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.

Week Ahead In Transit – April 15, 2018

Happy Tax Day (although this year taxes aren’t due until Tuesday)! Every Sunday, I’m going to try to post a rundown of what’s ahead for next week in terms of Chicago-area transit, appropriately named Week Ahead In Transit (WAIT). Here’s what’s coming up this week.

On the ‘L’

  • Red Line trains may be single-tracked between Grand and Cermak-Chinatown overnight.
  • Blue Line trains may be single-tracked between Clark/Lake and Damen.
  • Northbound Brown Line trains may use the Red Line tracks at Belmont late night.

On CTA buses

  • A handful of minor reroutes, but nothing too major.
  • The new South Terminal at 95th/Dan Ryan is now open.

On Pace

  • Some minor reroutes and stop relocations are occurring, but nothing too major.
  • Pace and IDOT are hosting a ribbon-cutting ceremony for bus-on-shoulder operation on the Edens at 10am on Monday. Routes 620 and 626 are now allowed to use the right shoulder of the Edens between Foster Avenue and Skokie Highway.

On Metra

Diverging Approach: Schrödinger’s Delay

Metra has a board meeting coming up next Wednesday, which means @OnTheMetra will update their Twitter profile with Metra’s updated on-time performance figure, with a healthy dose of snark. (You’ll be able to livestream the board meeting here.) Metra’s on-time performance remains something of an inside joke among regular Metra commuters, since it’s always significantly higher than it feels. February’s on-time performance (OTP) was officially 92.3%, which sounds high but officially is one of Metra’s lowest OTP in quite awhile. (Metra had a streak of more than two years with OTP above 95%.) As far as peer agencies go, Metra’s OTP is actually pretty impressive: the Boston T’s commuter rail OTP is usually in the low-90s; likewise with CalTrain in the San Francisco Bay area; the Long Island Rail Road in New York City trends in the mid-80s; and Philly’s SEPTA muddles in the low-80s. So we should count our blessings that suburban Chicago has one of the best performing commuter rail systems in the country, right?

Kinda. (I mean, of course I’m grateful for Metra — believe it or not, Diverging Approach and Star:Line aren’t solely intended to crap on Metra all the time. Relative to other commuter railroads, Metra isn’t terrible. But it could be so much better and so much more user-friendly, which is where we come in.)

Let’s back up and go over how commuter rail agencies determine on-time performance. A train is considered “on-time” if it arrives at its last station within 5:59 (5 minutes, 59 seconds) of its scheduled arrival time. So for instance, BNSF Saturday train #1312 is scheduled to arrive at Chicago Union Station at 12:47pm. If that train arrives at Union Station at 12:52:59pm, that train still arrived “on time”. In the grand scheme of things, six minutes isn’t the end of the world, so on its surface it’s a decent metric for an agency that runs rail lines that can be over sixty miles long.

But Metra — and, to be fair, most other commuter rail agencies — figured out they can game the system a bit. Going back to the common thread of “Metra moves trains, not people“, the last line of the Metra schedule gets a little fuzzy as far as what it’s meant to tell you. Since no one boards the train at the last station, there’s really no incentive for the time of arrival shown to have much bearing on reality other than maintaining a respectable on-time performance. Put another way, imagine doing online tracking of a package from UPS or FedEx. They might tell you that your package will be delivered “today before 7:00pm”. Your package could arrive at 2pm or 6:59pm, and in either case, they were right. Your package arrived on-time. Again, this doesn’t seem to be that big of a deal on the surface: if Metra gets me downtown earlier than they said they were going to, cool. More time downtown to do fun stuff.

And here’s the catch: with an on-time performance goal of 95%, all Metra has to do is to make sure that last time listed on the schedule for the train is within six minutes of actual arrival times for 95% of trips. If on-time performance starts to slip, just slide those arrival times back a few minutes until 95% of the trains are on-time again, even though the train is actually slowing down for whatever reason. And again, that’s fine… if you adjust the entire schedule. Metra doesn’t.

Here’s Metra’s inbound Saturday BNSF schedule from April 2007.


And here’s Metra’s current inbound Saturday BNSF schedule.

Kudos for adding capacity for four more bikes over the last ten years.

These are almost the exact same schedule. Same number of trains, same departure times leaving Aurora, same intermediate stop times. Trains 1300, 1302, 1304, 1322, and 1324 are literally the exact same.

But look at the rest of those trains and what time they arrive at Union Station. I mentioned train #1312 earlier (and you thought it was a random example!), which still leaves Western Avenue at 12:24pm but now takes an extra five minutes to travel the four miles into Union Station. Did something happen with the tracks between Western Avenue and Union Station that dramatically slowed down trains? According to the same current schedule, Western Avenue to Union Station can be made in 15 minutes or less (weekday train #1296). So why do those middle trains take longer to go from Western Avenue to Union Station?

Three words: heavy passenger loading.

Maybe Metra’s worst excuse for delayed trains (“we didn’t anticipate so many people wanting to ride the train!”), those trains tend to be the most delayed for a variety of reasons: could be track construction, could be freight train interference, could be signal issues, could be anything, but quite often it’s because so many people got on the train earlier on the line and the train needed extra time to board everyone. (You’d think that delays frequent enough to require schedule changes would trigger someone to think that maybe there’s enough ridership to support more than one train every two hours in the afternoon, but here we are.) But once again, Metra only needs to make sure that 95% of trains get downtown before the last time listed on the schedule, so they can keep sliding that last arrival time back further and further to maintain a favorable OTP. (Construction schedules are particularly egregious in this respect. Thirty-four minutes to go from Clybourn to Ogilvie!) And this happens throughout the system, not just on the BNSF. If the train was hauling a commodity, the schedule makes perfect sense: we’ll pick up three tons of corn at LaGrange at 12:03pm; have the shipment ready at that time and we’ll pick it up then or shortly thereafter, and we’ll get it downtown no later than 12:47pm. But once again, Metra is – or at least needs to start thinking of themselves as – a transit agency, and people are not bulk commodities to be shipped. The value of time for a suburban resident waiting on a train is significantly higher than a farmer’s yield, and as we’ve seen throughout the country, transit riders aren’t afraid to pay a premium for prompt rideshare service instead of waiting.

The following graphic shows the longest duration in the current schedule between the second-to-last station and the downtown terminal for each line, and the corresponding travel time approaching the second-to-last station, including additional stops the train makes. As you can see, in some cases the schedule shows the train taking as long to travel the final few miles as it does to travel halfway down the line and make other stops on the way in.

This isn't exclusively a Metra issue, but it's still an issue.

This leads to a situation I call a “Schrödinger’s Delay” that pisses off riders and ends up being a self-inflicted wound for Metra, since the train is simultaneously delayed and on-time. Let’s go back to BNSF Saturday train #1312, which I frequently use to head downtown on the weekend. That train is scheduled to pick me up at LaGrange Road at 12:03pm, and it’s usually late. As mentioned earlier, weekday train #1296 can run Western Avenue to Union Station in 15 minutes (and that likely includes some time padding as well), but the Saturday schedule gives train #1312 a gratuitous 23 minutes. So we know there’s already at least eight minutes of time padding in there. Throw in the 5:59 grace minutes, and a train can arrive at LaGrange Road as late as 12:16pm, make all the scheduled stops 13 minutes behind schedule, and arrive at Union Station officially “on time”.

From an optics perspective, waiting on the platform in the elements (outside a station that’s locked on weekends) for a train that picks you up 13 minutes late just to have Metra tell you, “no, that train was actually on time“, is probably not the best long-term strategy for Metra and won’t help to attract new riders or make the system any easier to use. Even worse, regular riders can get used to the delay and know to show up a few minutes late until eventually the train comes as scheduled, and then people complain about Metra being on time. (Side note: be nice to @Metra on social media. There is an actual person who reads all the tweets.)

I understand that this issue is not specific to Metra, but honestly I don’t think that matters. If you want to build your ridership and make the system more user-friendly, revise your schedules regularly to reflect actual operating conditions, don’t just keep throwing extra minutes at the end of the line. If Metra wants to keep touting their on-time performance with monthly press releases (that mysteriously stopped coming out once OTP slipped below 95% starting last December), fine, but at least maintain some internal metric regarding schedule adherence and try to create some accountability to have schedules that match what riders expect, especially when you’re only running one train every hour or two hours. We live in the age of Uber and Lyft, where I can randomly choose to summon a stranger on the internet to pick me up and they’ll tell me exactly where he is and how long he’ll take to come get me; it’s not to much to ask for that, if I’m going out of my way to get on a train that comes once every two hours, that train comes when you say it’s going to come… and if it’s late, admit it’s late, and put some effort into making sure it won’t be late again.

Reminder: Metra is still accepting comments on the proposed revisions to the BNSF weekday schedule. (No changes to the weekend schedule are proposed at this time, so everything above will likely continue to be true for awhile.) We have plenty of issues with the proposed schedule, and we’ve submitted our comments, but we encourage you to give your feedback to Metra as well. The comment period closes Sunday, April 15; send your comments to BNSFservice2018@metrarr.com.

Diverging Approach: Our Map, Revisited

Editor’s Note #2: The latest and greatest (May 2019) version of the map is here. This post is maintained for posterity.

Editor’s Note: In June 2018 we released an updated version of our map, which can be viewed here.

This weekend, an old post‘s web traffic spiked thanks to some people sharing this site on Twitter. As some of you know by now, I created my own version of Metra’s system map for our use here at The Yard Social Club; and as many of you have pointed out, it’s confusing as hell. But that was also kind of the point: Metra’s system and schedules are incredibly complex, and trying to pin down what a transit map of one of America’s largest commuter rail networks would look like was a challenge. As Daniel Kay Hertz pointed out in his tweet, our map tries to show 53 different service patterns as straightforward as possible, although even that is understating the complexity: there are plenty of trains that make (or don’t make) particular stops while otherwise largely conforming to the system I came up with. And I really didn’t even bother trying to decipher the UP-N line, which any casual commuter would definitely need a timetable to fully understand since the trains don’t seem to follow any particular pattern. If you made each particular stopping pattern its own designation, you’d easily get into the hundreds.

This is because Metra says they run a railroad rather than a transit system. The commodity they haul tends to be commuters and travelers, but otherwise the historic railroad mentality is still there. Trains run per the timetable, full stop. Whether the timetable makes any sense or makes commuter rail more attractive to infrequent users is besides the point: the train runs when the train runs, get on it or don’t. The entire point of this blog is to try to nudge Metra into doing little things that would make the system more attractive to casual users without totally reinventing the steel wheel, and there will undoubtedly be future blog posts about this as well.

But in the meantime, to the map.

While the focus and the primary visual focus is on the lettering scheme, there’s more here than meets the eye. As a Facebook commenter noted:

You know, initially I wanted to make a snarky remark that your map looked like someone read Vignelli’s [landmark New York City] subway map and did away with the useful cleanliness and vomited symbols onto it, but after staring at it for a few minutes it’s actually really useful in describing the multitude of short-turns and limited services.

But buried in the legend of the map is what I think is the most useful change: changing the long name of each line away from the legacy/host railroads and into something different. The legacy/host railroad naming scheme made more sense when the RTA first formed Metra back in the early 1980s, but thirty-odd years later it leaves us with a system that’s just that much more difficult to understand unless you’re a daily commuter. For instance, today Metra has two North Lines, two West Lines, a Northwest Line, and a North Central line (which is officially named a “Service” rather than a “Line”). The Union Pacific lines don’t serve Union Station. The Heritage Corridor is named after a canal. The Metra Electric line has three distinct branches.

We can do better.

When I created The Yard Social Club’s map, in addition to the lettering scheme, I came up with ten corridor names as well. (I folded the North Central Service mostly into the Milwaukee West line, for reasons to be explained later.) In my scheme, I named the lines after a parallel road or freeway that would be used to drive into Chicago if you didn’t take the train: if you would usually drive downtown on the Edens, the Edens Corridor trains would probably be a good alternative. If you live along Ogden Avenue, the Ogden Corridor train is nearby. Of course, this system still isn’t foolproof since roads don’t necessarily parallel the rails, but by and large it works. Wherever possible I tried to use a parallel freeway corridor (so the UP-NW is the Kennedy Corridor rather than the Northwest [Highway] Corridor), with the exception of the Eisenhower since both the UP-W and BNSF lines relieve the Ike.

So here’s how it shakes out, with the lettering scheme as well:

  • A/B – Sheridan Corridor ServiceA: Union Pacific North Line trains to Kenosha
    • B: Union Pacific North Line trains to Waukegan
  • C/D – Kennedy Corridor ServiceC: Union Pacific Northwest Line trains to Harvard
    • D: Union Pacific Northwest Line trains to McHenry
  • E – Roosevelt Corridor ServiceE: Union Pacific West Line trains to Elburn
  • F – Reserved for future use
  • G/H – Edens Corridor ServiceG: Milwaukee North Line trains to Fox Lake
    • H: North Central Service trains to Antioch via Libertyville
  • I/J/K – Grand Corridor ServiceI: North Central Service trains to Antioch via O’Hare
    • J: Milwaukee West Line trains to Elgin
    • K: Milwaukee West Line trains to Big Timber Road
  • L – Stevenson Corridor ServiceL: Heritage Corridor trains to Joliet via Lemont
  • M/N/O/P – Ogden Corridor ServiceM: BNSF Railway express service, Aurora-Lisle-Downers Grove
    • N: BNSF Railway local service to Aurora and express service to Naperville-Route 59
    • O: BNSF Railway express service, Fairview Avenue-Hinsdale
    • P: BNSF Railway local service to Brookfield and express service to Highlands-Congress Park
  • Q – Southwest Corridor ServiceQ: SouthWest Service trains to Manhattan
  • R/S – Dan Ryan Corridor ServiceR: Rock Island trains to Joliet via Vincennes Avenue
    • S: Rock Island trains to Joliet via Beverly/Morgan Park
  • T: Reserved for future use
  • U/V/W/X/Y/Z – Lake Shore Corridor ServiceU: Metra Electric trains (express and local) to University Park
    • V: Metra Electric trains to Blue Island via Hyde Park
    • W: Metra Electric trains to South Chicago via Hyde Park
    • X: Metra Electric express service, Kensington-Harvey
    • Y: Metra Electric express service, Hazel Crest-Flossmoor
    • Z: Metra Electric express service, Olympia Fields-University Park
View this hot mess as a PDF.

The lettering system generally increases in a counterclockwise direction from north to south with a focus on consolidating adjacently-lettered lines into the same terminals. Extra care was taken for future flexibility: “F” is reserved for either a Milwaukee North branch extension (in which case the branch west of Rondout would change to form a useful mnemonic – “F” to Fox Lake, “G” to Gurnee) or a different stopping format on the Union Pacific West Line, which is currently completing a full third track and could conceivably host service as robust as the BNSF. When the CREATE 75th Street Corridor Improvement Plan happens and SouthWest Service trains begin terminating at LaSalle Street, the lettering scheme still holds (with LaSalle hosting Q/R/S trains). “T” trains are reserved for a potential SouthEast Service, which occasionally is brought up for consideration.

  • A/B/C/D/E – Ogilvie Transportation Center
  • G/H/I/J/K – Union Station, North Concourse
  • L/M/N/O/P/Q – Union Station, South Concourse
  • R/S – LaSalle Street Station
  • U/V/W/X/Y/Z – Millennium Station

The background shape of each letter changes based on the train’s format: circles (or parentheses) indicate a typical local service; diamonds (or angled brackets) indicate an express service; and squares (or square brackets) indicate a short-turn local service. While they’re shown on this map, they aren’t necessarily intended to be used for navigation. However, on this map they are useful to show new or infrequent riders what kind of service serves each suburban station. For instance, I grew up in Itasca; on the map, the variety of icons next to the station map show that local (J) and (K) trains will stop at Itasca, and Itasca also has express <J> service during the peak hour. I took that a step further when creating our Weekend Guides, with each train shown also represented by a lettered icon for quick reference: “oh, this is a circle train, it’ll probably make most local stops” or “this is a diamond train, it’s going to run express”. In a perfect world, Metra would have some sort of visual that could be included on the train itself for better identification purposes — every time I’m on a train passing through the Milwaukee North/West Western Avenue station, the conductor has to jump off the train and yell what kind of train it is, which probably worked fine back in the 1950s but doesn’t really pass muster in the age of the Americans with Disabilities Act.

If you love trains and like drinking (or if you like trains and love drinking, we don’t judge), check out our Weekend Guides. There’s a Google Maps version if you’re looking for bars on the go.

There’s a lot going on in our map, but that’s also kind of the point. Hopefully by showing off just how complicated the Metra network is, we can start discussing ways to make the system easier to use, easier to understand, and less intimidating for infrequent riders.

Week Ahead In Transit – April 9, 2018

Every Sunday, I’m going to try to post a rundown of what’s ahead for next week in terms of Chicago-area transit, appropriately named Week Ahead In Transit (WAIT). Here’s what’s coming up this week.

  • On the ‘L’:Red Line trains may be single-tracked between Grand and Cermak-Chinatown overnight.
    • Northbound Brown Line trains may use the Red Line tracks at Belmont late night.
  • On CTA buses: A handful of minor reroutes, but nothing too major.
  • On Pace: Some minor reroutes and stop relocations are occurring, but nothing too major.
  • On Metra: The comment period for the upcoming BNSF schedule changes is open through April 15. I whined about it on Diverging Approach earlier this week. Email your comments to Metra at BNSFservice2018@metrarr.com.
    • Modified schedules begin tomorrow (Monday, April 9) on the UP-N line to accommodate for construction. Metra will be replacing a dozen century-old bridges on the North Side of the city and will need to do some single-tracking.
  • Elsewhere:IDOT and the City of Joliet will be hosting a public meeting for the Interstate 55 at Illinois Route 59 Access Project on Wednesday (April 11) night. The meeting will be held in Building U at Joliet Junior College from 4pm to 7pm.

Diverging Approach: Getting Territorial

For weekday midday travelers on the Milwaukee North line during the month of April, Metra’s implementing a bus shuttle between Grayslake and Fox Lake to perform some track maintenance. On most other lines, when tracks need maintenance they’ll just run on a modified schedule and change tracks, but the northernmost reaches of the Milwaukee North line are a rare single-track stretch of the system. So Metra is running a bus shuttle between the four outermost MD-N stations and Grayslake instead. And, in classic Metra style, it couldn’t be more ineffective: the bus shuttle will stop at the four outlying stations at or near the scheduled train times, but inbound buses will miss the connection at Grayslake and riders are expected to wait until the next inbound train, which runs 45-60 minutes later. I can’t make this up. I’ve always joked that Metra focuses on moving trains instead of moving people, but come on man. From the schedule, it’s clear that Metra expects the (single) bus in the shuttle to operate just like the train it’s replacing, but either hold the inbound train from Grayslake to pick up the people being bused or hold the bus at Fox Lake and issue a bus schedule that makes a timed transfer to the following train at Grayslake.

But, of course, Metra doesn’t employ any staff who schedule buses like the CTA or Pace do. (Not that this would be a terribly hard schedule to come up with.) But that leads me to a more holistic question on the three transit boards that make up our Regional Transportation Authority:

What, exactly, would you say you DO here?

Let’s let the agencies tell us, in their own words.

In other words:

  • CTA: We move people.
  • Pace: We move people.
  • Metra: We move trains.

Metra digs in deeper with their corresponding vision statement, which directly jumps to “be a world-class commuter rail agency”. This kind of official mission and vision statement paints Metra into a bit of a corner: they run trains, and any solution they offer needs to be steel-wheel-on-steel-wheel. The closest Metra came to breaking that paradigm was in the old plans for the STAR Line, which would run smaller, independently-powered train cars known as Diesel Multiple Units, or DMUs, which are functionally similar to the trains on the Electric Line but powered by diesel instead of overhead wires. (This is partially why our advocacy group is named Star:Line.) The STAR Line would have run on new tracks along Interstate 90 between Rosemont and near where the Sears Center is now, then use the Elgin, Joliet, and Eastern (EJ&E) railroad paralleling the Fox River Valley down to Joliet. (The nail in the coffin for the STAR Line was the Canadian National Railroad buying out the EJ&E and using it as their freight bypass of Chicago, which greatly increased the number of trains on the EJ&E, precluding transit service.)

But now Pace is starting to creep into Metra’s wheelhouse with their express bus offerings along Interstate 55 and Interstate 94 starting next Monday. Pace, which is now allowed to pass slow traffic on I-55 by hopping onto the shoulder, expanded their bus ridership in the I-55 corridor by 600% since their on-time performance percentage jumped from the low- to mid-60s to over 90%. Simply stated, Metra can’t compete: the I-55 corridor runs through a gap in Metra service (except the Heritage Corridor, which is restricted to three inbound and four outbound trains a day due to track congestion), offers free park-and-ride lots, and has fares significantly lower than Metra from the southwest suburbs. The model probably isn’t sustainable — Pace doesn’t make money on free parking — but the numbers don’t lie, the service is successful. (It’ll be fun to watch the effect of the I-55 managed lanes once they get built — and fun to see what happens during construction, if Pace buses can maintain their priority.)

The agencies within the RTA aren’t known for their close coordination, and Pace’s downtown express services are a great example of that. Metra’s board has publicly mused as to whether Pace is “stealing” Metra riders. Luckily, the RTA’s best kept secret has the answer to that. Pace’s monthly ridership data — as well as Metra’s and the CTA’s — are all posted there on RTAMS, and the data is pretty clear: as Pace ridership in the I-55 corridor exploded, Metra’s southern feeder routes for the BNSF Line lost ridership. (See the disclosure at the end of this post for important side notes.) Intuitively, it makes sense: Pace and Metra don’t have a coordinated fare structure (other than a discounted bus pass you can tack onto a Metra monthly ticket, which is poorly publicized on Metra’s website and hides under the “Ventra app” tab), so the incentive to take a Pace feeder route to Metra depends solely on whether it’s cost-effective in some other way: if the round-trip bus trip costs less than daily parking in Naperville, Lisle, or Downers Grove (spoiler: it doesn’t), or if the park-and-ride lots in those communities fill up too early and there’s a scarcity of parking — which does actually happen. (Crazy to think that parking scarcity would encourage transit use… someone should really look into that.) So why would you pay to park at a Metra station, or take a Pace bus to get onto a Metra train, when you can just drive down to the I-55 corridor, park for free, and take a one-seat trip to downtown for less cost than a Metra trip? (The answer is “because Metra goes really really fast during rush hour“, but that’s an equation that gets less favorable the further away you live from the BNSF.)

Now we can start thinking a little more holistically: Metra is worried about Pace “stealing” Metra riders, but Metra’s train-only focus puts blinders on potential solutions. In a perfect world, with three different transit agencies under the same umbrella, the three would have better specialization of tasks. And you could argue that they are specialized: Metra runs trains, Pace runs buses, and CTA does both. But since Metra and Pace don’t have coordinated fares, the system in the suburbs will never reach its peak efficiency for the feeder route dilemma previously mentioned. But there is a solution:

Divide the three agencies by market segment, not by service offered. The old saying goes, when you have a hammer, every problem looks like a nail, and that’s what we’ve been seeing with Metra and Pace. Metra runs trains; their options to improve suburban transit service almost exclusively revolve around line extensions and capacity improvements. Pace runs buses; their options to improve suburban transit service revolve around making buses run faster and more reliably. That’s not to say either of those approaches are inherently bad, but the system can’t live up to its potential when the two systems don’t play nicely with each other.

So here’s how I would reorganize the three agencies:

  • CTA: Focus on intra-Chicago/inner-ring suburban trips.
  • Metra: Focus on suburbs-to-downtown trips.
  • Pace: Focus on suburb-to-suburb trips.

In Pace’s defense, they’ve been doing a great job with this goal already. Pulse is rolling out along the first few arterials (although it’s not true “bus rapid transit” as they’ve occasionally advertised), and the enhanced I-90 service feeding into Schaumburg and Rosemont effectively serves as the east-west portion of the original STAR Line plans. But maybe Pace would be better off leaving the feeder bus routes to Metra, so Metra could offer fare-coordinated service with better timed transfers to their trains. Metra could take over the Interstate 55 corridor buses and operate them as an extension (or even replacement) of the Heritage Corridor, freed from the restrictions of the heavy rail traffic in that corridor with more flexibility to add service to the southwest suburbs, which desperately needs more high-speed transit options to Chicago.

And then there are the off-peak potentials. This may sound sacrilege for someone who built this website around organizing train crawls, but a fleet of Metra buses could allow Metra to right-size off-peak service in the outer fringe of the service area and improve frequency in their more profitable and higher-ridership bands. For instance, imagine if instead of running weekend UP-NW trains out to Harvard, you could stop all the trains at Crystal Lake and give free transfers to buses to Woodstock and Harvard (and hell, maybe McHenry too, which currently has no off-peak service). While Harvard and Woodstock may at first resent losing rail service, stopping outbound trains at Crystal Lake would save 25-29 minutes each way, which means you could save a full hour on a round trip run. Roll that over throughout the entire off-peak and you maybe can have hourly headways all weekend long between Crystal Lake and downtown.

Although if there’s anything we can learn from Metra’s current foray into bus replacement on the MD-N, maybe we’re still a few more years away from trusting Metra with buses.

Disclosure: As a previous Metra employee, I had a small role in assisting with Metra’s Strategic Plan, but not the Mission and Vision statements. Also as a Metra employee, I performed a thorough analysis of Pace I-55 ridership relative to ridership changes on the BNSF, SWS, and HC Lines. However, as an internal document that has not been approved for public review, ethically I will not use any exact data, figures, or charts from that project here at The Yard Social Club or Star:Line Chicago. But the raw data I used remains accessible on RTAMS, if anyone wants to dive in.

Diverging Approach: A Letter to Metra

Based on our previous post, I went ahead and sent an email to Metra reflecting my thoughts on the proposed BNSF schedule. For some of you reading this, this is the inaugural post of Star:Line Chicago, so enjoy! This is the kind of advocacy we’ll be rolling out in the future. As a reminder, if you want to send in your own comments to Metra for their proposed BNSF changes, shoot an email over to BNSFservice2018@metrarr.com.

To whom it may concern:
I am writing in regards to the proposed changes to Metra’s BNSF schedule.  First and foremost, I would like to thank Metra for opening up the proposed schedule changes to public comment.  Seeking feedback from your riders on proposed schedule changes is admirable, and I sincerely hope the input you receive is both constructive and instructive as to what Metra’s ridership would prefer in changes to existing service.
Secondly, I would like to thank Metra for taking the initiative to add additional time when flipping trains. While I am aware that investments in Positive Train Control (PTC) are prompting this recommended change, additional buffer time between trains will help Metra maintain schedule adherence and help absorb minor delays when they occur so late trains don’t get any later.  This is an admirable goal, and I thank Metra for pursuing it.  However, having reviewed the proposed schedule changes, I have many concerns about how this will affect BNSF ridership — myself included as a regular commuter from LaGrange Road.
First and foremost, I don’t understand why additional time to flip trains is required as part of PTC implementation.  For Metra and the BNSF to spend tens of millions of dollars on a safety system that can’t be operated in push-pull mode seems to be a significant missed opportunity. Furthermore, while I understand both Metra and BNSF treat safety as job number one (as they should), the utility of an entirely separate job briefing when flipping a train — even if the train is deadheading back to Union Station or to an outlying terminal — seems wasteful and could easily be consolidated into a briefing at the beginning of a dedicated out-and-back run rather than a trip in each direction.  As such, I am not convinced that the BNSF requires as much additional time to flip the train as reported by Metra and the BNSF.
Secondly, while adjusting schedules to address crowding issues in the AM Peak is admirable, adjusting schedules for PM Peak crowding is not needed.  Bluntly stated, riders on outbound trains who cannot find seats during the afternoon peak simply did not arrive at Union Station early enough.  If riders barely make the outbound departure and must stand, so be it: I am sure that many Naperville/Route 59 riders would rather stand for 32 minutes than sit on a train that takes 45+ minutes to reach their stations.  However, riders on inbound trains in the morning do not have that luxury; the train is as crowded as it is when it gets to your station and boarding passengers must deal with it.  While an additional inbound express train from Aurora-Route 59-Naperville was added in the proposed schedule, the new schedule shifts the morning peak period deeper into the midday period, with some express trains arriving at Union Station after 9am.  Adding that additional Aurora-Route 59-Naperville express train comes at the expense of pushing a Lisle-Hinsdale express train to arrive at Union Station after 9am as well as pushing a Fairview Avenue-Congress Park train to arrive at Union Station at 8:59am.  As I’m sure most of the comments you’re receiving will tell you, in my experience the busiest trains of the AM peak period arrive downtown before 8:30am.  Pushing some of these trains to arrive at Union Station later will encourage existing riders to move to earlier trains, which is not only an inconvenience (no one wants to wake up earlier) but also adds additional riders to trains you want to decongest, which is counter-intuitive.  To address crowding at Naperville, I recommend instead converting the morning schedule to something more similar to the afternoon schedule, where Aurora riders utilize Lisle-Belmont-Downers Main trains and reserve dedicated express service to Route 59 and Naperville (your #1 and #2 suburban ridership stations).
Thirdly, the changes to the PM Peak schedule unnecessarily complicate the schedule, which raises an additional barrier to entry for new or infrequent riders.  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 — but this proposed schedule takes that to an entirely different level.  The proposed schedule aligns express trains to arrive slightly after earlier local/other express trains, so intermediate riders who may not be coming from downtown will miss potential connections by a matter of minutes.  Currently, trains can be grouped into roughly four express zones: Aurora/Lisle-Belmont-Downers Main, Naperville/Route 59, Hinsdale-Fairview Avenue, and Congress Park-Highlands. Some trains will combine two of those zones, but otherwise the schedule is pretty consistent. Under the proposed schedule changes, however, west of Hinsdale riders will need to know what individual trains stop at their station in extreme detail, since the stopping patterns on the proposed trains do not appear to follow much rhyme or reason.  This again contributes to a significant barrier for potential new riders and makes the system much more unfriendly, and has the potential to make significant delay situations at Union Station that much more inefficient and problematic for riders.  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.
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, focusing on existing and projected ridership habits and trends to create a schedule that prioritizes moving riders, not trains.  Instead, it appears that Metra is taking the bold approach of doing neither of those, tweaking the existing schedule somewhat arbitrarily rather than doing something truly bold and squandering an opportunity to reverse the slow loss of ridership from the BNSF we’ve seen for the past several years.  Metra’s BNSF service is an absolute asset to the entire Chicago region, and I do not see how these schedule changes improve satisfaction of existing riders or encourages other commuters to become Metra riders.
I encourage Metra to use this opportunity to reimagine the entire BNSF schedule to better serve current and potential riders and to take these considerations into account when adjusting schedules on other Metra lines as PTC continues to roll out.
Once again, I appreciate the opportunity to provide feedback on the proposed BNSF schedule changes, and I look forward to supporting Metra in the agency’s goal to provide better transit service for suburban Chicago.
As a reminder, today we’re rolling out STAR:LINE Chicago, The Yard Social Club’s new transit advocacy group focusing on the Chicago suburbs. We’re on Facebook, on Twitter, on Instagram, and right here on Diverging Approach.

Diverging Approach: Metra’s Proposed BNSF Schedule Changes

I was initially planning on using my next Diverging Approach entry to discuss fare capping, which is a new kind of fare structure that gets rid of ten-ride and monthly passes in favor of a system of tracking fare purchases which then apply automatic discounts when a rider reaches a certain number of purchases in a designated period of time. Fare capping is a great way to make transit more affordable and attractive for lower-income riders without actually changing ticket prices, since riders no longer need to pay a large up-front fee for a monthly or weekly pass and discounts are automatically applied. GO Transit up in Toronto currently uses this system for their commuter rail service. (GO Transit also uses a proof-of-payment fare collection system similar to CalTrain in the Bay Area rather than Metra’s antiquated conductor system.)

However, two things happened: first, other people in the transit blogosphere created far better media than I could; and second, Metra decided to slide out a new proposed weekday schedule for the BNSF due to Positive Train Control (PTC) coming online. Go ahead and take a look, and compare it to the current schedule. (Weekend schedules are not affected at this time, thankfully.)

With PTC coming online, trains will need more time to flip at the end of their respective trips. According to Metra’s dedicated FAQ on the updates, BNSF anticipates a minimum required flip time of 12-15 minutes for the train crew to clear the train, check the brakes, have the engineer change ends of the train, initialize PTC, and perform a job briefing before the train can restart. (Why each flip requires a separate job briefing, I don’t know; seems to me like trains can be organized into runs like CTA trains and transit buses and have a single job briefing before the run as a whole instead of at the beginning of each trip.) Giving more time between flips is definitely worth looking at, PTC or not, just to ensure a higher level of service reliability and give trains more buffer time in case they start to fall behind, rather than the cascading delays that are relatively frequent along the congested BNSF corridor.

While popping the hood on the BNSF schedule, Metra rightfully chose to take a look at what can be done about passenger crowding as well, and that’s where things take a very ugly turn. Metra is proposing this new schedule to ease crowding with a particular focus on Naperville and Route 59, and they missed the mark pretty dramatically while making things objectively worse for just about every other station on the line.

One thing to make clear, from a mid-route rider’s perspective: trains feel more crowded in the morning than in the afternoon, whether or not there’s actually more people on the train. The reason is simple: in the morning, whenever you get on the train, if you want a seat you have to find what’s available based on passenger loads from the stations served by the train before it gets into your station. In the afternoon, on the other hand, if you want a seat, all you have to do is get to the train a little earlier since the train starts out empty in Union Station.

Any regular commuters from Naperville will tell you that even with the Aurora-Route 59-Naperville super-express trains in the morning, seats can be tough to come by. The proposed Metra BNSF schedule does not do much to address this: a ninth inbound express train was added to the schedule, but at the expense of moving the last inbound express train later to arrive at Union Station after 9:00am, as well as moving a second express train serving Lisle-Hinsdale after 9:00am, and moving a third express train serving Fairview Avenue-Congress Park to 8:59am. If your workday starts at 9:00am and you currently take those late expresses (which I would guess is a not-small portion of the downtown workforce), the proposed schedules will push those riders back further into the meatier part of the peak period, which may be counter-intuitive if you’re trying to decongest the trains. A better alternative would be to divorce Aurora from the Naperville-Route 59 trains, similar to the existing outbound express scheme. While this would require additional operating time to allow the train to travel the extra distance, it would give greater capacity to your busiest- and second-busiest stations outside of downtown on Metra’s most premium service.

There’s also a bizarre shadow express train running right behind a local-express train (Trains 1248 and 1250, if you’re playing along at home) between Fairview Avenue and LaGrange Road. Train 1250 almost catches train 1248 at LaGrange Road (eight minutes behind!) then follows in 1248’s wake even after 1248 stops at Western Avenue and Halsted Street to arrive at Union Station only five minutes behind 1248. I have no idea what’s going on with that train, other than potentially adding capacity to a handful of stations in the middle of the line (which probably could be accommodated by a longer train instead).

And then there’s the afternoon service, which is supposedly based on passenger loading but looks like Metra’s schedulers just drew stops out of a hat for the express peak service. When you’re trying to get more people to ride your trains, don’t make the schedule more intimidating and complicated.

Metra’s current outbound express pattern on the BNSF is plenty complicated, of course, but it can be grouped into the following general categories (as we’ve done on this site):

  • Downers/Main-Lisle + Aurora express trips (M trips)
  • Naperville/Route 59 super expresses (N trips)
    • Downers/Main-Aurora trips (MN trips)
  • Hinsdale-Fairview Avenue express trips (O trips)
  • Congress Park-Highlands express trips (P trips)
    • Hinsdale-Congress Park express trips (OP trips)
  • Brookfield local trips ([P] trips)
  • Full locals

The proposed schedule has the following trip formats for the far-out stations, moving from early to late:

  • 2 Downers/Main-Aurora express trips (not bad on the shoulders of the peak)
  • A Fairview Avenue-Aurora express trip (which, for extra credit, arrives at Fairview Avenue 9 minutes before the local train behind it, which precludes intermediate local trips through Downers Grove)
  • A Naperville-Aurora express trip (Aurora was split off of these trips a few years ago due to overcrowding issues…)
  • 3 Lisle-Naperville-Aurora express trips
  • 3 Downers/Main-Belmont + Route 59 express trips
  • A Hinsdale-Route 59 express trip (that doesn’t stop at Belmont, because reasons)
  • One last super-express Naperville-Route 59 trip
  • One last Downers/Main-Lisle + Aurora trip

If you live east of Downers Grove, the proposed changes are less dramatic, but maybe more significant. What we call the O-P zone (Congress Park-Fairview Avenue) lose express trains departing Union Station before 5:00pm, with the possible exception of a significantly-later limited train between Union Station and LaGrange Road, moving from 4:37pm to 4:52pm. Congress Park, which has shown relatively dramatic gains in ridership, is rewarded by losing an outbound train. West Hinsdale and Highlands also each lose an outbound afternoon train.

All in all, Metra has an opportunity to dramatically reshape the entire structure of the BNSF schedule to better serve riders (both current and potential new riders) with the introduction of PTC. However, the schedulers are still stuck in the mindset of simply tweaking the current schedule resulting in stopping patterns that resemble Swiss cheese and significantly raise the learning curve for new riders rather than throwing the whole thing out and starting new, which is what needs to be done. Instead of sneaking new trains in here and there and moving station stops from train to train, wipe the slate clean and try something bold. Metra will attract new riders if they made the BNSF easier and more intuitive to understand; or, in the absence of that, if they found a way to tighten up that 12-15 minute flip time and keep the current schedule that we’ve more or less gotten used to. (I’m currently writing this onboard an Amtrak train that flipped in Bloomington-Normal in about seven minutes while discharging and boarding passengers; not sure why that couldn’t be done on a Metra train.)

This schedule is going to really, really piss off people in Naperville, which may not be the constituency you want to piss off since they’re your second-busiest outlying station. Naperville riders deal with crowded morning trains to get their super-express service that gets you from Union Station to Naperville in 32 minutes; they will get their four super-expresses cut in half, with service instead stopping at Lisle and adding eight minutes to the trip – a 25% increase over today’s schedule. Route 59 riders — at Metra’s busiest outlying station — probably won’t be too pleased either, since their trains will also add a stop (Downers/Main and Belmont instead of only Naperville).

Faced with an opportunity to either strengthen the status quo or try something dramatically progressive and different, Metra is taking the bold stance of doing neither. Unfortunately, BNSF riders will bear the brunt of these changes and ridership will suffer.

TL;DR: Metra is making the schedule needlessly more complicated and should be using PTC implementation as an opportunity to reimagine BNSF service from scratch rather than moving the same trains around to make slightly different stops.

If you’d like to give Metra your two cents on the proposed service modifications, send an email to BNSFservice2018@metrarr.com by April 15. Or, if you want to make a scene about it, there’s a board meeting tomorrow morning at 10:30am.

St. Patrick’s Day Post-Mortem

First and foremost, thank you to everyone who tagged along on this year’s Itasca St. Patrick’s Day Parade. We had a great year, and this was one of our most well-attended St. Patrick’s Days in recent memory. The Yard Social Club began organizing Metra trips following the last “perfect storm” year where St. Patrick’s Day landed on a Saturday and the trains and downtown were far too crowded for our liking.

And, of course, this year was just like that as well.

First and foremost, even though we planned ahead and negotiated an official 65-person group rate with Metra, the railroad was still caught off-guard by just how deep we rolled from Itasca. While some of that was no doubt part of overall crowding on the system — our 9:23am train had a whopping ten cars, compared to the MD-W’s typical 6- or 7-car consist — no one told our train crew that they had a large group boarding at Itasca. Likewise for the flip trip on the 4:30pm train out of Union Station. I’m looking forward to touching base with Metra and giving them some constructive feedback based on our experience.

Secondly, I apparently wildly misjudged the level of interest in discounted tickets this year. Probably a combination of the Weekend Pass going up to $10 this year and me scaling back our group size after eating a few tickets last year, we had 63 of our 65 tickets spoken for before I arrived at the pre-party. While I’m happy that so many of you chose to use our online registration to get your tickets before the day of the event, having a better idea of the level of interest further ahead of the event would’ve allowed me to change the group size with Metra before the event and get more people in the discounted rate. (Metra’s Group Rates rules require any changes in group size to be submitted no later than 21 days before the event, and requires payment in full no later than 14 days before the event.) While I don’t think the base price will change for 2019, here’s an early warning: prices for tickets will go up for people who aren’t registered by the end of February.

Thirdly, downtown was far too crowded. I will give the Berghoff kudos for expanding their bar area, which made our traditional first stop much more enjoyable. However, our secret is officially out in regards to The Bar Below: while the bar wasn’t that crowded at first, bringing a group of 80 people to a single bar will wildly swing how crowded that bar feels and how fast we can get drinks at the bar.

The good news is, thanks to some upcoming leap years, the next “perfect storm” year won’t happen until 2029. Hopefully next year will be a little less crowded downtown. That said, I did have a few ideas to make next year run smoother for all of us:

  • Earlier coordination with Metra. I plan on working more closely with Metra next year to make sure Metra has a better idea of what to expect when we roll into Itasca. We get our discounted ticket rate by using Metra’s group fares, which means Metra (theoretically) knows to expect a huge group to board on certain trains. While Metra can’t guarantee private train cars for groups (obviously), if the train crew knows ahead of time to expect a group of 80 people, they usually try to hold a car for us. (Each Metra car officially seats about 125 people.)
  • Variable trains home. Every year, some people opt out of our discounted group tickets since that 4:30pm outbound trip isn’t attractive for many people. (I know others of you just humor me and buy our discounted tickets, knowing you’ll need an extra fare to get back to the suburbs — and I thank you for that.) However, with a large enough group, we may be able to reach a critical mass to allow for variable trains home: Metra’s group fare rules won’t let the group rate be a blank slate for any train you want (as someone inevitably finds out the hard way every year, no matter how many warnings I put on the registration forms and the tickets themselves), but I may be able to finagle splitting our group up onto two or three different trains home. Of course, this involves ticket holders to plan ahead and anticipate what train to take home — and y’all aren’t the best planners in the world, and definitely not moreso after a day of drinking. Furthermore, there needs to be a certain critical mass of people in the group for Metra to entertain group rates. Here’s my proposed set-up for next year; please leave me some comments and feedback on your thoughts and how interested you would be in the various options:
    • 9:23am inbound: We all leave Itasca on the 9:23, per tradition.
    • Early outbound: small group (25% or so of the total group) gets the 1:30pm departure, which lets you join us for the Berghoff and The Bar Below, then head back to Itasca early.
    • Traditional outbound: reserved for about half of the group, our traditional 4:30pm departure gets us back to Tree Guys by 5:30.
    • Late outbound: the last 25% of the tickets would be reserved for people spending extra time downtown and taking the 8:40pm train home.

As always, your thoughts and feedback are always appreciated, so contribute your two cents in the comments below, or send your hate mail straight to scott@yard-social.com. I’d like to thank the entire McDonald family once again for being such gracious hosts, for starting this tradition years and years and years ago, and for continuing to put this great event together year after year. See you next year!

Diverging Approach: The Monthly Pass

Daniel Biss, a sitting Illinois state senator and a Democratic candidate for governor, duffed a transit question in a televised debate this week. A moderator asked Biss how much he believed a monthly CTA Pass costs. Biss’s response:

“A monthly CTA pass. Now, let’s see. My Metra pass now comes pretty close to $50 a month. So A monthly CTA pass I would guess is probably around $35.”

A CTA 28-Day Pass costs $105, more than three times Biss’s guess. Following the debate, Biss’s campaign tried to explain the discrepancy, but duffed that too:

Biss’ campaign later said the Evanston senator “mixed up” the weekly and monthly pass prices, and was referring to the weekly Metra pass at $55, and the weekly CTA pass at $35.

Metra does not offer “weekly” passes. Metra does offer a 10-Ride Ticket, but if a rider is using all ten rides in a single week, a Monthly Pass is a more cost-effective alternative.

However, it does bring up a valid question for many Metra commuters: when should I buy a monthly pass, and when should I just use 10-Rides?

As part of the most recent (February 2018) fare hikes, Metra adjusted their ticket structure slightly. (Metra is currently studying a more dramatic shift to their overall fare structure.) All Metra fares are based on one-way ticket prices between five-mile-wide fare zones throughout the region, starting downtown at Zone A and radiating out to Zone M in Harvard. From the one-way ticket price, 10-Ride tickets are priced at 9.5 times the cost of a one-way (up from 9x) and monthly tickets are priced at 29 times the cost of a one-way (up from 28.5x).

Since there is a discount for 10-Rides and 10-Rides are good for a full year (except when purchased in January, when many riders try stockpiling to beat the annual February fare increase), a 10-Ride will always be the most affordable per-ride ticket for infrequent riders. However, for more frequent riders, the “sweet spot” is your 30th ride: if a rider takes 30 or more Metra rides in a calendar month, a Monthly Pass will be the better per-ride value. In other words, if you’re commuting downtown at least 15 days in a month, buy a Monthly Pass. This is true regardless of the fare zone.

Of course, since Metra sells Monthly Tickets based on calendar months, even if your work schedule never changes, you may want to change your ticket. A typical month includes 20-22 workdays, but thanks to holidays, vacations, etc. a 18- or 19-day workday month is not unusual. Add in flexible work assignments and that 15-day target can easily become variable between months.

Granted, if it’s that close, you’d probably only save a few bucks here or there, but every dollar counts.

Next up: DA will offer up an interesting tweak to the fare structure that’s probably revenue-neutral but more equitable for lower-income riders.

Diverging Approach: The Yard Social Club Blog

Welcome to Diverging Approach, the official blog of The Yard Social Club! In addition to regular site updates, I’ll be using this space to post some transit-related ramblings from time to time in the hopes of entertaining, educating, and encouraging changes in the Chicago regional transportation network. This blog will be updated occasionally, but like everything else on this website it’s a labor of love so updates may be in fits and starts.

As for the blog name, I chose “Diverging Approach” for three reasons:

  1. “Diverging Approach” is a railroad signal aspect, commonly shown as a red signal over a yellow signal. This aspect indicates that the switch ahead is aligned for a train to change tracks at low speed.
  2. This blog will likely provide some food for thought for potential ways Metra can improve, literally offering a “diverging approach” to how the railroad is run.
  3. And last but not least, I can easily abbreviate references to Diverging Approach as “DA blog”, which fits right in with everything else in Chicago.

Comments will be turned on for most DA blog posts, so feel free to join the conversation and leave your two cents.  New Diverging Approach posts will also automatically pop up on The Yard Social Club’s Twitter (@YardSocialClub), so follow along there to not miss an update.


The Yard Social Club Metra Map

Editor’s Note: We’ve dramatically changed our line naming system in the most recent (May 2019) update of our system map. This page has been updated accordingly.

Nothing Metra does can be easy, and their line nomenclature fits right in. Metra operates a legacy network of commuter rail service, and as such most of their lines are named after their host (or former host) railroads. While this serves as a semi-interesting history lesson, it makes for a network that is less than intuitive for infrequent riders.

Metra’s official map is… well, it’s fine. Metra’s online map offerings are more robust, with a GIS base so you can zoom in, click around, and even see individual trains in real-time when you look on a per-line basis.

Metra’s official map, as seen at Chicago Union Station in June 2018.

I had two primary concerns with Metra’s map. First and foremost, it can be confusing — but granted, most of the confusion comes from the line names Metra chooses to use. (More on that in a bit.) But the other issue is that the map makes no effort to delineate service frequency and chooses to focus on regional coverage instead. That’s fine for peak periods (where, admittedly, the lion’s share of Metra’s ridership uses the system anyway), but from the map it’s impossible to know that two of the above Metra lines have no weekend service whatsoever, with another line offering very limited Saturday service and no Sunday service. And then there are the branch lines, which may also have much more limited service. (Or, in the case of the South Chicago or Beverly/Morgan Park branches, they may not.)

You see where this is heading.

Since I can’t leave well-enough alone, I developed my own map and naming scheme for the Metra system. It goes without saying that some of the more creative aspects of this plan are used exclusively on this website, so don’t go asking Metra staff where the Arrow Line is or anything like that. But I may occasionally use our short-hand around Diverging Approach and in our Weekend Guides.

Click the map for a larger view of the JPG. Or click here to see the map as a PDF.

The map, which is formatted to 11″x17″, was conceived as a flower floating on the shore of Lake Michigan. The map otherwise mostly throws local geography out the window, although care was taken to make sure that the respective lines cross in the right places and that the downtown terminals are positioned somewhat correctly relative to each other.

From there, the lines and stations are drawn based on service frequency: generally, the more a line and station looks like the lines and stations on the CTA map, with bold lines and white circles at the stations, the more Metra service that location gets. (Note for the uninitiated: Metra’s off-peak service is nowhere near as frequent as the CTA. The highest frequency we show on our map is “Core Service”, which means service no worse than once every two hours off-peak. That’s also why we used the word “Core” instead of “Good” or “Full” or “Standard”, because any of those terms should be used for off-peak service that’s, you know, good.) As the frequency and/or days of service decrease, the lines get lighter and the stations blend in more with the line behind it, until peak-only services are shown only as light gray dots on a barely-there white line. Our map also looks at what we called “extended service”, where certain trains continue further out into the hinterland at lower frequencies. On the map, these are shown as narrower lines, which indicate that those stations still get service as shown on the map, but not at the same frequency as stations closer to the urban core.

With a hat-tip to the New York City Subway system, I initially developed our naming scheme first based on a lettering system to differentiate Metra from the CTA’s rail lines (which are color-coded) and the CTA and Pace bus networks (which are numbered). Generally, Metra lines are lettered increasing in a counter-clockwise manner from north to south, with groups of letters based out of the four/five downtown rail terminals. I subdivided Union Station into a North Concourse and a South Concourse, based on the raw number of trains that leave Union Station relative to the other terminals. I also divided the Rock Island into two separate lines and the Metra Electric into three separate lines, which I feel more accurately indicates the services offered.

For lines that offer express services during peak periods, the line may have a secondary letter as well. Peak-only supplemental services are identified on our map with either the secondary letter in a diamond (to show express trains) or the primary letter in a square (to show “short-turn” local trains). Generally speaking, all local trains will use the primary letter, and all express trains will use the secondary letter. Since all Metra trains are numbered relatively consistently (outbound trains are odd numbers; inbound trains are even) One of the perks of a lettering system is that individual trains can easily be referred to as a combination of the line letter and train number, which even inline in text can immediately tell the reader basic information about the train in question (e.g., train K2215 is an outbound MD-W train; train R417 is an outbound RI train that does not serve Beverly and Morgan Park).

Let’s be honest: the map is still very confusing, and it’s worth noting that I’m not an expert cartographer. However, that’s also kind of the point of the entire exercise. One of Metra’s biggest strengths in the region also happens to be one of it’s biggest weaknesses: branding itself as a single, cohesive regional network, when in reality each line has it’s own quirks in how service is delivered.

In the most recent update, I also had a little extra fun and refined our suggested proper names for each line as well. Originally, the map referred to trains as “Corridors” that paralleled a major highway heading towards downtown Chicago. That old system had plenty of flaws: the Old Guard wasn’t a fan that we divorced some railroad history from the rail lines, and the Urbanists weren’t terribly happy that we contextualized transit services in terms of highways. (And there were a few difficult choices that had to be made, like having no “Eisenhower Corridor” since both the UP-W and BNSF do the job.) Instead, I put my thinking cap on, dug through the Internet, and came up with something totally unique: names based on former long-distance passenger trains that previously served the line in some way, shape, or form. This had a few benefits:

  • It’s simple. Each line has an easy-to-remember one- or two-word name.
  • It honors the past. As a rule, Diverging Approach tries to nudge Metra forward into the future, not backwards into the past, but Chicago’s rich railroad history deserves to be celebrated.
  • It strikes a balance between the two. One of the biggest critiques of the current Metra naming system is that it’s not terribly intuitive for new riders, and looking at the system as a whole can be way too easy to confuse. For instance: there are two North Lines, two West Lines, and a Northwest Line; there are three lines with “Union” in the name and none of them go to Union Station; the Rock Island and Metra Electric lines can each be better thought of as multiple, coordinated services; there’s dangers of forced future name changes if more railroad consolidation in the market occurs; and so on. Our naming system gets rid of all that and modernizes the system, but still connects back to the original railroads who built the network.
  • It’s fun. To make things easier to remember and identify, the new naming system also includes individual icons for each line. And better yet, each icon has a corresponding standard-issue emoji for smartphone users because, hey, why not?

Below is a list of our reimagined names (and letters and icons and emojis) for each Metra line.

The Ashland Line
Union Pacific North
(A) Daily core service to Waukegan with extended service to Kenosha
<B> Weekend outbound express trains to Ravinia Park for events

  • History: The Ashland Limited was a Chicago and North Western train from Chicago to Ashland, Wisconsin, via Green Bay. I was tempted to go with the Flambeau, another C&NW train that used what’s now the North Line, but as a true blue Chicagoan I couldn’t in good conscience go with a name so similar to “Lambeau” on the only line that goes into Wisconsin and has a forest green color scheme to boot. (The forest green color Metra uses is officially “Flambeau Green”. You’ll see I overlapped a few of these line names with Metra’s throwback color names, so I’m hoping that could be a foot in the door to actually making some of these changes.) Plus, the corridor parallels Ashland Avenue pretty closely in the city, so that’s good enough for me.
  • Line Icon: A fish, being fished. (The Ashland Limited was also occasionally referred to as the Fisherman’s Special or the Northwoods Fisherman.)
  • Emoji: 🎣

The North Western Line
Union Pacific Northwest
(C) Daily core service to Crystal Lake and extended service to Harvard
<D> Peak period express service to Harvard or McHenry

  • History: The North Western Limited was the Chicago and North Western’s primary train between Minneapolis-St. Paul and Chicago before the streamlined 400s were used. This one could have also been called “The Viking Line” for the C&NW’s Viking; Metra uses “Viking Yellow” for the color. Honestly, I’m playing a little fast and loose with this one: the North Western Limited used today’s North Line up to Milwaukee before heading to the Twin Cities, but considering it’s currently the Northwest Line that parallels Northwest Highway and used to be operated by the Chicago and North Western, let’s keep this one simple. (And it did operate over the current UP-NW’s tracks between Ogilvie and Clybourn, after all.)
  • Line Icon: A compass. (And yes the compass is pointing in the correct direction: since the needle always points north, if you’re heading northwest, this is what the compass should look like.)
  • Emoji: 🧭

The Kate Shelley Line
Union Pacific West
(E) Daily core service to Elburn
<F> Peak period express service to Elburn

  • History: Kate Shelley has a prominent place in railroad folklore. An Irish immigrant living in Iowa in 1881, she overheard a C&NW inspection locomotive wreck into Honey Creek following a bridge washout during a round of severe thunderstorms. Since a passenger train was due through the area later that night, Kate ran through the storm to a nearby train station to alert railroad staff of the wreck. Her quick thinking saved the passenger train as well as two of the crew members from the initial wreck. C&NW would later run the Kate Shelley 400 over what’s now the Union Pacific West Line between Chicago and Iowa. It’s never a bad time to celebrate another brave woman in Midwestern history. (Plus Metra already officially uses “Kate Shelley Rose” as the color for the line.)
  • Line Icon: A thunderstorm.
  • Emoji: 🌩

The Marquette Line
Milwaukee North
(G) Daily core service to Fox Lake
<H> Peak period express service to Fox Lake and weekday evening reverse commute express service from Antioch

  • History: The Milwaukee Road ran the Marquette from Chicago to Madison and points west over what’s now the Milwaukee North (before the Illinois Tollway effectively killed demand for passenger rail service into Wisconsin).
  • Line Icon: In honor of early Midwestern explorer Father Jacques Marquette, who cut through what’s now Chicago in 1673, this line uses a canoe.
  • Emoji: 🛶

The Laker Line
North Central Service
(J) Weekday basic service to Antioch

  • History: Metra’s service now operates over tracks controlled by Canadian National, but way back when, the Soo Line operated The Laker between Chicago and Duluth over this corridor (north of Franklin Park). Interestingly enough, the line between Franklin Park and downtown swung south and paralleled what’s now the Blue Line in Oak Park and Forest Park, which makes a fun corridor to discuss in the context of the O’Hare Express. “The Laker” is also a good name for this corridor since it cuts right up through the center of Lake County.
  • Line Icon: A sailboat. Maybe on the nearby Chain O’Lakes.
  • Emoji: ⛵️

The Arrow Line
Milwaukee West
(K) Daily core service to Elgin with weekday extended service to Big Timber Rd
(L) Peak period express service to Big Timber Rd

  • History: The Arrow was the Milwaukee Road’s Chicago-to-Omaha train, which operated over what’s now the Milwaukee West corridor. Metra calls the color “Arrow Yellow” after the train, but personally I feel like “yellow” is a bit misleading.
  • Line Icon: I used a stylized arrowhead, pointing left (west) as a hat-tip to the current Milwaukee West name.
  • Emoji: There’s no direct arrowhead emoji and I feel like one of the standard arrows is a little too, uh, direct… but there is a bow-and-arrow, so whatever, close enough. 🏹

The Western Star Line
BNSF Railway
<M> Mon-Sat peak express service to Aurora
(N) Daily core service to Aurora
<O> Weekday peak express service to Fairview Avenue

  • History: I really, really wanted to use the Zephyr here; the last version of the map that I posted in the last blog post still had the Zephyr listed. But, since this line does serve Union Station, and since Amtrak runs both the California Zephyr and the Illinois Zephyr over this same route, I unfortunately decided that it’d be too easy to confuse. I also considered the Mainstreeter, which is just a cool name for a train plus would be pretty representative of the small towns served by this Metra service, but I opted against it since there’s literally a “Main Street” station on this line (as well as one on a different line). That left the Western Star, a Burlington/Great Northern train that connected Chicago to Spokane via Glacier National Park. Plus, hey, a Star Line!
  • Line Icon: Not Luxo. But close.
  • Emoji: ⭐️

The Abraham Line
Heritage Corridor
(P) Peak period express service to Joliet

  • History: It’s nice when history is still current. The Alton Railroad began the Abraham Lincoln in 1935, and since then the operators have changed (from Alton to Gulf, Mobile and Ohio, and on to Amtrak) but the long-distance train keeps rolling today as Amtrak’s Lincoln Service. To distance the Metra line from the Amtrak service, I kept the Abraham and dropped the Lincoln.
  • Line Icon: Lincoln’s trademark stovepipe hat. If regular Heritage Corridor riders prefer to see it as a tombstone, hey, go for it.
  • Emoji: 🎩

The Blue Bird Line
SouthWest Service
(Q) Weekday core service to 179th St with peak period extended service to Manhattan and very limited Saturday service to Manhattan

  • History: The Wabash Railroad originally ran the Blue Bird (and the Banner Blue, which Metra uses as the color of the line) between Chicago and St. Louis via Decatur. If only the Wabash ran the awesomely named Cannon Ball over this route instead.
  • Line Icon: It’s a bird’s head. Or at least it’s supposed to be a bird’s head. I’m not good with animals.
  • Emoji: Another iPhone/Android conflict here: Apple’s bird emoji is actually blue (doesn’t look too dissimilar from my icon, actually); other emoji libraries use a bird that looks more like a cardinal here. When in doubt, add the blue ball in front. 🔵 🐦

The Rocket Line
Rock Island – Main Line
(R) Daily core service to Joliet via Blue Island
(RS) Daily off-peak core local service to Joliet via Suburban Line

  • History: When Amtrak was first formed in 1971, the government offered railroads a simple deal: pay a small fee and/or give Amtrak your passenger rolling stock to let Amtrak run passenger service, and in return the freight railroads would no longer be on the hook for providing (money-losing) passenger service. The Rock Island was one of six railroads that opted out of joining Amtrak, continuing to run their famed Rocket trains into the 1970s. In Chicago, the Peoria Rocket and the Des Moines Rocket (later the Quad Cities Rocket) operated over the Rock’s tracks between downtown and Joliet.
  • Line Icon: A rocket, theoretically flying north-northeast from Blue Island to LaSalle Street Station.
  • Emoji: 🚀

The Suburban Line
Rock Island – Suburban Branch
(S) Daily core service to Blue Island via Beverly/Morgan Park
(RS) Daily off-peak core local service to Joliet via Beverly/Morgan Park

  • History: Another freebie, the Suburban Line has been known as the Suburban Line (or Suburban Branch, depending on the source) since before the Great Chicago Fire. Since in our lettering scheme the Rock’s Rockets are R trains and the Suburbans are S trains, no need to get too deep in the weeds here.
  • Line Icon: A single-family house. Picket fence and 2.3 kids not included.
  • Emoji: 🏠

The Panama Line
Metra Electric – Suburban Main
(U) Mon-Sat core express service to University Park
(UV) Daily off-peak core local service to University Park

  • History: The most famous Illinois Central train that doesn’t have a song written about it, the Panama Limited was one of the most luxurious trains in the country, connecting Chicago and New Orleans over the Illinois Central’s main line. The original train was named after the Panama Canal, which was still being constructed when service first started.
  • Line Icon: Since the train was named after the Panama Canal, the icon is a (very crude) container ship.
  • Emoji: 🚢

The Magnolia Line
Metra Electric – City Main/Blue Island Branch
(V) Daily core service to Kensington/115th St with Mon-Sat extended service to Blue Island
(UV) Daily off-peak core local service to University Park

  • History: The Panama Limited was one of the most luxurious trains in the country, with an all-sleeper consist. In 1967, as the Panama Limited was losing ridership (along with just about every other passenger train in the nation), the Illinois Central threw a few coach cars onto the Panama Limited and briefly called the coach accommodations the Magnolia Star, probably to try not to sully the luxurious reputation of the Panama Limited. I wonder if there’s some sort of allegory in there for how Metra treats suburban riders vs. city riders…
  • Line Icon: A simplified magnolia bloom.
  • Emoji: 🌺

The Diamond Line
Metra Electric – South Chicago Branch
(W) Daily core service to South Chicago/93rd St

  • History: The Diamond represents a few different Illinois Central trains, including the Green Diamond, the Diamond Special, and the Night Diamond between Chicago and St. Louis. While the South Chicago Branch never hosted long-distance trains (for obvious reasons), these trains still share the old Illinois Central main line into downtown north of 63rd Street.
  • Line Icon: A basic diamond on a teal background.
  • Emoji: 💎