Diverging Approach: Metrathalon

On July 5, 2019, I did something possibly never done before: I went out and rode on each of Metra’s 11 lines in 11 hours. This was not a subway-challenge type of excursion where I visited every stop in the system or rode every train in service; I simply planned a schedule that involved riding on at least one train on each line, all back-to-back. The live-tweet thread of this #Metrathalon is here, and here’s the schedule I used:

TimeLine/RouteFromTo
7:58amMetra MD-WCUSWestern Avenue
8:17amMetra MD-NWestern AvenueCUS
9:00amMetra NCSCUSO’Hare Transfer
ORD shuttlesO’Hare TransferTerminals
CTA Blue LineO’Hare CTAJefferson Park
11:01amMetra UP-NWJefferson ParkClybourn
11:17amMetra UP-NClybournOgilvie Transportation Center (OTC)
11:40amMetra UP-WOTCOak Park
Pace #307Harlem/Lake CTAHarlem Avenue BNSF
1:20pmMetra BNSFHarlem AvenueCUS
2:45pmMetra HCCUSJoliet
4:20pmMetra RIJolietBlue Island
5:38pmMetra MEBlue IslandVan Buren Street Station
CTA #126Michigan/Van BurenCUS
6:58pmMetra SWSCUSWrightwood

This long-read post is a more in-depth chronicle of the excursion, and was a draft I’ve worked on in fits and starts over the past nine months. However, as the COVID-19 pandemic grinds everyday life here in the Chicago suburbs to a halt for weeks, this seems like the right time to polish this up and get this post out. As always, if you’d like to discuss the Metrathalon, hit up @StarLineChicago on Twitter. In the meantime, avoid unnecessary travel (like this), stay home if you’re sick, wash your hands, cover your cough, and be good to each other. We’ll get through this together.


Every so often, like most people (I think), I get a little flare-up of imposter syndrome, where I feel like my skill set is getting a little soft and I’m losing my edge. To a certain extent, I think imposter syndrome is healthy and a great motivator; of course, with my various neuroses and trust issues it’s probably a symptom of some deeper mental issues I struggle with. (Reminder: it’s okay to not be okay, and mental health issues are nothing to be ashamed of.)

Anywho, finding myself with Friday, July 5th open and with Metra inexplicably running a full weekday schedule – and, even more inexplicably, charging full fares instead of doing a 4th/5th Weekend Pass like they do for Thanksgiving and Lollapalooza every year – I decided to dive head-first into boosting my Metra bonafides: I chose to ride every one of Metra’s 11 lines in a single day.

Unlike the ‘L’ Challenge that requires stopping at every single CTA station, to make this challenge more achievable I ended up scheduling a journey that involved traveling on each line at least once. This schedule also used Metra’s official 11 lines and not our 14-line schematic, which would have taken significantly longer.

The overall journey – which took exactly 11 hours to meet my goal – reminded me of a lot missed opportunities in our commuter rail network, and provided a super-convenient framing device for a nice meaty blog post, which is nice because I’ve had about half a dozen half-written blog posts in my head for quite awhile that I can purge here.

If you’re not from Chicago – or if you’re from the city proper and you just assume everything west of Cicero Avenue is Iowa – I hope this post helps to succinctly (or not so succinctly) brings you up to speed on the state of suburban commuter rail service here. So let’s begin.

When I started this blog, I took Metra way more often because I lived in a “real” suburb. Now I live in Forest Park, the kind of suburb where my suburban friends call it the city and my city friends call it the suburbs. Here’s my first train of the day.

Chicago Union Station

My first train of the day – the 7:58am MD-W train – left out of Chicago Union Station. CUS, as the railroaders and the foamers call it, is arguably the most integral part of Metra’s system, with six of Metra’s 11 lines using the massive terminal. It’s also arguably Metra’s biggest liability, since Metra is only a tenant in the station, which is owned and operated by Amtrak. Metra and Amtrak are currently going into arbitration to settle the next lease agreement, with Amtrak wanting Metra to spend more and invest in infrastructure improvements at the station while Metra’s arguing for more control of the station; Congressman Dan Lipinski (D, IL-3) recently filed federal legislation that threatens to cut funding to Amtrak if they don’t surrender operational control to Metra. Plenty of people smarter than me on this issue are spilling more ink about this topic, so I’ll defer and move on.

The Antiquated Fleet

The MD-W train gets me to Western Avenue, where I hop off and wait for a MD-N train to take me back to CUS. At least, I assume it’s an MD-N train: there’s nothing on the outside of Metra’s diesel trains to indicate the train’s line or destination.

The Transit app says the MD-N is the second train approaching Western Avenue…
…but with the MD-N running late, a MD-W train scheduled around the same time, and two identical trains pulling into the station after the first (presumed NCS) train went through, I just assume I chose correctly.

At Western Avenue, the inbound MD-N, MD-W, and NCS lines all stop and go straight to Union Station, so unless you’re doing something incredibly stupid like riding every Metra train in a day, it doesn’t really matter which train is which line.

However, there are two issues here: first and foremost, at the station itself, schedules are shown by line instead of by time. For 99% of Metra’s stations, that’s perfectly acceptable, but for inbound riders who don’t care about line and only care about getting downtown, it’s just another little inconvenience that makes Metra just a little harder to use. A simple special inbound schedule here (and at Clybourn) based on time of day rather than each line would go a long way for people from the neighborhood taking Metra downtown.

But the bigger issue is on outbound trains, where three lines using identical equipment and no external line markings serve the same station and then head to three very different suburban destinations. In my experience, conductors – in a rare checkmark in the “for” column of keeping 2+ conductors on each train – will lean out of the doors of the train at Western Avenue and yell out the destination. “West Line to Elgin!” is a fun little antiquated throwback when riding the train, but it’s the 21st Century and there’s no way that’s acceptable for anyone with any sort of hearing disability.

A lack of external line markings on Metra’s trains is admittedly a minor inconvenience, but it’s a good example of how Metra’s 20th-Century fleet and operational model aren’t keeping up with the demands of a 21st-Century modern metropolis. Metra’s gallery cars – an antiquated design specifically designed to assist in ticket collection efforts when the wave of the future is proof-of-payment fare systems – are emblematic of Metra… for better or worse. Aesthetically, the exterior of the coaches are timeless – corrugated polished steel really never goes out of style – but the design of the coaches themselves are not intended for the high-frequency service suburban Chicago needs to survive the challenges of the 21st Century. For any weekend, or some weekdays, when just about any special event is happening downtown, Metra will regularly incur delays “due to heavy passenger loading” since each coach only has a single door leading to a steep staircase. Even with low platforms like the majority of Metra’s stations have, more modern rail car designs have multiple doors with step-free (or at least single-step) boarding. Easier boardings with more boarding locations mean less dwell time at stations, which increases speeds while improving schedule adherence.

On one hand, Metra’s making a positive move on this front by opening up their newest rail car RFP to new train car designs, which is good. But on the other hand, they’re only doing so because an RFP for gallery cars crashed and burned with only one responsive bidder.

The airport-sized elephant in the room

With the two Milwaukees down, I got back to CUS and got on the 9:00am NCS train, which I took to O’Hare. While I was planning my journey, I tried to minimize out-and-back trips (like my previous leg to and from Western Avenue) unless I could knock a second line out in doing so. I could have taken the NCS back to Western Avenue and grabbed the next train back to CUS, but that seemed boring and counterproductive since it’d be a duplicative trip on the way back inbound.

Instead, I took the NCS to the O’Hare Transfer, where I’d take the free airport shuttle bus from the station to the terminals and hop on the CTA Blue Line. When my train pulled up, the shuttle bus was waiting for me right at the station, which was pretty convenient. When the Chicago Tribune sent their reporters on a race to O’Hare last June, Mary Wisniewski had to wait about five minutes for the shuttle and ended up coming in last place by eight minutes.

Quick sidebar about the Tribune‘s race: the race was more or less rigged to give Metra a best-case scenario (there are only ten weekday trains that go from downtown to O’Hare and the contest was timed for an easy departure from CUS) and Metra still came in dead last. However, Ms. Wisniewski had to walk from the Tribune‘s offices at the Prudential Building to Union Station instead of taking a bus or a cab, so she wasn’t even onboard the train until 25 minutes into the journey whereas her competitor in an Uber was already at about Addison or so on the Kennedy. It’s easy to imagine Metra would be more competitive if there was a faster way to Union Station, and if the airport people mover was operational instead of relying on shuttle buses through the terminal core. The Tribune‘s methodology was also slanted a little bit towards the two driving modes, since the contest was run on a Wednesday afternoon instead of during a rush hour, and since the cub reporter who took the Blue Line got lost at O’Hare (and still came in second place). Watching the split-screen video of the adventure is a good way to get a feel for it, although also noteworthy is that Abdel Jimenez, who took the Blue Line, got to Block 37 a minute after Mary Wisniewski walked through it via the Pedway. The data analyst in me wishes they took the same walking path at least to that point to eliminate as many externalities as possible, but alas, it’s still a good experiment. If the writers over at Streetsblog Chicago ever want to do a more rigorous analysis of transit access to O’Hare with a little more rigor than what the Tribune did, I volunteer as tribute.

Metra to O’Hare is one of the most significant missed opportunities in our region. For all the talk about high-speed underground “skates” (that — shocker! — ended up being a load of crap) and other, ahem, fly-by-night airport express services, we as a region continually overlook an existing connection between a major downtown transit hub and the busiest airport in the Midwest/world (depending on when you’re reading this). While downtown-to-O’Hare is the regional prize in a lot of people’s minds, we can’t overlook the added values to the communities in the North Central Service corridor if they could advertise regular, frequent, direct rail access to O’Hare. Instead, communities like Vernon Hills and Buffalo Grove have fewer trains to O’Hare in a week than the number of outbound BNSF trains run in a day. It’s easier to go from Aurora to Brookfield Zoo than it is to go from any of the dozens of offices within walking distance of the Buffalo Grove station to a major international airport served by the same train line.

Fares and Fairness

By about 9:50am or so, I was on the CTA Blue Line heading towards Jefferson Park, where I’d catch the 11:01am inbound UP-NW train. This is also one of the first significant “buffer” time slots in my schedule, due both to Metra’s infrequency and Metra’s unreliability for making transit connections. With about half an hour to kill, I grab a bottle of water from 7-Eleven and muse about the $10.25 in Metra fares I’ve already spent today and how Metra probably should’ve rolled out their Day Pass pilot by now.

I’m a CTA/Pace 30-Day Pass holder, so the extra charge to grab the Blue Line at the airport didn’t apply to me; at O’Hare, it costs $5 to board the ‘L’ (compared to $2.50 at any other station) unless you’re traveling on a 1-, 3-, 7-, or 30-Day Pass. The 30-Day Pass sets me back $105 a month, which is no small amount but also significantly cheaper than any Metra monthly pass in any fare zone. My 30-Day Pass also includes unlimited rides and transfers to Pace; on Metra, that costs either an extra $30 (for only Pace) or $55 (for Pace and peak-hour CTA).

No one likes paying fares, but it’s a necessary evil for transit. (Maybe it isn’t; at current service levels, Chicago’s three transit agencies could go fare-free for the cost of about $4 per regional worker per week.) However, our fare policy is backwards from an equity standpoint: we offer the cheapest (non-special, per-ride) fares to riders who can afford to buy a lump-sum $100+ pass every month. If you’re living paycheck-to-paycheck, the CTA’s 7-Day pass ($28 each and doesn’t include Pace; $112 for 28 days vs. CTA/Pace 30-Day Pass for $105) or Metra’s 10-Ride ticket (Zone A-C $52.25; $209 for 20 round-trips vs. a monthly pass for $159.50) might be all you can afford, even though you’re clearly overpaying. For a city rider on the CTA, $7 is a meal for your family; for a city rider on Metra — there are 25 Zone C stations in Chicago proper, with 21 of those located south of 79th Street — an extra $50 a month could feed your family for a week. Having Metra and CTA/Pace fares operate in two separate vacuums doesn’t help either, and is only compounded by the fact that Metra’s only “integrated” fares are predicated on Monthly Passes.

Cook County wrapped up a study showing that lowering fares and increasing frequency on Metra through southern Cook County could net a $3.4 million profit if the agencies and the County can figure out who puts up the initial $8.5 million to implement the changes. However, Chicago’s Mayor Lori Lightfoot has repeatedly thrown cold water on the proposal in a defensive move to reduce CTA ridership losses, which is misguided since getting more riders onto any bus or any train is a net positive for our region in terms of congestion, air quality, equity, sustainable development, or just about any other metric.

A better improvement that could be rolled out relatively easily now that Ventra has strong adoption rates on Metra is fare capping, which gets rid of 10-Ride and Monthly Passes in favor of tracked single-use tickets that automatically taper down to $0 per ride based on how frequently a rider uses the service. This doesn’t take care of all equity issues — after all, a smartphone is needed, and about one in five Americans still don’t have a smartphone — but it’d be a huge step forward with direct benefits to some of the system’s most financially-insecure users. Furthermore, fare capping is not a foreign concept either: fare capping now officially exists in Illinois, as Metro Transit down in the St. Louis region now includes fare capping on their Gateway Card fare product.

But Metra’s fare policies are unfair even for the more well-off clientele that makes up their core commuter market, especially in the face of climate change, stagnant rail ridership, and declining bus ridership. (Of course, since Metra doesn’t run buses, that last one isn’t a priority for the agency as a whole.) The most cost-effective way to boost ridership during the peak period — other than just running more trains, of course — is improving accessibility to stations without adding more parking that takes up valuable real estate within the station’s walkshed. However, the Balkanized system we have in suburban transit — communities by and large own and operate park-and-ride lots; Pace owns, operates, and sets fare policy for buses; Metra operates or oversees operation of trains — pits each segment against each other in what should be parts of an integrated network. In a community like Wheaton, which has four Pace routes serving its Metra station, a quarterly parking permit costs only $60, or $20 per month. Even with a $30 PlusBus add-on to a Metra Monthly Pass, the suburbs are actively subsidizing driving over taking transit, which then actively undervalues some of the most valuable land in their community (parcels of land that can be developed within walking distance of a train station) by devoting more and more space for parking. Even in places like Lisle and Naperville which, to their credit, at least charge more than the $30 PlusBus pass (but still less than the $55 CTA/Pace LinkUp pass, just in case you don’t work within walking distance of Union Station), parking is so undervalued that Naperville’s parking permit wait list is seven years long.

So we’re actively pricing low-income transit users out of the market while we’re actively subsidizing suburbanites to drive more. Great. And my train’s late.

[Editor’s note: this section was written before the Active Transportation Alliance released their Fair Fares Chicagoland study last fall, a much deeper dive into fare equity issues in our region. Star:Line Chicago contributed to the report.]

Adventures in Reliability

Metra prides itself on its on-time performance; Metra CEO Jim Derwinski recently boasted to a congressional subcommittee that Metra has averaged 93% or better on-time performance for every year since 1984. Railroads — not just Metra — already play a little fast and loose with “on time”; the industry standard is that a train is consider on-time if it arrives at the last scheduled stop within six minutes of the published scheduled arrival time; Metra gives itself more wiggle room by padding the travel time between the penultimate and last stops, occasionally by laughable amounts of time. Even just a cursory look at the published schedules like the BNSF summer schedule gives up the game by adding more time for local trains or busy weekend trains than for peak-hour express trains.

TrainStationTerminalInbound Travel Time
BNSF #1292Western AveCUS9 min
BNSF #1224Western AveCUS10 min*
BNSF #1268Western AveCUS14 min
BNSF #1266Western AveCUS15 min
BNSF #2004Western AveCUS17 min
BNSF #2014Western AveCUS23 min
* includes a stop at Halsted St

Midday trains do occasionally run a little behind schedule, for various reasons. Maybe a big group all got on at once (and as discussed Metra’s fleet is not optimized for loading and unloading large groups all at once). Maybe there’s some track work that needs to be done between the peaks. Maybe there are speed restrictions due to summer heat. While there’s no shortage of things that go wrong, when there’s only one train an hour, an accurate schedule isn’t too much to ask for. However, simply throwing extra minutes at the end of the schedule is a good example of our #MovingTrainsNotPeople criticism of the railroad mindset. If you order something online and the site tells you that the package will be delivered before 7pm on whatever date, if it comes in at 2 or 3pm instead, that’s great, but that’s freight. When you placed that order, you chose your delivery option based on your specific needs: if they’re promising delivery by 7pm but you need it at 5pm, that’s not the option you’re choosing for delivery even if it will probably make it there early.

In 2020, when 81% of Americans have a device in their pocket or purse that has access to the entirety of human knowledge, including probable guesses on travel times by various modes of transportation, unnecessarily padding a train schedule only hurts Metra’s standing in mode choice decisions. If I’m starting from, say, Healy on the MD-N and heading to Union Station, Metra’s current construction schedule (track work from Northbrook to Healy) says I’ll spend 31 minutes onboard the train. This, of course, is extremely unlikely: that inbound train is far more likely to be late when it picks me up at Healy (since the construction zone is before Healy). According to the regular schedule, the trip from Healy to Union Station should take about 20 minutes, although even that is probably overly cautious since it only takes about 14 minutes to go from Union Station to Healy in the outbound direction.

What this means is that a trip that, for a trip that probably takes about 15-20 minutes, Metra is telling their riders that they need to literally double that travel time to make their trip; in turn, if that’s what Metra says on their GTFS feeds, that’s what Google and Transit and other apps will pick up as the predicted travel time, which directly affects whether or not some riders will choose to take the train or if they choose to drive instead. What Metra should be tracking and focusing on is schedule adherence, which provides a much stronger correlation to passenger experience than on-time performance. It’s a less sexy talking point, construction schedules would be tougher to push out and require more variability week-to-week, and I’m sure the initial results would not look terribly good for the agency, but more accurate, more reliable schedules will lead to stronger gains in ridership than continually moving the goalposts for a metric that’s become a Twitter punchline.

Back to the Metrathalon. My initial schedule called for taking the 11:01am UP-NW from Jefferson Park to Clybourn (scheduled arrival: 11:12am), changing trains, getting the UP-N from Clybourn (11:17am) to Ogilvie (11:28am), and transferring to the 11:40am UP-W train. The UP-NW inbound train eventually arrived in Jeff Park at 11:08am, which severely threw the connection to the UP-N into jeopardy. However, the UP-N was also running late (track construction), so while I was able to make the UP-N connection, the UP-W 11:40am connection now was in serious doubt.

Pictured: serious doubt.

Luckily, the Transit app shown above was working with Metra’s padded schedules, not actual travel times, so that UP-N train ended up getting into Ogilvie precisely at 11:39am.

Time to run.

Finger on the Pulse

I’m not a terribly fit person, which is one reason why it’s just a little ironic that I happen to run the Twitter account for a protected bike lane downtown. But, like just about anyone else who has ever taken transit, I can sprint when I need to. So when my scheduled 12 minute layover turned into a layover of about 45 seconds, I was still able to make it by running through the Ogilvie Transportation Center, albeit by a very slim margin. However, as I caught my breath in the vestibule of that 11:40am UP-W departure, I noticed something very unexpected:

Four other passengers taking a breather next to me.

Had I been more observant and less focused on keeping my Metrathalon schedule alive, I may have noticed that the other four people who were in the late UP-N vestibule with me as that train rolled in 11 minutes late were just as nervous and just as ready to hit the ground running as I was.

I didn’t actively plan it as such, but I stumbled into a rare time in Metra’s systemwide schedule that operates on something close to a pulse schedule, something I’ve discussed before on this blog. In a nutshell, pulse scheduling is a strategy of maximizing transfer potentials for transit systems that run with low frequencies, and they work particularly well with hub-and-spoke systems like Metra. The idea is that all the service comes into one central point all around the same time, have a small amount of time available to make transfers, and send the trips back out again, similar to how a heart pumps blood (hence “pulse” scheduling). In this case, there’s a UP-NW inbound train that’s scheduled to get in at 11:23am, a UP-N inbound train that’s scheduled to get in at 11:28am, and a UP-W outbound train that’s scheduled to leave at 11:40am, which means that if you’re going from, say, Evanston to Elmhurst, it can — theoretically — be a very simple, straightforward, easy connection to make.

Pulse scheduling can be a little tricky, since leaving too much time to layover makes the trip take longer and become less attractive for riders; leaving too little time risks missed connections if the inbound train gets delayed for whatever reason. However, if there are significant financial constraints that make adding service cost-prohibitive, adopting pulse scheduling is a cheap — it literally costs next to nothing since there’s no actual added service — way to make the network as a whole more usable and accessible for travelers.

Metra does not use pulse schedules, and they’ve shown little interest in doing so. Even my connection at Ogilvie here was a fluke since there’s no similarly scheduled connections between the UP-W and the UP-N in the other direction; in fact, UP-W inbound trains are scheduled to arrive at Ogilvie only 10-15 minutes after corresponding UP-N and UP-NW outbound departures, a slap in the face to anyone who actually tries to make those connections, especially when those two-hour headways creep up.

Look, scheduling trains is hard, especially through the Chicago area where passenger trains have to share tracks with freight trains and frequently cross other rail lines at grade. That said, a quick look at Metra’s weekend schedules shows that, actually, the schedules aren’t that complicated at all. For instance, here’s our Milwaukee West Travel Guide, where I lay out the schedules in something that looks a little more like a string chart than a traditional railroad schedule that splits trains up by direction. You can see it in the Saturday schedule too, but the Sunday schedule makes it painfully clear: trains leave downtown, go to Elgin, wait 10-25 minutes, then turn around and head back downtown. Once they get downtown, the train and its crew sits and waits until the next departure — which could be well over an hour — and then the cycle repeats. And that’s how most of Metra’s weekend lines operate. (The UP-N and UP-NW lines are somewhat of outliers here since there are multiple yards for each line out in the suburbs, and since they share consists.)

In other words, pulse scheduling — at least for weekend and off-peak trips — probably wouldn’t be too hard at all to actually roll out: instead of building an entire network based on what time hourly or every-two-hourly trains leave downtown (almost every weekend train that isn’t the UP-N, the ME, or the Suburban Branch of the RI leaves on a :30, :35, or :40 — and the Suburban Branch leaves on the :10 specifically to meet the Main Line RI :40 departure at Blue Island), plan the schedules around having the lines converge downtown at the same time, have a 20-30 minute layover period, and then send them back to the hinterlands. I’m sure the train crews would not be a fan of this set-up — I’d much rather kill an hour in downtown Chicago than downtown Elgin or Elburn — but Metra operates to serve passengers, not their crews.

This system would also have an extra benefit of increasing inbound on-time performance during the off-peak, since the buffer time in the schedule would be built into the suburban side of the flip, rather than the city side. For instance, let’s say an outbound train takes a 30-minute delay in service (and if you’ve taken Metra on the weekends, you know that’s definitely in the realm of possibility). Currently, let’s say that train has a scheduled 15-minute flip to become the next inbound train. That means the inbound trip is starting 15 minutes late, right off the bat. Not only is that inconvenient, but knowing Metra’s core constituency is still suburbanites going into the city and back, that will actively discourage people from using Metra for that trip. But if that hour-plus of flip time is on the suburban side, that 30-minute outbound delay has no effect on the following inbound trip, which boosts reliability and encourages more people to take the train.

Of course, then the counterargument is: what happens if the 30-minute delay happens on the inbound side? The short answer is: the same thing that happens now. While pulse scheduling would greatly improve connectivity and transfer opportunities, most passengers are still just heading downtown and don’t need to worry about a connection. (Riders who are already downtown looking to head home are more of a captive audience and are more tolerant of a short delay than suburbanites arriving at an inbound station and waiting for a delayed inbound train.)

For those that are on a delayed inbound train and do have to make a connection though, one of two things can happen: (1) the connection is missed and they have to wait for the next train — which, again, is a status quo situation — or (2) for connections that are close to happening, the railroad takes a second delay.

This is where I think I lose the last remaining railroaders who are still reading this far. But there is such a thing as a good delay. If there’s a train that’s coming in within five minutes of another departure on a line that only runs once every two hours — ready for this? — hold that departing train. With technologies like GPS, radios, and just communicating with your passengers, there’s no reason someone somewhere can’t just hold the outbound train, especially if they know someone’s transferring. Here’s how it could work in practice:

  1. An inbound BNSF train is running 20 minutes late. An outbound MD-W train is scheduled to depart 20 minutes after the BNSF train gets in.
  2. After the BNSF train passes Western Avenue, the conductor makes an announcement: “If anyone is transferring to a different Metra train at Union Station, please tell a conductor.”
  3. One of two things happen:
    • No one says anything; trains operate as scheduled. End.
    • Someone says they’re connecting to the MD-W train.
  4. The conductor calls a control center to tell them to hold the MD-W for a transfer.
  5. The control center tells the MD-W train to wait for a transfer from the late BNSF.
  6. A conductor on the MD-W announces that the train — still about ten minutes out from its scheduled departure time — will be slightly delayed since someone is connecting from a late train.
  7. One of two things happen:
    • A massive passenger mutiny on the MD-W for waiting at Union Station for an extra five minutes. Society breaks down onboard the train; each car becomes its own faction to fight for survival; someone blows into a conch shell.
    • Passengers barely notice and go about their conversations/drinking their train beers. Maybe someone runs up to The Junction for a refill.
  8. The BNSF train gets in and the transferring passenger(s) quickly make their way to the waiting MD-W train.
  9. The MD-W train leaves a few minutes late.

Now, maybe those few minutes start some huge butterfly-effect ripple through the entire network because a freight train can’t get into the Bensenville Yard on time or the Metra train ends up waiting for a CN freight at Spaulding or something. But more likely, probably not, and either way, that sort of stuff happens all the time now anyway, because maybe there’s a huge group getting off at a station and Metra’s fleet is not physically designed to handle large groups of people boarding/unloading all at once, or maybe there’s track work, or maybe there’s a slow zone, or maybe there’s whatever.

The point is, Metra probably could do pulse scheduling if they wanted to, and if there’s a good reason for them not to do pulse scheduling, it’s not public knowledge.

And, at the very least, if someone sees a group of people darting off a late inbound train and running through Ogilvie trying to make a train that’s about to pull out, maybe make sure the train sticks around for an extra minute or two just in case there’s someone with a disability or otherwise lacking my superior level of fitness.

Also, a quick note on fare policy: officially, I evaded a fare by using an active but unexpired Ventra one-way pass on the UP-W: Metra’s official fare policy requires a second full fare when changing trains downtown, which is not a good policy and should be shunned since it actively discourages using the system for anything other than trips to/from downtown. (I also don’t feel bad about this “fare evasion” because I still spent over $35 on fares for this excursion and the Day Pass should’ve been released by now.)

HALFTIME REPORT

I got into Oak Park just before noon. It’s been four hours and I’ve already knocked out six different Metra lines in this grand excursion; five to go. It also means it’s halftime in this magnum opus as I sit here writing this well over a month two months six months nine months after I made the journey. As I hopped on the Pace 307-Harlem bus to head down to the BNSF back on that warm July day, and now as I sit in my unemployed COVID-19 self-isolation, clacking away on the keyboard, I have the same thought:

I’m tired. And maybe this was a stupid idea.

On the Metrathalon, the 307 runs tantalizingly close to my house in Forest Park; indeed, when I’m headed up to the MD-W to head out to the burbs on a Saturday, the 307 is the bus I usually use to get up to the Elmwood Park station. I have an extra hour of downtime in the schedule, and I was planning on getting lunch, so maybe I should just go home, grab a sandwich, take a breather on the couch…

And as I blog, I realize I haven’t written half of what I need to do to document the excursion. Believe it or not, I don’t take any particular joy in complaining about our suburban transit network. I don’t like always being negative; it takes a lot of time and energy to point out issues that are obviously totally out of my control and still try to be productive with offering potential solutions or at least opportunities for improvement. There’s no shortage of people who take Metra to task online, I’ve been blogging much less regularly these days, and it’s entirely possible all of this is a liability as I hunt for a new job, so maybe I should just let this languish in the draft folder and move on to a new hobby…

Both those paths lead to the same point: a better universe where I’m better at knowing when to cut my losses, letting someone else quixotically tilt at the extremely niche windmills of suburban transit, and just having some normal hobbies like a normal person. Maybe I’d paint or know how to play piano or get really into fantasy sports or, you know, something… normal.

But this isn’t that universe. And I’m not that normal person. July 5th was my 34th birthday, and I spent my birthday riding trains for eleven hours without getting further than Joliet, and rather than just nerd out and enjoy it like a good railroad aficionado I decide to spill thousands of words worth of digital ink about how most of it kinda sucked as I scream into the void a greatest-hits epic long post that doesn’t really shed any new light on anything for anyone who has read anything I’ve written before.

Why do I do this?

Five minutes pass. The cursor patiently blinks at me, as if it knows the answer to my question but prefers to wait and let me figure it out on my own.

Five more minutes pass. I don’t figure it out.

Why do I do this? This blog (and honestly, the entire site) is a liability; I’m probably burning bridges I haven’t built yet in my professional career for a few occasional rants and repackaged information about train schedules and bars that anyone with a few minutes on Google can figure out on their own.

I wish I was normal.

Actually, that’s a lie. I wish I wished I was normal.

I’m not normal. Normal means keeping your head down, not making too many waves, and taking what you can get. Normal means knowing the difference between what you can change and what you can’t change and planning accordingly. Normal means letting someone else tilt at those windmills, letting someone else take big risks, letting someone else figure out what’s wrong with the system, and letting someone else try to fix it.

I’m not normal. I’m not good at just keeping my head down, going with the flow, and trying to nibble on the edges to change what we have out here in the suburbs. I believe in going straight at the paradigms we have today, assessing their strengths and weaknesses, and making a call for action to change them for the better, even if I’m just a small voice in a crowded room.

These windmills are my windmills to tilt at. This is what I do. Some people paint, or play the piano, or get really into fantasy sports, or whatever it is that normal people do. But I’m not normal. I help people plan train crawls, because I like helping suburbanites discover things to do throughout our region that don’t require getting behind the wheel of a car. I plan train crawls for people because I believe that the easier we make it for someone to have a good time hopping on transit and seeing the opportunities that are out there, the more likely they’ll be to ride transit more often on their own. I write this blog not because our transit agencies are necessarily failing or bad at what they do, but because the paradigm they serve isn’t suited for the challenges of the 21st Century and we all can be doing so much more for so many more people throughout our region, whether that’s big things like commuter rail electrification or organizational restructuring or small things like tweaking fare policies and getting schedules to line up.

I’m not normal. But if you’re reading this and you made it this far, you’re probably not normal either. You wouldn’t still be reading this if you also didn’t have thoughts on how to improve your community, ideas on how to get people out of their cars and exploring their communities, and strategies to do big crazy things that only seem silly until someone does them.

I’m not normal. And I’m not alone.

I pulled the stop request cord on the bus. There’s work to be done, and I have a train to catch.

The Racetrack

Getting off the UP-W in Oak Park and with 80 minutes to kill before I had to catch the next train — the BNSF at Harlem Avenue — squeezing in lunch should’ve been no problem. Oak Park has just about everything under the sun in terms of food options, all in a nice walkable neighborhood to boot.

But I didn’t eat in Oak Park, because even with 80 minutes to go about four miles, there were three factors working against me: the frequency of the 307 bus is only every 12-15 minutes (I really should put “only” in quotes; for midday service in the suburbs that’s as good as it gets); traffic issues on Harlem Avenue that increase the unpredictability of bus schedules (although Pace is working on it); and the BNSF tracks themselves, since Harlem Avenue crosses at grade and there’s a high frequency of long freight trains that use the tracks.

So instead of bougie Oak Park, I scarfed down lunch at the White Castle at Harlem and Ogden. (To be fair, I enjoy White Castle; I am a person with many flaws.) It was out of my way and took time off my schedule, but it was on the south side of the tracks, which means backtracking to the station would be a more predictable trip since I most certainly did not want to miss my 1:20pm train, since on Metra’s busiest line trains run on two-hour headways in the middle of the day. (Honestly though, two hours at The James Joyce or Quan’s Oasis wouldn’t have been the end of the world.)

Pictured: why you safely cross the BNSF tracks when you can.

The BNSF line, from Union Station to Aurora, is by far Metra’s busiest in terms of passenger loads. It’s also one of the four lines Metra has the least control over, since it’s operated under a purchase-of-service agreement where Metra pays the BNSF Railway to run Metra’s trains and reimburses BNSF for whatever losses they take on the operation.

The line itself can best be thought of as four different, distinct segments that all lie along the same set of tracks. Two of these segments I think Metra and the BNSF would argue are the ideal model for commuter service: the section between Union Station and Cicero, where trains basically just get the hell out of the city as fast as they can; and the Aurora-Route 59-Naperville section where stations are spaced relatively far apart (each station is in a different fare zone) and surrounded by massivebordering-onobscene amounts of parking.

The remaining two segments put commuter rail operations more directly at odds with good urban planning. The third segment, which I’d call Downers Grove to Lisle, is somewhat similar to the outer stretch albeit with more development and less parking. Downers Grove and Lisle both built town centers around their train stations which means parking has to be limited but ridership remains robust and being able to easily walk to trains is a major selling point for local residents. However, that still didn’t quench the insatiable thirst for more parking, so stations like Belmont and Fairview Avenue are also included, almost exclusively to serve park-and-riders. The fourth segment, from Westmont through Berwyn, is what BNSF really dislikes: small whistle-stop towns with classic development patterns and not nearly as much parking as they’d like. As a result, there are 15 stations in the 10.3 miles of track between (and including) Westmont and LaVergne. Average station spacing of seven-tenths of a mile is ideal for rapid transit, but not for diesel locomotives pulling eight coaches. As a result, there’s only two trains a day that actually make all 15 stops (#1202 in, #1233 out), with all other trains either skipping a few of the stops or operating on express patterns that split the segment in two at Congress Park.

BNSF Railway — the corporate railroad itself — doesn’t particularly like this stretch of operations. With the purchase-of-service agreement, BNSF basically can only break even on passenger operations; they’re a freight railroad and they make their money hauling freight. Freight trains operate at slower speeds than passenger trains, and as inefficient it is for a diesel commuter train to decelerate, make a stop, and accelerate back up to running speed, doing so with a freight train is significantly more costly and inefficient. On stretches where passenger stations are few and far between — like the Aurora-Route 59-Naperville stretch — it’s easier for freight and passenger service to coexist: since passenger trains can go faster than freights, a freight train can cruise along at 40-50 mph behind a commuter train that will occasionally slow down, stop, and speed back up to its top speed of 70 mph. But when that passenger train has to start making one stop every mile and never able to get back up to that top speed, freight performance behind it suffers and more time is needed before a freight train can run in that slot.

Railfans call this stretch “the Racetrack” because of how many trains BNSF crams into this corridor every day. Honestly, there’s a definite art to it, especially during rush hour when there’s 23 outbound trains crammed into a two-and-a-half hour window. But as beautiful as this ballet is, it’s also ripe for errors. A train experiencing even a minor issue can quickly snowball into a crippling series of delays through the rush period, and an inconsistency in the stopping patterns used to try to squeeze every last ounce of efficiency out of the peak period leads utter confusion for non-proficient riders and just another barrier to entry at a time when ridership is stagnating at best or slightly declining. Remember those 23 outbound trains? They operate on 19 different service patterns!

BNSF Railway would happily consolidate many of these stations, and indeed, one of the reasons why Metra’s undergoing a station optimization study is to help make decisions like these. However, as we’ve discussed before, boiling station performance down to a single ridership metric is challenging at best and fatally flawed at worst. For instance, let’s take me waiting at Harlem Avenue for this 1:20pm train. The Riverside station is 4,900 feet to the west and the Berwyn station is only 2,500 feet to the east. Obviously, three stations in 7,400 feet (or honestly any distance where feet are more logical units than miles) is too many. An urban planner will say to kill the Harlem Avenue station and maintain stations around the existing walkable cores of Berwyn and (to a lesser extent because of its lower density) Riverside; a transportation planner will say to keep Harlem Avenue since the region is sorely lacking in north-south transit connectivity and Pace is already planning on improving service in this corridor that also links up with Milwaukee West, Union Pacific West, and Heritage Corridor trains. Just over the Des Plaines River, Brookfield has a similar dilemma: Congress Park is already a peak-only station, so a full closure wouldn’t move the needle too much; however, the Hollywood and Brookfield stations are only half a mile apart, but the former is a family-friendly walking distance from a major suburban attraction (Brookfield Zoo). Do you close Hollywood and start running bus shuttles from Brookfield station? Who operates them? Who pays for them? Would a bus shuttle change the mode choice decision a family makes to take the train to the zoo on the weekend? And just west of there you have another tough decision with two LaGrange stops just five blocks apart from each other: do you keep the busier LaGrange Road stop and lose all the parking offered at Stone Avenue, or do you make people going to and from downtown LaGrange walk further and make Stone the primary station?

This is typically the part of the blog post where I make some sort of call to action on how things can be made better, but honestly there are no good choices here. BNSF will likely argue that station consolidation needs to happen before passenger service frequency increases dramatically in the off-peak (although modest service increases from last year’s summer schedule were made permanent, which is great) so that passenger service doesn’t interfere too extensively with freight movements, but each possible candidate for station consolidation would have serious negative impacts to either the regional transit network and/or for the walkable, sustainable suburban communities we need to be supporting and promoting. Even the cop-out “just get rid of the freight trains” argument fails here, since that would either require offloading more intermodal freight onto trucks (which increases roadway wear-and-tear and adds to regional pollution and congestion) or building new dedicated grade-separated freight-only tracks in the region, which would be incredibly expensive and disruptive to plenty of suburban communities.

In the meantime, I made it to Union Station on-time and now have just under an hour to kill before I hop on the Heritage Corridor. Time to grab a cold one at The Junction and head to the south suburbs.

Choose Your Fighter

[Editor’s Note: this section was written before the more recent blog post on this very topic.]

For those of you unfamiliar with Metra’s system, of the railroad’s 11 lines, the Heritage Corridor is barely one of them. It’s easy to overlook though: with seven stations and seven trains a day (total, not seven round-trips), it’s quite possibly the worst single commuter line in the country. That’s not hyperbole; the closest lines with comparable service that I could find are commuter railroads that are hardly Metra’s peers: the Altamont Corridor Express in the Bay Area operates eight trains a day and the Sounder between Seattle and Everett, Washington, which also has eight dedicated trains a day but the good sense to work with Amtrak to provide additional commuter service.

Like many — but most certainly not all — critiques this blog has, this issue is not solely Metra’s fault. The Heritage Corridor line between Chicago Union Station and Joliet is extremely heavily traveled by freight trains and Amtrak; the four at-grade crossings with other freight railroads don’t do the line any favors either. To Metra’s credit, they’re doing what they can with the corridor: a new station opened in 2018 in Romeoville, and a new afternoon outbound trip was added in 2016.

That added train — that leaves at 2:45pm on weekday afternoons — is the train I took for the Metrathalon. Since my previous BNSF train got into Union Station at about 1:50pm, it was very unstressful to get to the Heritage Corridor train. The Heritage Corridor, as the least-utilized line in Metra’s system, also operates with some of the shortest consists. My train had only three coaches; being basically a holiday weekend, I was one of about five people in my car, and yet Metra still had their usual crew of a trainman, conductor, and an engineer.

The trip itself was uneventful — with no delays at all, we got into Joliet eight minutes early. For me, it was an easy trip and, when the train’s running on time, plenty convenient. However, since the line runs so infrequently, communities like Summit, Willow Springs, Lemont, Lockport, and now Romeoville miss out on the benefits a suburb like LaGrange or Palatine or Glenview get with off-peak and weekend service, even though the Heritage Corridor communities are still on the hook for a station building, park-and-ride facilities, and everything else needed for train service.

Of course, there’s an easy solution to this problem, and it lies within five minutes of most of the corridor: over the last few years, Pace has expanded their express bus service on Interstate 55, which parallels the Heritage Corridor. Ridership has gone gangbusters since Pace and IDOT worked out bus-on-shoulder operations: since 2011, Pace’s ridership in the corridor increased by 600% as on-time performance went from 65% to over 90%. Pace recently opened a new park-and-ride facility in Plainfield to handle the demand, and daily ridership on Pace’s I-55 service now significantly exceeds the Heritage Corridor. With a managed lanes project planned for Interstate 55 that will increase speeds and improve reliability even more for Pace buses in the corridor, there are challenges ahead for the Heritage Corridor.

But herein lies the problem: we really shouldn’t be worrying about two separate transit facilities competing against each other, but the structure we have for suburban transit in Chicagoland unnecessarily puts Metra and Pace in adversarial positions for corridor services like these. While the agencies do overwhelmingly play nice with each other — Metra heavily relies on Pace for weekday shuttle services to and from many suburban stations, especially along the BNSF line — since each agency still needs to hit its individual farebox recovery ratios and balance a budget to the RTA’s approval, Metra and Pace fares are not integrated and services like the Heritage Corridor and Pace I-55 express service become a zero-sum game. I can’t imagine a scenario anywhere else where supplemental bus service to augment constrained commuter rail service would be seen as a negative because it’d “cannibalize” service, yet that’s what we see in this corridor and elsewhere in the region, where Pace and the Tollway invest heavily in upgraded service on the Interstate 90 corridor while Metra still has the east-west I-90 STAR Line officially on their planning books.

I’m old enough to remember Pace Route 835, which was a Metra-subsidized bus route that operated to boost capacity on the SouthWest Service before Metra expanded the infrastructure needed to operate more trains. However, these days we’ve seem to settled into a paradigm where Metra runs trains and Pace runs buses, and never the twain shall meet. I believe the core of the conflict remains finances and fare policy: even with Rebuild Illinois, Metra is so deep in the state-of-good-repair hole that Metra’s board would be reluctant to invest in a fleet or services that aren’t a train, and Metra doesn’t want to lose fares from riders switching to Pace buses (and likewise Pace probably isn’t too wild about sharing fares with Metra from a corridor that continues to show ridership growth).

But now is the time for the RTA to step in and work with Metra and Pace to determine a larger strategic plan for the southwest suburbs, before the managed lanes on Interstate 55 get built and change the overall commuting patterns in these parts of Cook and Will Counties. The paltry train service offered on the Heritage Corridor is nonetheless an essential link to downtown for communities in the Des Plaines River valley (with much, much higher capacities than buses can provide); we cannot risk losing it to service cuts. Likewise, those same communities can be much better served for every trip that isn’t a traditional commute by more robust transit service off-peak and weekends, especially considering how downright laughable weekend service is on the nearby SouthWest Service.

Metra and Pace are both huge assets for the Chicago suburbs, each in their own right, but if we want to take congestion, livability, and climate change seriously, we need a fully integrated transit network that prioritizes mobility and accessibility rather than one where occasionally the bus schedule lines up with the train schedule to provide a “transfer” that requires a second full fare. Right now we have one agency that runs suburban trains and one agency that runs suburban buses. We need transit agencies that move people instead.

We do have coordinated signage now though, so that’s something.

Rock Out

After a short layover in Joliet, I hopped on an inbound Rock Island train. Previously, I hadn’t taken the Rock Island south of Blue Island, so I was a bit startled when I quickly discovered yet another one of Metra’s little idiosyncrasies.

Pictured: short layover.

As many riders already know, most of Metra’s lines operate “right-handed”: that is, where there are multiple tracks, the train generally operates on the right-most track in the direction of travel, similar to how American drivers drive on the right side of the road. However, as a legacy of the Chicago and North Western railroad, the three Union Pacific lines run left-handed, which is a peculiar bit of history and a bit of a barrier to entry for unfamiliar riders.

And then there’s the Rock Island.

Quick glamour shot in Joliet.

If you were designing a transit system to be as confusing as possible, the Rock Island is the gold standard: the track inbound or outbound trains use changes by the time of day. There’s an odd beauty in it: typical 9-to-5 commuters get to board their morning train and alight their evening train from the same platform at their home station. But if you’re unfamiliar rider — maybe a parent taking their kids to a museum or a few bros playing hooky to go to a Sox day game — it’s quite easy to show up at the right station at the right time and still miss your train because you’re trapped on the wrong platform when the train pulls in.

This may be a good example of the divide between operations and capital in our transit funding models. This midday track change likely occurs because trains of a certain length need to use the longer platform at each station, but rather than lengthening the platforms (a capital cost, of which Metra has many others competing for priority), a suboptimal operational model is used instead that may have an impact on ridership (which thus influences the operations budget). In the long run, this is a relatively minor issue and doesn’t compare with functionally-obsolete 100-year-old bridges, but it’s still important to identify these small issues that can pose any barrier to entry for infrequent riders, as it’s easier and more cost-effective to make an infrequent rider a regular than it is to try to win over a new non-user.

Speaking of the need for consistency, the train I was on was not scheduled to stop in Robbins because I guess that one minute travel time savings was crucially important somewhere else along the line.

Sorry Robbins. Nothing personal.

It’s Electrifying

With nine lines officially in the books, it was time to change trains at Blue Island and transfer to the Metra Electric. Blue Island functionally should be considered a terminal, and in our maps we portray the station as a three-line transfer station between Rock Island Main Line trains, Rock Island Suburban Branch trains (which we consider an additional line), and Metra Electric Blue Island/City Main line trains. In practice, however, the station area is… well, it’s a very unique setup: the central “station” is between two sets of double tracks, but there’s only a single platform serving each set of tracks, and they aren’t island platforms. This arrangement greatly restricts operations and the ability to add more diesel trains, since regardless of direction only one train on the main and one train on the sub can use the platform at once. In the meantime, the Electric Line terminal is across Vermont Street from the Rock Island station and across the main line from the platforms. As a pedestrian, it’s a very unwelcoming environment with cars and trains just sort of all over the place.

The Electric Line does have an elevated island platform, however. So there’s that.

Once I boarded the Electric Line train and we departed, however, the strengths of the Electric Line were immediately apparent. After about eight hours of riding diesel trains, the quick acceleration and deceleration of the Highliner electric multiple unit trains was very noticeable — and much appreciated. Even with the additional stops, the trip just felt quicker, and it likely was quicker, since with level boarding and better acceleration and deceleration there’s less dwell time at each station. I’m not going to spill much more ink on the Electric Line as a whole — there’s plenty to read on the topic from some great advocates — other than to say that the Electric Line is an underutilized South Side asset because we keep trying to operate commuter rail over a rapid transit line.

I’ll also use this opportunity to support electrifying the Rock Island, or at least the suburban branch, where diesel trains stop every half mile between 87th Street and Blue Island. While widespread electrification of Metra’s system shows up on plenty of advocates’ wish lists, starting with the suburban branch of the Rock Island makes the most sense: the stop spacing of the branch is well-suited for the quick acceleration and deceleration provided from electric multiple unit trains; higher frequencies on the South Side and the south suburbs are important from a regional equity standpoint; and the Blue Island branch of the Electric Line means Metra could share a fleet (and shops) between lines rather than starting elsewhere in the network in relative isolation.

I got off at Van Buren Street, which… well, if you’re a tourist or a suburbanite coming into downtown Chicago for the first time in awhile, just push through to Millennium Station.

This is one of the entrances to Van Buren Street station from Michigan Avenue.

Last Call

From Van Buren Street I hopped on a CTA bus and got back to Union Station for a quick out-and-back on the SouthWest Service to Wrightwood. I always hate ending these grand adventures on an out-and-back trip because it’s very anti-climactic: I rode on 11 Metra trains on 11 Metra train lines in 11 hours exactly, and I’m getting off in Wrightwood to… wait a few minutes and get back on an inbound train.

This is what success looks like.

Overall, I’m glad I made this excursion. Even though it ended up costing me $36.50 when it should’ve costed me about $16.50 for the Round Trip Plus day pass (get it together, that pilot was approved in 2018), I was glad I was able to practice what I preach by getting out there and using Metra as a unified system. While there’s no shortage of things that can be improved, it’s also important to appreciate the strength of the system that allowed this to happen. We as Chicagoland residents are blessed to have a wide-reaching commuter rail network that spans 242 stations throughout the city and suburbs. It’s a network that we critique and complain about because we appreciate it, we want it to be successful, and we know how much better it someday could be.

Diverging Approach: Uncharted Waters

As the covid-19 pandemic spreads and as a ground stop on just about all aspects of American life sets in, we’re facing a lot of unknowns in the world of suburban transit these days. The bottom is falling out of mass transit demand as workplaces shift to work from home or mass layoffs as schools, bars, restaurants, and just about everything else shuts down. While no service reductions are scheduled for CTA, Pace, or Metra — yet — they are likely on the horizon. BNSF conductors reportedly announced to morning commuters that service reductions will start Wednesday; Metra meanwhile refuses to confirm or deny any upcoming service changes.

My guess is that Metra will very shortly announce that they’ll go to their alternate schedules, which generally are reserved for significant weather events. (It’s not guaranteed that they’ll do this, of course, but the BNSF, MED, MD-N, MD-W, Rock, UP-N and UP-NW alternate schedules have all been updated within the last 72 hours, so make what you will of that.) The alternate schedules are good: off-peak cuts are minimal (except for late night trains, which are mostly cut), with most of the changes happening at the peak of the peak. Metra deserves credit for maintaining those off-peak runs, however in the era of flattening the peak and social distancing there are a few other immediate changes we would recommend for all our transit agencies:

  • Suspend face-to-face fare collection. With other agencies like the Illinois Tollway taking the dramatic step to go towards all-electronic tolling and closing manned toll booths, and while transit agencies will likely be running a fare surplus as monthly passes go unused (or unrefunded), keeping riders and front-line employees safe from the coronavirus should take precedence over fare collection. Metra’s conductors serve important safety functions onboard trains: performing inspections, communicating with dispatch and the operator, operating wheelchair lifts, etc. Suspending fare collection can also lower the number of conductors needed on each train, which allows for smaller crew sizes and once again, fewer front-line contacts with potentially infected riders.
  • Open all the coaches in each consist. One of our Metra pet peeves for years, this recommendation takes extra urgency now: open every coach in every consist to allow passengers to spread out (maintain six-foot separation) rather than opening coaches as needed. This also goes for CTA service: don’t cut off-peak trains into smaller 4-car consists. Now is not the time to try to save a few bucks on electric.
  • Maintain off-peak service. While most of us hunker down and while social attractions shut down through the end of the month, there are still plenty of workers who do need to get to jobs, and plenty of them have untraditional hours. The front lines of a pandemic are first responders and health care workers, of course, but janitorial staffs, grocery store workers, supply chain employees, etc. are also vitally important. Off-peak service is crucial to serving all of these off-hour commuters.
  • Plan ahead. While the bulk of the disruption will likely occur between now and the end of March, it’s important to remember that there’s no toggle switch that magically gets flipped on April 1 that gets everything back to normal. Having a smooth transition to normalcy will be important to getting riders back on transit. To that aspect, seeing NICTD’s announcement today that March monthly passes will be good through April is a smart strategy that doubles as a ridership appreciation tactic.
  • Don’t panic. The ridership numbers are going to drop dramatically. It’s okay. Most of them will come back in a few months.
  • Think outside the box and take notes. While public health is obviously the top priority for everyone during a pandemic, these are also unique circumstances for unplanned pilot projects. Want to change staffing models? Try a new fare collection technique? Work out an operational issue? Now’s the time to try with limited impacts on ridership.

For the rest of us: wash your hands, cover your cough, avoid unnecessary travel, and make good choices. We’ll get through this together.

Diverging Approach: Hiding in Plain Sight

Pop quiz, hot shot: What’s Metra’s busiest corridor?

You probably guessed the BNSF, which definitely has the highest ridership (by a long shot) and the highest number of daily trains: 47 round trips, or 94 individual in-service trains.

But what if I told you there was a corridor with a whopping 111 scheduled trips each weekday?

And now what if I told you it was the Heritage Corridor?

It’s obviously a laughable claim. Metra recently announced that they’re open to adding an eighth daily train (yes, the current service is that infrequent), and a recent rider survey about a potential change generated a whopping 2,000 entries. So where am I getting an extra 104 daily trips from?

Get in loser, we’re fixing suburban transit.

This blog post started as a hypothetical experiment. Earlier this week, since I have some time to kill for the indefinite future, I woke up bright and early to make a pre-dawn trip down to the Interstate 55 corridor. I figured the trip would be good field research for at least two potential posts: one discussing how bad the BNSF reverse commute offerings are (seriously, look at this outbound morning schedule, to get from Berwyn to Naperville it’s somehow faster for me to take a train to Union Station and get right back on an outbound train than it is for me to try to get a single-seat outbound train), and one discussing some idyllic future state where Metra could get buses like Pace’s express coach buses to bolster and improve exurban service that reduces the reliance on diesel consists to pick up a handful of people off-peak when it makes more sense to bus them to a convenient transfer point and increase train frequencies where the vast majority of the riders are instead. (Looking at you, Union Pacific Northwest).

Highly recommend Pace’s express buses, by the way. This is transit!

What I found instead are three separate service providers with a whole bunch of service offerings that overlap and could actually complement each other if it wasn’t for our siloed fare policies and service planning procedures.

Too Many Cooks

Let’s identify all the players really quickly. There’s obviously Metra, with their seven Heritage Corridor trains per weekday. Train service is crucial: Metra’s diesel consists are great for moving large numbers of people very fast with few intermediate stops, which describes the Heritage Corridor perfectly; unfortunately, the tracks are crowded with plenty of slow-moving freight cross-traffic, so adding train service is a significant challenge. But there’s also the suburban bus operator Pace, with a variety of express premium services along Interstate 55 where buses operate on the inside shoulder when the expressway is congested:

  • Pace Route 755, which runs from Plainfield to Chicago Union Station with stops at the Old Chicago park-and-ride, the Damen Pink Line station, and a bunch of street stops on the West Side;
  • Pace Route 850, which runs from Bolingbrook (more specifically, the Canterbury park-and-ride) to the Magnificent Mile;
  • Pace Route 851, which does basically the same thing as the 850 except starting from the White Fence Farm park-and-ride instead of Canterbury; and
  • Pace Route 855, which runs from Plainfield to the Magnificent Mile with additional stops at the Burr Ridge park-and-ride and supplemental service to the Bridgeview Transit Center.
  • Note: there’s also Pace Route 754 in this corridor, but since it only operates a single reverse-commute round-trip and only serves Lewis University, for the purposes of this conversation I’m not including it.

Then there’s also Amtrak, which shares the tracks with Metra (technically, both Metra and Amtrak have trackage rights; Canadian National controls the tracks). Amtrak runs ten trains a day between Chicago and Joliet: eight Lincoln Service trains — which are primarily funded by IDOT — one daily round-trip for the long-distance Texas Eagle train. Lincoln Service trains also stop at Summit, although inbound Amtrak trains are prohibited from picking up anyone at Summit and stop to discharge passengers only. Also note that there are more Amtrak trains in this corridor than Metra trains, so finding a way to tap into Amtrak’s regional service to also provide commuter service — which has been done elsewhere — would be a massive benefit.

And then there’s also Pace again, which runs two additional routes that conveniently connect to BNSF trains: the 825 provides weekday peak service from Canterbury to Lisle (with timed transfers), and the 834 provides local service six days a week between Joliet and Downers Grove with stops at the Lockport Heritage Corridor station, the Old Chicago park-and-ride, and the Canterbury park-and-ride. When the BNSF is running expresses, these trips are competitive with Pace’s express bus service to downtown; however, the lack of fare integration can make these trips more cost-prohibitive for regular commuters.

Put them all together and there’s a robust corridor of 111 transit trips every weekday, which also includes off-peak and reverse commute schedules as well. That doesn’t even include a bunch of convenient connecting services to Summit, such as Pace’s 307 (which connects to the BNSF at Harlem Avenue as well as the Bridgeport Transit Center) and the CTA’s 62H (which connects to the Orange Line at Midway Airport).

The Corridor

(Click here to open the timetables in a new window.)

It’s important to note that these are existing services and current conditions: unlike plenty of other entries on this blog, I didn’t crayon out any service expansions or extensions or add any trips that aren’t currently operating. If anything, there might be a few more trips than what’s shown here since I didn’t include any 834 trips during the peak (since there are faster ways to/from downtown) or any trips that required a transfer of more than 20 minutes. These are existing conditions, but since Pace does Pace stuff and Metra does Metra stuff, they’re almost never presented as a unified system.

That said, a quick look at the combined schedule just begs for some minor tweaks that could dramatically enhance the service even further. Just a few low-hanging fruit scenarios:

  • Could those eight Amtrak trips make flag stops at the other Heritage Corridor stations? Can this suffice as weekend service for the Heritage Corridor?
  • Could some 834 trips cross the Des Plaines River at Romeo Road and serve the Romeoville station off-peak as well?
  • Could Burr Ridge runs be extended to stop at Willow Springs and Lemont?
  • When the I-55 managed lanes project ends up happening, can a mainline station similar to Barrington Road open to allow transfers between West Loop trips and Mag Mile trips?

Of course, as long as the fare policy stays the same — where Metra and Pace more or less pretend there are two separate networks rather than one unified network unless you have a monthly pass AND you’re willing to pay an extra $30 — the full potential of this corridor will remain unrealized. That’s an awful shame since Pace service in this corridor is busting at the seams — a 600% increase in ridership since 2011 — and the Heritage Corridor is one of Metra’s few bright spots in regards to ridership growth as the only line that didn’t lose riders between 2018 and 2019.

This corridor is an ideal candidate for an integrated fare pilot project, and in the meantime if Metra’s willing to pop the hood on the Heritage Corridor schedule to add another train or two, now’s the time to work with Pace (and maybe IDOT) to approach the schedule change in a more holistic way that improves mobility and accessibility for commuters throughout the southwest suburbs.

Diverging Approach: Molon Labe

Last fall, the Active Transportation Alliance released their Fair Fares Chicagoland report, a thorough analysis of the fare policies of our region’s three transit boards and made recommendations on how to make Chicagoland transit more accessible and equitable, with a particular focus how to improve for lower-income riders. The primary recommendations focused on reduced fares for low-income citizens; reassessing statutory farebox recovery ratios; an integrated fare system that connected the three transit boards; decriminalizing fare evasion; and free fares for area youth.

That report apparently landed with a loud “thud” on the desks in Metra’s front office, and the recommendations were not only ignored but promptly dismissed, as we’ve seen from last week’s heavy-handed new initiative to crack down on fare evasion, including the aggressive step of using Metra’s police officers to assist conductors onboard with fare enforcement. Coupled with the recent decision to pursue going cashless onboard trains and suspend reduced fare student tickets during high ridership events, this feels like the agency is trending the wrong way for riders who aren’t their core demographic of middle- to upper-class suburbanites.

Fares are a necessary evil for transit riders (or not), and on the surface cracking down on scofflaws to try to boost revenue rather than approving another fare increase seems like a logical step to take to remain accountable to regional taxpayers. However, there are a few ominous signs that this is focusing more on punishing riders than actually boosting the bottom line, considering how much money Metra’s throwing at this enforcement push. Metra readily admits they have no idea how much fare evasion actually costs the railroad (which means they have no idea what to expect in terms of increased revenues), and they decided the best way to inform riders of the change was through mass printings — branded with the Metra Police badge — distributed on ALL the trains throughout the system Friday morning.

But most egregiously, Metra believes the best way to crack down on enforcement is not only by using police to do ticket spot checks (great timing announcing a bolstered police presence to enforce fares right before Martin Luther King Day weekend, by the way), but also by adding even more conductors to trains. From the Trib:

Metra also reminded riders that if a customer does not produce a paper or mobile ticket or refuses to pay the fare on board with cash or via the Ventra app, “Metra may remove that customer from the train and police may issue citations for state and/or county offenses,” the leaflet said.

The railroad said Metra police will be complementing the efforts of conductors to validate fare collection. Metra CEO Jim Derwinski said the railroad has added more conductors to help with the collection effort. Metra also will be posting signs throughout the system about fare compliance and potential penalties.

Each Metra train has no fewer than three employees onboard (an engineer and two on-board personnel including conductors); this is a Metra policy that is not necessarily required by any federal or state regulations. From a railroading perspective, conductors have an important role in operating the train: they assist the engineer, perform safety inspections at the beginning and end of each trip, operate the lifts for disabled riders, and so on. However, most riders know the conductors for checking — or not checking — tickets. Metra claims the latest fare enforcement push is partially based on complaints from riders “that when trains are crowded, not all fares are collected, which is unfair to those who pay,” according to the Trib article. (Of course, when someone says something along the lines of “why the hell am I paying $200 a month for a ticket they don’t always check?”, that’s a comment on the fare cost, not fare enforcement.)

Just about anyone who has ever ridden Metra with any frequency almost certainly has plenty of anecdotal tales of free rides, where they simply never saw a conductor during their entire trip and therefore never bought a ticket. Fare overriding, where riders will buy a ticket for a shorter zone pair than where they’re actually heading, is a little more difficult to track and enforce. No one has ever really dug into fare compliance on Metra trains, and the railroad claims this new enforcement push is part of an effort to squeeze out some data they can present to the Board of Directors as part of ongoing conversations about modernizing the overall fare structure. (Still waiting on those Day Passes that were promised in 2018, by the way.)

The data that does exist, however, suggests that “fare evasion” — in this case, where riders are actively trying to avoid fare collection efforts — isn’t really that much of a significant issue on Metra. Julia Gerasimenko, the Active Transportation Alliance’s Advocacy Manager, noted in a terrific letter to the editor today that there have only been a total of 43 arrests on Metra between 2016 and 2018 for fare enforcement.

What is more of a problem, however, is fare collection, which shouldn’t be confused with fare evasion. Since Metra does not operate on a proof-of-payment system (which, spoiler alert, is probably where Metra should be heading), there’s a reasonable expectation by riders that the point-of-sale for the ticket transaction will be handled onboard the train, whether that’s launching the Ventra app or handing cash to a conductor. Metra’s own fare policy describes it as such:

Riders must present a valid ticket to onboard personnel or law enforcement on request or be prepared to purchase a ticket with cash or through the Ventra App.

“Ticket Validation,” Metra Fare Policies, Page 7.

Furthermore, Metra’s (non-criminal) penalties for fare noncompliance are slaps on the wrist: a $5 surcharge if you pay cash onboard the train when you boarded from a station that had a ticket agent on duty (which can easily be circumvented by purchasing your ticket on the Ventra smartphone app onboard, which is yet another way that the system punishes the poor), and the same $5 charge is also the penalty for overriding a ticket. Overriding also requires the purchase of an incremental ticket, which costs $1 for the first zone and 50 cents for every zone thereafter. In other words, the most egregious overriding scenario possible — let’s say you’re doing your best Snidely Whiplash impression and buying an Ogilvie-Clybourn UP-NW Zone A-A ticket to ride all the way out to Harvard — comes with a punishing fine of $10: $5 penalty + $1 for the first extra zone, Zone B + $4 for eight 50-cent additional Zones C-J, which would make your total trip cost $14 (since a Zone A-A ticket is $4). Now, if you were a functioning member of society and simply paid the correct fare from the get-go, the fare costs $9.50, which somehow is only $4.50 cheaper even though the fare evader got “punished” with a $5 fine.

This gap between the penalty and the ticket cost is because incremental fares haven’t caught up with the more recent fare raises elsewhere in the system, which due to rounding have inconsistent increases between zones: it’s officially cheaper to buy a Zone A-B ticket ($4.25) and buy an incremental ticket onboard to go to Zone C (+$1.00) than it is to buy a Zone A-C ticket ($5.50).) In fact, the fare system has atrophied to the point where it’s always cheaper to get a one-way Zone A-B ticket and a second incremental ticket to your final destination rather than buying a direct ticket. It’s really stupid, and we don’t recommend it because it’s a hassle for conductors and requires paying in cash, but it’s totally legal. But don’t do it, because Metra needs the cash.

Zone PairOne-Way Ticket PriceOne-Way Zone A-B + Incremental
A-A$4.00n/a
A-B$4.25n/a
A-C$5.50$5.25
A-D$6.25$5.75
A-E$6.75$6.25
A-F$7.25$6.75
A-G$7.75$7.25
A-H$8.25$7.75
A-I$9.00$8.25
A-J$9.50$8.75
A ten-ride Zone A-B ticket costs $40.50. Just saying. But don’t do it, it’s stupid.

Gaming this math out further, let’s say you’re a chronic fare evader: you live along the MD-W in Elmwood Park (Zone C), but you know there’s only two minutes between Elmwood Park and Mont Clare (Zone B), so you decide to get a $123.25 Zone B monthly instead of the $159.50 Zone C monthly and lie your pants off, telling the conductor you got on at Mont Clare every day. If the conductor gets wise, they’ll slap you with the overriding penalty of $6 ($5 penalty + $1 one-zone incremental). If you’re a gambler, you can wager that you can get caught up to six times in a month and still come out financially ahead. (Editor’s note: The Yard Social Club and Star:Line Chicago obviously do not encourage fare evasion. Do not try this.)

In both of these nefarious cases, the solution remains simple: if conductors make several passes through the train at strategic locations, the fare evaders should be caught pretty simply, with no need to get law enforcement involved unless a passenger gets unruly after getting called out on the evasion. At the high end of the spectrum, the best way to fight fare evasion in a conductor-based system is to dramatically increase staff so each car has at least one conductor who would theoretically check every ticket between every station; however, that would undoubtedly be prohibitively expensive, which means some level of fare evasion has to be tolerated. Labor remains the largest expense for most transit agencies, and conductors aren’t cheap: I pulled the salaries of the conductors from RTAMS, crunched a few numbers, and estimated that the average hourly wage for a conductor is $47.05, taking the annual salaries of conductors who worked for the full year and assuming they worked 2,080 hours (40 hours/week x 52 weeks/year), although Metra’s onboard staff is historically known for working plenty of overtime. In other words, for Metra to break even on their increased staffing for the fare enforcement push, each added conductor needs to bring in at least $50 of additional, previously-uncollected fares each hour of their shift to financially justify the additional staffing. Considering the downtime conductors have between runs or on deadheads during rush hour, when they obviously can’t be collecting new fares, it’s likely that breakeven figure is even higher when only considering time in revenue service.

Metra’s official fare policy — published and adopted in November 2019 — gives onboard personnel discretion significant latitude in how to handle fare evasions: conductors are permitted to offer an “onboard fare collection envelope” to someone who is unable to pay a fare “as a one-time courtesy” (which could end up with a collections agency coming after the offender). Or conductors can kick the person off the train at the next stop and are required to immediately notify law enforcement for arrest and prosecution. That kind of discretion is almost guaranteed to result in inequitable outcomes.

If a passenger fails to provide a ticket for travel and is unable to purchase a paper or mobile ticket, onboard personnel may issue an onboard fare collection envelope as a one‐time courtesy to the passenger, with instructions for sending payment to Metra. Riders who receive an onboard fare collection envelope for failure to pay a fare must remit the applicable one‐way fare for the transportation provided, plus a $5 service charge or present a valid Monthly Pass to a ticket agent to void the fare payment envelope. Passengers who fail to send in the required fare payment may be subject to additional claims action.

Onboard personnel are authorized to remove any passenger from a train at the next scheduled stop for fare evasion, including refusal to provide a valid ticket or purchase a ticket on board and/or refusal to accept an onboard fare collection envelope to remit a fare later, or use of a counterfeit or altered ticket, including refusal to demonstrate mobile ticket security features when requested. Metra personnel must turn over any passenger removed from a train for refusal to pay a fare or for use of a counterfeit or altered ticket to the Metra Police Department or local law enforcement officials for prosecution.

“Failure to Pay Fare,” Metra Fare Policies, Page 9

It’s discouraging that, at a time when national trends are pointing towards more fair fares and decriminalizing fare evasion, Metra is going the opposite direction. It bears noting that some of these national trends are controversial, especially for law-and-order small-government conservatives. However, in this case, even the good government types will likely see the problem in Metra’s new strategy: it’s entirely possible — possibly even probable — that all this effort in combating fare evasion will end up costing the railroad more than simply allowing whatever fare evasion exists to simply go on existing. But bringing cops onboard to hassle people who can’t afford a $5 penalty and spending more money than what’s getting brought in to do so is bad for everyone.

To be clear, this blog does not intend to demonize conductors (or cops, for that matter), nor do we advocate for a widespread staffing reductions that lead to job losses. Even in a shift to proof-of-payment, we would advocate for a hiring freeze and transitioning some onboard staff from conductors to non-police fare inspectors to protect current staff from any change in employment. But while there is no official data regarding the issue (at least publicly; there may be some internal studies, but that’s unknown), we do have a dataset that can be useful: the Diverging Approach Metra Trip Log, our ongoing database of hundreds of rides on Metra over the last year and a half. Most of the rides are likely my own, but the link is public and we do get entries from other riders throughout the region. (Please keep logging your trips, or if you haven’t started, take the 30 seconds to complete an entry next time you ride the train and help us build a more robust database.) While it’s not terribly rigorous from a statistical standpoint since it’s entirely opt-in, it still provides us with a good baseline to use for some of these discussions.

Forms response chart. Question title: Did conductors check fares while you were onboard?. Number of responses: 637 responses.

While we don’t have any data on actual fare evasion, we do have data on fare collection. As of this writing, our log suggests that fare collection rates on Metra are decent, with room to improve: 92.9% of trips made that got logged included a conductor collecting a fare for the trip. Digging into the crosstabs however, there are definite trends based on time of day: conductors are most strict on weekday afternoon outbound trains, with 99% of trips having a conductor check tickets, while off-peak trains see fare collection rates drop off, bottoming out at about 84% for weekday midday and weekend trips.

Time of DayMissed Fares ReportedTotal Trips LoggedCollection Rate
Peak – Inbound1223895.0%
Peak – Outbound219899.0%
Reverse – Inbound211**
Reverse – Outbound05**
Weekday – Midday53083.3%
Weekday – Evening54488.6%
Weekend1710684.0%
All Peak1433696.8%
All Off-Peak2919685.2%
Due to a low number of respondents, collection rates for reverse commuters are not calculated.

The results are pretty clear: Metra has a fare collection issue on off-peak trains, or at least if fare collection is an issue, it’s a bigger issue on off-peak trains than peak period trains. To Metra’s credit, I did notice on the two weekend trains I rode this week that conductors were more prompt than usual collecting my fares, so maybe the fare enforcement push is working. However, the data suggests one simple idea: maybe we aren’t at the “add cops to trains” level of a fare evasion crisis here, and the “problem” such that one exists is a larger structrual issue with Metra’s entire fare model, from conductor collection to zone pairs.

But in the meantime, it’s important to remember that not all fare evasion is “evasion”. Plenty of the fares are there. Either come and take them, or go to proof-of-payment.


The Diverging Approach Metra Trip Log is intended to be an open source of data. Please add to it, and feel free to use the data as you’d like! If you do go on some deep dives and publish anything, please attribute it to Star:Line Chicago. If you’d like to copy over the spreadsheet to run your own analyses, send me a DM on Twitter.

Diverging Approach: Ceaselessly Into the Past

Breaking the summer hiatus to quickly join tonight’s chorus. I pride myself on using this blog to opine about suburban transit issues, since there are plenty of people smarter than I who are better suited to spill ink on urban transit issues.

That said though, there’s plenty of overlap in those missions. In many cases, the difference between some neighborhoods and some suburbs are nothing more than quirks of geography or politics; likewise, for the still-significant number of suburban commuters who work in the city, the two issues are often inseparable.

Or rather, they should be inseparable. The lack of connectivity and consistency in our overall network is well-documented. If I’m taking the Milwaukee West line into or out of the city – as I am wont to do on Saturdays – whether I get on at Elmwood Park (burbs) or Mont Clare (city) shouldn’t make much of a difference. Especially since those two stops are about a 15 minute walk apart, with the #90-Harlem almost perfectly bisecting that walk, running right down Harlem Avenue.

But, of course, it does matter. Mont Clare is fare Zone B; Elmwood Park is fare Zone C. Walking across Harlem Avenue costs/saves $1.25 each way, which is insane when you think about it. But moreover, as Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot made painfully obvious tonight, Metra is for the suburbs, not the city. Responding to what should’ve been a lay-up of a question – does Chicago support Cook County’s pilot to lower fares and increase frequency for existing transit that serves the South Side – the Mayor decided to follow in the footsteps of her predecessors:

“I’m not in favor of it based upon the analysis that we’ve done,” Lightfoot said. “I’ve spent some time talking with (CTA President) Dorval Carter about it, and it looks like it is essentially a transfer of CTA passengers to the Metra line.

“Obviously there’s an area of the South Side where we need to have better transportation services,” Lightfoot said. “That Metra line is underserved, and I’m absolutely willing to work with Metra and the county, but this particular proposal I think causes problems for the CTA and I’m not going to support something that would have the effect of diminishing ridership at the CTA.”

https://www.chicagotribune.com/politics/ct-metra-preckwinkle-lightfoot-20190918-cktmazbyt5fi7clhz5ruzegn4m-story.html?outputType=amp#click=https://t.co/ElHqL9S1Go

This is, to say the least, very disappointing but also very enlightening: the Mayor controls the CTA board while Chicago only has one seat at Metra’s 11-seat table, so the Mayor’s vested interest in boosting the CTA’s ridership numbers trumps supporting initiatives that, by necessity, need to be spearheaded by suburbanites even if they’ll benefit tens of thousands of Chicagoans.

While there’s plenty of obvious reasons why this is an absolutely terrible way to run a regional transportation system (and really makes you wish there was some sort of regional transportation authority that could integrate the various modes of transit somehow), as a suburban resident (Forest Park) who relies on the CTA (Blue Line), I’m personally left at a loss as to who has my back on transit issues. Plenty of Chicago mayors have made clear – but, hat tip to Mayor Lightfoot, not this clear in quite awhile – that the CTA is for Chicagoans and Metra is for the unwashed hordes beyond the city limits, leaving inner-tier suburbanites in the lurch. This manifests itself in other ways as well: 26% of the CTA’s non-accessible ‘L’ stations are suburban, even though suburban ‘L’ stations only make up 14% of the system.

I’m bringing back my favorite map from Chicago-L.org as a reminder that it doesn’t have to be like this. Back in 1937 when the city was planning the full extent of the rapid transit system, what we now call commuter rail was considered a crucial part of a rapid transit network that would serve 93% of all Chicagoans. Back when the railroads were privately owned, it made (some) sense that Chicago would be concerned about a public/private split of non-motorists, but it’s 2019. Metra is the only game in town for rail service beyond the reach of the eight CTA lines (for better or worse), but worrying about cannibalizing the transit market is not the fight we should be fighting right now as the world continues to burn and as we need to curtail our fossil fuel use. We need to be focusing on efficiency and sustainability and moving people. Whether that’s on the CTA or on Metra or on Pace, it doesn’t matter. The fact that it does matter is an indictment of our system as a whole, and that goes beyond the Woman on Five.

Mayor Lightfoot, if this somehow lands on your desk, I urge you to reconsider your position. I agree with you that Chicago is terribly underrepresented on the Metra Board considering 72 of Metra’s 242 stations are in the city proper, but passing up an opportunity to improve transit service and reduce fares to South Side residents just because the train isn’t powered by a third rail or because the feeder bus is blue instead of white is misguided at best and counterproductive at worst. I understand that you and President Preckwinkle have a bit of a history, but bolstering Metra service – especially through the South Side, potentially connecting Chicago reverse-commuting residents to growing job centers in Will County and improving neighborhood connectivity within the city proper while potentially saving taxpayers a billion dollars if the Red Line extension could be replaced with a functional Metra Electric line – is too important to play politics with.

With your guidance and support, the City of Chicago can be the catalyst to better connect our three transit agencies to serve everyone in the region more fairly, equitably, and frequently. The City of Chicago’s sustainability goals shouldn’t end at the city limits, and indeed better suburban transit service will directly improve the livability of the city as well as fewer regional travelers feel the need to drive to wherever they’re going.

But by pitting agency against agency and rider against rider, we all fall further behind. I urge you to reconsider your position on this issue, and hope you are able to see the opportunities this pilot program would offer those who live and those who work in the City of Chicago.

Diverging Approach: A Bridge Too Far, Part 2

Last week, this blog dove into Illinois’s forthcoming capital bill, with a skeptical look at extensions to Metra’s BNSF service into Kendall County. While the merits of the $440 million Kendall County extension price tag can be debated, the $3.8 billion elephant in the room is the megaproject at the other end of the BNSF line, the massive One Central project over the Metra Electric tracks at 18th Street. (Mayor Lightfoot is not pleased that the capital bill includes language that lets the state pursue a public-private partnership for the massive project without additional input from the city.)

One Central bills the transit center (which somehow will cost two-thirds more than the entire CTA Red Line South extension from 95th/Dan Ryan to 130th Street) as “the intersection of transit, civic and community interests at this iconic Lakefront destination” and “Chicago’s Opportunity to Integrate Transit”. To be fair, there’s no argument that (1) the site has lots of potential since it’s currently connected to Metra Electric trains and Amtrak Illini/Saluki/City of New Orleans trains passing through the site, and (2) the Museum Campus is woefully disconnected from downtown and the city as a whole. While this project can absolutely serve as a catalyst to maximize those opportunities, the execution as currently proposed deserves more than a little bit of skepticism, especially as a developer tries to get Illinois taxpayers at least partially on the hook for $3.8 billion of transit investment in a region with plenty of more pressing needs.

First and foremost: does Chicago need a brand-new centralized transit hub? The short answer is, we already have a pretty darn good one. It’s about 125 years old, and we named our central business district after it. With a few glaring accessibility needs for people with mobility issues, The Loop is incredibly effective as a centralized transit hub that links rapid transit lines from around the city as well as convenient (within a block or two) connections to commuter and regional rail. The Loop is brilliant because it distributes peak period traffic throughout the CBD, allows for both through-routing and terminal routes that end downtown, and keeps trains moving since there are no stub terminals (although historically each elevated railroad company did operate an auxiliary stub terminal adjacent to the Loop).

Then there’s Union Station, Amtrak’s primary non-East-Coast hub and where six of Metra’s 11 lines terminate. Chicago recently completed a very nice bus terminal directly connected to the lower-level rail concourses and there’s been some buzz I’ve heard about including a direct connection to the Clinton Blue Line station as part of larger-scale redevelopment of some Amtrak-owned land in the West Loop. While Union Station is plenty crowded and cramped, there’s no real reason to believe a new transit hub a mile and a half away as the crow flies down by Soldier Field will fix what ails Union Station (or the Loop, for that matter), especially not to the tune of nearly $4 billion. Even One Central’s proposed link with Amtrak is underwhelming, since there are only three Amtrak services that use that line, and all three offer transfers to the Metra Electric in Homewood already.

Second, let’s be honest: centralized transfer hubs without integrated fare policies will inevitably lead to underwhelming outcomes, since passengers are charged two full fares to complete a trip. It’s hard to see how One Central would encourage a Metra Electric rider to pay an extra $2.50 to get on an extended Orange Line to get into the Loop when they could just ride the ME the rest of the way to Van Buren or Millennium and hoof it for free, other than the pure convenience factor (in which case, proposed operations will have a much bigger impact on the effectiveness of the transit center — more on that later). This is a common theme on this blog and among other Chicago transit advocates, so I won’t dive too far into this at this moment, other than to point out how far even a fraction of $3.8 billion could go to get Metra’s fare structure more solidly integrated with the CTA and Pace.

Third: while it’s good to see that Mayor Lightfoot is jumping in to slow down the momentum on the process as a whole to get more public input on the project, it’s a bit of an indictment of our various planning agencies and the service boards that there’s enough of a vacuum around the Museum Campus that an out-of-state developer can just hop in with an expensive transportation plan that doesn’t seem to make all that much sense and we just go ahead and sneak part of it into an important statewide capital bill. There was some momentum back in 2014 when the Chicago Park District announced they were looking into a long-range plan for the Museum Campus and Mayor Emanuel announced a Museum Campus Transportation Task Force, but both proposals seemed to wither after plans for the Lucas Museum fell through. A comprehensive plan for downtown-area transit and transportation with some actual teeth to it would help guide investment with clear long-term expectations vetted by the public, rather than letting investment guide transportation plans based on what a developer finds most profitable in the current market.

And fourth, and maybe most important: $3.8 billion is a hell of an investment for transportation infrastructure, but with no operational plans or funds to go along with the capital improvements, there’s no guarantee any initiative would be a success. (In a case like One Central, it’s also an omission that offloads a negative externality — the cost to serve the development — onto the public sector without becoming a line item in the project’s own budget.) The balance, or lack thereof, between capital funds and operating funds is one of the largest fatal flaws in how we fund our transit networks. The two separate silos of money too often create competing priorities within a single region or even within a single agency. Toss in good old-fashioned politics — capital projects make for great ribbon-cuttings and press releases; operational improvements, not so much — and it’s a fundamentally flawed system. (Once again, kudos to Illinois legislators for including some ongoing recurring annual capital funding for transit in the recent capital bill.)

The transit operating plan to actually serve One Central is frustratingly vague, at least from what’s been in public documents so far. (The project team has reached out to Metra to discuss the preliminary plans; Metra sounds open-minded but non-committal to the development thus far.)

Source: Landmark Development Presentation

The crux of the transit center relies on the St. Charles Air Line, which cuts through the South Loop just north of 16th Street between the Metra Electric and Canadian National tracks to the east and the BNSF and Union Station south approach tracks via the St. Charles Air Line bridge over the Chicago River. Currently, Amtrak’s Illini, Saluki, and City of New Orleans trains use this connection to cross over the Chicago River and back into Union Station in a pretty annoying, time-consuming maneuver. The One Central site itself would sit atop existing Metra Electric tracks, yards, and the 18th Street station. The One Central proposal adds additional transit options by building a spur line off the Orange Line along the existing railroad tracks into a stub terminal at One Central, as well as routing Metra BNSF trains over the St. Charles Air Line into One Central. There’s also a “CHI-Line” transportation feature — Bus? Tram? Hyperloop? — that would link One Central and McCormick Place to the Museum Campus and Navy Pier via the McCormick Place Busway and/or Columbus Drive (the exhibits aren’t clear, and actually show two different alignments).

What appears pretty clear to me is that, at least in this preliminary stage, the developers are taking an all-of-the-above, throw-it-at-the-wall-and-see-what-sticks approach to transit at One Central: if it’s on the map, drag the line to the site and they’ll figure out the details later, regardless of what actually makes sense from a regional perspective. For one thing, CREATE will eventually move Amtrak trains off this section of track (lol oops); I’m also not confident that Metra would go along with splitting off some trains on their busiest line to serve One Central instead of Union Station, let alone sending all BNSF trains to One Central. Furthermore, with capacity issues during the peak period on the BNSF, any option that has two different terminals would need a transfer station to allow riders to change trains based on their desired terminal, and likewise that transfer station would need to be fully ADA-accessible to allow for full use of all platforms. (The nearest station that meets that criteria would be Cicero.)

The CTA Orange Line spur track also doesn’t make much sense. First off, a spur track along the existing freight tracks would require a new junction on the Orange/Green Line in a section that currently has four tracks with a full interlocking immediately south of the proposed junction at 16th Street, and there’s existing development in the northeast and southeast quadrants of the crossing that would likely need to be either demolished or significantly altered to build connecting tracks. (The exact directionality of the planned junction is unknown, since it’s conveniently hidden behind a building in the “Transit” exhibit above.) Either way, trains coming into One Central appear to enter into a stub terminal, which means the CTA operator would have to change ends before reversing the train back out onto the main line towards either Midway or the Loop, a significant operational inconvenience. My guess is that the developer is envisioning splitting off Loop-bound trains from Midway to create two Orange Line service patterns: Midway-One Central and Midway-Loop, with transfers between branches at Halsted. This would let the developer advertise single-seat trips from One Central to Midway, a pretty significant selling point for businesses and future residents but at the expense of other regional travelers with less service between the Loop and Midway.

Finally, the “CHI-Line” proposal seems to be the standard prerequisite to any transportation plan involving the Museum Campus: “something something utilize the McCormick Busway.” While the McCormick Busway is of course underutilized, currently only used to shuttle conventioneers between McCormick Place and the downtown hotels, the dirty little secret about the Busway is that it doesn’t actually go anywhere useful: the Busway is entirely grade-separated (or at least, separated from the neighborhood streets that get bridged over it) from 25th Street to Lower Randolph, bypassing the Loop but terminating in the bottom level of the multidimensional part of Chicago’s downtown street grid with no good way to get up to surface streets in the Loop. Connecting the McCormick Busway to the Loop Link or Lake Shore Drive or north Michigan Avenue would be great, but it’s surprisingly difficult given how the streets are laid out and interact with each other in three dimensions. The One Central concept also takes a few liberties with how the Busway is actually constructed, including some sort of grade separation over/under Lake Shore Drive at McFetridge Drive (which probably can get shoehorned in there somehow when you have $3.8 billion to play with). It’s also worth noting that the “Mobility” exhibit above ignores the McCormick Busway entirely and uses surface streets instead (McFetridge-Columbus-Middle Randolph-Lower LSD to Navy Pier). Either way, the CHI-Link at this point definitely seems like more of a rough concept than an actual proposal.

I don’t want to be a wet blanket here: if a developer has enough cash to develop sky rights over the Metra Electric and is actively willing to integrate transit options to better connect the South Loop, the Museum Campus, and downtown to each other, it should be seriously considered. I just wish that, if the state is willing to enter a public-private partnership to create a monumental regional transit hub, the operational aspects of how transit connects and interacts with the existing regional system be considered and addressed alongside capital needs and concerns.

Oh, if only someone would come up with a better operational plan for a future regional transit hub at One Central to start some conversations about the best ways to serve the site, the Museum Campus, and the region as a whole…

The Star:Line ONE CENTRAL TRANSIT PLAN

If we’re going to build a $3.8 billion transit center, let’s do it right. First and foremost, there needs to be a general acknowledgement that investments in a One Central transit center must include improvements outside the footprint of the project. In this case, the most significant external improvement I’ve included in my back-of-the-napkin sketch here (toggle the layers in the embedded map above) is a new approach ramp between the St. Charles Air Line bridge and the south approach to Union Station. This connection would not only improve efficiency for Amtrak service (until it gets rerouted as part of CREATE P4 as noted above), but it’s also an integral plan in other regional transportation improvement plans including Midwest High Speed Rail Association’s ambitious CrossRail Chicago initiative. It’d take some creative engineering to avoid taking out Amtrak’s maintenance facility or too much of Metra’s BNSF yard, but it probably could be done.

In no particular order, here are the key aspects of the Star:Line plan.

DIAMOND LINE EXTENSION

Landmark Development’s concept required either a split or a rerouting of Metra’s BNSF service to serve One Central, which would require some sort of transfer facility to maintain a connection to Union Station. Our plan turns that on its head and makes One Central the transfer center (think Seacaucus Junction) where Metra Electric trains split to serve different parts of downtown. Our proposal recommends routing South Chicago Branch trains — what we call the Diamond Line — through One Central, over the St. Charles Air Line, and into Union Station on electrified tracks. The South Chicago Branch was chosen due to its relatively high frequency and relatively short current run time. This would provide direct connections between Union Station and One Central, which would actually enhance regional mobility since now seven Metra lines would have a connection to One Central and McCormick Place rather than just the BNSF and ME. This also would happen to serve as Phase I of CrossRail Chicago, the eventual plan to get electrified service between O’Hare and McCormick Place.

18th STREET ELEVATED

As previously discussed, creating a spur route off the Orange Line at the freight railroad tracks creates a few issues with existing junctions and existing development nearby. However, moving the spur track two blocks south and over 18th Street would allow the tracks to tie into an existing junction (where the Orange Line splits off the Green Line) and over a surface parking lot in the northeast quadrant instead of requiring a building relocation. (Obviously noise would be an issue on this alignment for local residents, but noise would likely be an issue with an elevated alignment along the freight tracks as well.) Depending on how the junction is constructed, this location opens up a lot of different service patterns over the Red, Orange, and Green Lines. Here’s three of my favorite routing options:

  • The Q Line: Named for the overall shape of the route, the Q Line would function as a new Loop circulator, with service only between One Central and the Loop. Unfortunately as a standalone option it’s not great since it will increase congestion on the Loop, so this might be better served as an off-peak-only offering in conjunction with a different option, including…
  • The Red Line Spur: Passenger loads on the Red Line are significantly unbalanced between the North and South Sides, with the former having notably higher ridership demands. This option would send some southbound Red Line trains leaving Roosevelt up the 13th Street Incline onto the Orange/Green Line tracks (similar to the Red Line trains getting sent to Ashland/63rd during 95th/Dan Ryan construction) and over to One Central via the new 18th Street Elevated. Cutting service to the South Side is more challenging from a political and equity standpoint however, so this option may work best during peak hours only to complement an off-peak Q Line.
  • The Teal Line: The Teal Line and its subsequent secondary options kill two birds with one stone by serving One Central and also giving the Block 37 superstation a reason to exist so Chicago won’t have to repay $175 million to the feds. The Block 37 superstation included a planned northwest-to-southeast crossover between Clark/Lake in the Dearborn Subway and Monroe in the State Street Subway; a decent amount of the crossover was constructed before the project got mothballed. So the question is, can the crossover be completed for less than $175 million?
    • Option 1: Re-route Blue Line trains that terminate at UIC-Halsted through Block 37 and out to One Central. A straightforward option, but it may overcrowd Monroe and Jackson in the State Street Subway and crowd Clark/Lake with Blue-to-Blue transfers.
    • Option 2: A new standalone service (the Teal Line) between Jefferson Park and One Central to add additional service to the congested northern Blue Line. Would likely require a new yard somewhere to store and service trains.
    • Option 3: My personal favorite crazy idea, this proposal would reroute northbound Orange Line trains down the 13th Street Incline into the State Street Subway, through Block 37, and out to O’Hare to add service to the Northwest Side and to create a single Airport Line. This would also involve turning all Blue Line trains at Jefferson Park, except runs to/from Rosemont Yard and overnight service. With a single Midway-O’Hare service operating, a dedicated fleet of 7000-series (or whatever the next order ends up being) cars with luggage/bike racks could be used for the combined service. Since this proposal would also take Orange Line trains off the Loop Elevated, One Central would be served by a full-time Q Line.

North and South CHI-Line Circulator Buses

The CHI-Line would serve One Central with circulator buses and dedicated BRT-style stops along the McCormick Busway, primarily serving tourist destinations. The line would run from the Adler Planetarium, through the Museum Campus down to 18th Street, cross under Lake Shore Drive, and onto the Busway at One Central. Buses would continue north with stops at 11th Street, Balbo, Jackson, Monroe, and Millennium Station on the Busway. Buses would then head east on Lower Randolph, north on Lower Columbus, west on Lower South Water, and north on Lower Michigan Avenue to cross the Chicago River with stops at Lower Michigan/Lower Wacker to serve the Riverwalk and at Lower Michigan/Hubbard. From there, new bus lanes on Grand and Illinois would connect the rest of the CHI-Line to the Navy Pier bus terminal.

PACE ROUTE 955

If the One Central developers wanted BNSF service because they wanted to better connect the western suburbs to their development, I’ll say what I said to Kendall County last week: try a bus instead of a train first. The McCormick Busway’s south end is at 25th Street just one block east of the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Drive interchange on I-55, so One Central could work with Pace to start a new service that connects the Plainfield/Bolingbrook corridor to One Central via the Busway. If the Pace service can combine with CHI-Line service to the Museum Campus and/or Navy Pier, there’s even the potential for some weekend ridership gains for Pace.


It’s important not to look a gift horse in the mouth, so if developers like Landmark want to make a significant investment in our regional transit network, it’s in our best interest to find ways to leverage their offer. That said, just because they’re willing to kick in cash doesn’t mean we should simply go along with whatever they propose without weighing proposals on their merits, including operating costs and logistics involved with significantly changing well-established transit routes. One Central is still an exciting megaproject and has plenty of merit, but before the state makes a serious commitment for a transit hub, there are still a few kinks that need working out.

Diverging Approach: A Bridge Too Far

Just in case you haven’t been following what’s been going on in Springfield, our state legislature did more in about a week and a half than the previous administration did in four years: weed’s going to be legal and we’re expunging 770,000 minor pot-related offenses in the process; we’re getting more casinos and sports betting; Illinois voters will get a shot at amending the state constitution to legalize a graduated income tax; and, of course, we’re finally getting a statewide capital bill to be mostly paid for by doubling the gas tax (and indexing it to inflation) and hiking vehicle registration fees.

As if that isn’t good enough news, non-motorized transportation modes got a bigger slice of the $33 billion transportation pie than expected, with a dedicated $50 million to basically double the ITEP budget for pedestrian/bike accommodations, a good-sized shot in the arm for transit ($4.7 billion over six years), and a sustainable, annual capital program of $281 million for transit thereafter.

Is that enough? Probably not – Metra says they alone have $12 billion in state of good repair needs, let alone the needs of CTA, Pace, and every other transit district in the state – but nonetheless it’s real money that can be put towards real improvements.

With Governor Pritzker’s signature a foregone conclusion, the RTA appears to be declaring victory, trotting out a new #WeCanAllAgreeOnTransit campaign that you can get in on the ground floor of and get featured on RTA’s social media.

Pretty sure #WeCanAllAgreeOn a hashtag about 15 characters shorter.

A capital bill is a major victory for Illinois, especially one that gets funded by increased user fees for drivers and not by gimmicks used to move around money from elsewhere in the state budget. Of course, even with significant majorities in both houses and the governor’s mansion, everyone loves a bipartisan gesture, so there’s still plenty of dollars dedicated downstate and elsewhere that, honestly, probably should be invested in other places based on need rather than based on clout. Alas, one legislator’s pork is how another brings home the bacon, but not including some sort of performance management system to prioritize spending is a regrettable omission in the overall bill. It’s worth noting that the ITEP process is based on competitive applications, so at least that small slice for pedestrian and bike improvements will be a bit more based on need and effectiveness than, say, Metra extensions to Kendall County.

Yeah, this post is about the Metra extension to Kendall County.

The capital bill earmarks $100 million for construction of a BNSF extension beyond Aurora and into Kendall County. Metra’s currently overseeing a $4.7 million engineering study for the extension, a study that was funded way back when by earmarked funds from U.S. Representative Dennis Hastert (remember him?). Metra estimates the extension will cost about $440 million altogether and projects a net 2040 bump of about 2,000 new passenger trips, according to Metra’s cost-benefit analysis (CBA). The project is one of the top fiscally-rated expansion projects in the network according to the CBA, with a relatively-healthy 68% farebox recovery ratio. (Metra’s systemwide farebox recovery ratio is about 54.4%.) Metra’s CBA assumes the extension will be peak-only, with 4 morning inbound trains and 4 evening outbound trains, with new stations in Montgomery, Oswego, Yorkville, and Plano.

Kendall County really wants this extension, with Oswego appearing to leading the charge. (Their village administrator has done a few recent press interviews, and personally responded to a thread by yours truly a few weeks ago about this very issue.) However, since Kendall County is outside the boundaries of the RTA’s sales tax district, an as-yet-unidentified local funding source for operations still needs to be determined. While a 68% farebox recovery rate is better than Metra’s standard 54.4%, without Kendall County paying into the RTA, Metra’s not going to take a 32% hit on those expanded operations.

It’s understandable that Kendall County wants Metra service: a faster connection to and from downtown Chicago is obviously a major selling point for current and future residents, and politicians have been promising their constituents Metra for decades. Oswego went so far as starting construction on a train station, or at least a parking lot for one. If you build it, they will come, right?

Advocates for the extension are quick to point out that Kendall County is the fastest growing area in Illinois, so investing in transportation infrastructure is key not only for livability and sustainability, but also to nurture new economic development opportunities in a stagnating state.

But take a minute to think about why Kendall County is the fastest growing part of Illinois. Land is cheap, taxes are low, and there’s just enough existing infrastructure to support growth, so that’s where growth occurs when homeowners are looking for cheap new construction. But more growth leads to more demand for infrastructure as two-lane country roads get bombarded by suburban traffic, as rural school districts need to plan for exponential population growth, and as demand for municipal infrastructure like water and sewer exceeds their modest capacities. While those new residents will shoulder much of the brunt themselves through property tax increases and local sales taxes, plenty of those investments get levied on non-residents, especially when it comes to transportation, since a good amount of transportation investment gets aggregated at the county, regional, and state levels.

Then, when the economy hits a bump and takes a cyclical downturn, cheap houses that were nonetheless mortgaged either get foreclosed or trap their owners underwater. Municipal growth projections fall short, and those communities are left holding the bag on expanded but underutilized infrastructure, which means either cutting services or raising property taxes. Those with means get the itch to get out of Dodge, and wouldn’t you know it? All those recent investments in regional transportation, upgrading those two-lane country roads to six-lane suburban arterials, make low-tax, cheap-land areas a few towns west look awfully financially attractive for someone looking to relocate. Lather, rinse, repeat.

That’s how sprawl works: a model built on unsustainable, never-ending growth, designed for those with capital to generate more capital by selling the American dream to middle-class families who may (or may not) actually be able to afford it. Is growth at any cost — while inner-tier suburbs continue to shrink — really what we as a region should be subsidizing?

I have nothing against the good people of Kendall County — my stepsister lives in Montgomery — and of course I don’t fault their elected representatives and government staff who rightly want to do the most they can for their constituents. That’s their job. But my job is promoting sustainable transit for suburban Chicago. (That’s a lie; people get paid for jobs. This is more of a hobby of mine.) What’s missing in all the studies and analyses is the macro level picture. I have zero doubts that extending the BNSF to Plano will be a huge financial benefit to Kendall County and its residents, but what’s the impact to the rest of the region? If we’re just accelerating the declines of inner-tier suburbs by making it easier to sprawl deeper into the hinterlands, is it really worth it? When we #InvestInTransit in Kendall County, what exactly are we investing in?

That’s a slippery slope argument, you might say; every transportation improvement requires understanding the delicate balance between those directly affected and impacts to our regional network as a whole. (And some projects just require a few well-connected politicians who support the project.) Besides, you add, Metra’s still projecting a 68% farebox recovery ratio on the extension, so if Kendall County can identify an operating subsidy, or if they end up joining the RTA, can’t it still pencil out? Sure it can. But a few more things to consider:

  1. Metra’s current Lake County reverse commute pilot is targeting a 100% farebox recovery ratio to consider the pilot a success.
  2. Metra’s CBA also includes a $270 million project that would add an additional 18 weekday trains to the existing BNSF. That project — 61% of the cost of the Kendall County extension — is projected to generate 8,600 new daily passenger trips, compared to only 2,200 daily passenger trips generated by the more expensive Kendall County extension. Spending the $270 million to get 18 more trains nets a 12% ridership increase over the baseline condition and is projected to have an incredible farebox recovery ratio of 105%.
  3. Metra’s Station Evaluation Policy calls for a projected station rating of “sustainable” within ten years of a new station opening for a new station to be considered warranted. In 2018, a “sustainable” (above the systemwide median) station needed at least 410 typical weekday boardings. According to the CBA, the extension would generate 2,200 new passenger trips on the BNSF, or 1,100 new daily passengers (assuming each passenger makes a two-trip round trip daily commute) in 2040, which is likely beyond the ten-year horizon of when the extension would open. With each station therefore only averaging only 275 boardings a day, the ridership may not justify new stations by Metra’s own standards.

I don’t want to shut down Kendall County on the issue, and as a whole we should encourage any community that actively wants more transportation options to get things implemented. However, with limited regional funds coming from taxpayer subsidies, we need to be smart with how we spend capital funds to provide new and efficient transportation options to as many people in our region as we can.

And this leads to the far bigger issue: our transit system is not designed for efficiency. The RTA was created to prop up a failing regional transit model with just enough public subsidies to keep buses and trains running. The RTA was ostensibly created to coordinate public transportation in northeastern Illinois, but the only power assigned to the RTA was facilitating operating assistance from sales tax revenues and approving the budgets of the three transit boards. The RTA and the three service boards have made progress in coordinating some plans and occasionally some service, but we’re still far from having seamless integration and the three boards’ state-of-good-repair needs remain an ongoing challenge. Our problem — and, to be fair, this is most definitely not unique to the Chicago region — is that the various boards are focused on individual modes of transit rather than the best ways to serve the region as a whole. Kendall County isn’t asking for transit service; they’re asking for commuter rail service that may or may not be justified. Metra’s not going to do a corridor study and determine service would be better accommodated with Pace buses. Similarly, no matter how successful it gets, Pace has no incentive to ever recommend replacing the I-90 corridor with Metra’s long-standing STAR Line plans or a CTA Blue Line extension; indeed, the loss of Pace ridership would be an active disincentive even if it meant providing more efficient coverage to more riders. (Shameless plug: check out Pace’s I-90 corridor with us on our next Star:Line Social event coming up on Saturday, June 22! More details and RSVP here.)

These aren’t necessarily indictments against the three transit boards who, like the Kendall County politicians pushing for Metra service, are simply doing they job they were tasked with. But we take it for granted that this is simply how things work when we either forget or simply don’t realize that it really doesn’t have to be like this. The RTA was formed only 45 years ago, and while change is scary and hard, it’s not impossible. If it’s not perfect (and it never will be perfect), it’s not like it can’t be changed at some point. “The way we’ve always done it” isn’t even the way we’ve always done it.

What we need is to become more mode agnostic. The best way to serve a particular area may be via bus instead of via train, but since one service board runs buses and one service board runs trains and one service board runs buses AND trains (but not those kinds of trains) that decision often gets made at a political level, not at a performance or efficiency level. Invariably that leads to duplication, competition, and waste, whether that’s Metra and Pace bickering over the Interstate 55 corridor or the CTA dropping $2 billion on a Red Line extension instead of $935 million to modernize the Metra Electric through nearly the same corridor.

(For what it’s worth, as part of a larger effort to diversify Metra’s offerings, I feel Kendall County, along with parts of McHenry County, would be excellent pilot areas for a supplemental Metra-branded bus service that provides direct transfers to/from trains similar to GOTransit’s operations in the Toronto area. Comfortable coach-style buses that operate directly between park-and-ride facilities and rail terminals with timed transfers and integrated fares would extend the reach of the Metra system and/or allow for more frequent off-peak service for a fraction of the cost of full rail service without precluding eventual commuter rail extensions if/when bus ridership warrants. In Kendall County’s case, this could be a bus that picks riders up in Oswego and goes directly to Aurora, where an upgraded station area allows for covered, timed transfers directly to waiting inbound trains and vice versa for the reverse trip home.)

The new capital bill is an excellent step forward for Chicago-area and statewide transportation, full stop. The bill provides a significant amount of capital funds that allow our transportation agencies to put a serious dent in much-needed state-of-good-repair improvements and ongoing annual capital funds to start taking service improvements more seriously. But without a fundamental shift in how our system works — whether that’s at the individual project level or more holistically between the various transit boards and the RTA itself — we’ll always come up short in our sustainable transportation needs.

Diverging Approach: Summer Pilots

A few months back post-polar vortex, Metra gave the region the “pat on the back” weekend where riders could ride for free, systemwide, all weekend long as a sort of “thank you” for coping with the challenges Metra faced during the cold snap. While it was a great way to gin up some off-peak ridership following a few brutal weeks (and months of slow but steady declines), what struck me was a particular quote from Metra’s press release:

“We survived the polar vortex – now let’s have some fun,” said Metra CEO/Executive Director Jim Derwinski. “There is a lot to do in Chicago and the suburbs and Metra can take you there. We’re hoping this weekend will convince people who have never ridden Metra or who haven’t ridden Metra in a while to become paid customers in the future.”

https://www.metrarail.com/about-metra/newsroom/metra-offer-free-rides-weekend

That line perked my ears up because it sounds pretty familiar to why I run The Yard Social Club: I believe that, if I can help people explore the suburban transit network in fun group settings where they feel comfortable and have a positive experience, they’ll be more likely to choose to take transit for their next trip on their own.

I had a similar bout of deja vu last week with Metra’s latest announcement:

Metra this summer will increase weekend service as a pilot project on two lines – Rock Island and UP Northwest – to give customers more options to enjoy all the activities that the Chicago area offers. “Our goal with these new summer weekend schedules is to give our customers along these lines more options and make it easier than ever to ride Metra to the Chicago area’s many summer events and attractions,” said Metra CEO/Executive Director Jim Derwinski.

https://metrarail.com/about-metra/newsroom/metra-boost-summer-weekend-service-two-lines

While I’m hardly the only voice calling for better weekend service — a whopping 88% of respondents in a Metra survey earlier this year said increasing weekend frequency was one of the top three weekend service priorities Metra should consider — I’m pretty sure I’m one of the loudest voices advocating for those changes, so it brings me joy to see Metra making some serious efforts at improving weekend service offerings. (Not that I think my insistent yelling into the void had any actual impact on these pilot projects, of course.)

It’s also good to see Metra being a little more proactive on improving weekend service. Above and beyond the schedule pilots, Metra also announced that monthly passes now include Weekend Passes. My favorite thing about that rollout is that it really doesn’t do anything: the vast majority of weekend Metra trips are still to and from the urban core, trips that would already be covered by the monthly pass of a suburban Metra rider. The best value with this new initiative would be for transfers to different lines (which, as we’ve discussed in the past, require pulse scheduling for effectiveness), going to destinations along someone’s home line further out into the hinterlands (which generally requires dealing with even longer headways than the trip home from downtown), or, of course, train crawls (in which case, my friend, you are in the right place).

Speaking of which, with new schedules come new Weekend Guides. If you’re new around here, or if you only read the blog and don’t dig into the rest of the site, our Weekend Guides (and our map — no, not that one, this one) generates a good amount of web traffic for people who are interested in organizing or participating in a train crawl. As someone who wants to see Metra succeed with these weekend pilots — albeit with a few reservations, which I’ll get into later — I went ahead and put together new, special Summer Weekend Guides for the three affected lines (the BNSF is also having a summer pilot, but with only one additional round-trip each Saturday and Sunday). The schedules take some getting used to at first: since they’re designed as an aid to planning train crawls, more focus is put on what time trains serve individual stations rather than what individual trains serve each station, so the schedules aren’t formatted like Metra’s traditional schedules. (For the transit nerds in the audience, it may be helpful to think of the schedules as text stringline charts.)

Let’s dive in.

Union Pacific Northwest

Check it out as a PDF. (And feel free to print it yourself! They’re formatted for 8.5×14 legal sheets; print them double-sided, flip on the short side, and fold into fourths.)

The UP-NW summer weekend pilot, in my opinion, has the most promise: Metra’s adding a full five round-trip trains to their Saturday schedule, which already was one of the more robust weekend offerings in their system. Sundays are also getting three new round-trips, including express trains to/from Arlington Heights. The express trains here are going to be interesting to keep an eye on, since previously Metra’s only weekend express options have been on the BNSF (and I suppose the split operations on the RI and ME that allow suburbanites to fly through the South Side of Chicago, which honestly brings up a few uncomfortable equity issues, but that’s another post).

What I’m personally excited about is the later evening outbound departures: my hypothesis has always been that going from two-hour headways to one-hour headways after 9pm is the best bang for the operational buck since suburbanites will no longer have to worry about just missing a train and being stuck at a quiet West Loop terminal for two hours before the next train leaves. (Not that an hour is a terribly easy amount of time to kill either, but it’s much more palatable than the length of a feature film.) I think those 9:30pm and 11:30pm departures are going to do well, but I’m also not sure how well Metra has gotten the word out about those new trains other than the occasional social media post.

The schedule as a whole is good, not great: it doesn’t address most of my longstanding concerns with the UP-NW weekend schedule. First and foremost, there’s still way too much variation between the Saturday and Sunday schedules, and for seemingly no good reason. Metra’s schedule, with separate Saturday and Sunday listings, hides the issue a bit, but our version puts it a little more front and center: some trains leave or arrive at Ogilvie at the same time on Saturdays and Sundays, but either start or end at different stations each day. Likewise, Harvard and Woodstock each have ten inbound trains on Saturdays and seven on Sundays, but only four trains leave at the same time on both days. There are also a few holdovers from where trains run at two-hour headways both days but on staggered hours: there’s an evening train that arrives Ogilvie at 7:23pm and 9:23pm on Saturdays but not Sundays, but there’s an evening train that arrives Ogilvie at 8:23pm on Sundays but not Saturdays. It might seem overly pedantic to be this concerned about a relatively minor thing like that, but any effort to make the schedule easier to use and, more importantly, easier to remember should be taken seriously. Every time someone reaches for a paper schedule is just one more small barrier to entry for people unfamiliar with the system. In a perfect world, trains come so often that schedules aren’t needed, but given the political realities of the Metra network, settling for consistent times for hourly or bi-hourly headways will have to do. (This is also one of my critiques of the standard Milwaukee West schedule: departures skip from the :30s to the :40s after 6pm, which is needlessly complicated, especially since the Milwaukee North runs on the :35s all day long.)

There’s also still the obnoxious three-hour headway between the 8:30pm and 11:30pm outbound trains on Sunday nights. Come on.

All in all though, the UP-NW has a lot of promise, especially considering the summer attractions along the line, whether that’s suburban street fests or Cubs games (transfer to #80-Irving Park buses at Irving Park) or races at Arlington Park.

Rock Island

Check it out as a PDF.

Metra’s adding six round-trips on the Rock Island on Saturdays and leaving the Sunday schedules as-is. Going back to the text stringline chart concept, it’s easy to see here with the color-coded Saturday-only service how the new service operates as two new consists working their way to Joliet and back.

What’s more interesting here though is what’s not shown. I mentioned in the last post about how I made my Metra map with Rock Island split into two separate services, and that divide is front-and-center here: the Rocket trains (Blue Island-Joliet) see all the added service, and the Suburban Line (Chicago-Blue Island) doesn’t see any additional service. I understand the goal is to serve where the people are and Metra feels added service out in the Cook and Will suburbs will spur more ridership than the Morgan Park/Beverly neighborhoods of Chicago, but it just feels wrong from an equity standpoint that Chicago — and the South Side in particular — isn’t seeing any service enhancements as part of this pilot program.

Also worth noting another untouched three-hour headway (between the 8:10pm and 11:15pm departures) for Suburban Line riders while in that same window Rocket riders see an added Saturday train that cuts a two-hour headway into two one-hour headways. I feel like pushing that 10:00pm Main Line express departure up 20 minutes to 9:40pm and making Suburban Line stops would be a better option for train #729 without significantly affecting operations.

BNSF Railway

Check it out as a PDF.

The BNSF’s summer weekend pilot is much more understated than what’s getting rolled out on the UP-NW and RI; indeed, it’s buried in a separate press release about other tweaks to the BNSF weekday schedule and starts a week later than the UP-NW and RI weekend pilot, a difference I did not notice until this very moment and I’m not going to go back and change my Weekend Guide because by the time I correct it and republish everything it’ll be next week anyway.

The added service is pretty straightforward: a new Saturday outbound train at 11:40am for reasons I don’t fully understand; a new Saturday inbound express train in the mid-afternoon; and an extra Sunday round-trip that corresponds with two trains that run on Saturdays. The meat of the added service is that afternoon express train; however, by not adding any additional outbound options in the evening, Metra won’t be able to realize the full benefits of that express train since it doesn’t address those awful two-hour headways on the busiest line in the system. Think of it this way: the new express train arrives Union Station at 4:23pm, but the only outbound options (assuming whoever is coming downtown isn’t doing so just for an hour or two) are the 8:40pm, 10:40pm, and 12:40am trains. It’s extremely informal, but last week we ran a quick Twitter poll that found 90% of suburbanites chose not to take Metra downtown on a weekend at least once in the last year specifically because of the return trip two-hour headways.

n = 51 suggests we need more followers.

That poll is hardly scientific and it’s hardly representative, but this is the flip side of induced demand and shows one way that less service leads to fewer riders.


Metra’s adding weekend service, which is a good thing, full stop. Could it be better? Sure, but let’s not have perfect be the enemy of good here. It’s also promising to see that Metra is taking off-peak service seriously and is starting to at least tinker with schedules. Jim Derwinski and Metra staff should be proud of this modest schedule pilot, and I hope this is the beginning of many more schedule analyses and pilot projects throughout the system.

And if any of you are reading this: may I suggest a pulse scheduling pilot next?

Diverging Approach: Mayday

This Saturday, the Chicago Chapter of Young Professionals in Transportation is hosting their second-annual Transportation Camp, an “unconference” where professionals, students, and anyone with a passing fancy in transportation issues can hang out and talk turkey about trains (and cars and trucks and buses). If you’re free, I highly recommend attending the camp, which this year is at DePaul’s downtown campus. While I would love to be there, unfortunately my in-laws decided to have a daughter thirty years ago this weekend, so I will be celebrating with my wife in downtown Forest Park.

But, of course, I’m happy to leave you all something to discuss in the meantime. In the last Diverging Approach blog entry, I teased Version 3 of our infamous regional Metra map. (I also offered up my own station optimization interactive assessment tool, which if anything just proves that I basically never really stopped working for transit agencies: I just stopped showing up to the office and they stopped paying me. Old habits die hard.)

Between that post and this post, however, I kept tweaking the map. And tweaking it some more. And a little more. And totally changed a few things as well. No work of art is ever completed; it is only abandoned, and tonight’s the night I abandon the map for another year. So let’s dive into it.

Click here to see a larger version, or click here to download a PDF.

I kept the overly-stylized “lotus” orientation, where you can think of the Metra system as a flower floating on Lake Michigan, blooming out towards the hinterland. (There’s probably a joke in there about the delicate nature of Metra’s aging rolling stock as well.) As I’ve mentioned in plenty of previous blog posts, our visioning of Metra’s network expands the system from 11 distinct lines to 14: the Rock Island has two separate service patterns, and the Metra Electric has three.

Dating back to the first map, one of my goals of this ongoing exercise is to try to show just how complex Metra’s system is in a single map. It seems counterintuitive to try to make a transit map as confusing as possible and, to be fair, I actively tried not to make things unnecessarily complicated here. But one of Metra’s weaknesses — and, honestly, one of their strengths as well — is presenting a unified, homogenous network when the legacy of commuter rail service they oversee is anything but. To an extent, it does Metra a service to show the conflicts between the lines and the different service patterns used. The Metra Electric is a good example: the half-mile spacing along the main line doesn’t really fit the commuter rail model of higher speeds and longer distances seen in the south suburban areas of the line; our map splits off the city parts of the main line and joins them with the Blue Island branch, which allows me to show the suburban operations as a distinct service, which in my opinion better represents how the service functions anyway.

This version of the map gets more complicated with service patterns by trying to show not only the Metra system as a whole, but also adding a temporal element to show frequency and service levels at particular times of the day. This being The Yard Social Club and our tireless advocacy for sustainable suburban transportation, rather than focus on where Metra can take you during rush hour, I approach the map as an exercise to better show where Metra can — or can’t — take you throughout the day and throughout the week.

This leads to a complicated legend with different line styles and different dot styles representing service times and frequencies. (Yes, it’s complicated. Again: that’s the point.) The style of each line indicates overall hours of service: a more traditional transit-looking line (solid color with black edging) represents a line with service seven days a week; as the line washes out more, service gets cut back until peak-only service, which is a white line with gray edging that almost — but not entirely — fades into the background. (Barely notice the Heritage Corridor? Good. That’s the point.) I also included the “extended service” concept as well, where service and headways closer to downtown don’t necessarily correlate to the same level of service further out. This leads to a few non-traditional “terminals” listed for some of the lines, but what’s shown on the map is more indicative to where most trains actually terminate during the off-peak.

On the station side, in this version I expanded beyond just “normal”/peak-only stations by diving into off-peak headways and splitting each station into one of four categories:

  • Core Service: The bread-and-butter of Metra’s off-peak service, these are the typical stations that see headways of no worse than every two hours during off-peak. Admittedly, “core” is a bit of an odd word to use here, but obviously I’m not going to call one train every two hours “good” and even “standard” seems to imply that we’re settling for this when we should be doing much, much better for off-peak riders. So I landed on “core”.
  • Basic Service: The “basic” service level is one step below “core” and generally indicates a station that is situated on a line with core service but that particular station doesn’t get that many trains. This is mostly — but not always (coughNCScough) — related to “extended” service, where many off-peak trains don’t actually quite make it all the way out to places like Kenosha or Harvard. Oh, and it highlights a few random issues like that off-peak skip-stop on the UP-W line at Melrose Park and Maywood, which is just another one of those things you notice that just kind of overlaps uncomfortably with suburban racial demographics and makes you wonder how it could survive a theoretical Title VI challenge.
  • Peak Service: Pretty straight-forward, these are your standard peak-only stations.
  • Minimal Service: It’s a station, and occasionally a train stops there, but there are a few places where frequency is limited to single-digit trains per day; in some cases, that digit is “1” like on that random 19th NCS train of the day that makes four stops, changes lines, grabs a few more passengers, and expresses back to Union Station at 7:30pm. If it looks like the station icon just blends into the line behind it, well, that’s the point.

Alright, I’ve buried the lede on you all for too long, so now let’s talk about the fun part of this map: the new line names! I kept the lettering system (albeit with some tweaks that will require me to eventually go back and change most of our Weekend Guides around, but that’s okay because they need updating anyway) since I still strongly believe the letters are an easy short-hand to refer to lines in certain cases. However, I did go ahead and simplified the lettering scheme: peak-only express services now have their own dedicated letter. I also gave up trying to simplify the UP-N schedule into express and local services; no two “express” trains have the same stopping patterns and very few of them skip more than about five stations at a time, so they aren’t really express services anyway. The overall idea is that, during rush hour, the “primary” letter represents local service (either a short-turn supplemental service, or a milk run farther out) while the “secondary” letter represents an express service, regardless of how long the express stretch is or where the train terminates. (This is slightly different on the BNSF and Metra Electric lines, where the express patterns are much more regimented and easier to combine into distinct stopping patterns or at least split consists for the <M> trains to Downers/Main-Aurora.)

But the biggest change — and maybe your reward for dealing with all my pedantry above — is the totally new, from-the-ground-up line naming system developed for this map. I tossed out the old parallel-road-corridor naming system, which had plenty of holes, listened to comments I received from some people, and flexed my creative muscles to come up with this one.

First, a quick note on why I feel Metra needs to revamp their line names. In a nutshell: they aren’t intuitive and can be plenty confusing for non-regular riders. There are two separate North Lines; two separate West Lines (and, of course, a Northwest Line); three lines with “Union” in the name, none of which go to Union Station; a defunct railroad (Rock Island); the Milwaukee “District”; a few totally random names (Heritage Corridor, SouthWest Service, North Central Service); and so on. Railroads in Chicago have a rich history, and it’s true that the three Union Pacific lines and the BNSF Railway are owned and operated by the respective freight railroads, but with the Metra branding and unified fleet that’s a distinction without a difference for most riders. This also leaves open the possibility of forced name changes should one of the private railroads consolidate (such as the three Chicago and North Western lines becoming the Union Pacifics back in the 1990s).

The compromise I came up with for this version of the map is to create line names based on old named passenger trains that served each route, but (generally) without a direct reference to an individual railroad. This way, the network still pays homage to our region’s rich railroad history, while streamlining the line names into something simple and memorable for riders. I also tried to avoid Amtrak train names to reduce potential confusion (which kind of sucks because that disqualified a few of the more well-known historic trains, like the Hiawathas and the Zephyrs). And, just for kicks, while I’m no graphic designer, for the first time ever I included line icons that — 21st Century bonus! — also have corresponding standard emojis for smartphone users.

The Ashland Line
(A, Union Pacific North)

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

The North Western Line
(C, Union Pacific Northwest)

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

The Kate Shelley Line
(E, Union Pacific West)

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

The Marquette Line
(G, Milwaukee North)

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

The Laker Line
(J, North Central Service)

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

The Arrow Line
(K, Milwaukee West)

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

The Western Star Line
(N, BNSF Railway)

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

The Abraham Line
(P, Heritage Corridor)

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

The Blue Bird Line
(Q, SouthWest Service)

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

The Rocket Line
(R, Rock Island – Main Line)

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

The Suburban Line
(S, Rock Island – Suburban Branch)

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

The Panama Line
(U, Metra Electric – Suburban Main)

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

The Magnolia Line
(V, Metra Electric – City Main/Blue Island Branch)

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

The Diamond Line
(W, Metra Electric – South Chicago Branch)

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

So what are your thoughts on the map? What should I change next year when I get restless about the map again? Go yell at me on Twitter. (P.S. – one of the most important things I did to this version of the map is format it to fit nicely on an 11×17 piece of paper. Here’s a PDF if you’d like to print it out at home or at work.)

One last quick plug for Transportation Camp: this Saturday, May 4 from 9am-5:30pm at the Chaddick Institute in DePaul’s Loop Campus (14 E. Jackson, 16th Floor). $30 for the day ($20 if you’re a student) is a bargain to nerd out all day long. Get registered over on YPT’s website.

Diverging Approach: The Purge

Editor’s Note, 1/22/20: The PABST Report has been updated with 2018 data, optimized for mobile use (with the Google Sheets app) and now features generated reports for each station. If you already know our methodology, feel free to go straight to the report.


Metra’s draft Station Evaluation Policy procedures are out, and Metra’s encouraging the public to review and comment on them by April 15. From Metra:

The policy establishes a plan to review existing stations at least every two years.  Metra will collaborate with community stakeholders to create plans of action for stations with low ridership, in order to increase ridership, improve customer experience, and build support for Metra service among nearby residents.  The policy also identifies a process for working with communities to address stations where ridership is not able to be improved.
In addition, the policy provides guidance for consideration of infill stations (that is, new stations on existing Metra lines, between existing stations).  Proposals for new access points to the Metra system must weigh the potential benefits to new riders against drawbacks to existing riders, before they can proceed.


https://metrarail.com/node/6609

Metra taking a data-driven approach to analyze current levels of service and assessing their built assets (in this case, stations), is most certainly a good thing and fits in quite well with the Metra Board’s ongoing pursuit to run service as efficiently as possible despite a chronic lack of funding for operations and capital improvements.

Unfortunately, the draft plan as written leaves plenty to be desired. Metra’s triage method of analyzing stations relies on a single metric: weekday boardings. Regardless of how many trains a day serve each station, all the stations are measured against each other looking only at raw utilization. The first pass of the analysis is simply assuming the top half of all stations are “Sustainable”, whether that’s the thousands of people who board at Route 59 every day or the 410 boardings per day for the median station. The bottom half of stations are thus considered “Underperforming” by default, which means each station in the bottom half effectively needs some additional analyses to determine ways to boost ridership. While this will undoubtedly keep Metra’s planning staff (or Metra’s consultants) busy for each two-year cycle, it may be a little bit of overkill. Of course, the meat of the Station Evaluation Policy comes for the stations that fall in the bottom 10% of boardings, the “Unsustainable” stations. While the plan is ostensibly written as a way to boost ridership systemwide by performing deep-dive data analyses at Metra’s worst-performing stations, cynically it’s also easy to see how this overall plan will be used to simply produce a list of stations for the Board to cull.

I have three major issues with the “Unsustainable” stations. First and foremost, publicly branding a station as “Unsustainable” (or “Underperforming”, for that matter) could potentially be kryptonite for potential transit-oriented development projects, which is a bitter irony: TODs are potentially a great way to boost ridership at a station by creating newer, denser development within walking distance of the station, but it may scare a developer away if they think the station itself is threatened. Second, since “Unsustainable” is defined as the bottom ten percent of the system, there will always be a significant number of “Unsustainable” stations regardless of ridership levels. The assumption with this kind of system is that Metra inherently has too many stations, which may not actually be the case. In a worst-case scenario, with an iterative process that shuts down the bottom ten percent of stations every other year (an unlikely scenario, but not impossible), Metra could theoretically declare 80 of their 242 stations “Unsustainable” within the next decade.

And the third reason I’m not a fan of the “Unsustainable” branding is, well, when you map everything out, this process targets Chicago’s South Side with almost surgical precision. By relying on this mathematical method, Metra may be able to meet Title VI standards that are intended to prevent disporportionate negative impacts to majority-minority populations. (Stations that could potentially be slated for closure would still need to pass a Title VI analysis before the Board could vote to close those stations.)

I’m not accusing Metra of specifically targeting neighborhoods of color for service cuts, of course; half-mile spacing for rail stations through an urban area does not fit Metra’s commuter rail service model and invariably leads to waste regardless of the demographics of the neighborhoods served: more maintenance costs, longer travel times, and significant costs to bring these grade-separated stations up to Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) standards. However, what I fear is that Metra will move to close and remove many of these South Side stations, which would significantly raise future costs if the Electric Line ever goes back to a more rapid transit-style service that the South Side sorely needs. (Two numbers to keep in the back of your mind when discussing a modernized Metra Electric service on the South Side: $2.3 billion, the CTA’s projected cost of extending the Red Line to 130th Street, and $931 million, Metra’s projected cost of the “Modern Metra Electric” alternative in the recent cost-benefit analysis. And if you really want to make yourself mad, check out these 1957 Illinois Central timetables that included 24-hour service and 20-minute off-peak headways on what’s now the Metra Electric.)

The “Chicago problem” is something this blog has discussed in the past: upwards of 70 of Metra’s 242 stations are within the City of Chicago, but the Metra Board is statutorily restricted to only a single member who lives in Chicago proper. Furthermore, the above map is a great example of why I tend to see how Metra operates their service differently than Metra’s official count of 11 lines: I consider Metra to operate no fewer than 14 distinct services, and it’s more effective to think of the Metra Electric in particular as three separate lines rather than a single operation: the Suburban Main Line, which operates similar to the rest of Metra’s suburban services; the City Main Line/Blue Island Branch, which has station spacing more similar to rapid transit service but operates with commuter rail headways (and fares); and the South Chicago Branch, which operationally is similar to the City Main/Blue Island Branch but is distinct for its mostly street-running operations down 71st Street and Exchange Avenue through a denser built environment. To help illustrate this, I went back and updated our infamous map. (A forthcoming blog post will dive deeper into the new map, but in the meantime, here’s a sneak peek.)

Check it out as a PDF.

Back on topic for the Station Evaluation Policy: the draft also includes a recommendation for infill stations, which would require that any new infill station would have to be projected to make it into “Sustainable” (top half) station territory within the first decade the station is open, which seems unrealistic since none of Metra’s seven new/infill stations that opened in 2006 met that standard themselves. While it’s good that maybe Metra is trying to avoid the lackluster performance of these new stations, I worry that requiring a station to make it into the top 50% within a decade will require a massive coordinating development like Lincoln Yards or a massive sea of parking like the “Sustainable” 80th Avenue, Pingree Road, or Route 59 infill stations to meet those projections. (Of course, with Metra’s capital funding shortfalls, maybe that’s a feature of the analysis, not a bug.) It’s also worth noting that some of these recent infill stations were either poorly executed or victims of just bad luck: Rosemont was built in the middle of nowhere and lacks off-peak service for potential riders heading to the entertainment district; Schiller Park is more or less inaccessible from the east side of that community due to the existing rail yard in that location; Belmont Avenue is walking distance from the Franklin Park MD-W station, which sees significantly more service and is the first station served for peak-period expresses; the two SWS stations opened just in time for the housing bubble to cool off the Will County market; and so on.

StationOpening Year2016 BoardingsDraft Classification
Grand/Cicero MD-W200696Underperforming
Belmont Ave NCS200632Unsustainable
Schiller Park NCS200636Unsustainable
Rosemont NCS200635Unsustainable
Washington St/Grayslake NCS2006110Underperforming
Laraway Road SWS200624Unsustainable
Manhattan SWS200622Unsustainable

If you’re reading this, whether you agree with me or not, I encourage you to review the draft proposal yourself and shoot an email to Metra to let them know your thoughts — good or bad — before the April 15 deadline.

It’s been just about a year since this blog barged in with my two cents about the BNSF’s new Positive Train Control (PTC) schedule, wrote a letter to Metra about it, got my comments more or less dismissed, and observed the predictable shenanigans that followed last summer. I was going to do something similar this time around, but (1) I know there are a few people at Metra who read this blog anyway, and (2) if I’m going to give Metra some constructive criticism, I want to be able to offer up some justifiable, productive alternatives as well. So, as a self-appointed Blue Ribbon committee of one, I brainstormed what I’d want included above and beyond triaging the system based on boardings alone and seeing where the chips fell from there. I came up with five key performance indicators (KPIs) that I think should be used to give an easy, high-level assessment of each station:

  • Parking. Since I know Metra historically hasn’t met a parking lot they didn’t like, I wanted the assessment to see how efficient parking is at each station that has it: does the station have an appropriate amount of parking or is the station overparked? How well are parking permits utilized, and can changes to parking lot management help improve the efficiency of existing parking lots to grow capacity without actually adding new hardscape?
  • Accessibility. Is the station currently ADA-accessible? If not, would it be relatively easy to bring the station up to accessibility standards or would it require a significant investment?
  • Boardings. Do a lot of riders use the station? Do more people board or alight at each station?
  • Service. How many trains serve each station? Are the trains themselves relatively busy (which can increase dwell times and decrease service reliability), or is there a surplus of service, which suggests ridership issues at that station are not related to service levels?
  • Trends. Is ridership increasing or decreasing at each station? While ridership decreases are obviously a more pressing issue, are there stations that have significantly gained ridership? Can we determine why ridership increased in those locations, and are there any lessons learned we can take away to apply to other stations for improvement?

Then I realized that all that data is already accessible (at least for 2016; still waiting on 2018 to get published) over on RTAMS. Instead of telling Metra what they should do, I could just do it myself.

Thus the PABST Blue Ribbon report was born. It’s nothing fancy: basically just a glorified spreadsheet that ranks each criteria on a 5-point scale for a quick and simple station assessment to provide a quick snapshot of each station. Go ahead: try it out for your station, and let’s talk about it over on Twitter. If you’d like the direct link to open it up on your own (or if the drop down menu isn’t working for you), check it out here. If you’re on a smartphone or tablet, make sure to download the Google Sheets app for best results. For a systemwide snapshot report, check out the “Scorecard” tab.

This report isn’t meant to make recommendations for station closures or station improvements (although in a few circumstances, a few standard recommendations will automatically pop up in the report), but rather a simple snapshot of KPIs to help guide conversations. So go ahead, play around with it (but try not to break it), and see how your station rates. And don’t forget to let Metra know your thoughts on the real Station Optimization project as well.

Diverging Approach: Investing In Transit

John Greenfield over at Streetsblog Chicago posted a good article today about Metra’s awful start to 2019 and the desperate need for more capital funding. It’s a good read if you’re unfamiliar with the trials and tribulations Metra’s dealt with this year (much of it beyond Metra’s control, including a freight derailment that knocked out the overhead catenary on the Metra Electric and Amtrak’s now-infamous clumsy employee who accidentally killed the Union Station signaling system for a day).

Metra’s Twitter account boosted the Streetsblog article with a thread about the need to solve the capital crisis Metra currently faces:

It’s good that Metra is taking their arguments for more funding straight to the people and encouraging more direct action to get a capital bill passed. To be clear: our region — and our state, and our nation as a whole — needs to invest more in transportation infrastructure at just about every level to keep the built environment safe and productive while providing healthier, more environmentally-friendly alternatives to driving that are efficient, practical, and useful. Metra’s rolling stock is downright ancient, and their current strategy of just going second-hand everything is obviously not sustainable.

It’s no secret: Metra’s capital needs are dire. The fleet experiences regular breakdowns; signal systems routinely cause significant delays; there are currently in-use bridges that are over 100 years old.

And Metra has used 0% of their bonding authority, in favor of trying to rally ridership to lobby Springfield on their behalf.

Now, there’s a definite argument for fiscal restraint in the face of an uncertain future. As Metra’s tweetstorm points out, we’re on the wrong side of a decade since the last state capital bill was passed, and “it is understandable fewer people choose to ride Metra when half our assets are in marginal or worn conditions”. But if the needs are so dire and the potential outcomes so negative, why not pull out the credit card for some fleet upgrades? Why teeter on the brink of a death spiral of increasing fares and decreasing ridership when Metra could finance some important capital improvements today that could start to turn the ship around? When the Better Government Association, a government watchdog charged with calling out wasteful government spending, publishes an editorial basically saying a unit of government isn’t taking on enough debt, it’s quite the statement.

But it’s also worth asking if more sustainable capital funds are the only thing that’s needed to save Metra. In other words, a sustainable capital funding source is no doubt important, but are outdated and unreliable infrastructure the primary causes of Metra’s ridership losses? Undoubtedly, it has no small impact on ridership (and rider morale); a quick perusal of @OnTheMetra‘s Twitter mentions will make that abundantly clear. But just a few years ago Metra rolled out a brand-new fleet on the Metra Electric line and the Electric Line is losing ridership faster than any other line, with a whopping 18.1% drop in ridership from 2014 through 2018. Will new locomotives and coaches boost ridership elsewhere in the system?

Metra, as an agency, was formed to bail out Chicago’s failing commuter rail network with public subsidies back in the 1980s. The state’s fatal flaw in creating the Regional Transportation Authority was setting up a (mostly) sustainable operations subsidy, but no corresponding capital improvement subsidy. That’s not Metra’s fault, of course; the CTA and Pace also have to deal with the lack of dedicated capital funding. Metra has done an absolutely stellar job of maintaining the Chicago commuter rail network since the 1980s, maybe to a fault: as the CTA and Pace innovate with new service patterns, new service options, and service expansions, Metra keeps grinding on with mostly the same network and very similar services it inherited. (While Metra is able to claim that they’ve opened a truly-new rail line more recently than the CTA has — the NCS opened in 1996 compared to the Orange Line’s opening in 1993 — since then the CTA has also totally rebuilt both branches of the Green Line, most of the Brown Line, what’s now the Pink Line, all of the Dan Ryan branch of the Red Line, and is about to embark on a Red Line extension deeper into areas that would probably be better served by increased frequencies on the Metra Electric instead.)

If Metra was formed to bail out a fiscally-failing commuter rail model with public subsidies and now, 35 years later, finds itself in a fiscally-failing commuter rail model that requires additional public subsidies to bail itself out, perhaps now is the time to refresh that model as a whole. It’s okay to start small with incremental improvements: Metra needs a new fleet, no doubt about that, but a stronger pitch for more investment in transit includes what Metra will do more effectively with that new fleet, or plans Metra has to modernize their service that they can’t do because of capital limitations. A new fleet that pushes on-time performance from 92% to 96% won’t get anyone excited — nor should it, because that 4% is probably not why ridership is dropping. However, rolling out something like pulse scheduling — one of this blog’s favorite topics because it doesn’t really change operating costs but creates convenient transfer opportunities to expand Metra’s reach and passenger mobility throughout the region — alongside the reliability improvements a modernized fleet would bring to help guarantee convenient transfers could be made can turn some heads and pique some interests. Likewise, if Metra can pitch a capital improvement as making a significant positive impact on operating costs — like, say, a new fare collection system that would reduce the need for conductors — that proposal would likely be a lot more palatable to politicians regardless of political party. Metra has plenty of fun ideas in the queue to enhance or expand service systemwide, yet they stick with a message of maintaining a (declining) status quo as their lead argument to rustle up some new capital funds. Get people excited about the future and they’ll probably be more motivated to pick up the phone and call their representatives.

Increasing capital funding to Metra is a good idea, full stop. Our region depends on Metra, and investing in transit is a good investment. However, a new capital bill out of Springfield that lets Metra buy a few new trains, swap out a few signals, and replace a few bridges but doesn’t encourage Metra to update their operational structure to reflect the shifting demographics and travel trends in the Chicago region just kicks the can down the road a few more years and we’ll just end up in the same spot all over again. After all, a capital bill that brings Metra into the 21st Century is already 19 years out-of-date.

Diverging Approach: Kill the Weekend Pass

I hate getting gifts.

My wife knows this, and I think she knows that when I say “you don’t have to get me anything” when my birthday or Christmas rolls around that I actually mean it, but she still does her best, since I think she would feel awkward not giving me something (even if I explicitly tell her not to get me anything), and she likes me to have something to open for those special occasions. She’s too good for me, and I’m incredibly lucky to be married to her.

But still, I hate getting gifts.

It’s not that I don’t appreciate a thoughtful gesture, of course. If someone goes out of their way to do something kind and special for me, of course I’m grateful for the effort. But, simply stated, I generally have most things I’d like to have, within reason, of course — if someone wants to buy me a boat for my birthday, it’s coming up in the summer, let’s talk about delivery options. For smaller, more “normal” gifts though, I have just enough social anxiety that I have an irrational fear of disappointing someone who gave me a gift that they put a lot of thought and effort into because I won’t be able to hide my disappointment, to the point where I’d rather get nothing at all.

I don’t want to sound snobbish or high-maintenance or anything — I’ve received plenty of gifts in my life. Checking my privilege as a straight white male who is an only child in a family somewhere between middle class and upper-middle class, I’ve gotten more than my fair share of free things throughout my life, and I’m grateful for everyone who has shown me so much generousity over the years. But that upbringing combined with my personal history cuts the other way too: I’m an only child of divorce, who took the first job I could following a summer on medical bedrest and in the face of the Great Recession (that happened to be in Peoria), followed by moving into my grandmother’s in-law apartment in her Northwest Side bungalow to help defray some costs as I put myself through grad school. While I’m lucky to have a supportive family and network of friends through it all, day-to-day it was still filled with a lot of alone time and self-reliance. Eventually you just kind of get used to being on your own, and that becomes the new normal: if you want something, you save up (or splurge) and just buy it yourself, easy as that. So when it comes time to receive a gift — especially a relatively unexpected one — there’s a certain sense of dread I get, worrying that, bluntly stated, the gift will suck.

This weekend, Metra gave a gift to the region, and for their most loyal riders, the gift sucked. As most of the people reading a blog like this already know, Metra offered free rides systemwide this weekend. Following the railroad’s abysmal record through the polar vortex days (I still haven’t forgotten that in the polar vortex post-mortem, Metra CEO Jim Derwinski said he regretted running too many trains), Metra decided to offer free trips all weekend long as a “pat on the back” for coping with Metra through the bad weather.

Now, for infrequent or new riders, that’s not a bad gift at all. Two free days of riding the train — during the Chicago Auto Show, no less — is a pretty sweet gig. As someone who has purchased 10 of the last 11 Metra Weekend Passes offered due to my usual weekend travels, it was a pleasant surprise to keep an extra ten bucks in my wallet. But I also didn’t have to deal with Metra during the polar vortex. Instead, the people who did deal with the polar vortex — a significant number of whom ride with monthly passes anyway — didn’t really get anything from the free weekend since weekend trips (between downtown and their home station, at least) are included in their monthly passes. And, of course, drawing more attention to weekend schedules can quickly turn negative as well: free weekend rides to someone who lives along the North Central Service or the Heritage Corridor won’t do much to sway opinion.

The timing of the promotion also seemed a little, well, off to me. If it was supposed to be a “thank you” to the riders who dealt with the brunt of the polar vortex, the gift was misguided since it doesn’t do much for the core commuting market with monthly passes. A more effective “thank you” would be discounts on March monthly passes; interestingly, Electric Line riders are getting discounts on April monthly passes, but I feel like that message got trampled by the regional free weekend and Metra’s missing an opportunity for more positive messaging. If it was just a weekend ridership grab, why not wait for the weather to turn a little warmer in the spring?

Of course, there was another stated purpose for the free weekend:

“We survived the polar vortex – now let’s have some fun,” said Metra CEO/Executive Director Jim Derwinski. “There is a lot to do in Chicago and the suburbs and Metra can take you there. We’re hoping this weekend will convince people who have never ridden Metra or who haven’t ridden Metra in a while to become paid customers in the future.”

https://www.metrarail.com/about-metra/newsroom/metra-offer-free-rides-weekend

Giving people resources to use transit throughout the region for leisure trips on the weekends in the hopes that they’ll become more comfortable with transit and be more inclined to choose transit on their own in the future is, of course, a great idea that sounds really, really familiar.

I spent some time at Chicago Union Station on Saturday to scope out the crowds, and there did seem to be a bit of an uptick in ridership, at least on the Milwaukee lines. (Weekends on the BNSF are always busy, so it was a little harder to get a read on any ridership gains on those trains.) If the goal was a quick ridership boost, it probably isn’t too soon to declare mission accomplished; with a projected financial cost of $300,000 for the weekend, Metra could make a decent dent in that simply on the value of free marketing from local media and word-of-mouth. Whether it leads to any long-term gains in ridership — even just weekend ridership — obviously remains to be seen, but I’m sure Metra will be keeping a closer eye on their weekend ridership numbers for the next few weeks.

But that brings up another consideration: how will Metra define this weekend being a “success”, and what are the potential ramifications either way? While free transit is gaining ground in some European countries, it’s hard to believe Metra — which always seems to be about two board meetings away from doomsday — would take a $16 million hit in their operations budget to make weekends free all year long. There’s also the elephant in the room regarding onboard fare collection, where conductors missing out on collecting fares already provides a non-zero number of “free” rides daily. To put it another way: if more people ride when the trains are free but not when fares are normally priced, does that really mean anything useful to Metra?

Meanwhile, our transit neighbors in Indiana have quietly been going in a different direction post-polar vortex. To coincide with the Chicago Auto Show at McCormick Place — which the South Shore Line serves, alongside the Metra Electric — NICTD (the Northern Indiana Commuter Transportation District, the South Shore Line’s operator) has also been giving out free fares — but only off-peak, and only one way. (Also worth noting: this promotion was planned pre-polar vortex, and the South Shore Line doesn’t usually doesn’t offer any special weekend fares.) It’s a great hook: come to Chicago for the Auto Show and your ride there is free!

It’s also brilliant because people are irrational, and we think differently when we hear the word “free”. If NICTD ran half-price fares both ways, the cost to the rider would be the same, but “free” just sounds better. Not only that, but it also changes the mental budgeting process for a trip. For most transit trips, travelers have to plan chronologically, focusing on how to get to your destination first, then figuring out the return trip (sometimes significantly later). On Metra, a $10 Weekend Pass means you pay more upfront and get free rides later on (if you even end up using them); on NICTD for the last two weeks, the free ride comes first.

For instance, let’s say you’re taking Metra to the Brookfield Zoo on a normal Saturday. If you’re coming from Naperville, you’ll look at a BNSF schedule, figure out what train you want to take there, determine what time you need to leave the house to get to the station, and figure out how much cash you’ll need to bring for the train fare. In this case, a family of four (two adults, two kids) will quickly figure out that they’d need $20 for two Weekend Passes. At $20 to take a train that runs once an hour (on Saturday mornings, every two hours the rest of the weekend) and makes 11 stops between Naperville and Hollywood, the obvious next thing you do is look up how much parking costs at Brookfield Zoo ($14) and all of a sudden you’re mentally assigning dollar values to how much your kids have to enjoy riding a train to make it worth your while. (The additional $1.50 in tolls doesn’t even cross your mind.) You’re not even looking at the return trip schedules yet and Metra’s mode choice is already in significant danger, even though the trip home is “free”.

Meanwhile, in Indiana, a similar family of four wants to head to the Chicago Auto Show from Michigan City. They’ll check the South Shore Line schedules, and then see on the website that their ride there is free. “Neat! Why would I pay for parking and tolls when I can ride the train there for free?! And it’s only $20.50 for the four of us to ride the train back home.”

As someone who has built an entire website around train crawls, it pains me to say this, but I’m offering up a pilot study for Metra to consider to try boosting weekend ridership:

Kill the Weekend Pass.

That’s not an easy thing for me to say, especially because the Weekend Pass is by far one of the best values in transit fares, to the point where it’s actually something that other commuter railroads are trying. Messaging the Weekend Pass’s demise would also take some finesse.

But it can be done. Get rid of the Weekend Pass and replace it with two things: First, downgrade the Weekend Pass to a Weekend Day Pass: the same unlimited rides, system-wide, for $10, but only for a single day (Saturday OR Sunday, not Saturday AND Sunday).

Second: make all weekend inbound trains free.

Think about that: Metra will get you downtown for free, you just pay for the return trip. For most riders, that would be the standard full fare ticket, which systemwide is less than $10. However, per person, assuming most riders are in the Zone D-F band, that’s only about $3 cheaper than what they’re paying now. Considering Metra’s core demographic is (and likely always will be) suburbanites heading downtown, focus on getting them downtown and they’re a captive audience. It’s an easier message, too: right now, Metra faces headwinds trying to market the Weekend Pass for groups bigger than about three people: it’s easy to find parking, even in the heart of the theatre district or up in Wrigleyville, for less than $30 a car. But “leave the car at home, we’ll take you downtown for free” can be a much stronger message that could be enough to encourage people to switch over to Metra, even if they’re only saving a buck or two.

This also should (theoretically) reduce the unintentional fare evasion that frequently happens on weekend trains, as conductors can concentrate their efforts on collecting fares for people leaving the downtown terminals, which from my personal observations is where conductors are most effective in terms of collecting the most fares. (In the long run, Metra should eventually switch over to proof-of-payment for all fare collection, full stop. But in the meantime, if Metra’s unwilling to abandon the conductor fare collection model, this will at least reduce uncollected fare issues.)

There are downsides to this approach: namely, it costs money, and without knowing weekend ridership numbers there’s no guarantee Metra wouldn’t end up losing money compared to the current Weekend Pass system. Free inbound trains would also make transfers more costly between lines, which is why I’m proposing maintaining a $10 all-inclusive option. (By cutting it back to a single day instead of both days of the weekend, I think the financials of this kind of proposal would pencil out a little more cleanly than without it. And, you know, gotta keep the crawls going.) I could also see Metra having concerns about Zone B-C “freeloaders” who would use Metra to get downtown fare-free and simply take the CTA back home, but that’s more of an indictment of the RTA’s ongoing lack of integrated fares than a reason not to try something that would stimulate more suburban ridership.

I’d hate to see the Weekend Pass go, but I also doubt that a free weekend inbound proposal would actually go anywhere since this is just me spitballing. However, it’s worth discussing how people use (or don’t use) Metra on the weekends and how Metra can be competitive when its inherent peak-period advantages in travel time and parking costs both disappear off-peak. I think it’s long overdue for Metra to dive deeper into weekend ridership and better understand where people are going, how people are getting there (whether on Metra or not), and what it’d take to get more people onboard trains.

Of course, if Metra actually wants to significantly move the needle on weekend ridership, they just need to change the schedules. At any price point, why would I take Metra to a 7:10pm Sox game at Guaranteed Rate Field when my return options are leaving the game early to get back to Union Station by 10:40pm or figuring out how to kill an hour waiting for the 12:40am? While more service is generally better, I’m confident there are still improvements that could be made with the same number of trains running either on different headways or at different times.

The important thing is, whatever it is that lit a fire under Metra to take weekend ridership losses more seriously, it’s the best gift we as a region could get, provided it evolves into action on boosting weekend ridership. Let’s keep our fingers crossed that Metra continues to look at targeted strategies focused on building ridership rather than doomsday service cuts where service is already too infrequent and unreliable.