Diverging Approach: Ships Passing in the Night

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.

Diverging Approach: Metra and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Week

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;
  • Soliciting input on the proposed schedules but making no significant changes based on the input received;
  • Ostensibly creating a schedule to accommodate overcrowded trains, only to severely underestimate passenger loads the first day out;
  • Publicly issuing a statement that seems to put the onus for overcrowding on the riders instead of the schedulers;
  • 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 three consecutive days 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.)

This also goes back to a recurring theme here at Diverging Approach: there’s plenty of efficiencies Metra can gain on the operating side of the house without worrying about any new capital expenditures anyway. Changing the way fares are paid for and collected that doesn’t require conductors to check each and every ticket, each and every time. (Side note: Metra is suspending 10-ride and monthly ticket sales from vending machines on the Metra Electric due to fraud; this seems like it could have significant Title VI legal issues and is yet another argument for fare capping.) Adjusting off-peak schedules to better accommodate non-commuter riders and encourage more off-peak ridership. Schedule padding that makes Metra less attractive in the age of Google Maps. Pulse scheduling to better accommodate inter-line transfers.

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.

Diverging Approach: Beating On

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.

Probably not helpful feedback.

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—

So we beat on.

Diverging Approach: The Wonderful World of Weekend Work

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.

Wait for it…

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.

Smooth sailing through calm seas. (For what it’s worth, the notices are included on the BNSF Railway portion of metrarail.com, but the construction schedules are not included in the alert.)

There’s no press release listed.

We’ll get to the added service. Check back Friday.

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.

“Good to Know” indeed.

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.

Planning a train crawl around a 17-minute pedestrian detour in Brookfield to replace a crossing on June 16 would qualify as an “unpleasant surprise”. Also worth noting this project isn’t listed in the BNSF’s construction notices yet, although there is a service alert regarding this project on the BNSF schedule page of metrarail.com – but not in the Ventra app.

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:

There we go. This is a good time to point out that (1) BNSF weekday schedules are changing on Monday, June 11, and (2) Metra inexplicably didn’t use this opportunity to adjust weekend schedules to reflect current average arrival times with less schedule padding.

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.

On paper, Metra is the third-fastest public transit (and the most expensive!) transit option for a trip between two Metra stations. Grabbing a Divvy would be 15 minutes faster than riding a Metra train, according to Google.

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.

n = 15 suggests we need more Twitter followers, and these results suggest 14% of our current followers are trolls.

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.

Diverging Approach: Nerd Prom

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:

Metra is where innovation goes to die.

Here at this blog, we have plenty of issues with how Metra operates, whether its playing a little fast and loose with schedules to maintain off-peak on-time performance or creating a business model focused on moving trains rather than moving passengers or antiquated fare collection issues or yes, the missed opportunity of the Metra Electric line, or plenty of other issues. But for us, we aren’t trying to call out Metra just for the sake of calling them out; we believe that by highlighting some of these missed opportunities and focusing on pragmatic, budget-neutral (or at least budget-minimal) solutions, Metra can leverage a huge untapped market to increase ridership and fare revenues by advocating for suburban-specific transit improvements that serve an audience beyond the traditional Monday-Friday 9-to-5 commuting crowd.

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.

Are they perfect changes? Of course not. Mobile ticketing can be better integrated with CTA/Pace fares and still relies on the antiquated conductor model of fare collection. The Electric Line has a new fleet but still operates at unacceptably long headways through Chicago’s South Side. Including USB ports makes the car rehabs more useful but doesn’t change the fact that Metra is still forced to operate coaches that date back to the Eisenhower administration. A Day Pass is great, but without pulse scheduling or otherwise encouraging transfers a Day Pass product has limited upside.

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!

Diverging Approach: Back to the Map

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.

Metra responded by making the BNSF schedule more complicated, which takes effect in just under two weeks.

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.

RailMap_v2_FullView this map as a PDF.

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.

Diverging Approach: The Freakin’ Weekend

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!

Diverging Approach: Eat Elon Musk’s Lunch

The O’Hare Express project is back in the news now that Elon Musk and his Boring Company is bidding for the project. The project, which started as a pet project from the second Mayor Daley to get express rail service between downtown and O’Hare Airport, most recently ended up with the CTA holding the bag on a $400-million hole in the ground underneath what’s now known as Block 37. Since Elon Musk walks on water in the tech community, his interest in the project is nothing to scoff at. A subset of urban planners fawn over his every move in regards to electric vehicles (which are good), autonomous driving (which will probably be a mixed bag), and his Boring Company’s tunnels (which are currently actively sabotaging a subway expansion project in Los Angeles) as a total paradigm shift in how we move around our cities, and they’re probably right: there’s no going back at this point, for better or worse.

Back to Chicago. The O’Hare Express project is back from the dead, with three corridors under consideration: a corridor paralleling the northern half of the Blue Line; a corridor paralleling the southern half of the Blue Line, then following a freight corridor through River Forest, Melrose Park, and Franklin Park; and the existing Metra North Central Service corridor.

The northern Blue Line corridor obviously already connects downtown and O’Hare in a pretty straightforward alignment. Chicago’s aviation commissioner proposed simply double-decking the Blue Line for express service, which is an, uh, interesting proposal given that the Blue Line runs in a subway, and as an elevated, and in the median of the Kennedy.

In the past, I’ve argued that the most feasible alignment for any airport express service would parallel the southern Blue Line in the median of the Eisenhower, which was built extra-wide to host the Chicago, Aurora, and Elgin interurban tracks before that railroad ceased operations during construction of the Eisenhower. From there, the airport express train would operate along the freight line connecting Forest Park and O’Hare (which is part of the southern alignment under consideration), but running at-grade through River Forest’s residential neighborhoods would probably be a non-starter. Furthermore, this line would open up new transit opportunities for developments and institutions in the near western suburbs (notably Triton College) under a more local service pattern, which of course is not being considered as part of the project.

But this entire conversation misses a huge point: Metra is already in a perfect position to offer premium service to O’Hare over existing trackage. Indeed, the NCS does serve O’Hare and, if you’re able to catch the train, it’s faster to downtown than the Blue Line: trains 102 and 108 make the trip from O’Hare to Union Station in 33-35 minutes, compared with 40ish minutes on the Blue Line from O’Hare to Clark/Lake.

In the past, the Metra “connection” to O’Hare hasn’t been more than an afterthought: yes, Metra ostensibly serves the airport, but requires transferring to a bus to transfer to the Airport Transit System people mover in Remote Parking Lot E before you get to the terminals. This extra time on-property at the airport kills any time savings compared to the Blue Line, and given Metra also charges a significant price premium — O’Hare is Zone D, so one-way tickets are $6.25, which is even higher than the CTA’s $5 boarding charge at O’Hare — it’s not a realistic alternative for travelers. Besides, running only ten trains each day in each direction on the NCS means travelers probably would need to do some contortions to get a Metra train that works with their flight schedules. And, of course, the NCS doesn’t offer weekend service, which is a huge shortcoming on the line and the source of ire for many northern suburbs along the line, which are proactively working with the RTA to study potential funding options that would allow for expanded NCS service. This blog wholeheartedly supports these communities in pursuing innovative financing options to expand off-peak service opportunities in this corridor.

It’s easy to sit here and say “run more NCS trains”, and just about every regional transit advocate has said that at one point or another. However, Metra’s behind the 8-ball a bit since they don’t actually control the line. Let’s back up a second for an explainer.

Most people think of Metra as a monolithic entity that runs the region’s 11 commuter rail lines, and to a significant extent that’s true: Metra has a unified ticketing system (and yes, your ticket is good on any line as long as you stay within the zone pair on the ticket), Metra’s planning staff oversees capital planning efforts throughout the region, Metra’s social media person has to deal with complaints from all the lines, etc. However, the actual system is much, much more complicated.

Generally speaking, there are three types of agreements Metra has for actually running the trains:

  • Full control. On the two Milwaukee lines, the Rock Island, the SouthWest Service, and the Electric, Metra owns and controls everything: they own the tracks, they own the trains, engineers and conductors are Metra employees, etc. (In the case of the SWS the tracks are actually leased to Metra, but it functions the same.) Even then though, Metra may outsource some things like dispatching to other railroads.
  • Trackage rights. On the Heritage Corridor and the North Central Service, Metra owns and staffs the trains but a freight railroad owns the tracks and as such Metra has to play by their rules. This is one of the reasons why HC service is almost non-existent (and why we think Metra should work with Pace or run their own buses to offer complementary bus service under the Heritage Corridor brand) and why it’s difficult to add train service to the NCS. Technically, since Amtrak owns Union Station and a mile of track in either direction, the Milwaukees and the SWS occasionally have to deal with that as well.
  • Purchase-of-Service. When the RTA was first organized in the 1970s to subsidize commuter service, they paid the freight railroads to operate commuter rail service. Over time, four lines – the BNSF Railway and the three Union Pacifics – still use this set-up. On these trains, Metra owns the trains themselves, but everything else – including staff – is under the jurisdiction of the host railroad. Metra has the least control over these lines: since they’re owned and operated by freight railroads, it’s not surprising that those railroads tend to prioritize their profitable freight operations rather than passenger service that was mostly grandfathered in from previous railroads they purchased and merged with over the years.

Back to the NCS: Metra initially launched the North Central Service under trackage rights with the Wisconsin Central Railroad. Since then, however, Wisconsin Central was bought by the Canadian National (CN) Railroad, which is less-receptive to expanding passenger operations. For instance, in 2006 Metra invested in additional stations and significant (but not full) double-tracking through the corridor in an effort to raise the number of daily trains from 10 to 22. However, to hit that magic number of 22 trains, Metra had to operate rush-hour skip-stop trains, which did speed up operations a bit but also allowed Metra to operate two trains within a single window of time. (The skip-stop trains have since been consolidated into a single all-stop to cut costs.) The 22nd (now 20th) train also required some creative scheduling: the last inbound train each night serves Antioch, Lake Villa, Round Lake Beach, and Washington Street before switching to the MD-N and running express into the city the rest of the way. This effectively leaves most of the corridor without an inbound train after 6pm.

Whenever additional NCS frequency comes up, the response is usually a quick “no” from either Metra or the CN, since the corridor is a key part of moving CN freight trains from points north into Chicago, including freight yards in Bensenville and Schiller Park (the former of which requires trains reversing down the MD-W through Franklin Park, leading to some notorious street delays in that community). Since railroads generally don’t play nice with each other, re-routing CN freight trains off the corridor using a different railroad’s tracks is frowned upon (although the CN did purchase the Elgin, Joliet, and Eastern (EJ&E) railroad to allow them to bypass Chicago as needed – and more or less killed the actual STAR Line proposal at the same time).

But what if the focus was less on getting all the way to Antioch and more on just getting service to Rosemont and O’Hare? Two new developments are making that a more attractive possibility.

First and foremost, O’Hare is nearing completion of their consolidated rental car facility adjacent to the O’Hare Transfer NCS station. Most importantly in this context, O’Hare’s people mover is also being extended to the facility. Now Metra riders will be able to walk from train to tram and go straight to the terminals without a bus connection. While dealing with the people mover is still less desirable than going straight into the terminal core like the Blue Line does, it’s worth noting Terminal 5 fliers will still need to use the people mover, and Terminal 5 will start to see more domestic flights as part of the “Global Terminal” core revisioning the city’s Department of Aviation is currently working on.

Second, the Village of Schiller Park applied for an RTA grant to create a transit-oriented development plan on the site of the current CN yard. If the yard is expected to wind down operations in the near future, additional land could be reserved for Metra-dedicated trackage. There would still be constraints at the B-12 Junction (where the NCS splits off the MD-W), but it’s not unreasonable to consider the possibility of Metra-dedicated track from O’Hare to River Grove and using the existing three-track MD-W main line the rest of the way to Union Station. (A stub track at the O’Hare Transfer station would also be needed to allow crews to change ends off the main line.)

It’d be great to roll out full weekend service to the entire NCS corridor, but that’s a heavy lift due to freight implications (and at-grade railroad junctions with the UP-NW and MD-N). But in the meantime, Metra can eat Elon Musk’s lunch and operate dedicated express service to O’Hare in the very short-term future. Current travel times to O’Hare from Union Station are officially as low as 32 minutes including stops at Belmont Avenue, Schiller Park, and Rosemont, which means direct service could break the half-hour mark. While O’Hare express is the target of the current plans the city is pushing, being able to directly serve the Rosemont entertainment district would broaden the customer base and potentially tap another funding source in the Village of Rosemont, which hasn’t shied away from kicking in for transportation infrastructure improvements especially as their “Pearl District” continues to develop and come online.

If you want to see how easy this trip could possibly be, join us for Star:Line Social on Friday, June 15 as we take the NCS to Rosemont to check out the Chicago Dogs. A limited amount of tickets are still available!

Diverging Approach: Passenger Manifesto

This post was initially published as a tweet-storm on our Twitter account, @StarLineChicago. Some edits are included to enhance readability and to add just a little of our trademark flourish.

I’m writing this onboard tonight’s 8:40pm Metra BNSF departure leaving Union Station, riding in the last car in the direction of travel. However, Metra changed the consist (so our car, which was formerly the second car, is now the cab car) but didn’t change the Quiet Car signage. No matter; Quiet Car hours ended after the 6:22pm departure.

Anywho, some hipster dipshit is sitting in one of the four-pack seats, taking up all four seats by himself: backpack and his feet on the opposite bench. And he’s talking loudly on his cell phone as douchebaggedly as possible. (As an example, he called Warren Buffett “just a guy who got lucky a few times” because Buffett called Bitcoin “rat poison squared”. “Whatever, it’s still above $9,000”, the dude laughed into his phone.)

At this point, a guy – who I’m guessing is pushing 60 years old – yells out from three rows back: “Hey! It’s a quiet car! The sign is right in front of you!”

The hipster scowls, grabs his stuff, and is overheard complaining into his phone about the “old fart” as he switches cars.

This car is still not quiet and has filled up with a variety of additional riders as we get closer to departure time. A father and son discussing their evening in the city. Two co-workers from southern Asia discussing their day at the office in their respective heavy accents. Two teenagers in the upper level who didn’t want to pay a scalper $80 each to get into the Cubs game. But now the older gentleman is just reading stuff on his phone, and hasn’t said boo to anyone else.

I’m guessing he knows this particular coach shouldn’t be a Quiet Car and that it’s too late for Quiet Car rules to be in effect anyway.

A lot of people who don’t ride Metra frequently (or at all) give the “Quiet Car Nazis” crap all the time, but there are plenty of times – like now – when they use their powers for good as well. It’s a suburban thing, and this is the kind of stuff that happens on off-peak Metra trains, for better or worse.

I started Star:Line because there is no suburban voice for suburban transit. There are plenty of (great!) city voices to promote better transit within the city, and Metra can – and should – be a key component to those plans. The writers over at Streetsblog Chicago are a great example of these kinds of advocates. Obviously Streetsblog doesn’t intend to be exclusively a city-oriented advocate, but due to the sheer number of urban residents who rely on transit, cycling, walking, and so on, urban-centric articles make up the lion’s share of content. But again: definitely not a bad thing as a whole.

Likewise, there are advocates like the dedicated folks over at the Midwest High Speed Rail Association who push Metra to be a better host and a stronger regional player, using the agency’s network and resources to better connect regional destinations throughout the Midwest. Again, a worthy goal that absolutely needs strong advocates, and definitely a role Metra should be more proactive in pursuing.

But Metra is, at its core, a suburban agency for suburban riders, and (beyond the public commiseration forum of @OnTheMetra) lacks an advocate for the thousands of suburban riders who use and rely on Metra day in, day out. Likewise for our fellow suburban transit riders on Pace’s suburban bus service.

This is what we intend Star:Line to become: a suburban voice for suburban solutions for suburban transit.

Suburbanites get plenty of grief – and undoubtedly much of it is well-deserved, whether we’re talking NIMBYism or restrictive zoning or a near-total reliance on personal vehicles – from urbanites and transportation advocates. And at a high level, there’s always room for big plans and big ideas: run Metra like Paris’s RER, or with half-hour off-peak headways like Toronto’s GO Transit. (We have discussed “borrowing” GO Transit’s bus shuttling service method in the past.) These are great ideas and would absolutely shift the suburban transit paradigm here in metropolitan Chicago, but may not be directly applicable at our scale. For instance, Metra’s 487 route miles dwarfs Paris’s RER (383 mi) and GO Transit (281 mi)… and New York’s Metro-North (385 mi) and the Long Island Rail Road (321 mi) and Boston’s commuter rail (368 mi) and… well, just about every North American commuter rail system except for New Jersey Transit, which serves both New York City AND Philadelphia.

But in the meantime here in Chicagoland, there’s so much low-hanging fruit that needs to be picked before we start pushing revolutionary ideas. Yes, Metra keeps raising fares, and yes, Metra is now cutting service (and will likely soon have a list of expendable stations to mothball or close once the Station Optimization Study concludes). Hell, some of Metra’s BNSF fleet dates back to the 1950s, which means some of the coaches I use in my daily commute are older than the expressways that cannibalized the local commuting market and led our state and local governments to subsidize commuter rail as a whole.

Undoubtedly, Metra has economic challenges ahead of it. Going through metrarail.com and looking for the phrase “unsustainable” in regards to funding might as well be a drinking game. Absent a massive political paradigm shift locally (or regionally, or nationally), big-ticket revolutionary ideas like full-system electrification or downtown through-routing remains in the domain of academics and urbanites who want to reimagine the system as a whole as an exercise but don’t necessarily reflect politically- or financially-feasible fixes for the foreseeable future.

I don’t want to throw cold water on out-of-the-box ideas, of course. Do we need big plans and long-term vision? Absolutely! If the funds ever appear because politicians are going to tax the rich or stop subsidizing private vehicles and single-family homeownership, it’s great to have a plan in hand to hit the ground running.

But in the meantime, Metra’s status quo needs addressing. Even within Metra’s current financial constraints, there’s so much the agency can be doing to get more riders on more trains. Pulse scheduling. Fare system changes. Weekend schedules prioritizing the leisure riders who use the system. Better outreach. Simpler service patterns and identification.

That’s where we come in, and that’s who we are. We definitely support some of the big-picture, paradigm-shifting plans. But we also focus on short-term, fiscally-constrained goals and objectives to get more suburbanites on transit today and tomorrow rather than waiting until next week for a more-perfect system.

This is Star:Line Chicago.

We advocate for supportive transit for ALL riders: leisure, infrequent, new, and experienced.

We are suburban Chicago’s transit advocate.

And we’re here to make a difference.

Diverging Approach: Meet Me Halfway

Today my wife and I headed downtown to check out an exhibit at the Field Museum. Personally I’m more of an Art Institute or Museum of Science and Industry guy myself, but the Field is fine (and taking trips there come with the territory of marrying a science teacher). As a teacher she gets in for free, so I checked the Field’s website to see if there were any discounts for state employees (spoiler: no).

But while I was there I clicked over to their “Directions” section just for kicks. The primary mode of transportation the Field Museum expects you to take is via car (groan), but they give decent CTA directions as well.

And then there’s their section on taking Metra.

So they punt on offering directions to suburbanites who would rather not drive, adding another level of inconvenience beyond dealing with Metra’s sparse weekend schedules. An odd choice for a website that has an entire section devoted to sustainability.

Due to its geography, the Museum Campus is notoriously difficult to get to via transit. But museums like the Field should bolster their Metra directions and encourage more transit access to their facilities – doubly so for facilities with such a strong focus on environmental stewardship. (And, you know, not to beat them over the head with it, but Metra has a dedicated Museum Campus station.)

Yes, that’s the Field in the background.

The Shedd Aquarium’s website goes further and details directions to their museum from each of Metra’s downtown terminals via CTA bus connections, which is great, I’m guessing whoever wrote that part of the website either forgot or didn’t know about the Museum Campus station on the Electric Line, which at best makes directions from Millennium Station and Van Buren Street a little superfluous and at worst potentially can confuse south suburban or city ME riders.

The third museum on the Museum Campus, the Adler Planetarium, finds a new way to underwhelm with their Metra directions. Their directions page actually does instruct Metra riders to use the Museum Campus station – but makes no mention of what line it’s on, or how to get to the Electric Line from Metra’s ten other lines.

When giving directions to a wide variety of potential transit users throughout the region, it’s understandably a challenge for website authors to be clear and concise for everyone without inadvertently confusing riders. However, one of Metra’s great strength is the Weekend Pass: while most riders use it for round-trips between the city and suburbs, the Weekend Pass also includes free Metra-to-Metra transfers all weekend long, a seriously underrated perk that is also not nearly publicized well enough. The ability to transfer trains dramatically opens up the possibilities for a weekend trip without adding any cost.

For instance, if you’re heading to the Museum Campus and riding downtown on a Weekend Pass, simply walk east from the terminal to Millennium Station or Van Buren Street Station and take any ME train to the Museum Campus/11th Street stop. That’s it. Those are the only directions you need, whether your train gets into Ogilvie, Union, or LaSalle Street. (Same rules apply for the Museum of Science and Industry, but stay on until 55th-56th-57th.)

These directions are even easier now that Metra adjusted the ME schedules to offer up 20-to-30-minute regular headways between downtown and Hyde Park six days a week, one of Metra’s better schedule adjustments in recent memory. (On Sundays and holidays Electric Line riders get to “enjoy” the two-hour headways most of the rest of us get to deal with.) This trip connection is an easy opportunity to better publicize, both by the museums and Metra.

This gets into three of Metra’s more significant structural weaknesses. First and foremost, the “Metra” brand encompasses the whole system and uses a unified fare system (pro tip: your monthly pass or ten-way ticket is good on any Metra line between the fare zones listed, not just on your line), but other than that there are basically eleven almost-independent commuter rail systems operating. Whenever you ride on a Metra train, you’re riding on a Metra train, but you’re probably not traveling on Metra’s tracks – Metra only fully controls the two Milwaukee lines, the SouthWest Service (and even for those, Amtrak owns and operates Union Stations and the tracks approaching), the Rock Island, and the Electric Line – and it’s likely not a Metra employee taking your tickets (BNSF trains are staffed by BNSF employees, and Union Pacific trains are staffed by Union Pacific employees). The unified Metra branding is great from a marketing perspective, but it obscures the full complexity of the system. It also may influence Metra’s pigeon-holing of its own operations as strictly commuter rail even where the infrastructure exists for a lighter, more nimble service structure with higher service frequencies more similar to rapid transit. (A drum I beat to anyone willing to listen: the CTA’s predecessors expected the commuter rail network to carry the rapid-transit water of the Far South Side and the South Shore. Despite going with a website design that recalls the Time Cube, that often-discussed-by-us-foamers Gray Line website guy might be on to something and maybe we could save a billion dollars by running more Electric Line trains instead of extending the Red Line.)

This is one of the reasons why I noted the wisdom of the earlier Electric Line schedule revisions: a balanced schedule with lower headways between downtown and Hyde Park makes the connection a little easier to use by reducing waiting times for trains. Unfortunately the schedule accomplishes this by spreading out trains on the two branches and the main line south of 63rd, which still see off-peak headways of an hour or worse. (That, combined with Metra’s zone-based fares in an area with a strong CTA level of service, are killing ridership within the city proper, but that’s worth a post of its own at a later date.)

Secondly, schedules are based on individual lines rather than the system as a whole. Where considerations are made for other lines, it’s often to make sure the trains don’t step on each other’s toes rather than to maximize usability and transfers by riders. (Say it with me: Metra moves trains, not people.)

Case in point: this post is coming to you live from The Junction Pub at Union Station. The Junction is a great bar by train station standards: decent prices, quick service (if your order isn’t too complicated), friendly staff, and plenty of to-go options. I’m here laying over between my inbound BNSF train from LaGrange and my outbound MD-W train to Itasca. The bartenders know me now, and it’s an enjoyable place to sip a beer and offer up constructive criticism for Metra.

But I shouldn’t be here.

By that, I mean my train was scheduled to get in at 5:47 (and we know how weekend schedules go), but my MD-W train doesn’t leave until 6:40. If all goes as scheduled, I have 53 minutes to kill whenever I make this trip. And here’s the fun part: this isn’t a unique situation with just the trains I’m taking. On weekends, Ogilvie and Union combined (they’re two blocks from each other, so might as well look at them together) serve seven Metra lines. Between 6:45pm and 8:29pm on a Saturday, there is a single Metra train that leaves: the 7:35pm UP-N. But in that same time period, five trains arrive. I’m not trying to rig the schedule to make a point – none of those trains arrive later than 7:50pm. But then between 8:30pm and 8:45pm though, five trains leave. What that means is that every rider who could potentially transfer trains has no less than forty minutes to kill. For someone like me who is happy with a cold Miller Lite and a quiet bar, I can make do, but for a family of four from Palatine who wants to take the train home from Brookfield Zoo it’s a downright non-starter. (This is also a spit in the face for people around the northern Western Avenue station: no trains leave Union Station for 115 minutes, then two trains leave five minutes apart.)

Unfortunately, Metra’s off-peak schedules are built around set intervals leaving downtown: trains run every two hours (occasionally hourly, based on time of day and direction of travel), they go out to the outer suburban terminal, hang out for a bit, then come back downtown whenever they get back and wait for the next departure. While this is an efficient way to move trains, it’s not an efficient way to move people throughout the region unless they’re only going downtown. Instead, we recommend what’s called pulse scheduling: arrivals and departures at the core are coordinated, with the buffer time built in at the outer suburban terminal rather than the central core. Of course, this would imperil Metra’s sacred on-time performance metric – it’s a lot easier to pad time inbound than outbound since a typical commuter rail system focuses on suburb-to-city trips and people are generally less sensitive to suburban arrival times since trips back home have generally more flexible arrival times – but it could be a great way to boost ridership throughout the region. There are weekend non-downtown entertainment destinations easily accessible via Metra, counter-clockwise per line north to south: Ravinia; the Chain-of-Lakes; Arlington Park and the McHenry County Fairgrounds; the Schaumburg Boomers and the Grand Victoria Casino; downtown Elmhurst and the Fox River Valley; Brookfield Zoo and Hollywood Casino Aurora; [insert SWS destination here – sorry Orland Park]; that stadium the White Sox play at, the Joliet Slammers stadium, and Harrah’s Casino Joliet; and the Museum Campus, Hyde Park, and soon the Obama Library. (Rosemont is a glaring omission, but that’s a future post.) For kid-friendly places like the Zoo or (the baseball stadium formerly known as) the Cell, every kid loves a train ride; for more adult-friendly venues, the Weekend Pass is a $10 insurance policy against a DUI. (Important note: the conductors would rather not deal with raging drunks and will throw you off the train and/or get you arrested, so continue to drink responsibly.)

The third significant deficiency in Metra’s system is, for whatever reason, a regional ignorance of the system as a whole. By “ignorance” I don’t mean that suburbanites should be judged by not knowing the minutiae of the system, but rather that there’s a whole system out there that’s available to be used. Plenty of non-southern suburbanites have little to no idea there’s a train station under Millennium Park; of those that do, they might know it only from where they filmed the Batman movies and not as part of the Metra system they can take to the Museum Campus or Jackson Park. Fewer still know about LaSalle Street Station – I took some friends to a Sox game a few years ago and, after the obligatory Sky-Ride Tap stop, blew their minds by heading up a random escalator and through a weird tunnel to a whole train station. If the schedules are favorable, it’s a lot easier, cheaper, and faster to get to Guaranteed Rate Field on Metra than paying to get on the Red Line.

There’s a train station entrance in here. And this is the signed way to get to the LaSalle Street Station from the CTA and Van Buren Street.

To bring it all back, people – and especially kids – like riding trains. It can be an easy, comfortable way to travel without worrying about dealing with parking or designating drivers. If people need to do train-to-train transfers – which are already free often enough with Metra’s existing fare structure – that should be encouraged at every level. While the institutions and venues do bear some responsibility in informing their guests that these options exist, Metra needs to take a more proactive role in operating and promoting a unified regional system that can be used as such rather than running eleven separate lines connected by brand alone.

Diverging Approach: If you see nothing, say something

Jim Derwinski, Metra’s CEO/Executive Director, may or may not have stepped in it when he talked to reporters (including the Chicago Tribune) following his speech to the City Club of Chicago:

He said Metra asks customers who see a fellow passenger not paying a fare to tell the conductor, though he acknowledges that this kind of voluntary tattling is a “big lift” for riders.

So the CEO/Executive Director of Metra is kindly requesting passengers to snitch on their fellow Metra riders instead of coming up with some method of getting better fare compliance on board. In Metra’s defense, peer enforcement is how quiet cars are enforced, and there’s no shortage of people willing to shush their fellow riders, so maybe peer fare enforcement would work (this time).

The Tribune article has plenty of gems though, so it’s worth the read. I particularly enjoyed the part about how Metra was totally overwhelmed by St. Patrick’s Day this year, considering St. Pat’s is always one of the busiest days of the year, and how the years when St. Patrick’s Day lands on a Saturday are always awful on Metra, and how we reserved group tickets for St. Pat’s and no one communicated that to the train crews anyway. (Can’t prove this, but our conspiracy theory is that when St. Pat’s lands on a Saturday, first off it’s usually slightly warmer than usual since it’s a week later, and secondly it’s the only time the South Side parade is a week before the downtown parade, so drinkers can more easily do both the downtown parade and the South Side parade.)

But the article is a great chance to discuss Metra’s antiquated fare structure. To be fair, Metra is currently looking at alternatives to the current fare structure, but at this point in the study the truly groundbreaking options have been removed from consideration and the agency is considering smaller tweaks to the system rather than a full-fledged restructuring of the fare system.

The Tribune article offers up platform turnstiles as a possible alternative to the current Metra fare structure, although given Metra’s commitment to a fare structure with more than ten zones (there are currently 13), a turnstile structure would not necessarily be effective for many of the lines, especially for intermediate zone trips. Furthermore, Metra already tried turnstiles on the Electric Lines, which resulted in abandonment of that system due to either the inefficiencies of the turnstiles themselves or the perceived slights on South Side riders from some no-name state senator. (Of course, the Electric Line absolutely should have kept its turnstiles provided that Metra offered service that was comparable to rapid transit — the line was built with rapid-transit frequencies, rapid-transit station spacing, and was considered rapid transit when Chicago first considered public ownership of transit assets which helps explain why the CTA rail network never expanded south of 95th Street or east of Stony Island Avenue.) That said, turnstile systems operate best in systems like the CTA’s ‘L’ network where all (well, most) of the stations are in a single fare zone. Otherwise, in the Electric Line’s case, a rider could theoretically pay a single-zone fare to pass through the turnstile and ride the train all the way downtown. This issue is addressed in then-Senator Obama’s letter linked above, where fare inspectors were still required with the turnstile system to make sure riders weren’t over-riding their tickets. If you’re investing in fare inspectors, there are better fare payment systems out there that don’t require the capital cost of turnstiles.

The most obvious structure — which was conspicuously absent from the Tribune’s article — is proof-of-payment (POP), which is a common method of fare payment for transit systems throughout the country. CalTrain in the San Francisco Bay area uses proof-of-payment for their commuter rail operations, and the system doesn’t operate too differently than Metra’s current system in more abstract terms. Proof-of-payment systems are the epitome of the trust-but-verify conservative mantra: a glorified honor system exists in jurisdictions with POP, where riders are expected to buy their own tickets on the honor system. In fact, you could argue that Metra effectively operates a proof-of-payment system, except riders get their tickets checked on a vast majority of trains and the penalty for non-payment is minimal. However, in true POP systems, fare inspection officers are occasionally present to check tickets and issue significant violations for riders without valid tickets. To put this in Metra terms, Metra currently charges a $5 penalty if you purchase a ticket onboard from a conductor from a station where an agent was on-duty to sell you a ticket. The POP system might raise that penalty to $50, but with a tenth of the conductors deployed. The math theoretically works out such that you may ride for free nine times, but the penalty issued for the tenth offense makes up the balance for the missed fares.

That’s an extremely basic example — the break-even math based on fare zones and everything else is much more complex than that. That complexity is one of the reasons Metra has not seriously considered a proof-of-payment system. First and foremost, POP systems are predicated on the ability to purchase tickets before boarding the train. While the Ventra app does provide that ability to smartphone users with credit cards, Title VI considerations prevent Metra from switching over to a system that revolves around technology and resources lower-income riders may not have access to, such as smartphones and credit cards. Furthermore, even with the Ventra app, POP enforcement would be a challenge — if I board an MD-W train in Itasca (Zone E) and the fare checkers board my MD-W train at Mont Clare (Zone B), there’d be nothing theoretically stopping me from using my Ventra app to buy a ticket saying I boarded at Franklin Park (Zone C) instead. A more robust proof-of-payment system for Metra would require a consolidated zone structure, which is problematic in and of itself. More on that later.

But then there’s the more practical aspects of a POP implementation. First and foremost, due to the aforementioned Title VI considerations, every Metra station would need some form of a ticket vending machine (TVM). Since Metra’s been retiring ticket agents whenever they can, the future would necessarily be built around TVMs. Of course, TVMs break, which means each station would need two TVMs for redundancy’s sake. Considering Metra has 242 stations, deploying nearly 500 brand-new machines throughout the Chicagoland area would have a significant price tag. (Not to mention the inevitable maintenance needed to fix broken machines and collect cash payments throughout the RTA’s six-county service area.) CalTrain can roll out POP using TVMs relatively easily since they basically operate a single line; Metra does not have that luxury, since the agency operates 11 different lines in six counties. However, an infusion of capital funding could very easily take care of this issue — and if the Metra board and other local politicians can effectively make the case that the system would save manpower costs in the long run by deploying a region-wide system of adequate TVMs (that the CTA may or may not have already figured out how to operate), there could be the political will to roll out a full POP system.

While we’re discussing Ventra, however, it’s worth bringing up the tap-in-tap-out (TITO) system used by some other transit systems. Washington (D.C.)’s WMATA uses TITO for their subway system, as well as other networks throughout the country. The concept is simple enough: tap a farecard when you get to your station (or onboard the train), then tap your farecard when you get off the train and the computerized system calculates your fare and automatically deducts it from whatever fare media you have. On the surface, it sounds pretty straightforward and easy to implement. However, TITO still would still require occasional fare enforcement, may still run into Title VI issues (how do you tap in when you only have cash?), and would very quickly run into bottleneck issues (Union Station commuters, can you imagine trying to tap into a terminal when you’re trying to leave, or, worse, trying to tap into a terminal before heading to your train home?).

I didn’t create this blog to defend Metra — as many of you have probably noticed by now — but as long as Metra is committed to their current distance-based fare structure (or something close to it), the current antiquated hodge-podge of paper tickets and smartphone Ventra app verification may be the agency’s best bet moving forward. Of course, there’s plenty of low-hanging fruit Metra can still try to pick to improve their off-peak fare collection issues. First and foremost, from my experience, Metra conductors will not add the $5 surcharge to riders paying cash on weekend trains who are purchasing Weekend Passes, even when departing from a downtown terminal where station agents are available. That’s fine from the unstaffed outlying stations, but there’s no reason not to enforce that rule when leaving the downtown terminals, especially when the conductors are willing to show riders how to buy tickets using the Ventra app to avoid the surcharge. Here at The Yard Social Club and Star:Line Chicago we do our best to advocate for leisure and infrequent weekend riders, but there’s still no reason to give riders leaving downtown a pass on the surcharge when Metra continuously cries poor while failing to collect tickets on crowded trains. We’re going to stop short of recommending our riders narc on their fellow riders, but it’s not unfair to just bite the bullet on a $10 Weekend Pass regardless of where you’re going or where you’re coming from. Also, it seems obvious, but always bears repeating: if the train is too crowded for fare collection, run more trains. Only Metra can find a way to complain about too many people using their service.

In the long run, Metra needs a complete rethinking of their fare structure, which unfortunately the current Fare Structure Study will not address. Personally, this blog recommends a simplified fare structure that (1) includes the cost of feeder bus routes to decrease the burdens of local municipalities to provide park-and-ride facilities near their stations — which typically are in the hearts of their respective downtowns — and (2) better corresponds to physical barriers throughout the region. For instance, we live in the Midwest: as many of you have noticed, topographic restrictions aren’t exactly common in our area. However, we do have an established system of belt highways/expressways/tollways through the region. These man-made facilities form natural barriers that would be better suited to Metra fare zones than the existing system of five-track-mile bands that surround the downtown core. As a case in point, this blog post is coming to you live (well, not “live”, but this is where I am with my laptop) from Itasca, which is in Metra’s fare Zone E. Just west of me is Interstate 290/Illinois 53, which forms a significant rift in suburban geography here in northern DuPage County. However, west of I-290/IL 53 are the Medinah and Roselle MD-W stations, which are also in Metra’s Zone E. It would make more sense – and probably be more intuitive for riders – if the fare zones were bounded by those geographic features. (Plus, since they generally form significant disruptions in the suburban landscape with fewer crossings, “fare jumpers” who drive further to board at a lower fare Zone would be less incentivized to do so.) These belt highways and other physical barriers form pretty straightforward fare zones throughout the region, using the western suburbs as an example: I-294 and/or the Des Plaines River form inner belts; followed by I-290/I-355/IL 53; and then either IL 59, the CN/EJ&E railroad, or the Fox River; and finally the Randall/Orchard Road corridor out in the hinterlands.

In other words: it’s great that Metra’s looking at tweaking their fare structure, but the current fare structure study seems to be resigned to reinforce the existing fare structure with some minor tweaks. If Metra is serious about updating and upgrading their fare structure, bolder approaches to fare collection are needed. In the long run, Metra should pursue a POP system, even though the initial capital costs are not insignificant. Even then, the fare zone system should be more closely related to travel alternatives (namely driving) than straight track miles.

In the meantime, we encourage riders reading these blogs to pay their fair share — transportation operations and infrastructure as a whole need a financial boost — but don’t narc out on our fellow travelers. The one promising thing from Mr. Derwinski’s City Club speech is that Metra is finally aware of the gaps in fare collection during busy events downtown. The current fare system is by no means perfect, but we support riders paying their fair share to make the suburban transit network stronger.

(And if this article makes its way into Metra’s news clips for senior-level staff: The Yard Social Club and Star:Line Chicago is here to help you and to be a partner in making Metra a stronger, more sustainable, more robust transportation option for suburban residents. We’ve seen plenty of weekend riders who are willing to buy a Weekend Pass but never see a conductor and end up buying a one-way ticket at the end of the evening. We promote the sale of Weekend Passes. We want to help. We’re here to help. And we want to get more people onboard your off-peak trains.)

Diverging Approach: D-A-D

As many of you know, Metra is revamping the BNSF schedule in advance of positive train control (PTC) implementation. And Metra is going all-out with it: it’s got a separate part of the Metra website, there are some pretty slick videos describing what PTC is and why Metra, BNSF, and the Union Pacific are spending so much money on it, and the agency had a comment period for the public to submit their comments. You can say a lot about Metra, but you can’t say they aren’t trying to cover their bases with this upcoming schedule change on their busiest line.

But I think the proposed schedule sucks. And I told Metra I think the proposed schedule sucks.

And they responded.

First and foremost, kudos to Metra for reaching out to my (admittedly very thorough) letter and going point-by-point to try to explain why they’re making the choices they’re making when it comes to the schedule changes. I say this in all honesty, I commend Metra for seeking the input of their riders before rolling out changes wholesale. Granted, I don’t know if Metra directly responded to all of the feedback they received before the comment period ended last Sunday or if they went out of their way to respond to my letter since I posted it here, which then got picked up by Streetsblog, which then ended up on Metra’s internal daily email list of daily news that gets passed around through middle- and upper-management at Metra Headquarters. Either way, I’m impressed.

That said, I have plenty of issues with their response. Below is an annotated version of the response I received. Since Metra chose to refute my initial email point-by-point — which is fine — there will be some breaks in the below email where I’m adding my thoughts. Metra’s email will be posted in blog quotes

like this

And where they’re quoting my initial email I’m placing in italics. Otherwise, the below response has not been edited, other than reducing some of the white space in the initial email.

Mr. Presslak,

Thank you for writing in. Your letter is quite comprehensive, but hopefully the below addresses most of your comments:

Please watch this video to better understand the reason for the lengthening of flip times. PTC adds another task for the engineer to complete, and it simply takes longer. Sorry you are not convinced, but we have been testing this in revenue service, and this is what the actual operation is reflecting. Perhaps it will speed up as technology improves, but we cannot expect to run the current schedule with PTC operating as it does today. Also, I believe you may have misunderstood our explanation for “flipping” a train; the train still operates in push-pull mode, as you write. If an inbound train is pushed or shoved into Union Station by the locomotive, the train flips when the crew performs all safety checks and PTC initialization and when the engineer walks from the cab car to the locomotive for the outbound trip. Additionally, job briefings on each part of the train cycle are not only a necessary safety task, but they are also a regulation. Track conditions can change between trips, and crew members often change as well (crew cycles are not always the same as the equipment cycles). Job briefings ensure that crew members are on the same page and current with any important information on the upcoming trip.

I received a similar comment on Twitter regarding my use of the term “flipping” a train, and that’s on me for not being more clear. I’m well aware that it makes no sense to fully flip a physical consist on a commuter line; that requires some extensive track infrastructure and a lot of space that simply doesn’t exist if a train is scheduled to be short-turned in the middle of the western suburbs. That said, having watched the videos posted a few times, I still don’t understand why Metra — and, to be fair, the industry as a whole — is spending hundreds of millions of dollars to build a new safety system from scratch that requires a full reboot every time the train crew switches ends. Commuter trains on Metra operate in a push-pull configuration, where in Metra’s case the engine is always facing away from Chicago. When the train is heading outbound, the engineer sits in the locomotive cab; when the train is heading inbound, the engineer sits in the upper level of specially-designed cab cars that allow the engineer to operate the train with the engine at the rear, so the train itself never has to flip around. (This saves significant amounts of time, but also would be quite problematic downtown in terms of noise and air pollution at Union Station if the train came in engine-first.) Push-pull isn’t exactly a unique situation, so I still do not understand why the industry spent so much money on a safety system that needs to be fully rebooted every time the crew changes ends and can’t instead go into a pre-programmed “sleep mode” or something similiar that would save that extra time when the crew changes ends to continue their rush-hour service. I’m not an engineer, I’m not an electrical engineer, and I understand the freight railroads like BNSF and UP are more focused on the bottom line than operational efficiency for commuter services (which make up only a small fraction of their revenue), but I’m sincerely hoping that Metra is using their scarce capital dollars to come up with a more efficient system. If the same consist is doing the same “run” of individual trips day in and day out, pre-programming PTC at each end of the consist seems like a no-brainer: instead of booting the system up and entering the required information at the beginning of each trip, the system should be able to offer the engineer a simple yes/no for a pre-programmed trip option when (s)he enters the cab to start the trip and save plenty of time. Of course, as I mentioned in my earlier posts on the topic, Metra adding more time for crews to change ends mid-route is definitely not a negative if it’s done effectively, since it also allows for more buffer time in the schedule to absorb minor delays.

Also, it’s good to see that Metra continues to place a strong focus on safety in terms of their safety briefings. I do understand that track conditions can change while trains are operating, so I understand why Metra/BNSF continues to place a focus on dedicated briefings at each end of the trip. But now I’m curious as to how the CTA can operate a Red Line train out of 95th Street all the way up to Howard, around the balloon loop, and back down to 95th, without needing an intermediate safety briefing. That trip is definitely comparable in time to some of the short-turn trips on Metra. Or likewise when an all-stop trip to Aurora requires a single safety briefing but crews are required to have safety briefings when changing ends on short-turns — for instance, BNSF train #1233 has a safety briefing before it departs Union Station at 1:30pm and doesn’t arrive Aurora until 2:59pm (89 minutes) while train #1263 departs Union Station at 5:13pm, ends at Brookfield at 5:44pm (31 minutes) and requires a separate safety briefing before the crew changes ends and deadheads back to Union Station in ~25 minutes.

But I digress.

“Secondly, while adjusting schedules to address crowding issues in the AM Peak is admirable, adjusting schedules for PM Peak crowding is not needed”. The data disagrees. Our most extremely crowded trains are actually in the outbound peak, with some having counts of over 1,600 people. This is the reason for adjusting the stop patterns in the outbound peak. While it does introduce a new stop pattern to outbound expresses, the current scheme does not balance loads as well as the new proposal. You yourself note that Naperville and Route 59 are the top two stations in terms of ridership, so splitting those two up on the most crowded trains is a way of better matching the capacity to the demand. It is also worth mentioning that we are operating with the same equipment as before, so unfortunately we cannot simply add trains or make certain trains longer. A fair question is why the new 1277 and 1279 have the “old” stopping pattern, and that is because we do not have the equipment available to make 1279 a longer train, so it could not accommodate the passenger loads that would come with either Route 59 or Naperville. Overall, though, we believe that customers will become adjusted to the new patterns on the expresses.

I promise, I’m not here just to crap on Metra, and I’m going to compliment the agency here for using a data-based approach when appraising the afternoon rush service. Balancing service, frequency, and consist length in terms of observed ridership loads is something I will wholeheartedly support on all Metra lines to help find new efficiencies and to keep doing more with less in an era of declining revenues for capital expenditures.

That said, I think my initial point was lost, and I understand that this may be controversial and definitely counter-intuitive: afternoon peak crowding doesn’t matter all that much.

Metra is right to push back on me for that, and I don’t blame some of you reading that to take a step back and tell me I’m crazy. At a certain point, capacity issues in the PM Peak most certainly matter. If you want to grow ridership, you need to make sure there’s capacity available for more riders. Sixteen hundred people on a single train is a huge number, especially when considering that the commuter rail industry considers any peak-period peak-direction passenger load above 95% of seating capacity to be “overcapacity”.

Let’s do some math. Metra’s longest consist — which serves some of the Naperville and Route 59 “super-expresses” — have 11 passenger coaches. At a minimum, each passenger coach seats 135 people, but the older (non-ADA-accessible) coaches can seat up to 150. As any frequent (or even some infrequent) Metra riders know, there’s an additional eight locations on each car that have “comfortable” standing room: in each of the four stairwells up to the upper levels, and in each corner of the vestibule. Some riders straight-up prefer these standing spaces for a variety of reasons: quiet car rules don’t apply in the vestibules, riders getting off at an early stop can stand and be closer to the door on the way out, some people just don’t want to share seats with random riders, and so on. Either way, effective capacity of a Metra train car can be close to 160 people, so an 11-car consist with 146 people in each coach is snug, but nothing to write home about.

Besides: PM Peak crowding is not as big of a passenger concern as AM Peak crowding. In the PM Peak, since Metra does not (and is not currently physically able to practically) operate through-routing on any of their lines, trains sit at the downtown terminal until they’re ready to leave, accepting passengers as they board over anywhere between five and twenty minutes depending on how the schedule and that day’s operations work out. So if you can’t find a seat on an outbound train, you didn’t get to the station early enough. If you get to your train 90 seconds before its scheduled departure, you know you aren’t getting a seat. So afternoon train crowding doesn’t matter. If you want a seat, get to your train earlier, or head up to The Junction for a quick drink until the next train starts boarding and you can get a seat. Worth noting that Metra had no comments about AM peak boarding, which I think is more of a passenger issue since you don’t have a choice as to how crowded your morning train is: when it arrives at your station, it arrives: get on or get left behind. When you think about it, it’s stupid, but it’s human nature: give someone the option to stand and they may choose that option without thinking about it, but force that person to stand and they may be salty about it all the way downtown. Put another way, it’s a classic data issue: the raw numbers (and basic properties of mathematics) will tell you that x will always equal x, but in context of passenger experience, some x’s are more attractive than other x’s.

Moving on.

“Furthermore, the proposed schedule increases scheduled travel times from Union Station to Naperville by a full 25% (from 32 minutes to 40 minutes): and as your second-busiest station which deals with AM crowding in exchange for perhaps the best commuter rail express service in the country, this is probably a non-starter for a significant number of your riders.” The increase in time is a product of a two factors: the load balancing as mentioned in the previous point, as now the train is paired with Lisle. The other reason is that we used signal and GPS data to verify the run times, and it seems that 32 minutes is a bit aggressive. Please also note that schedules list departure times, and the times shown should be reflective of what actually is occurring.

I touched on this in a previous Diverging Approach entry: the schedule says 32 minutes from downtown to Naperville because at some point in the not-so-distant past it only took 32 minutes to get from downtown to Naperville. Now it apparently no longer takes 32 minutes to get from downtown to Naperville. That’s fine, but maybe there should be a stronger focus on why it no longer takes 32 minutes to get from downtown to Naperville instead of just throwing an extra eight minutes (and a new stop at Lisle) at the problem and considering it addressed.

“The existing schedule is complicated enough as it is — in two instances, I personally get back to LaGrange Road sooner on certain express trains that leave after earlier local trains”. We are not quite sure what to make of this criticism – express trains do have shorter run times. Express trains can utilize the third track and sometimes have to pass or “overtake” another train.

I’m all for having express trains, don’t get me wrong. Express trains are great. Every suburb wants their own express train. But this blog advocates Sustainable Transit for All Riders: Leisure, Infrequent, New, and Experienced, so we advocate for things to be as straightforward and as simple as possible. If you’re not familiar with Metra and you pull out your Ventra app to head to LaGrange from downtown during the weekday peak, here’s what you see:

BLAZE IT 4/20! #weednumber #nice

An embarrassment of riches for trains back to LaGrange. But in the above screenshot, the 4:53pm train arrives LaGrange Road before the 4:48pm, and the 5:41pm train arrives LaGrange Road before the 5:36pm train. There are plenty of very good reasons to have suburb-to-suburb local trains sprinkled into the peak-period schedule — we’ll happily advocate for that any day of the week since not everyone commutes to downtown and back — but the above is the customer interface for people who aren’t fluent in the BNSF paper schedule. If you’re trying to gain ridership, especially for infrequent riders, that should be more clearly communicated in the schedule. Furthermore, Metra customer service staff deployed to the downtown terminals for service disruptions don’t necessarily know there are express trains that will get some people home earlier than some local trains, which means sometimes staff will direct riders to the next train departing to their station regardless of whether it’s the fastest trip back to said station. And riders generally don’t like spending more time on a rush hour train than they have to. This I know from experience.

Here’s my fat ass telling a bunch of Union Station – North Concourse commuters that their commute home won’t be fun.

Express trains are good, as long as there’s a way to tell casual riders that this train is express. Metra’s network of express and local service is complicated enough as it is — another thing I’ve tried to address once or twice — and the proposed schedule just cranks up the confusion factor another notch. In an era of on-demand transportation options and flexible work schedules, pointing people to perplexing paper schedules is not an effective long-term approach to growing ridership. Find a way for the Ventra app schedules to be more user-friendly and this issue may become a moot point.

“In summary, with the coming changes of PTC, the way I see it Metra has two options: either work with the PTC implementation to fit the existing schedule as well as possible, or use this opportunity to throw out the existing BNSF schedule and rebuild it from scratch.” This is a fair description of the two options we were looking at in the beginning of this process. And to be clear, we ultimately took the former approach, as most proposed trains have an analogue in the current schedule. But we do anticipate that future schedules changes will be necessary as PTC matures.

At a high level, I think me and whoever is responding to my email are arguing two sides of the same coin: schedule revisions are not necessarily bad things, and wherever possible I agree that Metra should defer to the path of least resistance in terms of the current schedule: if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it; if it is broke, try to fix it in a way that affects the least amount of people who have built their weekly schedules around the trains. But when we’re on the edge of a precipice — changing the time to “flip”/change ends of a train from ten minutes to fifteen minutes on your busiest line, for instance — you might as well blow it up and start from scratch. Don’t be afraid to re-invent the wheel in a situation like this where a majority of your riders are going to see some impact. Metra has the data, they have a reason to change things up, they have a clear slate with CREATE to prioritize passenger trips during peak hours… be bold! Push the envelope! Try something new, call it a pilot, and see how it goes. Metra’s most vocal riders are notoriously cantankerous and will probably complain no matter what happens, so go ahead and break the commuter rail paradigm. If you’re going to change things up, lean into it and take some risks.

The suburbs want Metra to succeed. It isn’t a zero sum game. A stronger commuter rail connection to downtown and the rest of Chicago make the suburbs more livable and more attractive to the millennial demographic being priced out of Chicago but still seeking a car-optional community to move into. But that requires Metra to adapt to a changing demographic and a changing target market, a market that may not take the train downtown Monday through Friday during the traditional peaks, but is more likely to leave the car at home and take the train for fun on the weekend.

Again, thank you for your comments. We are currently evaluating the customer feedback and seeing if some of the common concerns can be accommodated.


This is admittedly a little nit-picky, but I would’ve been a little more satisfied if a personal response to my comments was signed by an individual, not by “Metra” as a whole. Granted, knowing Metra, the response was composed and vetted by a team of workers, but still, sign it as a response from a person. And that gets into a larger point of the post as well as the post title. The entire tone of the email response — while quite thorough, which is much appreciated — is focused more around justifying the decisions made in the proposed schedule and less around being open to input from the public on the process. Of course, Metra did ask for input on the proposed schedule, so that’s a good step forward, but their public involvement process hasn’t evolved beyond where the public sector was fifteen or twenty years ago. In the planning sector, we would roll our eyes and refer to this strategy as the “DAD” method: Decide, Announce, Defend. On the surface, the agency is asking for public input, but they’ve already decided what they wanted to do, announced how they’re going to do it, and are now defending how they’re going about doing it.

The more recent evolution of public involvement focuses on a context-sensitive solutions (CSS) method, which focuses on agencies focusing on building consensus with affected stakeholders rather than a top-down approach from within the agency. While CSS is a little more difficult to implement with something that requires extensive technical knowledge — such as an operational change to railroad scheduling — a public involvement process that uses community consensus is a much more successful political sell than the old D-A-D method.

Once again, I’m not here to crap on Metra: the agency is using commuter rail best practices to update their schedules in anticipation of PTC, which include a data-oriented approach to schedule revisions. While I do take issue with their mode of public engagement, the agency is (or was, since the BNSF comment period closed four days ago) seeking public input on their proposals, and I’m hoping Metra received some good, productive comments on their proposed schedule that the agency can use to make the new schedule more robust, more reliable, and more attractive to more present and potential riders. PTC implementation will be a paradigm shift throughout the commuter rail industry, and we’re here to encourage and support Metra in being an industry leader to use this opportunity to change the old commuter rail paradigm to be more rider-friendly and become a more attractive transportation alternative to Uber/Lyft and driving, both during the daily commute and for choice leisure trips during off-peak periods.

And I look forward to continued public outreach for schedule revisions to Metra’s other rail lines, since I’ll be happy to offer more constructive criticism and progressive ideas to help encourage more peak and off-peak ridership for Metra.

While you’re here, we’re announcing our first social outing for Star:Line at the new Rosemont minor league baseball stadium on Friday, June 15! Easily accessible from Metra’s North Central Service (and also accessible from CTA and Pace service to the Rosemont CTA station), come join us as we ride trains, drink beer, talk transportation, and watch baseball. Event details are over on our Facebook page.