small part of the process. (Sound familiar?)
Second, the session broke the Transport Chicago mold by exposing some of the rifts in ideology and theory within our group of professionals. Even among dedicated transportation professionals, there are plenty of opinions about what works best and what would be most effective for our constituents. It’s an undercurrent that permeates many of the conversations we have with our peers internally over drinks during professional happy hours but rarely floats to the top of the conversation in a more public venue. Once again, kudos to the conference committee for taking a risk and assembling a panel guaranteed to ruffle a few feathers and push people out of their comfort zones.
At this point, we have to address the elephant in the room: the conversation indeed got a bit heated, and produced quite the quote, courtesy of Yonah Freemark:
These days, between the rise of social media and the success of brash, in-your-face commentary, any company (or any public figure, really) has to walk a fine line when it comes to dealing with public perception and public dialogue. The old saying goes, don’t fight with a pig because you get dirty and the pig likes it; but these days the alternative is to keep a stiff upper lip and get dragged through the mud anyway by nameless trolls on social media. Metra, which is risk-averse to a fault, understandably doesn’t want to have any part in a dialogue that involves people making bold statements such as the agency is “where innovation goes to die”. But, for better or worse, that represents a sentiment that is most certainly out in the public.
For the record, we don’t support Freemark’s comment that “Metra is where innovation goes to die”. Mobile ticketing on the Ventra app is actually quite easy to use and effective. The fleet of the Electric Line is one of the youngest in the country. The latest round of coach rehabs include USB charging outlets. A new Metra Day Pass product will be introduced later this summer.
But calling those issues out doesn’t mean they’re bad changes, nor does it mean we aren’t supportive of those changes. We’re glad that these blog postings have been making the rounds at Metra (and yes, we do know when they end up on the daily internal email News Clips sent around to Metra’s front office staff). To clarify: we want Metra to be successful. We aren’t a political group. The only agenda we push is improved suburban transit alternatives which are both effective and pragmatic given the current era of constrained budgets and tenuous funding streams.
If there’s one thing I’ve learned from writing these blog posts — and from being an active member of Chicago’s transportation planning elite (hah!) — people love Metra. The agency is an absolute asset to the region, and what Metra does is unparalleled in this country. People love — or at least want to love — riding Metra, and planners love talking about Metra. Quashing dissidence or thinking that any feedback or criticism must be done in bad faith is absolutely false. When people complain about Metra’s delays or Metra’s fares or Metra’s policies or anything else about Metra, they complain because they want a commuter rail system that’s more reliable, a system that’s more accessible, a system that’s more transparent, and most importantly a system they can use more often.
As we learned from this year’s Transport Chicago conference, transportation professionals stepping out of our professional silo to get a better on-the-ground perspective of what’s happening in neighborhoods and communities throughout our region is invaluable. This is in no way an indictment of previous Transport Chicago conferences — there are plenty of other professional echo chambers in our market — but it’s nice to attend a conference that went above and beyond previous years which were best summed up by the great Janis Ian (no, not that one, this one):
Did you have an awesome time? Did you drink awesome shooters, listen to awesome music, and just sit around and soak up each others’ awesomeness?
Our deepest appreciation and gratitude to this year’s Transport Chicago conference board and volunteers who put together the best Transport Chicago conference schedule and roster of speakers in recent memory. We all need to be pushed out of our comfort zone from time to time; it’s the only way we grow, both professionally and personally. In any other industry, professional growth is all well and good but focused more on personal growth and development. But in our industry, professional growth has a direct impact on the lives of millions of people throughout the Chicago region we work to serve every day. We owe it to ourselves to break down the silos we work in, to challenge ourselves to try new things, and to make a more sustainable, attractive transportation network that serves everyone in the Chicago region.
Transport Chicago is already seeking volunteers to help organize the 2019 conference! Check them out at TransportChicago.org. In the meantime, there are still tickets available for our Star:Line Social event on Friday, June 15 in Rosemont. Eat, drink, be merry, and talk transportation with us!
Editor’s note: The latest and greatest (May 2019) version of the map is available here. This post is maintained for posterity.
Last year, we created our own map of the Metra network in an effort to highlight the complexities of the network as a whole. We rolled out an updating naming system for the lines involving single- (or double-) letter indicator paired up with line names based on parallel highways. The map was created with two, maybe conflicting, goals: first and foremost, to showcase how complicated Metra’s schedules can be; and second, to simplify the line naming structure away from the legacy railroad naming scheme.
Back when Metra was soliciting input on the proposed schedule changes, we recommended Metra stop trying to tweak the current schedule to fit the limitations of the Positive Train Control rollout. (Metra was kind enough to respond to explain why my recommendations couldn’t be included in the final schedule.)
But with the schedule changes on the horizon, we decided to take our own advice and remake our map from scratch. In doing so, we tried to improve the map in a few different ways while handling the new BNSF schedule.
One of the biggest changes in the new map is the concept of split consists. Taking a look at the new BNSF schedule (and much of the existing UP-N schedule), the stopping patterns of many trains make more sense when multiple trains are considered as part of the same run. In simpler systems, this is known as a skip-stop arrangement, similar to what used to be run during rush hour on the NCS: two trains leave within a few minutes of each other, which the lead train skipping every other stop and the following train making the stops the leading train skipped. This system has a few advantages: the trains can operate within the same gap in freight traffic, on the same track; capacity is enhanced on the run since there are now two trains; and travel time is slightly reduced since each train makes fewer stops. The CTA used an “AB” skip-stop system on many of their ‘L’ lines starting in the late 1940s and lasted well into the 1990s.
Metra is using this system in a few areas, including on the UP-N — where there is no express track available — and on the new BNSF schedule, where ridership levels are extremely high. The issue with Metra’s schedules, however, is that the schedules are inconsistent between trains. If you squint, you can see what we’re calling split consists: two trains that serve the same stretch of line, but with different stopping patterns.
Also new in this version of the map are a few larger classifications of line service patterns:
Basic Service indicates lines that have little to no weekend service with lower off-peak service on weekdays.
Core Service indicates lines that have service seven days a week with average headways of two hours or better.
Supplemental Peak Service indicates additional service operated for peak service, generally express trains (denoted with diamonds) or additional local trains (squares).
Extended Service indicates a line where some trains terminate short of the ultimate terminus, but some trains do continue on at lower frequencies.
Combined Service indicates that some trains may accommodate multiple service patterns, and are indicated by the two letters of the services combined.
With these service groupings and the concept of split consists, we were able to greatly simplify the map by removing most of the duplicate indicators throughout the map. For kicks, we also improved the stylizing of the map by throwing out any semblence of geographic accuracy and scale, and by rotating the map 90 degrees. (We’ve nicknamed this the “lotus map”.) It’s not perfect and there are still plenty of issues — we use a free vector cloud-based program, not Illustrator — but we think it’s a good step forward.
These changes will eventually be rolled out to the Weekend Guides as updates are made over time. In the meantime, enjoy the new map, and let us know your thoughts.
This post originated as a (buzzed) thread on @StarLineChicago‘s Twitter account. It is mildly edited. Follow us on Twitter for more suburban transportation content and critiques.
First and foremost: it’s a long weekend. Stay safe, party responsibly, and remember that Metra Weekend Passes are good Saturday, Sunday, AND Monday this weekend. Give your car a break and ride the train!
Since it’s a long weekend, Metra also rolled out “early release” schedules for those of us who had to work on Friday. Unfortunately there is no default “early release” schedule system-wide, which seems like a missed opportunity to make the system more rider-friendly, but I digress.
I’m writing this onboard the BNSF 7:00 local to Downers Grove, which was “packed” with inbound riders when it arrived at Union Station. (“Packed” was in quotations due to the artificial scarcity Metra routinely uses where additional coaches don’t open up until the train is almost at standing-room-only passenger levels. I understand it makes life harder for the conductors to deal with a full consist with only a handful of people on board, but still, opening up an extra car or two would greatly improve the customer experience if you can find a seat without sharing or if your group can sit together when the train is at 50% capacity.) But that’s not terribly important (even though there was one afternoon inbound delay due to “passenger loading”), and there was also an inbound train that had to express due to freight train interference, and BNSF threw on an extra train to accommodate (according to Twitter, at least).
All this brings up a useful conversation on a holiday weekend: kudos to Metra for adding service for commuters quitting work early, but what about suburbanites heading downtown for the holiday weekend? People in the suburbs like going downtown. Especially on Friday nights. Especially on holiday weekends. And especially especially when the weather is decent. Metra knows their bread and butter is people from the burbs heading downtown and taking the train back home when they’re done, and they usually focus on the work commuter rush. Which is fine and will always be Metra’s core constituency. But the leisure rider component can’t be overlooked. On weekend nights, suburbanites like going downtown to have fun, and if they take Metra downtown they’ll take Metra home.
Metra needs to run more frequent outbound evening trains on weekends. Ask any suburbanite about trips to the city, and the refrain is overwhelmingly common: “I want to take the train, but I don’t want to wait two hours if I miss my train home.” So they drive.
On Fridays, the opposite is true: there are generally plenty of trains to get home, but getting downtown requires a little more strategy. (And it’s more expensive because Metra doesn’t start their Weekend Passes on Friday nights, which they should.)
So for holiday weekends when demand is high – or maybe every summer Friday – here’s an easy fix for Metra: open up the deadheads. When Metra adds afternoon service to trains leaving downtown, that train ends up empty somewhere down the line. Then that train closes up and runs express back downtown to make the next outbound run. (That empty trip is a “deadhead”.) This means Metra is running more inbound trains on Friday afternoons before long weekends, and generally (because it’s a special “early release” schedule) there’s more flexibility in the schedule itself to add some time to make a few more inbound stops.
Open up the trains and advertise that Metra is offering additional/express service to the city in advance of the holiday weekend. It costs Metra nothing extra, since that train and that crew is deadheading anyway. Even if it only picks up 30 riders on that inbound train, whatever, that’s 30 new riders who are going to also take Metra back home at the end of the night. If Metra is going to alter service for a holiday weekend, leverage that opportunity to get more people from the burbs downtown instead of focusing almost exclusively on getting commuters home.
From a financial perspective, the early release service for regular commuters largely serves the monthly pass or 10-Ride crowd, whereas additional inbound afternoon service serves the one-way crowd, which means Metra can earn higher per-passenger fares for those Friday leisure trips. We encourage Metra to accommodate those riders heading downtown for fun: an underutilized market to tap in an era of declining ridership. Open up the deadheads and see what happens.
Have a safe Memorial Day weekend, and we’ll see you on the train!