Diverging Approach: Cruel Summer

It’s been a long summer for Metra. And it’s still just the middle of July.

Yesterday, Metra had their second board meeting since the new BNSF schedules took effect on June 11. While the woes of the BNSF were discussed at the previous board meeting on June 13, the change was still pretty fresh and it was generally understood that there’d be a few kinks to work out. (Well, a few kinks for riders to work out.)

Unfortunately for Metra, things on the BNSF haven’t really improved in the last month. Peak period trains are still packed on the best of days; throw in a fleet that isn’t getting any younger, aging air conditioning units on board, and a summer packed full of hot and humid days, and it’s been downright miserable for a lot of BNSF riders. (And, to be fair, riders on other lines have also been complaining about broken air conditioning throughout the system, so that particular issue isn’t unique to the BNSF. Old fleets break more often; unfortunately, it’s to be expected.) But the busiest commuter rail line in the region having chronic month-long overcrowding issues following a schedule rollout that was specifically designed to address existing overcrowding was eventuallty going to get some attention from local media, and local media did not disappoint.

CBS_MetraJuly
This is why it’s important to support local news. (Screengrab from CBS 2 Chicago)

So why is this such an issue now? Sure, the fleet’s older than ever before and the BNSF is by far Metra’s busiest line both in terms of passenger volume and number of trains operating, but ridership is stagnant or dropping and Chicago’s had plenty of hot summers before. No, there must be something different about this summer, but I just can’t put my finger on it…

img_5678
Hmmm…

Luckily Metra understands that the new BNSF schedule fails to accommodate the demands of the riders who rely on the service, and the agency said they would try harder to make changes to the new schedulhahaha, just kidding, Metra blamed riders again. From the Tribune:

“This line has grown and grown and grown over the years, and we’ve completely saturated this line,” Metra CEO Jim Derwinski told reporters after the meeting.

[…]

Derwinski said one reason why complaints have increased so much in the last month is that some riders have shifted to different trains because of the schedule change, so there is now crowding on trains not seen before.

On the bright side, the Metra board is starting to feel the heat. From the same article:

“I’ve heard more in the last 30 to 60 days from disgruntled passengers than I’ve heard in five years on the board,” said Metra board member John Zediker, who called for a “deeper dive” into the line’s problems. “What’s going on on that line is unacceptable.”

Good news, Director Zediker: your friends here at The Yard Social Club and Star:Line Chicago performed a deeper dive into the line’s problems. We crunched the numbers between the old and new schedules, and we found that Mr. Derwinski is right: riders are indeed shifting to different trains and showing different crowding patterns. It’s a shame no one saw this coming before the new schedule took effect, and it’s even more of a shame no one tried to warn Metra this would happen. While we don’t have ridership data by train, comparing and aggregating the old and new schedules provided some great insights into where riders are shifting their travel patterns and why some trains are getting crush-loaded while others are well undercapacity.

We broke down the morning and afternoon peak periods into fifteen minute increments to help compare between the two schedules, with the assumption that a change of 15 minutes or less is considered “reasonable” for most people.

Morning Commute

For the morning commute, we worked backwards, looking at what time trains were scheduled to arrive in Union Station, then noting what stops that train made, regardless of whether the train ran express, local, or some combination of the two. In the below table, each light green cell represents one “station pair” that gets a rider into Union Station within the time period listed on top, so if you need to get to work by 8:30am and you work 15 minutes from Union Station, a green cell in the 8:01am-8:15am period indicates there’s a train from your station that will get you downtown and to work with time to spare. (Dark green cells indicate there are two trains from that station that get downtown in the particular time period.) The numbers in each cell indicate the change in trains between the old schedule and the new schedule, so a “1” indicates the new schedule has added a train serving that station pair at that timepoint, and a “-1” indicates a train at that timepoint was lost in the schedule change.

BNSF_AMchanges
Click here to open in a new window.

The chart shows a few interesting issues with the new schedule. First and foremost, Metra did do their best to minimize overall service levels: no stations lost more than one train in the morning; of the stations that did lose service, there’s a train that will still get you downtown within the next 15-minute period. As a LaGrange Road rider, I do appreciate that we were one of the four stations that actually added a new morning train.

But the chart also shows just what we warned way back when: to accommodate the longer times to flip trains with PTC, Metra tried to “flatten” the peak: early trains got earlier and late trains got later, and the hope was that riders would simply go along with their old train. The blue cells show where a train was moved forward and arrives in the earlier 15-minute interval; purple cells show where a train was pushed back to the following 15-minute interval. While this does keep the overall balance of trains the same more or less, it doesn’t take into account basic human behavior: no one wants to wake up any earlier than they have to, and generally speaking most office workers still have a somewhat firm starting time in the morning. In other words, many riders will find those early blue-cell trains unattractive (need to wake up earlier) and those late purple-cell trains are also unattractive (need to stay at work longer or take a shorter lunch to make up for coming in later), so riders will pile onto the remaining trains in the center of the peak, which makes the peak even “peakier”, exacerbating the very congestion Metra was trying to relieve.

Metra thought they could balance out the morning peak service by adding trains on the shoulders of the peak, and it’s backfiring. If you’re looking for one takeaway statistic, check out the bottom row, which is a sum of the changes by time period. In the peak-of-the-peak, which we defined as 6:30am-8:30am, a whopping 45 station pairs were removed while only six were added. In particular, check out all those red -1s in the 7:45am-8:30am periods for stations between Congress Park and Lisle. All those Zone C/D/E riders went from three trains every morning in that sweet-spot time range to only one or two. Sure, Metra made up for it by cramming a few late-peak express trains in there, but what’s the use of a train that arrives at Union Station at 9:00am when you had to be at work at 8:30am?

Afternoon Commute

The PM peak is a little more challenging to analyze, since there are now two time periods to track: what time riders board at Union Station, and what time they arrive back home. To analyze the PM peak, we took five sample stations and charted Union Station departure times and outlying station arrival times, then calculated the minutes of travel. Otherwise, the same assumptions apply: people generally want to get home from work as soon as they can, and it’s inconvenient to get home any later than the old schedule. Likewise, for some riders, earlier departures would also be inconvenient, since work schedules may not allow riders to make it to Union Station in time for the train.

We looked at five stations in five different zones: Route 59 (Zone G), Naperville (Zone F), Downers Grove (Zone E), Hinsdale (Zone D), and LaGrange Road (Zone C). Gray cells indicate the schedule pairs in the previous schedule; green cells indicate the schedule pairs in the new schedule. The numbers in each cell indicate scheduled travel times; bolded trains are expresses and italicized trains are locals. Where trains overlap between schedules, the new schedule is shown as a slightly darker font color.

BNSF_PM_Rt59
Click here to see Route 59 in a new window.
BNSF_PM_Nprv
Click here to see Naperville in a new window.
BNSF_PM_DGMS
Click here to see Downers Grove/Main Street in a new window.
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Click here to see Hinsdale in a new window.
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Click here to see LaGrange Road in a new window.

The first observation is to note that, for four of the five stations, there were actually a few trains that straight-up improved: left downtown at about the same time and got back to the suburbs in the earlier 15-minute interval. (Reminder: that doesn’t mean it’s 15 minutes faster, just that those riders are getting home notably earlier.) Good on Metra for that.

Other than that, more of the same from the morning peak analysis: late trains get later. Average travel times for each of these five stations increased in the 5-10% range; unlike the extra PTC time required to flip trains, these longer travel times are based solely on in-service operations. While some of the delay is likely due to changes in stopping patterns (Naperville lost most of their super-express trains), this is hard to explain by anything other than atrophy of the system. Metra will occasionally make “schedule adjustments to better reflect operating conditions”, which usually means tacking on time to the end of the run to keep the train on-time, but sometimes they also go through and balance the schedule at each stop. The catch is that nothing is really changing out in the field: the same trains are running on the same tracks, making the same stops, so there’s no good excuse for why trains are gradually getting slower, unless ridership is increasing and it’s taking trains longer to load and unload passengers. (But again, ridership is flat or declining.)

The most interesting observation though is Zone D (Hinsdale) and Zone C (LaGrange Road) losing an afternoon peak train in the new schedule. While the loss isn’t terribly significant from a time management perspective — in both cases, there’s still a train making the same connection in the same time periods — it does shed some light on new potential crowding issues.

And there’s the rub: yes, the BNSF is crowded. But it was crowded before. Naperville riders have known all too well that the line is overcrowded; even with the old schedule it wasn’t uncommon for morning trains to essentially load-and-go, leaving passengers on the platform to hope for better luck on the following train. The difference is now, different parts of the line are feeling the pinch thanks to the new schedule. Zone C/D riders are getting pinched both in the morning and in the afternoon more than they were previously used to, and sure enough, the Trib‘s token complaining commuter comes from LaGrange Park:

Brian Pitts, a 48-year-old resident of La Grange Park who has commuted on Metra since 1998, said that both he and his wife, Carla Pitts, have seen “out of control” crowding on express trains with people “packed like sardines.”

“They lost thousands of $$$s by not collecting fares,” said Pitts in an email to the Tribune, referring to the problem of conductors not being able to get through the train aisles to collect tickets.

It’s clear that Metra is hoping BNSF riders are simply accepting that this will be the new normal and they’ll just change their work schedules to take advantage of the later, less-crowded express trains and just go back to complaining about fares and the fleet on Twitter. But this time riders are pushing back, going straight to the Metra board — or straight to the Tribune and Channel 2.

The new schedule stinks — and after the deep dive we can say that objectively, not just subjectively — and to date Metra and the BNSF aren’t exactly showing any urgency about fixing it. Oh, well, it’s crowded because the fleet’s old. It’s crowded because there are problems with the air conditioning. It’s crowded because passenger trains get delayed by freight trains. It’s crowded because the signals need upgrading. It’s always something, and Metra’s standard recommendation is to just throw more money at it:

But Metra is limited on how much it can do because it has a limited number of cars and old equipment, Derwinski noted. The ultimate solution is more money, he said, and the state legislature has not passed a capital bill to pay for transportation infrastructure work since 2009.

Derwinski noted that the Metra Electric District, which has new cars, is not having the reliability problems seen with older, diesel locomotives.

“One of the things we’re definitely going to need is a capital bill and start replacing a big chunk of our fleet,” Derwinski said.

But all those excuses miss a central point: the new schedule ignores how riders actually use the system. Yes, having an old fleet with crappy air conditioning isn’t helping anything, but the larger current capacity issues are pretty clearly a result of supply and demand: the schedule changed to offer less supply (fewer trains) at the highest period of demand (peak of the peak period). That’s all there is to it, and now there are more standing-room-only trains.

That brings up another thing we can learn from the above analysis: look at how basic and simplistic the schedule changes were. Trains were simply moved around within the old schedule. Sure, some trains added a few stops and some trains dropped a few stops, but otherwise it was just a matter of shuffling the same old trains around so they could have 15 minutes to flip instead of ten, then inexplicably changing consist lengths without trying to forecast how many people would take which trains.

What Metra should do is start with a clean slate and totally reimagine the schedule from the ground up. Pretend this is a brand new commuter line being started (except with decades of data about ridership patterns) and make a new schedule. Be bold.

Or Metra can keep trying to fit this square peg of a schedule into the round hole that is ridership demand, which honestly is the more likely path forward for the agency. But hey, the good news is, the overcrowding issues will take care of themselves as Pace keeps adding more I-55 express bus service and more people start working from home because, honestly, who wants to deal with the BNSF any more?

Diverging Approach: The Nuclear Option

Today is June 30, and right now I’m onboard a fairly crowded Saturday BNSF train heading into the city. It’s one of the hottest days of the year, and unsurprisingly a handful of cars don’t have working air conditioning. This is the last of the Saturday morning hourly inbound trains; from here on out, trains will run only every other hour.

Today is my last official day riding Metra on a monthly pass. I’ve been a monthly pass holder since I moved from Portage Park to Itasca in March of 2014; since summer 2015 I’ve lived in LaGrange and I have been spoiled by frequent peak-period express trains to and from work downtown. But on Monday, my wife and I are closing on our first home. We’re buying a small bungalow on the south side of Forest Park, a ten-minute walk from the Blue Line.

Obviously we’re not moving closer to the city just because it’s increasingly frustrating to rely on Metra. But I can’t say that switching to the CTA instead of Metra didn’t have some impact on our decision.

If you’re reading this, you know that I have plenty of ideas on how to improve Metra; and if you’re reading this, you probably have some ideas of your own as well. Fares continue to increase as Metra keeps duct-taping their vintage fleet together as the credit card gathers dust. Schedules that adequately handle Monday-through-Friday 9-to-5ers but barely provides basic service for anyone else. The disastrous rollout of the new BNSF schedule and the self-inflicted damage control wounds.

While Metra has plenty of financial challenges ahead of them, the inverse Laffer Curve where Metra can keep nudging fares up with no clear return on investment for their riders because it’s still cheaper than driving into the city for work keeps any sense of agency urgency at bay, even as ridership stagnates or declines in most of the region and straight up bottoms out on the South Side and in the southern suburbs.

Work schedules are shifting to allow more workers to stay home, while demographics are changing as Millennials and Gen Xers (and even some Boomers) favor on-demand, responsive, reliable non-driving transportation throughout the day, not just for work trips.

In the face of all these changes, Metra makes the bold choice to just keep grinding on with the same model the commuter railroads have used since the 1950s. Well-dressed conductors punch paper tickets on train cars specifically designed around the conductors’ ability to check every ticket, every time. Never mind that most other transportation agencies have figured out how proof-of-payment ticketing works, dramatically lowering manpower costs, or that newer vehicle designs have wider, lower doors that allow faster, easier boarding and alighting. Entire outings need to be planned around the limited number of times trains run, and those schedules make transferring between lines extremely difficult with long layovers.

This week, my wife commuted with me downtown since she had a week-long intensive class at Roosevelt University to wrap up her master’s degree. On Monday, in the rain she stumbled on the stairs stepping into the car, since the floor is high relative to ground level. On Tuesday, the train was so crowded I had to stand in the aisle on the other side of the car from her. On Wednesday, she took a later train since they were meeting in Pilsen; she missed the train because it left LaGrange Road early. On Thursday, her train left early again, but she planned ahead and reworked her schedule to get to the station sooner.

Friday was fine though, so there’s that.

On the way home yesterday, she told me, “I don’t know how you do it every day.” And now I won’t have to.

I’m going to keep this blog going, of course; I’ll still be a frequent Metra weekend rider, planning train crawls, exploring the suburbs, and all that good stuff. I fully understand I’m in a position of privilege to be able to pick up and move; I still believe that there are plenty of common-sense improvements Metra can make relatively easily to make the suburbs a more attractive place for people who choose to live car-free.

This is my shot across the bow. I never thought I’d say it, but I’m looking forward to no longer being a regular Metra commuter. I want Metra to do better for the suburbs; for better or worse, I’m a suburbanite for life, and Metra remains an underutilized asset for the entire region. I want Metra to succeed. I want Metra to be a stronger amenity for everyone in the suburbs, not just white-collar 9-to-5ers five days a week. I want to want to ride Metra again.

But in the meantime, I’ll see you on the ‘L’.

Diverging Approach: Shot and a Chaser

Happy Pride Weekend, Chicago! While it (hopefully) doesn’t need to be said, The Yard Social Club and Star:Line Chicago proudly support the LGBTQ+ community, and we believe everyone deserves the right not only to be themselves but to also be with the person they love and to be able to go where they want, when they want without fear.

As it’s Pride Weekend, all eyes will be on the Northalsted district, especially on Sunday for the parade. Of course, if you’re coming in from the suburbs, Metra is your best choice to head for the parade – or really for anything in the city. (Head over to the Brown Line on the Loop or the Red Line in the State Street Subway for the easiest ways to get to the parade.) And for you BNSF and UP-N/NW/W riders, good news: Metra’s running extra service on Sunday.

If you’re lucky enough to be on the Union Pacific North Line, rejoice: Metra is doing what they should be doing and slotting the extra outbound train at 7:35pm, midway between the 6:35 and 8:35 trains. If you aren’t on the UP-N, well, enjoy the shot-and-a-chaser service.

Believe it or not, Metra is actually pretty good about adding service for weekend events, at least in the fact that they actually add trains for busy weekends. And, since in Chicago there’s basically always something going on, between Memorial Day and Labor Day Metra adds trains on average every other weekend. On its surface, that’s great! More weekend service for people going downtown to have fun is literally what we’re all about. But the problem is that, when Metra adds weekend service, it’s almost always to handle capacity rather than to accommodate riders.

If that sounds like gibberish because I basically said the same thing twice, that’s understandable, so let me explain myself. When Metra adds service, the service added is almost always added in such a way to add capacity to an existing train rather than to accommodate new passengers. For example, here’s Sunday’s additional service for the BNSF.

The added trains (shaded) are what we call shot-and-a-chaser trains: rather than slotting an additional local train in that two hour gap, an express train (the shot) is lined up right in front of the usual local train (the chaser). Metra and their BNSF/UP host railroads generally prefer this setup because the new express train generally fits into the same track window as the regularly-scheduled local train, which means the host railroads can keep moving more profitable freight trains relatively unimpeded by the additional passenger service. Good for them.

There’s a major problem with this: Metra really isn’t adding any usable service their riders. In Sunday’s example, it’s true that a Naperville rider will save 24 minutes on their ride home, but it doesn’t change the fact that their trains back to Naperville only leave every two hours. This comes back to our usual refrain of Metra moving trains rather than moving people: if the regularly scheduled train is going to be crowded, just add cars to it and call it a day. If you can’t add cars, send out the shot train to take pressure off the chaser.

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: suburbanites want to take Metra. They – we –like taking Metra to and from the city. We can relax, have a drink or two, not worry about parking, and get back home all for the low cost of $10 per person all weekend long. It’s a hell of a bargain, but you need to be willing to be on Metra’s schedule, which is where the railroad actually loses a lot of potential weekend ridership. On Saturday evenings and all day on Sundays, the Metra lines with weekend service only offer outbound service every two hours. Even more frustrating, on many Metra lines, Saturday outbound service operates hourly between noon and 6pm, but not later. Why does Metra believe the demand for hourly trains increases in the afternoon but not in the evening on a Saturday?

I’ll answer my own question. In the planning world, transportation planners – and, come to think of it, some economists – are well-versed in the concept of induced demand: if you drastically increase the supply of something in certain cases, new demand will sprout up to take advantage of it. Highways are the usual example transportation planners offer up, and it goes like this. (Trigger warning: drunk economics and algebra.)

If there’s a six-lane stretch of freeway that’s congested, free market principles dictate that people making that trip, sitting in traffic, are only doing so because they can still profit from it. Let’s call the time it takes to drive between home and work on that highway (x). If the state DOT adds a lane in each direction, congestion will initially decrease and travel times will decrease to (x – y). With the new travel time of (x – y), that initial driver will find additional profit… but so will other drivers who were priced out of the market (the highway) at a travel time cost of (x), but can afford to re-enter the market at a lower cost of (x – y), which is the induced demand. With those additional users, the time savings (y) will decrease as the highway becomes more congested again, eventually settling back at (x) where the travel time takes the same as it did before the widening.

From a highway perspective, this is generally seen as a negative outcome: additional public costs – financial, environmental, societal, a bunch of different costs – to ultimately result in no net change is not an efficient use of public resources. But leveraging the same forces to add capacity during semi-peak times on Metra could be a net positive for the region, as more people would be willing to head downtown without driving while increasing Metra ridership (and fare collection).

Our theory is that Metra could induce additional weekend demand by repositioning their weekend trains – both regularly scheduled Saturday outbound trains and special service for special events. We strongly believe the latent demand is out there, based on personal and anecdotal experience with Metra’s awful two-hour outbound evening headways. Two Saturday examples to consider:

A night baseball game. If you’re coming in from the northern suburbs, there’s a good chance you’re going to a Cubs game. (Fun fact: Chicago has a second MLB team too! And their stadium is directly accessible from a Metra station!) Assuming a typical night game start time of 7:10pm, and a three-hour typical game duration, a game would end around 10:15 or so. Metra has a Saturday pulse-point of 10:30-10:45, where the following trains leave Union or Ogilvie:

  • 10:30pm: SWS
  • 10:30pm: UP-NW
  • 10:35pm: MD-N
  • 10:40pm: MD-W
  • 10:40pm: BNSF
  • 10:40pm: UP-W

Fifteen minutes from Guaranteed Rate Field to Union Station or Ogilvie is a pretty aggressive timetable, and from Wrigley Field it’s damn-near impossible without an Elon Musk underground magic sled. And if you miss those 10:30-10:45 trains, you’re stuck downtown until the 12:25-12:40s, unless you can take the 11:00pm UP-N. Why would you risk being stuck in the Loop on a weekend night for two hours?

An evening at the theatre. Maybe a night at the ballpark is too low-brow for you; maybe you’re catching a show in the Loop. If there’s a 7pm start time with a 90- to 120-minute run time, you’re done by 9pm or so. And guess what? You’re stuck with that same 10:30-10:40 pulse point as the Sox fans are in the first example, since there is only one train that leaves Union Station or Ogilvie between 8:41pm and 10:29pm (a UP-N train that leaves Ogilvie at 9:35pm).

For either of those situations – hardly unique things to do in downtown Chicago – why would you choose to take Metra? I say this as an advocate: you have to try really hard to make Metra work for your weekend plans. Meanwhile, on Saturdays, there are hourly outbound trains during the late afternoon. Why is there a 3:30pm UP-NW train but not a 9:30pm train? Why are there TWO BNSF trains at 5:35pm (the shot, express to Downers Grove) and 5:40pm (the local chaser), but no 11:40pm train (which also operates during the week)?

It’s great that Metra adds capacity for busy weekends, but tweaking the schedule just a little bit with hourly locals instead of shot-and-a-chaser split trains every two hours could make almost every weekend a busy weekend.

Diverging Approach: Ships Passing in the Night

If you came here for the usual round of Metra-bashing, you may be a bit disappointed. I’d like to talk about something a little different tonight.

If you’re reading this, you probably already know this because you’re most likely either a transit enthusiast or a transit employee, but should this post make the rounds in the next twelve hours or so, tomorrow is National Dump the Pump Day, an American Public Transportation Association “holiday” where transit agencies try to encourage drivers to switch to transit for a day, usually with some freebies thrown in to sweeten the deal. (The RTA is giving away coffee and donuts to transit commuters tomorrow morning at Ogilvie, the Rosemont Blue Line station, and the Roosevelt Red/Orange/Green Line station, and sponsoring Free T-Shirt Thursday at Guaranteed Rate Field at night, which also happens to be Transit Employee Night.)

Meanwhile, in Daley Plaza tomorrow evening, the Active Transportation Alliance is hosting their Chicago Bike Week Rally from 5pm to 7:30pm. (I’ll be holding down the fort at the IDOT table and giving away free Chicago-area bike maps, so come say hi!) (Ed. Note: the Bike Week Rally has been officially postponed due to weather.) Active Trans’s Bike Week (actually two weeks) is one of their marquee events, so they’re pulling out the stops. Active Trans is a great organization and I’ve been a card-carrying member since about 2012 or so, and ostensibly their focus is on all non-motorized transportation throughout the Chicago region. But in practice, their work is, well, focused on active transportation (cycling and, to a slightly lesser extent, pedestrians), and overwhelmingly focused within the City of Chicago, which is one of the reasons why we launched Star:Line Chicago explicitly as a suburban transit advocate. But we’re all on the same team, and they’re great at what they do.

So tomorrow we have Dump the Pump, and Bike to Work. And the events for the two inexplicably don’t overlap at all. Of course, the host agencies — the American Public Transportation Association and the Active Transportation Alliance — have their own self-explanatory focuses. Of course, Active Trans is a little more progressive in communicating and advocating for how improved bike and pedestrian facilities better integrates public transportation into communities and makes transit more effective, whereas the American Public Transportation Association’s annual report barely makes any mention of non-transit modes, even though obviously no one just magically shows up at a transit stop. (Even a quick scan of that document for “bike” or “last mile” comes up with no hits.)

These kinds of silos are endemic in the transportation sphere throughout the country, but particularly pronounced here in Chicago. While the three transit boards of the Regional Transportation Authority are officially under a single umbrella, it’s no secret that they don’t play too nicely with each other. But it gets even worse once you start looking at some non-transit roles in our network. Divvy, Chicago’s bike share, is technically under the Chicago Department of Transportation, even though one of the key uses for Divvy is connecting people to and from transit stations. Divvy turns five this year (and yes, there’s a party), and yet signage to Divvy docks from CTA and Metra stations is still non-existent. Granted, Metra signage leaves much to be desired within its own system anyway, but the CTA or the RTA really should be doing more to highlight those links.

Not that CDOT or other city agencies go too far out of its way to help the CTA either. Sure, the Loop Link — which officially was a CDOT project, with coordination from the CTA — is a nice addition to Loop streets for semi-dedicated lanes for buses, but enforcement of drivers on the Loop Link streets is minimal, judging by the number of people driving through the bus lane or making turns against red arrows at intersections. But the near total lack of dedicated bus lanes elsewhere in the city makes it seem that transit users are not in the forefront of CDOT’s mind, even as the city has rolled out hundreds of miles of protected bike lanes as part of an Emanuel administration initiative.

And then there’s IDOT as an additional key player. (Editor’s note: as a current employee of IDOT, my editorial policy of this blog is to abstain from commenting on any current or former IDOT policies or projects; since I work as part of the Office of Communications on a variety of projects and initiatives at IDOT, I feel it is important to remain as impartial as possible when the agency seeks public input and comment. I may also use this blog to notify readers of upcoming outreach activities that may be of interest and encourage readers to attend or submit their own comments. That said, if someone has an opinion regarding IDOT’s transportation policies in the suburbs, this blog would be happy to host a signed guest post.)

It’s hard to say what it is that makes it so difficult for the various agencies to work together more closely, since so many different agencies have similar goals and ultimately help each other reach their goals. Given this is Chicago, I’m sure much of it comes down to pure politics. For instance, the CTA is helmed by a seven-member Board of Directors: four appointed by the Mayor of Chicago, and three appointed by the Governor of Illinois. Metra, meanwhile, has an 11-member board: the Mayor of Chicago selects one board member; each of the five collar county boards select one board member each; and suburban Cook County gets the other five seats, with the seats evenly distributed geographically by township. Since the Mayor effectively has control of the CTA board but only 9% of the Metra board, it’s hard not to be a little cynical as to why Metra never was really considered for the O’Hare Express project, even though they are by far the best suited to make immediate improvements.

The individual service boards do a pretty good job serving their parts of the region at a basic level, but integrating between them is typically a significant problem. But maybe we’re actually making it worse by pretending everyone is working together and trying to brush it under the rug instead of leaning into it and exposing the challenges we face.

Take Metra, for instance. (Remember when I said I wasn’t going to bash Metra in this post? I lied.) We’ve touched on how Metra is actually several different systems that use the same fare media and professional staff: the BNSF Line is owned and operated by the BNSF Railway; the three Union Pacific Lines are owned and operated by Union Pacific; the North Central Service and Heritage Corridors are operated by Metra on tracks owned by other railroads; the Milwaukee North, Milwaukee West, Rock Island, and SouthWest Service are wholly owned/leased and operated by Metra; and then there’s the Electric Line, which is also Metra owned and operated but unique enough to warrant its own entry in this list. But Metra also doesn’t own or control most of the park-and-ride lots at their suburban stations. Those lots are overwhelmingly owned by the municipalities they serve, which means Metra can’t really control what the towns are charging or how they manage their lots. On top of that, some stations have Pace feeder routes to connect with trains; however, since Metra and Pace don’t share a fare structure and since Metra doesn’t own the park-and-ride lots serving their stations, the system often ends up giving a financial incentive to people who drive to their station instead of using feeder bus service. This can lead to a few downward spirals: bus ridership drops, which is its own death spiral if service cuts follow; and more people park at the station, which encourages local communities to build more parking rather than develop more sustainable development near their train stations.

This isn’t really Metra’s fault and, to be fair, Metra is generally supportive of transit-oriented development projects, although there’s more Metra could be doing. For instance, I don’t think there’s any RTA legislation or anything that would prohibit Metra from operating its own bus fleet; if Metra and Pace can’t figure out how to share a fare structure (which, to be clear, it’s mindboggling that a system beyond the monthly pass Link-Up option isn’t offered), make the feeder routes officially part of Metra and integrate fares that way. Likewise, while Metra can’t control what municipalities charge for their parking lots, the municipalities generally give Metra plenty of deference when setting rates; if, for example, Metra is willing to take a slightly stronger stance and encourage municipalities who have feeder bus service to price their parking above the cost of a round-trip bus fare, that creates more of a financial incentive for riders to use the buses rather than driving themselves without having to figure out how to coordinate fares with Pace.

At the end of the day, the overall goal should be to reduce the region’s reliance on driving everywhere, and it should be a team effort. The RTA, the CTA, Metra, Pace, Divvy, and even CDOT with their extensive on-street bike network under the Emanuel adminstration are all key players in making the Chicago region a more sustainable, healthier region for all of us who choose to live here. But circling back to Dump the Pump Day, I wanted to call out the RTA one last time for this Twitter post that made me irrationally mad.

img_5989

Look, I get it. While the RTA is the umbrella agency that CTA, Metra, and Pace all fall under, the RTA’s primary job is getting money to run transit and dispersing that money to the boards, so they have to do ads like these to remind non-transit-users why transit is valuable and why there’s a regional sales tax to support transit. But this is not the kind of messaging that is beneficial long-term. When I first saw this post Monday night, I was sitting in one of the 60-year-old Metra BNSF cars, sweating because the air conditioning wasn’t 100% effective, dealing with a bunch of cranky fellow riders still sore about last week’s BNSF schedule changes. Do I really care that my train is saving some guy driving down the Eisenhower back to his Naperville McMansion 75 cents on tonight’s commute? Likewise, does he care (or even realize) that his average speed is something like two miles per hour faster because of all of us riding Metra?

What’s worse, this kind of presentation just reinforces the perception that transit is something drivers are forced to subsidize with the hard-earned money they pay in fuel taxes, even though we’ve long since passed the point where road and highway costs were 100% covered by fuel taxes anyway. Furthermore, the RTA is basically coming right out and offering that one of transit’s primary benefits is to make it easier for other people to drive, which is the exact wrong message to send.

A better message to send would be that investments in a functional, efficient mass transit network gives everyone in the region more options on when to travel, where to go, and how to get there. What we need is an integrated system of various transportation modes to give everyone who lives in our region choices. We shouldn’t have to pick between Dumping the Pump for transit and Biking to Work. We shouldn’t have to pick between bike lanes or bus lanes on our arterial streets when there are still two or three lanes available for cars. We shouldn’t have to pay more to take a bus to the train instead of just driving ourselves. We shouldn’t have to pick between improving transit speeds and reliability for current riders and making driving easier by herding more people into trains and buses.

We can do it all, and giving people options when it comes to their transportation choices is imperative to a sustainable region. But the first step is making sure everyone’s on the same page and moving in the same direction.

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

It’s Thursday night, or at least it is right now as I write this. There’s a good chance you’re reading this on Friday, or maybe you’re stumbling upon this page in the future as you poke through our archives or because this page was linked somewhere else or whatever. Either way, it’s Thursday. I know a lot of people love Fridays, and there’s plenty of obvious reasons to be a Friday fan as long as you don’t work in the service industry. But for me, something about Thursday nights make them my favorite night of the week. Maybe it’s the anticipation of big weekend plans building, or maybe it’s because it’s a great night for an after-work happy hour, or maybe you’ve just had a rough week and Thursday night is the first time all week long you can just relax, take a breath, and talk yourself into dealing with just one more day before the weekend comes.

Metra is having a very rough week. And it wasn’t supposed to be like this.

The week started with what should’ve been cause for celebration: after many years of work (and tens of millions of dollars spent), Metra’s first fully-operational Positive Train Control (PTC) line was coming online. This federally-mandated-but-unfunded technology will help keep passengers safe by reducing the likelihood of train accidents. The only catch was that — for reasons we still don’t fully understand — the time it takes to initialize the PTC system at the beginning of each trip requires “flipping” times to increase from 10 minutes to 15 minutes, so the schedule for trains needs to be spread out a bit more.

No issues yet. Metra also decided that, since the BNSF is their busiest line, this would be a great opportunity to adjust the schedules to accommodate passenger loads. Again, terrific idea, and ideally that kind of schedule modification is done relatively frequently so trains are better matched with operating conditions.

But then Monday morning hit, and it’s been downhill since then. We won’t go into the nuts and bolts of how the wheels came off over the last few days — especially since we already touched on the topic earlier in the week — but suffice it to say, this is one of Metra’s worst nightmares come to life, full of unforced errors, including the following:

  • Using their busiest line to be the PTC guinea pig;
  • Soliciting input on the proposed schedules but making no significant changes based on the input received;
  • Ostensibly creating a schedule to accommodate overcrowded trains, only to severely underestimate passenger loads the first day out;
  • Publicly issuing a statement that seems to put the onus for overcrowding on the riders instead of the schedulers;
  • Using the same statement to strongly suggest that no significant changes will be made regardless of what kind of passenger loading conditions persist; and
  • Insisting on staying the course despite three consecutive days of local media reports of overcrowded trains and man-on-the-street interviews at Union Station.

But lost in all the noise of the first half of the week — and drowned out by today’s announcement that Mayor Emanuel is going to let Elon Musk build his Galt’s Gulch Express under the City of Chicago (which is also kind of a bad news scenario for Metra if you think about it) — is a fascinating article about Metra from the Better Government Agency (BGA), a government watchdog organization. The article is a great read and comes to a startling (well, maybe if you don’t read this blog) conclusion: much of Metra’s issues are at least somewhat self-inflicted based on fiscal mismanagement. In this case, “fiscal mismanagement” means under-investment in the system as a whole, even as fares have steadily increased over the last few years. The BGA article also discussed what was an open secret in the Chicago transit community: while it’s true that Metra cries poor, discusses their “fundamentally unsustainable” revenue model, and preaches fiscal responsibility to the extreme (side note: Metra employees are required to pay full fares when riding Metra), the agency also has $1 billion in bonding power available and uses precisely $0.00 of it. While debt spending isn’t really something to celebrate, having those resources available for capital improvements and not using them is borderline malfeasance. Hell, when a government watchdog is taking a government agency to task for not spending enough money, that’s quite the indictment.

To put it another way, imagine you live way out in the suburbs and you drive an old car. It still runs, but it’s not getting any younger, and it’s been breaking down more and more often. Obviously you need to get the car fixed to keep it running, and on paper just about any repair at the mechanic is cheaper than buying a new car. Besides, you don’t have $20,000 in cash sitting in your checking account, so you talk yourself into just fixing the car as it breaks until some far-off day when you have that kind of walking around money on hand to buy a new car.

Now imagine that you also have a credit score of 820 and your house is paid off, and you’re still refusing to get a loan to get a new car, even though a new car would be more reliable, less expensive to maintain, and allow you to be more efficient and productive. That’s basically what Metra’s doing with their capital program. Obviously in this scenario you also wouldn’t go ahead and blow your credit on a Maserati, but it’s definitely not unreasonable to float a loan for a reliable car that no longer requires duct-taping the seats back together every few weeks.

Metra’s spending money on improving their car rehab facility, which will allow them to refurbish more cars at once, which is all well and good, but it’s still just more duct tape on the seats. (Sometimes literally.) Some of the cars on the BNSF Line date back to the 1950s, and these refurbishments aren’t going to make them ADA-accessible or more passenger-friendly above and beyond maybe a USB outlet at every other seat on the lower level. The Gallery Car model itself is inefficient: a single doorway in each car and several steps to step up into the train increase the time it takes to load and unload trains. Long trains with diesel locomotives take longer to speed up and slow down than their more nimble electric counterparts such as the Highliners on the Metra Electric. The BGA article reports that Metra is actually looking to flash the credit card soon, albeit very underwhelmingly: $27 million to buy 21 locomotives. Not new locomotives; second-hand locomotives.

Which brings us around to maybe a super-hot take: what if Metra can’t be trusted with increased funding? It’s sacrilege to say, and we’re by no means arguing to cut funding to Metra. There’s plenty of parts of the system that do need upgrading: modernized signals, bridge replacements, expanded fleet and yard capacity, station and accessibility improvements, the list goes on. But investing in more Gallery Cars means doubling-down on conductor-based fare collection, which is very labor-intensive. Track improvements in Chicago on the MD-N and especially on the UP-N seem to preclude a potential future three-track main line in many places within the city, severely restricting possible express operations for peak periods. (Three-track operation is very successful on the BNSF, MD-W, UP-NW, and soon on the UP-W.)

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

Tomorrow is Friday, and the weekend can’t come soon enough for Metra (or any of us, of course). And as we’ve discussed in previous posts, when we advocate for change at Metra, it’s not meant to be some kind of existential threat. Metra’s ridership is passionate about the railroad because we understand what kind of an asset it is — and more importantly, what kind of asset it could be — for our region. We want the railroad to be more user-friendly, more accessible, more reliable, and something we can take pride in. Give people a reason to choose Metra, and they will.

Diverging Approach: Beating On

Day 2 of the Metra PTC era is just about in the books, and the rollout on the BNSF has been about as expected. The trains are going out, relatively on schedule, and there are a few classic cases of Metra shooting themselves in the foot: pretty dramatic overcrowding (which we definitely warned them would happen) and the subsequent “apology”, which was, well, we’ll just reprint it here:

Please accept our apologies for the crowded conditions on your train this morning, the first day of the BNSF Line schedule. As you probably know, this schedule revision was prompted by the needs of the new federally mandated Positive Train Control (PTC) safety system. In addition to adjusting the schedule for PTC, Metra and BNSF Railway made other changes to relieve overcrowding on some of the busiest trains, match the schedule to actual operating conditions and reduce bunching at a choke point near Cicero.

So far so good. But the second paragraph is where it starts to come off the rails.

Major schedule revisions are always difficult, because we know our customers are accustomed to the old schedule and will have to change their commuting habits. Metra and BNSF Railway tried our best to estimate how trains on the new schedule would be used and to assign our finite number of railcars accordingly. We know we may not have estimated correctly and some adjustments to train sizes may be needed. However, we would first please ask for your patience. Before we start making changes, we want to give customers more time to adjust to the new schedule and to make decisions on more than one day’s experience. We are monitoring the situation very closely.

Thank you for your patience and understanding, and thanks for riding Metra.

Did you catch that? I’ll repeat it and add emphasis, since we’re not known for subtlety around here.

Before we start making changes, we want to give customers more time to adjust to the new schedule and to make decisions on more than one day’s experience.

Metra’s official apology says that the new schedule was designed around expected passenger loads, the fleet was deployed based on their expected passenger loads, the expected passenger loads were apparently way off of what actually happens during commutes, and now the path forward is to wait for the passengers to figure out what other options they have. When ridership has been flat or declining and fares have been increasing steadily, maybe the best approach isn’t an official statement of “take it or leave it, this is the new normal until when or if we change the schedules.” It’s 2018: Metra’s competition is no longer just sitting in their riders’ garages; it’s also riding down the shoulders of Interstate 55 or, even more threatening, a just laptop VPN connection away.

Again, definitely not a smooth rollout, but sadly unsurprising. We did our part to sound the alarm – along with more than 2,000 other BNSF commuters – and Metra went full speed ahead anyway and here we are. The good news is that Metra will be tweaking the consists tomorrow to give the busiest morning trains more capacity, so that’s a good start.

It doesn’t change the ugly irony of advertising a schedule change with a stated secondary goal of alleviating onboard crowding and immediately getting hit with crush loads the very first morning of service (and again, that apology, woof), but it highlights an important aspect of running Metra:

This stuff is hard. And it’s thankless.

My professional philosophy as a planner is that, if I’m doing my job right, nobody notices. But if something goes wrong… well, if there are any aspiring planners out there, start growing a thick skin because you’re going to need it. (The secret is to try not to take it personally, even though angry constituents will take out their frustrations on you. If you succeed in doing this, tell me how.)

Even here at this blog, I see it and hear about it. In a past post, I’ve mentioned how Metra should look to pulse scheduling during off-peak periods to better facilitate transfers, which has a net-zero change to operating budgets but dramatically increases the usefulness of Weekend Passes and the future Day Pass. However, I’m not satisfied to run a blog that says “go do this” and leave it at that; I’m working on fleshing out some exhibits and spreadsheets and doing the whole deep dive treatment. It’s a lot of work – I’ve been working on the draft in fits and starts for the last two weeks or so – but it’s worth it because this blog isn’t only meant to advocate, but also to teach and explain. The transportation wonks reading this will pick up on the concept pretty quickly, but an audience of the 50th birthday train crawl who requested a Crawl Concierge will get a lot more out of the blog post if I take the time to explain why pulse scheduling is valuable (easier transfers using a single ticket!), why Metra doesn’t do it now (history of multiple railroad companies that didn’t share a fare structure before the RTA era, historically not considering suburb-to-suburb trips, institutional inertia, etc.), and how easy it would be to roll out (probably pretty easy, since the only change would be having crew layovers be at the outer terminals instead of downtown).

But even something like pulse scheduling gets a mixed reaction from readers: the Old Guard railroaders clutch their pearls and come up with excuses why it can’t or shouldn’t be done, while the hardcore activists complain that I’m not going all-in on through-routing instead. Horseshoe theory at work.

And that’s just what I have to deal with as one person who runs a site and blog with a goal of getting more people to use suburban transit and likewise nudging suburban transit providers to improve service. My recommendations don’t really carry a lot of weight and I understand that. This blog is meant for comment and discussion, not for carrying out policy (although we wouldn’t mind if some of our ideas got picked up!).

Then there’s Metra. Metra has to deal with all the same stuff this blog deals with, just at higher stakes: the old-school railroad mentality still is the dominant paradigm; staff has to deal with all the freight railroads, the politics of the region, and Metra’s own board; and the delightful social media users who forget that there’s a real-live person reading all those Facebook and Twitter posts that get way too personal. (Seriously, I know the social media person there, they’re cool, cut them some slack.) What’s worse is that this is probably Metra’s most feared result: not ridership loss – although that’s still important – but negative media attention, which ultimately we fear will make the railroad even more risk-averse when it comes to trying new things.

BNSFPTCrollout
Probably not helpful feedback.

Again: this stuff isn’t easy. But just because something’s hard doesn’t mean it isn’t worth doing, and very often the hardest thing to do is to take a risk. Execution aside, Metra took a risk with the schedule modifications for the BNSF and tried to make positive changes. They didn’t do a great job of it and the Old Guard mentality was still alive and well throughout the process, but it still represented a pretty significant (if not dramatic) shift in the corporate mentality.

And that brings me back around to explaining why I keep tilting at windmills/pissing into the wind/pick your futile-effort metaphor. Everything here is a labor of love, from this blog to the Weekend Guides to the system map to our Star:Line Social outings and our Crawl Concierge service. It’s time-consuming, it’s challenging, and honestly it’s frustrating from time to time. But I do it because I honestly believe that the work I do makes something easier for someone else, and that’s my part in driving positive change in the suburbs. There are really no suburban transit advocates in our region, and there’s no way we can be successful if we half-ass the effort.

On the surface it’s understandably a challenge to see The Yard Social Club’s efforts in organizing train crawls, where people spend an afternoon drinking their way up and down a train line, as real advocacy; honestly, I refuse to take myself too seriously anyway. But if we can get a group of suburbanites (or Chicagoans, for that matter) to try Metra for an afternoon of exploring the suburbs in a safe, fun environment without worrying about who has to drive, maybe the suburbanites will be more willing to take Metra next time they head downtown and maybe the Chicagoans will realize there’s cool stuff to do and neat places to visit in the suburbs.

And on the flip side, these blog posts and our Star:Line Chicago outreach and advocacy is to try to start more serious conversations with riders and professionals alike to highlight opportunities for improvement. Sure, some of the suggestions are extremely esoteric with slim-to-no chance of implementation (hello, line renaming!), but we strive for pragmatic, budget-constrained solutions that ideally nudge decision-makers to stop accepting the status quo as good enough, to encourage our transportation agencies to take risks, and to be a partner for change that makes the suburbs stronger and more resilient in the face of a changing future.

Maybe I’m just naïve, thinking my silly little hobby will drive any real change, but someone has to try.

Metra tried with the BNSF schedule changes. They made a good faith effort to use the PTC rollout to try to better accommodate peak-period passenger loads, even though the overcrowding issue was staring everyone right in the face. We told Metra they needed to put a stronger effort into improving peak-of-the-peak capacity rather than trying to flatten the peak with later express trains and not overcomplicate the afternoon peak schedule with too many new stopping patterns; they politely but firmly told us to pound sand, and here we are. And yes, the new schedule is a hot mess, and yes, they’re getting dragged over the coals by their riders on social media. But Metra at least tried, which deserves some small amount of credit.

This blog doesn’t exist to pat Metra on the back – and offering the railroad suggestions for improvement is a well that will never go dry – but we will provide cover for Metra at least making an attempt, and we encourage Metra’s riders to at least try to remember there’s a real person on the receiving end of all those Facebook posts and tweets. That said, honest feedback, constructive criticism, and pictures/video of conditions onboard trains and transit are useful and illustrative. The Metropolitan Planning Council (MPC) has an entire social media campaign highlighting the inadequacies of our transportation network (#bustedcommute) in an effort to shine a light on what commuters have to deal with in light of constrained budgets and limited resources.

We support MPC’s initiative, but our mission is broader and encompasses all suburban travelers, not just commuters. Leisure riders are a huge underserved market for Metra, and it’s a lot easier to convince someone to start commuting on transit if they already have positive experiences using transit for fun.

We’re all in this together. It’s easy to throw stones at Metra, but nothing will change unless we’re willing to put some work in as well. This blog and our varioussocialmediachannels aren’t meant to just be a platform for me to get up on my soapbox, but a place to have discussions about transit or suburbia or whatever and how it can be better. (I can also routinely be found at The Junction in Union Station, if these conversations would go better over a cold Miller Lite.)

If there’s something that comes out of productive conversations we have some point in the past, present, or future that makes the job of someone at 547 W. Jackson Boulevard a little easier by offering our support for something new or something risky or something progressive, that’s why The Yard Social Club and Star:Line Chicago exist: because we want to believe that tomorrow Metra will run faster, stretch out its arms farther… and one fine morning—

So we beat on.

Diverging Approach: The Wonderful World of Weekend Work

It’s June! Summer’s here, and just like everywhere else it’s construction season on Metra. Weekend construction is nothing new: it makes sense to do maintenance and improvements when the trains run the least frequently, and since most commuter rail lines run right through the heart of suburban downtowns, overnight work may not be politically feasible. Besides, in an era of constricting budgets, any investments in maintaining a state of good repair are welcome and encouraged.

But no good deed goes unpunished, so let’s dive into the travesty of Metra’s “construction schedules”. Obviously, when people are working on the tracks, trains will need some extra time: they may need to operate on a single track, where trains in opposite directions can’t pass; they may need to operate on the center express track, which means only one or two cars will open at some stations and thus passenger loading/unloading times increase; or even if the tracks are unobstructed, for obvious reasons trains will need to slow down to pass workers on the tracks. All good reasons to delay trains and to manage expectations for ridership and to issue construction-specific schedules.

But rather than trying to provide accurate delay estimates along the line based on where the construction is happening and what kind of work is being done, Metra’s slavish devotion to on-time performance rather than schedule adherence means “construction schedules” just throw 10-20 minutes into the gap between the penultimate station and the final destination of each trip. Keep in mind, officially any commuter train that arrives at its final destination within six minutes of its scheduled arrival time is officially on-time, regardless of what time the train showed up to pick passengers up. Given that weekend schedules are already heavily padded, throwing on extra time for “construction schedules” leads to a few egregious schedule issues. Here’s this weekend’s Saturday inbound BNSF construction schedule, which is being rolled out so BNSF crews can replace the Main Street crossing in Downers Grove.

Wait for it…

First and foremost, this schedule is tougher than it should be to find on Metra’s website. It’s Tuesday. This is this coming Saturday’s schedule. There’s no warning or alerts in the Ventra app.

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

There’s no press release listed.

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

The only way to find this schedule – on the mobile site at least, I left my laptop at home – is to know where to find the Construction Notices on the front page, then click through to find your line.

“Good to Know” indeed.

Anyways, that’s where it is. If you’re planning on riding Metra on any summer weekend, or doing something like, say, planning a train crawl (and who would care about anything like that?), check out the Construction Notices to make sure there are no unpleasant surprises coming up.

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

Alright. So ride at your own risk, listen to platform announcements, check the Metra website a few days before your trip, use the Ventra app for real-time schedule information, leave some flexibility in your schedule, etc. etc. etc. Buyer (or traveler) beware.

Speaking of schedule flexibility, let’s go back to that BNSF construction schedule. Computer, enhance the inbound schedule between Western Avenue and Union Station:

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

Thirty-three minutes! Metra somehow isn’t the fastest transit option between the Western Avenue Metra station and Union Station, according to Google (which goes off of Metra’s published schedules). It’s also not even the second-fastest transit option, which is kind of impressive when you think about it.

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

Obviously it’s not going to take you over half an hour to go the last four miles on the BNSF. The train is scheduled to arrive Western Avenue at 11:24am, but with the construction delays that train probably won’t roll in until 11:40am. And that’s fine, delays happen when you’re rebuilding infrastructure. But Metra puts the onus on its passengers to get to their inbound station “on time”, grind through whatever the delay is before boarding, and assume they’ll be happy as clams as long as they get to Union Station “on-time”, which in this case can be as late as 12:02:59pm (about 40 minutes after a passenger arrives at 1800 S. Western Avenue). We call it a “Schrödinger’s Delay“, and it’s a great way Metra pisses off riders without even trying.

Pointing to Google travel times may be a bit of a strawman argument, but it reflects a 21st-Century reality of how suburban travelers behave. If someone is on the fence as to whether they’ll take Metra downtown or drive, it’s entirely likely they’ll throw their trip into Google and see what the travel times look like. Extra travel time padding – both the standard schedule padding plus the additional construction schedule padding – may change someone’s calculus on whether or not to take Metra before they even get to the station. Is off-peak on-time performance worth losing potential riders because the on-paper in-vehicle time needs to cover 95% of the potential trips? It already takes special effort to plan a weekend trip on Metra: plenty of potential weekend riders are scared off by infrequent outbound trains, and while unfortunately we don’t have any hard statistically-significant data to back it up, plenty of anecdotal knowledge is out there that says an unknown number of weekend Metra trips never happen because suburbanites don’t want to risk missing an outbound train and being forced to wait two hours for the next train.

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

Construction is unpredictable. We get that. But if Metra wants riders to keep coming back on the weekend – especially summer weekends, when demand to head downtown for leisure trips are highest – the railroad needs to be willing to sacrifice their precious official on-time metric in favor of schedule adherence and letting riders know when they can reasonably expect to board their trains to the city. If weekend on-time performance declines but ridership increases because schedules and operations are more convenient and attractive to weekend riders, this blog will be Metra’s first and loudest defender to claim that on-time performance is not as important of a metric during the off-peak provided schedule adherence is strong and evening/late-night frequencies improve.

But that would require some effort on Metra’s part to put themselves in the shoes of their weekend riders and to better understand what that ridership experience is like. When the train comes once every two hours and the train is routinely late by a few minutes (but maybe not “officially” late because we all know it doesn’t take 25 minutes to go from Western or Clybourn to the downtown terminal regardless of what the schedules say), don’t just throw ten extra minutes at the end of the schedule and call the construction mitigated. In this weekend’s case on the BNSF, since this track construction is happening back in Downers Grove and since the agency is already issuing a construction schedule, just go ahead and add an extra five minutes to the arrival times between Main Street and Hinsdale or so, and pro-rate the other five minutes between Western Springs and Berwyn. If the train has to burn an extra minute in Westmont and Clarendon Hills to maintain schedule adherence, so be it (but it probably won’t). That will provide the same ten minute buffer time, but won’t lead people to spend extra time waiting on the platform for trains we know will be delayed anyway.

A final important note: I used the BNSF as an example here, and this kind of stuff happens on many of Metra’s lines. However, this is one of Metra’s purchase-of-service lines (along with the three Union Pacifics), which means Metra doesn’t have much control over what’s going on. In the case of that Brookfield crossing closure (and the Downers/Main Street closure, for that matter), that will be BNSF crews doing construction on BNSF tracks, delaying BNSF trains. But since Metra is the unified regional commuter rail brand, someone at Metra headquarters will be reading angry tweets all week long when the agency unfortunately has their hands tied. The BNSF is hanging Brookfield in particular out to dry with that 3/4-mile “pedestrian detour”, and Metra will bear the public-relations brunt of it. That’s not fair to Metra, and Metra should also do whatever they can to pressure their host railroads to better accommodate their (own!) riders during significant construction projects like these.

Diverging Approach: Nerd Prom

Every year in Washington, D.C., the White House Correspondents’ Association hosts their dinner, nicknamed the “Nerd Prom” in the D.C. media elite from its history as a wonkish if inward-looking celebration of the media industry as a whole.

Here in the Chicago transportation planning industry, our Nerd Prom is the annual Transport Chicago conference, a one-day conference on a sunny Friday in June where planners and other transportation professionals from throughout the Chicago region meet up and boast to each other all the ways we’re awesome and pat ourselves on the back for being so awesome and progressive. It’s a great place to meet and mingle with many of the regional decision makers who help guide the various facets of transportation infrastructure throughout our region, so we highly recommend it for students and non-professionals who have a vested interest in the Chicagoland transportation network.

It’s a great conference that this blog highly recommends, but many years it ends up being an echo chamber of things most of the planners already know. Heading into this year’s conference, which was held last Friday, I expected more of the same.

I was pleasantly surprised.

Two moments stuck out in my mind, two moments while I’ll remember for quite awhile and which added immense value to this year’s conference. The first moment — not chronologically first, but still first — was the lunch keynote by Olatunji Oboi Reed, the founder of Slow Roll Chicago and Equiticity, two organizations devoted to promoting social equity through improved and context-sensitive transportation infrastructure in low- and moderate-income neighborhoods of black, brown, and indigenous persons of color. Reed pushed most of the room — especially the majority of us who were, as Reed said, “stale, pale, and male” (present company included, for better or worse) — out of our collective comfort zone to acknowledge the disparities between transportation infrastructure and indeed the entire planning process itself in white communities of moderate or significant wealth compared to what goes on in marginalized communities. It was eye-opening and a great perspective that often gets overlooked.

This leads us to the second memorable part of the conference, which immediately preceded the lunch keynote. Streetsblog Chicago‘s John Greenfield moderated a five-person panel weighing the merits of extending the CTA Red Line down to 130th Street compared to a modernization of the Metra Electric line to provide enhanced transit service to Chicago’s Far South Side. The panel was pretty well-balanced with two Far South Side community leaders (one pro-CTA, one pro-Metra), two (white) transportation policy wonks (Daniel Kay Hertz arguing for Metra modernization and Yonah Freemark arguing for Red Line extension), and one Cook County DOT member reminding the panel and audience to be mindful of the variety of workplaces that remain inaccessible to the Far South Side since they are outside of downtown, which either infrastructure improvement will continue to underserve.

The panel was enlightening for several reasons: first and foremost, kudos to the conference organizers to reaching out to members of the local community to come represent their transportation interests and desires from beyond the transportation planning industry standpoint. That in and of itself helps to break the stale/pale/male paradigm Reed discussed at lunch by bringing in local voices to advocate for better improvements based on the wants and needs of the local community rather than planners like us handing down decisions from on high and expecting the local community to not just go along with it, but to be grateful for the improvements and the chance to be a very small part of the process. (Sound familiar?)

Second, the session broke the Transport Chicago mold by exposing some of the rifts in ideology and theory within our group of professionals. Even among dedicated transportation professionals, there are plenty of opinions about what works best and what would be most effective for our constituents. It’s an undercurrent that permeates many of the conversations we have with our peers internally over drinks during professional happy hours but rarely floats to the top of the conversation in a more public venue. Once again, kudos to the conference committee for taking a risk and assembling a panel guaranteed to ruffle a few feathers and push people out of their comfort zones.

At this point, we have to address the elephant in the room: the conversation indeed got a bit heated, and produced quite the quote, courtesy of Yonah Freemark:

Metra is where innovation goes to die.

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

These days, between the rise of social media and the success of brash, in-your-face commentary, any company (or any public figure, really) has to walk a fine line when it comes to dealing with public perception and public dialogue. The old saying goes, don’t fight with a pig because you get dirty and the pig likes it; but these days the alternative is to keep a stiff upper lip and get dragged through the mud anyway by nameless trolls on social media. Metra, which is risk-averse to a fault, understandably doesn’t want to have any part in a dialogue that involves people making bold statements such as the agency is “where innovation goes to die”. But, for better or worse, that represents a sentiment that is most certainly out in the public.

For the record, we don’t support Freemark’s comment that “Metra is where innovation goes to die”. Mobile ticketing on the Ventra app is actually quite easy to use and effective. The fleet of the Electric Line is one of the youngest in the country. The latest round of coach rehabs include USB charging outlets. A new Metra Day Pass product will be introduced later this summer.

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

But calling those issues out doesn’t mean they’re bad changes, nor does it mean we aren’t supportive of those changes. We’re glad that these blog postings have been making the rounds at Metra (and yes, we do know when they end up on the daily internal email News Clips sent around to Metra’s front office staff). To clarify: we want Metra to be successful. We aren’t a political group. The only agenda we push is improved suburban transit alternatives which are both effective and pragmatic given the current era of constrained budgets and tenuous funding streams.

If there’s one thing I’ve learned from writing these blog posts — and from being an active member of Chicago’s transportation planning elite (hah!) — people love Metra. The agency is an absolute asset to the region, and what Metra does is unparalleled in this country. People love — or at least want to love — riding Metra, and planners love talking about Metra. Quashing dissidence or thinking that any feedback or criticism must be done in bad faith is absolutely false. When people complain about Metra’s delays or Metra’s fares or Metra’s policies or anything else about Metra, they complain because they want a commuter rail system that’s more reliable, a system that’s more accessible, a system that’s more transparent, and most importantly a system they can use more often.

As we learned from this year’s Transport Chicago conference, transportation professionals stepping out of our professional silo to get a better on-the-ground perspective of what’s happening in neighborhoods and communities throughout our region is invaluable. This is in no way an indictment of previous Transport Chicago conferences — there are plenty of other professional echo chambers in our market — but it’s nice to attend a conference that went above and beyond previous years which were best summed up by the great Janis Ian (no, not that one, this one):

Did you have an awesome time? Did you drink awesome shooters, listen to awesome music, and just sit around and soak up each others’ awesomeness?

Our deepest appreciation and gratitude to this year’s Transport Chicago conference board and volunteers who put together the best Transport Chicago conference schedule and roster of speakers in recent memory. We all need to be pushed out of our comfort zone from time to time; it’s the only way we grow, both professionally and personally. In any other industry, professional growth is all well and good but focused more on personal growth and development. But in our industry, professional growth has a direct impact on the lives of millions of people throughout the Chicago region we work to serve every day. We owe it to ourselves to break down the silos we work in, to challenge ourselves to try new things, and to make a more sustainable, attractive transportation network that serves everyone in the Chicago region.


Transport Chicago is already seeking volunteers to help organize the 2019 conference! Check them out at TransportChicago.org. In the meantime, there are still tickets available for our Star:Line Social event on Friday, June 15 in Rosemont. Eat, drink, be merry, and talk transportation with us!

Diverging Approach: Passenger Manifesto

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This is Star:Line Chicago.

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

We are suburban Chicago’s transit advocate.

And we’re here to make a difference.

Diverging Approach: Meet Me Halfway

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

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

And then there’s their section on taking Metra.

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

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

Yes, that’s the Field in the background.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But I shouldn’t be here.

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

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

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

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

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

Diverging Approach: If you see nothing, say something

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Star:Line Social – Friday, June 15

While Star:Line’s mission is to advocate for better suburban off-peak transit service, The Yard Social Club’s mission is to celebrate the service we do have and encourage people to use it. To meet those goals in the middle, we’ll be hosting occasional Star:Line Social events, where transportation-minded people can come together and discuss suburban transit and land use issues in a fun, relaxed atmosphere.

We’re kicking off this series with a Star:Line Social outing to Rosemont on Friday, June 15 to catch a minor-league baseball game at Rosemont’s new Impact Field. Meet us at the stadium, or meet us downtown at Union Station – we’ll be using Metra’s NCS to get to Rosemont. More details and RSVP information can be found on our Facebook event page.