Diverging Approach: A Tale of One City

In terms of Chicago-area transit, these are the best of times, and these are the worst of times.

Today, the Metropolitan Planning Council released their Transit Means Business report, which is an interesting read that puts hard numbers on the anecdotal data many of us in the transit world already know: businesses generally like being close to transit. More jobs are created at businesses close to transit, workers don’t particularly enjoy driving, businesses are willing to pay higher rents to be closer to transit, and so on. The event itself was hosted by McDonald’s in their new West Loop headquarters; the Golden Arches’ relocation from Oak Brook to the Fulton Market area is something of a feather in outgoing Mayor Emanuel’s cap.

Meanwhile, Pace wants to cut fourteen routes next year due to low ridership. Metra’s banging the Doomsday drum as loud as they can to try to rustle up more financial help from Springfield. The CTA is mostly stagnant on the budget front as ridership falls. The RTA, which oversees the three agencies, is still trying to make the #InvestInTransit hashtag trend on social media. The transit agencies are sounding the alarm: our region’s transit network is at risk, and Springfield hasn’t passed a capital funding bill since 2009. The advocates, like MPC and Active Trans, are writing the white papers to defend increased public funding as fast as they can.

And yet…

Does the average Metra rider see Eisenhower-era cars as a hot enough fire that needs putting out with new taxes? Do CTA riders see perennially-postponed line extensions as simply the cost of doing business when the CTA has a pretty impressive track record at reinvestment in the fleet and the existing infrastructure? Do Pace riders take the cut routes as simply an evolution in travel patterns as Pace focuses on more “premium” service on I-55 and I-90?

If you’re reading this, I know I’m preaching to the choir: our transit system is falling apart, and we need more funding. If you ride our trains and buses, you know that the system works, but it’s generally nothing to write home about. I started this blog to advocate for better suburban transit, because that’s generally a constituency without a voice. Our official stance is that there’s plenty of great suburban travel options out there that allow suburbanites to be less reliant on their cars, but also we believe the suburban transit agencies can do more within their existing structures and budget constraints to improve suburban transit offerings.

But why did (well, does: I know I generally just shout into the void) that advocacy vacuum exist? Sure, there’s the @OnTheMetra crowd, but that Twitter presence doesn’t exactly translate to riders calling out Metra board members or showing up at Metra board meetings. Yes, their voices are being heard on Twitter, but it’s Twitter, one of the least-productive places on the Internet. Even the CTA doesn’t really have a dedicated rider’s union or advocacy group that exists out in New York or Los Angeles or D.C. or Boston. Sure, we have the Active Transportation Alliance, but Active Trans’s focus is overwhelmingly on, well, active transportation modes such as biking and pedestrian issues; transit is mostly an afterthought (although, to be fair, walking and biking are the two best ways to get to and from transit, so it’s obviously not entirely unrelated).

In light of all this, we have to consider an unfortunate truth that has probably never before been written about government units in Illinois: Are we too good at saving money? Does our transit network work TOO efficiently? Have our transit providers sufficiently managed expectations to a point where as long as a bus or train shows up when it’s supposed to and gets us where we’re trying to go in a decent amount of time that we just kind of roll with it? Unlike D.C. or New York, we haven’t had to have long-term line shutdowns for maintenance (and when we do, it’s for a total reconstruction). Unlike San Francisco, when new stations open, they aren’t almost immediately shuttered due to shoddy construction.

Metra hasn’t officially expanded their system since 2006. Halloween marks the 25th anniversary of the most recent new-alignment track the CTA opened. That’s not to say the agencies have been sitting in their hands, of course: Metra just opened its newest station earlier this year and is most of the way through a massive bridge replacement project on the UP-N, among other significant capital projects; since the Orange Line started service, the CTA rebuilt the Green Line, the Douglas Branch (and cobbled together the Pink Line from it), the Brown Line, the south branch of the Red Line, and enough of the Blue Line to get rid of most of the slow zones. We’ve gotten really, really good at making lemonade from decades of lemons.

But all that is just enough for us to get by, and not enough to truly modernize or have a system befitting a Global City in the 21st Century. Ridership is falling because we’re too busy trying to shove our 1990s square-peg infrastructure and service patterns into a 2010s round-hole region.

To be clear: there’s still so, so much our transit agencies can do with existing resources today that will bolster ridership and improve traveler satisfaction without additional help from Springfield or Washington, and that’s what I’ll keep advocating for here on this blog. I was more than a little dismayed at last month’s Metra board meeting, where a particular board member (Director Baldermann of Will County, starts around the 32-minute mark) expressed serious concerns about spending $350,000 a year for two years on a reverse-commute public-private partnership pilot project (Metra’s 2018 year-to-date operating budget is $19.7 million favorable to budget; both years of the pilot would cost Metra 3.6% of the extra money the board didn’t think they’d have right now) and followed up by going straight to potential “entire line” cuts instead of common-sense cost-neutral schedule modifications to grow ridership such as downtown pulse scheduling, coordinated transfers with Pace, or shorter weekend evening headways. (The irony of Will County’s representative making these comments when the Heritage Corridor and the southern tip of the SouthWest Service are almost certainly high on the potential cut list wasn’t lost on me.)

That said, we all know Metra can’t cut their way to prosperity, but also it’s important to acknowledge that just jockeying the same old trains around without actually adding any service will not generate a high level of sustainable ridership increases and revenues needed to keep Metra abreast of the demographic and workplace changes happening in our region. Our transit network is only treading water while the world moves on without us. The transit boards are sounding the alarm. The think-tanks are sounding the alarm. I’m sounding the alarm to our 56 fans on Facebook and 109 followers on Twitter. (Again: screaming into the void.) Our region can not afford to fall into the death spiral that other regions are dangerously approaching, and there’s absolutely no urgency from people outside of our professional transportation bubble. The region needs more of us – all of us, not just the usual transportation echo chamber – to demand more from our elected officials and to remind them that Chicago isn’t Chicago without the ‘L’, without our buses, and without Metra shuttling suburbanites to and from downtown.

Eventually, that will change. Something will inevitably happen that reminds our neighbors and our leaders why investing in our transportation network is imperative for our region’s success.

But by that point, it will be too late.

Diverging Approach: Flip It and Reverse It

Correction, 10/9/18: This month’s board meeting is today instead of Wednesday, for whatever reason. This post has been updated accordingly.

This Wednesday Tuesday is Metra’s next board meeting, and all eyes are going to be on the proposed 2019 budget. The budget will outline any proposed service cuts, a doomsday the board warned us about last month when they also pledged not to raise fares next year. I’m very interested in seeing what Wednesday Tuesday holds, but I’m going to use this post to talk about something else on the agenda that is, dare I say, a little progressive:

Metra wants to do a public-private partnership with a consortium of Lake County businesses to strengthen their reverse commute options on the Milwaukee North.

That’s… awesome. For any other transit agency this would be just an interesting development to keep an eye on, but for Metra this is a BFD. This pilot project – assuming the board approves it – hits the trifecta of things we’ve been pushing for: (1) more frequent trains that (2) reflect evolving commuting patterns in the region while (3) finding innovative financial solutions to make it happen.

To be clear, it’s not perfect. First and foremost, I’m sure the public-private partnership (P3) funding scheme for the pilot will get lots of press, and rightly so. But the future of transportation funding should not be focused strongly on P3 funding. Our public agencies operate at a loss in order to provide a service to its constituents; private companies operate to maximize profit to their shareholders. Sometimes there are projects that fit squarely in the middle part of that Venn diagram where both sides prosper (usually by the private side infusing needed capital for public-agency improvements and getting a portion of the generated revenue as a return on investment), but sometimes the two sides have differing objectives that often – not always, but frequently enough – leave the taxpayers holding the bag since most P3s limit the risk exposure from the private sector in order to make the project more financially feasible for investors. (See: parking meters, Chicago.)

There’s also the added wrinkle of transportation equity: a P3 pilot along the Milwaukee North corridor is possible because of the wealthy communities and businesses in the Lake-Cook Road corridor, but my fear would be a similar pilot that would serve a significant number of workers heading to a less-prosperous area – say, reverse commuting to the O’Hare area on the NCS or to Joliet on the Rock Island or Heritage Corridor – failing to get off the ground since there’s less political and financial capital to spend.

In Metra’s defense, the proposed P3 arrangement looks to be pretty solid and straightforward: Metra pays half of the annual operating expenses ($350,000 of $700,000) and $1 million towards $4.75 million of track improvements, with the private sector (Lake County Partners) paying the rest. In return, if the two-year pilot proves fiscally feasible, Metra will continue operating the service. This particular corridor already sees a significant number of reverse commutes, and it’s terrific that those businesses and communities sees the potential benefit of expanded Metra service to serve their workers.

Of course, Metra is still Metra, so the proposed evaluation is written, in my opinion, too conservatively: for the project to be considered a success, the new trains need to show a ridership increase of 300 riders a day (148,300 annual trips, or a total of 600 new daily rides on 255 workdays a year, at an average fare of $4.72 which comes out to almost exactly $700,000) AND new fare revenues of at least $700,000, so they’re covered in case the per-rider average fare doesn’t pan out. The pilot evaluation is also written to discount cannibalizing ridership on the Union Pacific North, so UP-N existing riders changing to theoretically more convenient MD-N trips won’t count towards the pilot’s success. In other words, Metra is demanding a 100% farebox recovery on this pilot, even though operational revenues are budgeted at 55% of expenses and farebox recovery is currently 54.4%. If the pilot was held to the same standard of the rest of the network, all the pilot would need to be successful is 160 new round-trip riders daily (160 x 2 x 255 x $4.72 = $385,000 = 55% of $700,000), which isn’t much more than Metra expects within the first year.

I’ll be able to dive deeper into the proposed additional service on Wednesday Tuesday when more details about schedules, publicity, and branding will presumably be made available. In the meantime, I’m genuinely excited about this, especially since I’m not expecting much in the way of other good news to come out of Wednesday Tuesday’s board meeting. This is a huge step forward for Metra, and this blog wholeheartedly endorses this kind of innovation pushing the envelope at Metra, even if we have a reservation or two. But Metra’s staff deserves credit for working out the details with Lake County Partners to get this in front of the board, and we strongly encourage the board to approve the item on Wednesday Tuesday.

(P.S. – If anyone on the board is reading this and has any heartburn about a proposed $700,000 increase in operating expenses should the pilot prove successful, please take note of CFO Farmer’s monthly financial report which will show – once again – that Metra’s operating budget is favorable to budget this year to the tune of $20 million, just through August. I’m sure he’d be able to find the $700,000 somewhere, or maybe set aside some of the end-of-year favorable operations budgeting to other pilot programs or at least fewer service cuts.)

Diverging Approach: Keep Up the Pace

Today is October 1. It’s the first day of Halloween month, that classic holiday where people either try to scare their peers, try walking in a different set of shoes for a day, or they simply don’t like having fun.

Today, I did all three of those things: I commuted. From a suburb. To another suburb.

On Pace.

Okay, pick your jaws up off the floor. This is important, because according to the Census, in 2015 a full 2.3 million people in the Chicago region live in the suburbs and commute to a different suburb for work. That doesn’t even include reverse commuters who live in Chicago proper and work out in the suburbs. Combine those statistics with Metra’s lackluster reverse-commute offerings in much of the region, and the simple fact that most suburban job centers are far from Metra stations anyway, and it’s easy to see how important a successful suburban bus network is to allow suburban workers to commute if they don’t (or choose not to) own a car.

Today I put my money where my mouth is and commuted to IDOT’s District 1 office in Schaumburg, where I had some early morning meetings. (I’m usually at that office once a week, but generally I use a state vehicle to commute between the Chicago office and the Schaumburg office.) The office is located a little bit west of Roselle Road off Central Road, immediately north of Interstate 90. It’s in a great location if you’re driving there from almost anywhere in the region, although ironically it’s not directly accessible from state highways — Roselle Road and Central Road are both Cook County highways, and that stretch of Interstate 90 is part of the Illinois Tollway. There is a single Pace bus line nearby: Route 696 serves the intersection of Roselle and Central Roads, and it’s a tolerable seven-minute walk to the office.

On the map, a transit commute between my home in southern Forest Park should be a slam dunk: the 696 serves the Northwest Transportation Center off Martingale Road, and I live not far from the Forest Park Blue Line terminal. Find the route that connects the two transit terminals and it’s easy as that.

But of course it’s not actually that easy. I completed my workday with round-trip commuting on Pace — but to do so, I had to ride NINE different Pace buses throughout the day. For both commutes, I actually was pretty fortunate transferring between lines: I never had to wait more than about five minutes at transfer points. (Pace, unlike some other transit agencies, understands how a conscious effort to have coordinated transfers greatly extends the reach of your network when frequency is low and headways are high.) Some of my experience is almost certainly unique to my individual situation: the District 1 office is basically on an island when it comes to lunch options, so I was back on the 696 to get to and from somewhere  to grab food. But there are plenty of areas of Schaumburg (and Oak Brook, and the Lake Cook Road corridor, among others) with similar issues, and I was fortunate enough that Pace was an option at all.

So here’s how I commuted today. Here’s the regional RTA map (that will open in a new tab) if you want to follow along.

  • 6:40am: Leave home. ($0.00) Without doxxing myself, I live in the southern half of Forest Park, about halfway between the Eisenhower and Roosevelt Road, and halfway between Harlem and Desplaines Avenues. If I was lazy, I could’ve walked down to Roosevelt and grabbed what would end up being my 10th bus of the day to get to the Forest Park Blue Line station, but instead the weather was decent so I walked the 15 minutes or so to the station to grab the bus.
  • 7:00am: Board Pace #757 at Forest Park. ($2.00/$2.25) I travel on a 30-day CTA/Pace monthly pass, but for kicks I’m going to keep track of how much today would’ve cost me if I didn’t have a pass. The blue figure shows how much it would cost using pay-as-you-go on a Ventra card; the green figure shows how much it would cost using cash. The 757 is really the only long-distance express bus that serves the Forest Park station, which seems like a potential missed opportunity for people who live and work out in the Oak Brook area. (The 301 serves this connection, but it’s a local bus that slogs down Roosevelt Road.) The 757 shoots up Interstate 290, then serves the Route 83 industrial corridor in Wood Dale, Bensenville, and Elk Grove Village before cutting up Higgins and Arlington Heights Roads to serve the random corporate buildings on Golf Road in Rolling Meadows before heading to the Woodfield area.  Well, most buses continue to the Woodfield area: there are only five round-trips offered each weekday, and a single westbound trip ends at Golf and New Wilke Roads instead of continuing onto Woodfield. Take a wild guess which bus fit in my schedule.
  • 7:55am: Transfer to Pace #208 on Golf Road. ($2.30/$4.50I opted to get off the bus at “Golf/Traffic Signal/Wal-Mart” (the official name of the bus stop) to wait for the next westbound bus, which would be either the 208 or the 606. It really doesn’t matter, since both routes end up at the Northwest Transportation Center; the 208 came first. The 208 does some heavy lifting for Pace, linking the Woodfield area to Evanston via Golf Mill mall and three Metra lines. With half-hourish headways seven days a week from early morning through evening, it’s basically as good as a more traditional suburban arterial bus route gets. This is also a good time to point out that transfers cost 30 cents on Ventra but aren’t available at all if you’re paying cash, which means it’s extremely important to have a Ventra card for suburban bus trips. And, of course, Ventra retailers aren’t exactly common in the suburbs: all of Elk Grove Village, for example, has only one retailer that sells Ventra cards: ironically, a gas station.
  • 8:19am: Transfer to Pace #696 at the Northwest Transportation Center. ($2.60/$6.75I’ll end up on the 696 three more times before the day is done, since it’s the only bus that comes close to the IDOT office. The 696 is basically the opposite of the 208: a low-frequency bus that just kind of meanders around to cover a lot of ground at the expense of travel time. It checks a stereotypical list of suburban destinations — a courthouse, a community college, a commuter university, one Metra station, and two malls.
  • 8:35am: Exit the bus and walk to the office. I end up arriving around 8:40am, close enough to my 8:30am start time and definitely in time for my 9:00am meeting, so mission accomplished.
  • 11:45am: Leave the office for lunch. I was a bit concerned when I left the office at 11:45am: I wanted to leave five minutes earlier but got caught up wrapping up a few emails. The 696 was scheduled to be back at Roselle/Central at 11:52am, and the following bus wouldn’t arrive until around 1:30pm, which is far later than I was willing to wait to get food.  Interestingly, the District 1 office was built with a fully-functioning kitchen and cafeteria on the first floor, but decades of belt tightening combined with, well, everyone has a car and there’s no shortage of places to grab lunch in Schaumburg reduced the cafeteria to an odd unstaffed convenience store setup where cameras watch you self checkout whatever bagged snacks or any of the handful of pre-made sandwiches and salads you wanted. Either way, sticking around the office wasn’t really an option for lunch, so I was back on the 696.
  • 11:54am: Board Pace #696 at Roselle/Central. ($4.60/$9.00Correction: now I’m back on the 696.
  • 12:00pm: Arrive at Portillo’s on Golf Road. When in Rome.
  • 12:45pm: Leave Portillo’s. Unfortunately the bus doesn’t come for another half hour or so, but the weather is nice so I decide to walk along Golf Road and wait for the bus to catch up to me. Golf Road in Schaumburg is a pretty crappy place to be a pedestrian, by the way. Since I’m on Pace time, I have to take a long lunch and will be losing out on a half hour of comp time. A small price to pay for my art, I suppose.
  • 1:10pm: Board Pace #696 at Roselle/Remington. ($6.60/$11.25The bus took longer than I expected, so I walked a little further than I expected and sweated a little more than I expected as well. Feet are a bit sore.
  • 1:13pm: Exit the bus and walk to the office. Glad I have a 30-day pass, otherwise I’d be a little pissed about paying $2 for a four-minute bus ride. But it covered a lot of ground and crossed over the tollway, so I suppose it’s worth it. Hashtag suburbs. Also, here’s a quick panorama of the signalized crossing at Roselle and Central.
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The pedestrian countdown timer to cross Central Road (right) starts at 45 seconds.
  • 4:30pm: Leave the office to head home. My workday officially ends at 5:00pm, but the 696 schedule is having none of that: the bus comes at about 4:37pm or around 5:55pm, so choose wisely.  I choose to burn another half hour of comp time and try to get home at a decent hour.
  • 4:38pm: Board Pace #696 at Roselle/Central ($8.60/$13.50I notice two people on this bus who were also on the 208 and transferred to the 696 with me this morning. The bus is surprisingly crowded with people headed back from Harper College.
  • 4:56pm: Transfer to Pace #600 at the Northwest Transportation Center ($8.90/$15.75Now, if I wanted to, I could’ve hopped back on the last 757 of the day, which departs the Northwest Transportation Center at 5:00pm. However, (1) I’d rather try a route I didn’t already try; (2) I wouldn’t mind checking out Pace’s new I-90 services (although the 600’s been around for awhile); and (3) I wanted to see what my options were if the 696 ran late and didn’t allow for the 757 connection. The 600 is a great route: express between the Northwest Transportation Center and the Rosemont Blue Line. That’s it. No weird loops, no long gaps in service, just a straight shot down the tollway, every 15 minutes, all day long. I don’t make a habit of complimenting our suburban transit options too often around here, but I must say I was definitely impressed by the special fleet Pace uses on the I-90 corridor now. Comfy seats that recline, reading lights and vents at every seat, and a USB charger (although it’s a little hidden, so you kind of have to know it’s there).
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A certain commuter railroad should take some notes on what new seats on transit could look like… but then again, there’s no cup holders on the bus.
  • 5:35pm: Transfer to Pace #303 at the Rosemont Blue Line ($9.20/$18.00As great as the 600 was, that’s as bad as the 303 is during rush hour. Seriously, what an awful experience the 303 was. It felt like most of the trip was spent standing still: it took at least three signal cycles for the bus to make the right turn from southbound River Road to westbound Irving Park Road in Schiller Park; we got stuck for a freight train in Franklin Park (not unusual); and it took a good five minutes to make a single left turn from southbound 25th Avenue to eastbound North Avenue. It was a solid hour of grinding through the inner tier suburbs, and served as a constant reminder of why people hate traveling on buses.
  • 6:45pm: Transfer to Pace #301 at the Forest Park Blue Line I left off the prices for this trip because honestly it was a transfer of convenience: I was hungry, there’s a Portillo’s at Desplaines and Roosevelt (I know, Portillo’s twice, living the dream) that’s definitely walkable, but it was a cross-platform transfer and I have a monthly pass, so why not?

Takeaways over take-out

I ended up getting home around 7:30pm after grabbing a quick dinner. It dawned on me that I had spent about four and a half hours to work a six and a half hour shift that cost me an hour of comp time to make the buses work. I live in an area pretty well-served by transit, and I was going to an area just outside a major suburban job center, and my workday was 70% longer because of my commute. This was a one-off occasion for me, but as we previously discussed, it’s not exactly unheard of for people to live in one suburb and commute to another: statistically speaking, it’s the norm. Transit agencies wonder why telecommuting continues to become more and more common and why transit is hemmorhaging ridership, especially on the bus side of the house. “Must be Uber and Lyft!” the thinking goes. Or — and bear with me — it’s because service is lackluster, travel times are too long, reliability is sketchy, and frequency is crap.

I’ll admit, as a transit advocate who also happens to be an IDOT employee — but not speaking on behalf of IDOT, of course — our agency is working on becoming a better partner for transit, but we still have light years to go. (“It’s a big ship, and it’s hard to turn around,” Secretary Blankenhorn said at last week’s American Planning Association state conference, “but I hope we’ve at least gotten it to the point where it’s harder to turn it back in the direction we used to be headed than it is to keep moving forward.”) Things that make bus service more reliable and easier to operate, such as dedicated facilities and improved signal coordination or pre-emption, fall squarely in our wheelhouse. While we’ve made some progress with bus-on-shoulder throughout the region, it’s good to see Pace is reaching out to other partners such as the Illinois Tollway to get more progressive transit infrastructure in more innovative ways.

But, as usual, there’s other issues that we can probably make incremental progress on right now. First and foremost, let’s check back in on the cost for non-pass holders. If I didn’t have a 30-day pass on my Ventra card, I would be out $9.20 for a single day’s worth of trips. And then the cash price was almost double that! Someone who doesn’t have a Ventra card would be out $18 just on transit fares alone. A 7-day pass is only $15 more expensive, but you’d need to have a Ventra card first. Even still, $9.20 is not a small amount of money for a daily expense, but it’s still easier for some people to spend $9.20 daily (imagine a server making the $4.95/hour minimum wage plus tips) than plunking down $105 all at once for a 30-day pass. This is where fare capping would be useful. We already have a “smart” system with Ventra; fare capping would be incredibly easy to roll out. In this case, a fare capped system would basically have everyone move over to using transit credit on their Ventra cards; no more dedicated passes. Then, fares are automatically deducted until you reach a certain price and time threshold. For instance, with a $33 7-day pass, instead of charging $33 at once, riders would be charged the same $2 per trip as they’re charged now, but when they hit $33 their rides are free for the rest of the week. Or a similar system for the $105 30-day pass. Or somewhere in between, where the first $33 is full-price and the next $72 has a per-ride discount of some sort. Fare capping is useful for two key reasons: first and foremost, it’s more equitable for lower-income workers who may not be able to afford the upfront cost of a pass but end up paying more with pay-as-you-go than the pass is valued at. But secondly — as I think I showed today — when you stop worrying about per-ride charges, you’re more inclined to use transit more often.

I’ll dive into more Pace-related discussions in future postings, I’m sure, and if you want to send me your ideas, go yell at me on Twitter. But in the meantime, I’m happy to say that I walked in the shoes of a Pace supercommuter today… although like most Halloween costumes, it’s a good experience to endure once a year and can be kinda fun if you’re in the right headspace, but it’s important to remember that being able to take the costume off at the end of the night is a luxury not everyone has.

 

Diverging Approach: The Tragedy of Central Illinois

Last week, I was able to attend this year’s annual American Planning Association – Illinois Chapter conference, which was down in Springfield in honor of Illinois’s Bicentennial this year. Many of you know that I lived in Peoria for three years and graduated from U of I, so central Illinois will always hold a special place in my heart.

But honestly, central Illinois is full of missed opportunities. First things first: Illinois is relatively unique in that – with one significant exception – there are zero municipalities in the state with a population between 150,000 and 2.5 million. (Aurora is the exception: the city recently broke 200,000, but I’m not counting it right now since much of Aurora’s recent growth is a result of a conglomeration of subdivisions sprawling over four counties.) On paper, with a stat like that, it’s easy to assume there’s nothing but corn and soybeans between Joliet and St. Louis – and, to be fair, that’s generally true. But in the middle of the state, there’s a triangle of five small metropolitan areas all generally within a 90-minute drive of each other: Peoria, Bloomington-Normal, Champaign-Urbana, Decatur, and Springfield. These five areas are just far enough apart to be considered distinct, but if at some point in the past they consolidated into a single area it’d have national significance. Here are the 2017 Census estimates for each metropolitan area:

  • Peoria: 372,427
  • Bloomington: 188,232
  • Champaign: 239,124
  • Springfield: 208,697
  • Decatur: 105,801
  • Total: 1,114,281

Obviously, 1.1 million people is a far cry from the Chicago region’s 9.5 million, but if those five areas were a single MSA, it’d be the 51st-largest in the nation, right behind Buffalo-Niagara Falls. (Not a terribly “sexy” metro, but hey, they do have a professional sports team.) Instead, these areas are divvied up into several media markets and different area codes, which compounds the independent isolation of these communities. If they were able to consolidate at least partially – such as choosing a single airport to be “the” commercial airport for the region instead of spreading flights around between Peoria, Bloomington, and Springfield – it could have significant economic benefits (for instance, some large national retail chains won’t even consider entering a sub-500k market).

The paradox of central Illinois is that these five regions have their own anchors that make it difficult to choose a focus point. Springfield’s the capital. Peoria’s the largest. Champaign-Urbana has the state’s flagship university. Bloomington has ISU and State Farm. Decatur has… well, ADM moving up north was a kick in the teeth for Decatur, but they’re still hanging on. Each of these communities is simultaneously too big to fail and too small to succeed.

Unlike most Diverging Approach blog posts, I have no big call to action or any lofty goal here tonight. While there are definitely takeaways from a deeper dive look into this part of the state – namely the dangers and market cannibalization of Balkanized municipalities competing against each other instead of working cooperatively to benefit everyone – tonight I just want to recognize the downstate communities that had – and continue to have – an impact on the formative years of my life.

Diverging Approach: Doomsday

On Wednesday, the Metra Board of Directors took a page out of the old CTA playbook, holding fares steady but trotting out transit doomsday predictions due to the suddenly-dire fiscal situation the agency finds itself in. Relying on a patchwork of fleet fixes due to a lack of a state capital bill since 2009 layered on top of the expensive unfunded Positive Train Control mandate, Metra simply needs more capital funding to keep trains up and running. This isn’t exactly a shocking new development; if you’re reading this blog you probably already know that transit funding throughout the country and especially here in Chicago is generally anemic and insufficient.

What’s new this time around is Metra diving head-first into the RTA’s #InvestInTransit push to try to rally political support to get the ear of enough people in Springfield and/or Washington to get capital funding flowing to Chicagoland. Not just that, they’re taking the task straight to ridership, mounting a social media campaign to have conversations with riders about the challenges Metra currently faces and soliciting innovative solutions to improve service and the railroad’s financial future.

Well, as long as they don’t cost money.

Or aren’t 100% accurate.

Or require using Metra’s bonding authority, which currently sits at 0% utilized.

Seriously, Metra’s aversion to good debt is bizarre. “Debt” has negative connotations, of course, and it’s generally not a great thing to spend money you don’t have. But it’s also not a direct parallel to a credit card (despite what some libertarians may try to tell you). If Metra were a person, they’d have no student loans, and no car payment but they keep renting a shitty apartment from a landlord who keeps jacking up the price. But instead of getting a mortgage to buy a nice, bigger, newer house for a smaller monthly payment, Metra is content with whining to mom and dad in Springfield to just give them more money every month to keep the same crappy apartment with spotty WiFi and air conditioning that only works 80% of the time.

While it’s great that the Metra board is using their platform to advocate for financing change, getting on the bully pulpit to rally the riders, I’m not sure if the board realizes they themselves can be those very change agents. In the meantime, Metra’s staff is in the unenviable position of fighting on two fronts: how do you get people excited about changing the funding structure in Springfield while digging in and defending the same systemic structural failures within Metra that led to this death spiral?

In one of today’s Twitter exchanges, Metra threw the (budget) book at yet another passive-aggressive comment:

Well, I have good news and I have bad news. The good news is that this blog did go ahead and dive into the budgets and audits so you don’t have to. The bad news is, well, Metra may or may not have raised fares unnecessarily over the past few years. I’m not an accountant, nor am I a journalist, so if anyone reading this is either of those I encourage you to dive in yourself. But basically, since Fiscal Year 2015 and continuing through Fiscal Year 2017, every time Metra raised fares for the year Metra’s actual operating figures ended up more favorable to budget than the amount projected to be raised by the fare increase.

If that sounds like economic gibberish to you, same here, but what it comes down to is Metra pinching their pennies so well that they ended up financially better off than a fare increase alone would have provided. For instance, in Fiscal Year 2016, Metra’s budget predicted operating costs would end up $385.2 million in the red. (The RTA sales tax generally covers those losses.) Instead, Metra’s operations actually finished only $363.1 million in the hole, so the year went $22.1 million better than expected. Good news, of course, but Metra also raised fares to add an expected $6.5 million in revenue that year. If that prediction came true and if all that fare increase was included in the Fiscal Year 2016 data, that means without the fare increase Metra would have still been $15.6 million ahead of budget.

So why did Metra raise the fares in 2016? More importantly, with an extra $15.6 million available, why did the board still vote to raise fares by another $16.1 million in 2017 when you had $15.6 million to play around with on paper? (FY2017 ended up $26.6 million favorable to budget (-$365.1m vs. -$391.7m budgeted), by the way, so theoretically there’s enough to cover the missing $500,000 from 2016 AND cover the $17.0 million 2018 fare increase AND the $3.0 million service cut.)

Again: I’m not an accountant, and I’m sure Metra moved those surpluses into the rehab program or PTC or other capital needs. I’m not accusing Metra of stealing or misappropriating funds anywhere. But it does come back to an important consideration when talking about Metra’s finances: Metra doesn’t exist to make money. On the contrary: Metra was organized to bail out the failing private railroads who couldn’t afford to run commuter service any more. We, as a region, chose to levy a tax on ourselves to subsidize a new, publicly-owned railroad because we collectively understood the value it provides to Chicagoland. It’s great that Metra continues to position themselves in as fiscally-solid of a footing as possible, but honestly it’s in the region’s worst interest for Metra to try to maximize passenger revenues, since it leads to mounting ridership losses, more expensive tickets, and service cuts. Year-over-year, Metra’s year-to-date ridership is down by nearly two million rides. That’s two million more times this year that someone either contributed to congestion by driving or Uber/Lyfting, or they simply stayed home and did not spend their money somewhere else in the region.

In the meantime, Metra is now trotting out a new monthly scorecard that shows ridership falling across the board with big, red, angry, downward-pointing arrows, but right next to it are happy green arrows showing that fare revenue is up. “Fewer people are riding our trains, but that’s okay because we’re making more money!” is a heck of a message for a public service to make. Memo to Metra: yes, you’re a railroad, but you exist to provide a public good. The taxpayers of the region are your shareholders, and the profit you turn is not financial. Do something! I sincerely hope there is a capital bill that comes out of Springfield and that there’s a lot of zeroes after whatever number they assign to Metra.

But honestly, there continues to be so much Metra can do now for little to no budget that would seriously move the needle on ridership and passenger satisfaction, and holding out for a fat check to keep running the same service from 70 years ago is a waste of time and resources. In no particular order, here’s Star:Line’s short list of cheap improvements that can be rolled out tomorrow.

  • Let the planners plan schedules. I’ve had the pleasure and privilege of working with the staff in Metra’s Strategic Capital Planning group, and I can say with no hesitation that Metra has assembled a great group of planners. But when it comes to actually scheduling service, that’s taken care of in the operations division, totally separate from SCP. Operations can move trains like nobody else, but Metra exists to move people, not trains. Rolling scheduling into the planning group at least makes it easier to get perspectives from a demographic and ridership point of view and would provide a more responsive service better equipped to adapt as regional trends continue to evolve and change.
  • Pulse scheduling. Metra offers free transfers on weekends with the Weekend Pass, and there’s still buzz about a Daily Pass for weekdays. But a 90-minute layover at Union Station isn’t going to encourage anyone to use Metra for longer-distance trips.
  • Coordinated park-and-ride pricing. Most of Metra’s suburban parking lots are owned by the various suburbs, who are more or less able to do what they want with their lots. A concerted effort by Metra to try to smooth the edges between adjacent municipalities’ parking policies and rates would encourage daily drivers to use lots closer to their homes or, at the very least, help fix the inversion seen in places like Lisle where a daily parking space costs less than a round-trip Pace feeder route and kills Pace ridership while increasing parking demands in suburban downtowns.
  • Improve off-peak/weekend schedules to lower headways in higher-demand time periods. Our raison d’être. Someone in the NUMTOT Facebook group posted this CB&Q (today’s BNSF) schedule from 1883. Chicago burnt to the ground 12 years before; people still worked on Saturdays; Chicago’s population was a little more than 500,000. And they had an 11:30pm “theatre special” outbound train! 125 years later, Metra continues to shoot themselves in the foot with two-hour, 10:40pm/12:40am departures that literally scare suburbanites away from using Metra to go downtown. In the meantime, trains run hourly between 12:40pm and 6:40pm, a schedule that only makes sense in the context of pre-labor movement workweeks that included Saturday half days. It’s 2018. Come on.

Look, Metra’s in a tough spot. The fleet’s not getting any younger, the state’s financial situation is, uh, poor, and we’re still two months away from a gubernatorial election so don’t bank on any multi-billion-dollar capital spending bill landing on Governor Rauner’s desk any time soon. In the meantime, Metra’s 2019 budget is due, and it’s time to make some tough decisions. But before we start slashing service willy-nilly, there’s still plenty of options Metra can pursue. And it’s not just high-level huge implementation stuff like proof-of-payment or flexible fleets or fare integration or any of the other big-picture improvements (that Metra should pursue anyway!), but little stuff like running trains when more people would use them or making sure that fare increases are actually needed.

Oh, who am I kidding. Metra’s probably going to do something stupid like shutting down the Heritage Corridor or killing Sunday service on the Rock or something else drastic and short-sighted.

Enjoy doomsday, kids!

Diverging Approach: Meltdown

It’s been an impossibly long summer for BNSF riders. Tonight’s collapse, a signal issue near Union Station that resulted in multiple cancelled trains, was the second time in a week the dreaded Union Station overcrowding plan was rolled out to try to avoid commuters getting trampled in Chicago’s busiest train station.

I’m not going to go into too much depth on tonight’s particular failure – this is one of those things that just seems to happen a few times a year, and local media just loves running pictures of the throngs of humanity shoulder-to-shoulder in the South Concourse, so it’s well-publicized and documented. But on one of the hottest days of the year, it’s yet another chapter in a 2018 Metra wants to forget. Besides, this is one of those failures where Metra can wash their hands of it and trot out yet another non-apology apologies because it (probably) wasn’t a Metra signal that failed – Amtrak owns Union Station and the last mile of track – and it wasn’t a Metra-operated line – BNSF operates and dispatches their trains, Metra just owns the fleet – so really, what can Metra do about it?

The short answer is, Metra can actually do a lot about it, but (1) it involves playing the long game, and (2) it involves doing something different.

Metra is a tenant in Union Station, and basically something less than a tenant on the BNSF. (Metra has a similar agreement with Union Pacific for the three UPs, but Union Pacific has the added perk of also owning Ogilvie Transportation Center, so they’re a little better vertically-integrated in that operation.) Like all tenants, they have to deal with a landlord who throws nickels around like they’re manhole covers and keeps the purse strings tight. In this case, it’s hard to blame Amtrak too much for the state of Union Station: at any given time, Amtrak is one or two Congressional elections from ceasing to exist. Furthermore – stop me if you’ve heard this one before – Metra is a railroad. They can’t just pick up their tracks and move to a different train station if they wanted to. (Actually, that’s literally what they’re doing with CREATE on 75th Street, but still.) The relationship with BNSF is even more one-sided: Metra having their busiest, most profitable line operate under a purchase-of-service agreement is borderline extortion. “Either pay us money to run your trains or we’ll stop doing it” is a hell of an incentive for Metra to play nice with BNSF, although the potential political fallout makes that more of a nuclear option than a trump card for BNSF.

But, like any other lease, eventually they have to be renewed. Those renewals are Metra’s best chance to flex some muscle and at least try to play a little hardball. Even though it often doesn’t feel like it while you’re riding, Metra is in the year 2018. This is the age of budget constraints, but it’s also the age of Big Data and the age of asset management. It’s never been easier to integrate some sort of performance metrics into these third-party financial agreements. While Metra’s hand isn’t strong enough to say “we won’t pay you if on-time performance dips below 95%” (and that metric can be – and already is – easily gamed anyway), Metra could easily frame whatever performance measure they wanted as a bonus incentive. Maybe there’s a 5% payment bump if X number fares are collected, and a 5% penalty if more than 25% of the fleet has broken heat/air conditioning at any given time. In my personal ideal world, there should be ridership incentives: if we’re paying BNSF to run trains and ridership is declining on those trains, give the BNSF a reason to get some more skin in the game and get more people on their trains. (Since Metra has settled into an unfortunate habit of raising fares annually, it may not be fair to penalize BNSF solely for ridership losses.)

The RTA and the three service boards have recently been rolling out their #InvestInTransit initiative to shore up more funding to, well, invest in transit. And it’s absolutely true that transit is extremely underfunded: there’s no regular dedicated funding stream for capital improvements like new trains or upgraded signals. This blog obviously supports it wholeheartedly.

But.

There shouldn’t be a but, and before I started this blog there wasn’t.

But now there is.

Trains need to be safe. Trains need to be reliable. Ideally, trains need to be cheaper to maintain, which is generally what you get with a newer fleet.

But what kind of return on investment are we getting by spending tens of millions of dollars on new trains that run on schedules without significant changes since the 1980s? Do we need new signals to cram one more rush-hour train in as more people telecommute or work flexible hours as trains run only once every two hours the rest of the day? Will concrete ties and continuous welded rail change the requirement of three-person crews on each train, two of whom (the conductors) routinely only check tickets maybe only three or four times on the entire trip? Will more ADA-accessible train cars actually make it easier for disabled riders who are stuck with uncoordinated (and non-fare-integrated!) bus transfers to trains?

Maybe that’s the pessimistic side of the coin, so let’s look at the more optimistic side of things: literally anyone who has spent any amount of time on our transit network knows how underfunded is. (Okay, maybe that’s a downer of a way to start the “optimistic” argument, but hang in there.) What kind of changes can Metra make today that would get more people using the system? And likewise, wouldn’t it be a much easier political lift to go to elected officials with numbers showing more people using the system DESPITE its condition? Instead, Metra’s entering death spiral mode: fares go up, ridership goes down, service gets cut, ridership goes down more, so fares go up again and service gets cut again…

But to get out of that spiral, Metra needs to do something different, and they’re making the bold decision not to do that. And yes, doing nothing is a choice, and it’s a decision actively being made. When the house is burning down it’s hard to say where’s the best place to start spraying water, but you have to at least try reaching for the hose.

Today’s meltdown wasn’t Metra’s fault. But last week’s was (a SouthWest Service train crapped out on the approach into Union Station, blocking the tracks). Metra should’ve had a better handle on BNSF’s crappy record with air conditioned cars this summer. Metra definitely could’ve handled the PTC schedule rollout better. Then there was the phantom tornado warning. And to top it all off, Metra probably didn’t need to raise fares last February. (A blog post for another time.)

A quick glance on social media shows that riders are getting more and more impatient, sick and tired of paying more and more for declining service on the BNSF.

So why isn’t Metra?

Diverging Approach: Cruel Summer

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

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

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

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

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

img_5678
Hmmm…

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

Morning Commute

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

BNSF_AMchanges
Click here to open in a new window.

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

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

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

Afternoon Commute

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Diverging Approach: The Nuclear Option

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday was fine though, so there’s that.

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

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

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

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

Diverging Approach: Shot and a Chaser

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Diverging Approach: Ships Passing in the Night

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Diverging Approach: Beating On

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This stuff is hard. And it’s thankless.

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

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

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

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

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

BNSFPTCrollout
Probably not helpful feedback.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So we beat on.