It’s budget season, and as expected, Metra’s proposed 2021 budget represents the ongoing struggles the commuter railroad is having during the COVID-19 pandemic. It’s not Doomsday yet — despite a $70 million projected hole in the budget, Metra is not raising fares in 2021. That’s not to say the outlook doesn’t still remain grim, of course: Metra’s anticipating only getting back to 50% of pre-pandemic ridership by the end of 2021, and not approaching 100% until 2024 at the earliest.
While the global pandemic has changed many things, one thing has remained unchanged: Metra’s commitment to the commuters and the communities we serve. From the beginning of the crisis to today, Metra never stopped running. We couldn’t. The essential role we play in the lives of our citizens and the economy of our region is simply too important.
Metra 2021 Proposed Operating & Capital Program & Budget, emphasis original
It goes downhill from there. The document is available here, but here’s what I think the important bullet points are in terms of operations:
Metra is projecting a $700 million operating budget with a $70 million shortfall in 2021. Absent additional aid from another unit of government (likely Congress), Metra will need a combination of cuts and fare increases to plug the hole since they are required by state statute to have a balanced budget. The $700 million operating budget represents a 15% decrease from the budgeted 2020 operating budget.
That $70 million hole does not include $51 million in CARES Act funding that is being carried forward to 2022.
Metra is anticipating rebounding to 20% of pre-pandemic passengers by the end of 2020; 50% by the end of 2021; and 80% by the end of 2022. Ridership is then forecast to stabilize at about the 80% level through 2023.
Service levels — as measured by vehicle revenue miles — are expected to remain at current levels through 2021, with service gradually increasing in 2022 and 2023, but remaining 15% below pre-pandemic levels until at least 2024.
Despite the almost certain anemic ridership levels over the next few years, with guaranteed ongoing service cuts and as we adjust to a post-COVID world, Metra wants to spend $594.6 million over the next five years to start replacing and expanding their fleet of bi-level gallery cars, an obsolete design that nearly every other North American commuter railroad has evolved beyond the need for. (And make no mistake that this is a fleet expansion, not just a replacement: the budget specifically says the intent of the program is to “increase the spare cars ratio”.)
This blog has discussed the flaws of the gallery car design previously, but in a nutshell the major issues of the car involve a single entry/exit point per car that also requires traversing four steps, which increases station dwell times as passengers take longer to load and unload, while also creating more significant issues for disabled riders, the elderly, cyclists, families with strollers, riders with luggage, and just about everyone else. The biggest strength of the gallery car design is that you can fit a lot of riders on each coach and conductors can easily check each rider’s tickets, and if you think committing to a vehicle design that encourages more crowding and more face-to-face interactions is a little misguided following a year or more of social distancing and mandatory mask use during a global pandemic, you might be on to something.
Our friends over at Streetsblog Chicago have one of the more definitive takedowns of the gallery car style. The epilogue to that blog post is that Metra had to cancel a 2017 procurement because they literally could not find a suitable manufacturer willing to build gallery cars for them. The nearly-$600 million procurement Metra is currently planning is based on a 2019 RFP (request for proposals) that permitted additional coach design styles to be considered, and while a selected bidder has not yet been chosen, it appears that Metra is teaming up with Virginia Railway Express (VRE) — one of the only other commuter railroads that also still use gallery cars — to have a joint procurement of, you guessed it, more gallery cars. (If you do listen to that podcast episode, skip ahead to the 35th minute or so to listen to VRE’s executive director discuss the procurement and the gallery car style.)
In the 2021 budget, Metra wants to spend $61.6 million on new gallery cars. In the same year, Metra is targeting only 50% of pre-pandemic ridership levels and a $70 million operations budget hole. This is not an argument against continuing to make important investments in state of good repairs during the pandemic recovery, but this gallery car order looks like the perfect opportunity to easily fill this short-term gap in funding: squeezing another year out of the old fleet while maintaining acceptable levels of service will have far better returns on investment in terms of long-term ridership and fares than shiny new coaches that may rarely run after draconian service cuts.
Furthermore, as a procurement launched pre-pandemic, it’s entirely possible — if not probable — that the onboard rider amenities scoped out in the original procurement are no longer relevant, or cater to the white-collar commuters who will make up a far smaller share of riders post-pandemic. Do we need cup holders if masks are mandatory onboard for the foreseeable future? Are additional armrests a good investment while the agency is spending $1 million on an ad campaign to remind potential riders how the agency is focusing on continually cleaning high-touch surfaces? With cycling up throughout the region, do we still want to commit to a fleet that requires bikes and disabled passengers to compete for space or do we want to create a more bike-friendly fleet like other peer agencies have done over the last decade? As Metra has said numerous times throughout the pandemic, ridership shifts “that would normally take 10-20 years seem to have occurred in 10-20 weeks.” Do we really want to commit to another five decades of gallery cars for nearly $600 million at this point in history?
To be clear, using capital funds to cover operational expenses is a dangerous game to play, especially given Metra’s history in doing so. However, there’s a significant difference in regularly using capital funds to plug systemic deficits in the operational budget and delaying a fleet expansion project during the most seismic societal shifts in our lifetimes to ensure a half-billion-dollar investment can be used for proper rolling stock on the railroad of the future, not on coaches that are parts of museum fleets. (Besides, Metra’s explicitly used fare increases since 2015 to help fund capital improvements, so it’s that much more unreasonable to ask ridership to once again pay through service cuts.)
Cancelling — or at least delaying — Metra’s $61.6 million capital outlay for new gallery cars in 2021 would fill 88% of the projected $70 million budget deficit; using an additional $8.4 million of CARES Act funding, or 16% of the $51 million of CARES Act funding Metra is planning on carrying forward to 2022, would entirely mitigate any service cuts in the absence of additional aid from the federal government. Deep service cuts right as ridership is just starting to return to Metra’s service post-pandemic will have far more dire long-term consequences to our region than just grinding out another year with the existing fleet. (Also note that Metra will still be spending nearly $70 million on rehabilitating and rebuilding locomotives and coaches in 2021.) In the meantime, Metra should use this opportunity to seek input from current and potential riders to better understand what a post-pandemic fleet should look like to cater to a more diverse base of ridership, rather than doubling down on an outdated 20th Century design now, 21 years into the 21st Century.
Metra’s draft 2021 budget is available to review here. As a draft document, Metra is seeking comment from members of the public via a virtual public hearing on Thursday, November 5, 2020, from 4pm to 7pm. Comments can also be submitted between now and 24 hours after the end of the public hearing via email.
As the COVID-19 pandemic rages on, the only certainty we have these days is uncertainty. 2020 has, without a shred of hyperbole, been the most challenging year that most of us have had to persevere, on multiple fronts.
That challenge has come down hard on transit agencies across the U.S. and, locally, Metra has been hit hardest.
Metra’s core market historically has been white-collar suburbanites commuting to and from the Loop for 9-to-5 Monday-through-Friday jobs. This market was already shrinking pre-pandemic as more workplaces offered remote work flexibility. Now, many more of these residents have the privilege to work from home full-time. Those who do not often have other transportation options – namely driving.
With the Loop a virtual ghost town, even workers who may have to go into the office a few times a week can find faster commutes on the expressways and cheap parking rates downtown.
As a result, Metra ridership remains down more than 90 percent six months into the pandemic. In response, the agency slashed service across the board. While traditional rush hour service remains relatively frequent on most lines, reverse-commute and off-peak service are barely hanging on.
For months Metra’s strategy has been to take a wait-and-see approach. The agency remains committed to its core market of white-collar suburban riders, hoping ridership will gradually return as more offices open up and people feel more comfortable riding transit.
But the time for waiting is over. There is a clear need for Metra rethink its approach to delivering service and build a suburban transit network that works for all residents.
Chasing an already dwindling market of privileged riders isn’t working financially. More importantly, it doesn’t help address the growing racial and social inequities in our regional transit system.
As recently as August, Metra claimed that “if [a traveler’s] business has not returned to the workplace, they are not a potential customer,” a wildly short-sighted claim that overlooks multiple core constituencies that can prove essential to a stronger, faster, more robust recovery for the agency.
There were glimmers of hope at Metra’s September board meeting, however. The agency appears ready to forego the previous schedules entirely, many of which have not been significantly changed since Metra’s creation back in 1984. They are considering creating line-by-line service restoration plans that, among other things:
Provide consistent and frequent service throughout the day;
Create easily understandable models of service with memorable service patterns;
Include new express services, where appropriate;
Consider Metra-to-Metra transfers as well as transfers to and from other service providers;
Explore additional reverse commute markets and other new ridership markets; and
Metra is also willing to pop the hood on their existing fare model, including new loyalty programs for monthly pass holders; lower monthly pass costs and additional multi-day fare products; a new individual weekend day pass; new peak and off-peak pricing; and more.
Active Trans made several recommendations for more equitable Metra fare offerings in the Fair Fares Chicagoland report published last fall.
Additionally, Metra announced that Romayne C. Brown would succeed Norm Carlson as the chair of Metra’s board of directors, effective November 1. Ms. Brown has decades of experience working in transit, including climbing the career ladder at the CTA from beginning as a rail conductor in 1978 to completing her CTA career as Vice President of Rail Operations in 2010.
Ms. Brown – who will also be Metra’s first female African-American chairperson – has already prioritized implementation of the South Cook Fair Transit pilot. This crucial project aims to lower fares for Metra Electric and Rock Island commuters on the South Side of Chicago and in the south suburbs while also promoting convenient transfers and integration with Pace and CTA.
It is exciting to see Metra openly discuss so many important parts of an equitable recovery and restoration for all. However, things will almost certainly get worse before they get better given short-term ridership projections and fiscal outlooks. It’s clear that Metra’s current fiscal outlook is grim.
Tomorrow is Metra’s August 2020 board meeting, their fifth since the first COVID-related shutdowns of Illinois began in the middle of March. As you may know, transit ridership across the board nationwide remains in the toilet, with Metra in particular getting their teeth kicked in (who could’ve seen that coming?) with ridership around 10% of pre-pandemic levels. What’s worse for Metra is that their ridership seems to be stabilizing at that level rather than rebounding like some other transit networks have seen.
Metra is, of course, well aware that this is a bad situation, with ridership bottoming out rather than rebounding. Each board meeting since March has had a similar call to action during the financial reporting segment of the meeting:
April: “We need to actively innovate to meet the changing public needs”
May: “We need to actively innovate to meet the changing public needs”
June: “We must innovate and transform to meet the new reality”
July: “We must innovate and transform to meet the new reality, and then let the riding public know we have innovated and transformed”
August: “We must innovate and transform to meet people’s needs where we can, then let people know what we have done to meet their needs”
You can feel the backsliding beginning already (“meet people’s needs where we can”), given that thus far “innovating and transforming” has only resulted in service cuts and a Weekend Pass you can use on a weekday.
In August’s presentation though, they lobbed this grenade:
Under the heading “who is a potential Metra rider”, they give the game up as succinctly as I’ve ever seen: “If their business has not returned to the workplace, they are not a potential customer”. In the midst of what should be an existential crisis for the commuter rail model as a whole, the commuter railroad that serves the nation’s third-largest market cannot fathom anyone using their service for anything other than commuting. This is a blind spot big enough to park a freight train, and for all the talk of “innovating” and “transforming”, it is downright concerning that the sole transit provider in dozens of suburban communities remains all-in on the Loop white-collar 9-5 Monday-Friday commuter market that – by the most optimistic outlook – is months or years away from returning to pre-pandemic levels: Metra’s projecting only 31% of their “normal” daily ridership will be back by the end of the year.
This is not just a crisis for Metra’s bottom line: if Metra goes belly up or rolls out doomsday cuts that kills most or all off-peak operations, our region as a whole suffers. My spouse and I live in the suburbs, and having convenient access to Metra outside the typical commute is a big reason why we chose to become a one-car household earlier this year. (A lack of existing off-peak service on Metra was also a critical reason of why we moved to a more CTA-friendly community.)
Metra is essential to the livelihood and mobility of suburbanites and city-dwellers alike. Since Illinois has entered Phase 4 of COVID recovery, I’ve personally used Metra dozens of times already, and Metra’s staff deserves a lot of credit for operations so far: trains are spotless, conductors have and use adequate PPE, and mask usage among riders is quite good. I’ve recommended using Metra during the recovery to just about everyone I’ve talked with since, and I’ll continue riding trains regularly.
And yet, no matter how many $10 Weekend or Day Passes I buy, I am apparently not a potential customer since I’m unemployed. If anyone else out there is a frequent-but-not-potential Metra customer, you have until 5pm today to get a comment into Metra’s board meeting to let them know that yes, you exist and yes, you rely on Metra outside of commute hours.
As Illinois and Chicago barrel forward into Phase 3 of the coronavirus recovery, our world is slowly starting to get back to normal – or at least, our new normal that will follow COVID-19 is coming into clearer focus.
Unfortunately, despite our hardest efforts, transit has become something of a public health punching bag, with a common sentiment that public transit (and/or those who use it) are unclean or unsafe in light of the ongoing pandemic. Even worse, just when there was a light at the end of the tunnel, Chicago executed its first-ever citywide shutdown of all transit in an (ill-advised) attempt to quell protesting and looting following the George Floyd murder: CTA and Pace stopped running entirely overnight, while Metra shut down for over 60 consecutive hours.
While Metra’s long-term strategy should be acknowledging a new normal with much more work-from-home for their white collar commuter base and adjusting schedules accordingly to flatten the peak while adding off-peak service to attract new non-traditional commuters (or riders who travel for reasons unrelated to commuting entirely), even systems like the CTA and Pace, who have had far fewer service reductions during the pandemic, will continue to struggle getting ridership back as riders stay home and as commuters have less reason to commute with work-from-home opportunities.
Work-from-home can be great on occasion, and as workplaces reopen it’s likely that many will still require workers to work from home several times a week. Transit’s recovery – if it ever comes – will be a slow, drawn-out, painful affair.
But work from home has no shortage of downsides, too. Beyond issues of distractions and productivity, it’s healthy to have some distance – figuratively and literally – between your work life and your home life. Whether that’s the idea that you can get just one more task done before calling it for the night, or that your boss now feels comfortable calling or texting you on your personal cell phone whenever, or just a little spike in anxiety you get whenever you pass your laptop during your “off” hours, some sort of buffer space is good for you and your health.
That’s why The Yard Social Club and Star:Line Chicago is finally launching our Commit to the Commute campaign. Commuting – especially on foot or on transit – shouldn’t be a chore as much as it is a release: catch up on a podcast, read Twitter, dive into a book, or just stare out the window and daydream. Commuting is “me” time, and the best part is at the end of the day, you can leave work at work and disconnect once more on your way home.
Our Commit to the Commute campaign has three prongs:
Tag us on social media. Show us what you enjoy about your commute! What can you do on transit that you can’t do while working from home or when you’re driving? Tag us on Twitter or Instagram (@StarLineChicago), use the #CommitToTheCommute and #LeaveWorkAtWork hashtags, and we’ll share.
Join us for Happy Hours. Once indoor bars get rolling again (hopefully later this summer), we’ll be hosting a few regular downtown meetups to connect commuters and grab a quick one before heading home.
Hop on a train crawl. When Illinois moves into Phase 4 and groups of up to 50 are allowed again, we’ll help ease you back into a comfort zone using transit with our famous train crawls throughout the city and suburbs. Get reintroduced to our region’s transit system with a safe, fun way to explore where the buses and trains can take you.
These are challenging times, but here at The Yard Social Club and Star:Line Chicago, we want to do whatever small things we can to bend the commuting curve back and remind everyone in Chicagoland how vital our transit network is to everyone.
This blog’s “lane” is suburban transportation, but we cannot discuss transit service disparities and regional inequities in infrastructure without recognizing the systemic racism inherent in our region’s society, in our region’s history, and in our region’s geography.
While the events of recent days were ostensibly kicked off by the murder of yet another unarmed Black person at the hands of police in Minnesota, the resonance these protests have had right here in our own backyard is a testament to the ongoing failures in equity and tolerance right here in Chicago.
And right now, our city and our transportation agencies are letting us all down, at this time when we need them most.
As a pandemic continues to ravage the state of Illinois with over 5,000 lives lost and an estimated unemployment rate of nearly 17%, disproportionately affecting the poor and communities of color, it is absolutely unconscionable for our leaders to shut down our public transit network entirely in some misguided effort to quell civil unrest that still reaches as far as Waukegan, Aurora, and northwestern Indiana anyway.
At 6:30pm on May 31, for the first time at least since the South Side Elevated started 24-hour service in 1893, and possibly dating as far back as the 1871 Chicago Fire (or even earlier), there was not a single transit vehicle in revenue service in Chicago, despite decades of fires, floods, blizzards, frigid cold, sweltering heat, 9/11, and even the last round of riots in 1968. After nearly three months of what is now clearly just kabuki theatre of “the importance of serving essential workers”, our transit service was – and in many areas, still is – nowhere to be found when workers and residents most needed safe, reliable passage through our region. Three days later, transit access to the urban core still does not exist, with CTA providing no bus or rail service in the area bounded by Fullerton, Western, 47th, and the lake; and our commuter railroad has ceased operations entirely.
I do not pretend to know who made the call to cancel service, but I do know that it doesn’t matter: in this moment when so many are in the streets marching to protest a system that has failed to protect them, our transportation system is letting them down once more, and they will not forget. To add insult to injury, in some communities of color the only buses local residents see on their streets right now are filled with police officers dressed in full riot gear, traveling to square off with mostly-peaceful protesters.
After decades of structural racism and systemic disinvestment, we owe it to our region’s most vulnerable residents to declare that mobility is a right: public transit is not some commodity to be rationed, but rather a public utility that is essential to the well-being of all. Pulling the rug out from these residents right now, during an ongoing pandemic and with the wildest future uncertainties most of us have experienced in our lifetimes, is nothing short of negligence. The absolute last thing we want to do is give people one less certainty they can count on.
In the short-term, we’re just encouraging people to drive more, which just fuels the existing perpetuating cycles of inequity, as the “haves” can continue to self-segregate away from the “have nots” while contributing to existing pollution and health impacts that continue to plague the most vulnerable among us. But in the long-term we are not only continuing but exacerbating the disinvestment in these communities, with inevitable deferred maintenance and service cuts “due to low ridership”.
Our transit agencies need to immediately restore service to all parts of our region and assert that mobility is a right for everyone in Chicagoland.
Illinois’s Stay at Home order is now confirmed to stretch well into May as we struggle to contain COVID-19. While today’s announcement is hardly unexpected, it does drive the point home that the inevitable recovery will not be easy or quick, but painful and protracted no matter what steps we take now.
It’s also abundantly clear that we’ll never go back to where we were two months ago, even when the coronavirus wanes and we get “back to normal”. So let’s take a quick look into the almost-guaranteed-to-be-wrong crystal ball on three predictions and more positive possibilities, and what this could mean for suburban transportation.
Prediction: CTA and Pace will struggle, but Metra will absolutely get their teeth kicked in
I take no joy in writing that, but that’s the way I’m reading the tea leaves. A large majority of service-sector workers, some of whom we’ve (finally) established as “essential”, will continue to work in-person jobs doing tasks that need to be done in-person. We can’t stock shelves via Skype, bank tellers can’t telework, and bartenders can’t pour new pints through a Zoom meeting. However, most white collar workers will likely never spend five straight days working from an office again.
While this new normal will require some dramatic changes for city dwellers on the CTA and blue-collar workers who rely on Pace’s arterial services in inner-ring suburbs, it will absolutely decimate Metra’s entire model of shuttling 9-to-5 upper-middle-class white collar workers from the burbs to the Loop five days a week. All three service boards are undoubtedly in for a world of pain in regards to fare revenue, but Metra is uniquely positioned to get utterly blown out as the remaining monthly pass market – which already needed 15 commuting days each calendar month to justify a high-upfront-cost ticket – vaporizes overnight.
Possibility: A dramaticreinventing of the commuter rail model as a whole (or at least trying something new every once in awhile)
Metra’s held onto operational models, fare models, funding models, and literal equipment from the 1950s for far too long, and the day of reckoning is here. (Has anyone ever tried bringing that up before?) A bold reimagining of literally everything is warranted, but there are a few pieces of low-hanging fruit to pluck right away with fare policy and operations.
With the monthly ticket market functionally wiped out, now is the time to implement some form of fare capping that gives riders more flexibility with ticket options while also lowering barriers to entry for new potential riders. As social distancing becomes part of the new normal, fare parity with the CTA in areas served by both providers will take on a new urgency as a way to better balance passenger loads, and likewise new integrated fare products for CTA and Pace transfers are required as the monthly-dependent Link-Up/PlusBus market also dries up.
Metra will also need to acknowledge that they will likely never again need all of the peak-period capacity that they previously ran. However, this can be an opportunity: they will be able to save on operation costs over time and should then be able to expand off-peak services to attract new ridership markets. Additionally, instead of simply reverting back to the old schedules, Metra should consider a phased quarterly approach to adding peak service back into the current “temporary” schedules through the recovery. Doing so would also create a new corporate culture of regular internal ridership analyses and subsequent schedule updates based on recent and projected ridership demand.
There’s also the good news that Metra currently has a unique opportunity to field-test new ideas or operational changes with minimal impact to riders. So try something new. Try anything new.
Prediction: We’ll eachdrive less, which means we’ll all drive more
As Illinois stays all-in, car traffic on our highways is a fraction of what it used to be, and for good reason: demand for lane space is in the toilet right now because no one is leaving home. But that won’t last, because once we do start going places again, we’ll get right back on the roads since gas will continue to be absurdly cheap and traffic is light. As transit riders shift away from monthly passes for commutes, the old monthly riders will have even less incentive to take transit when traffic is light (since the marginal cost of using off-peak transit went from $0 with a monthly pass to the full fare price without).
Traffic congestion is not an issue that needs solving by engineers, but rather a natural condition of a market reaching an equilibrium: when cost (time and money) is less than benefit (whatever value a driver assigns to wherever they’re going), a trip is made; when costs are too high relative to benefits, the trip either doesn’t happen or gets otherwise altered such that benefit > cost some other way and the modified trip gets completed. (That’s also a crash course in induced demand.)
In other words, just because some people will go out less frequently after quarantine lifts or some people will work from home more often, over time other drivers will inevitably appear to fill those gaps.
Possibility: Claw back road capacity now before the market finds a new equilibrium
Bus lanes, buffered bike lanes, woonerfs, traffic calming… for any ped-, bike-, or transit-oriented plan that was already on the books, do it all now and let post-pandemic traffic react to the new road designs instead of the vice-versa status quo of the last 60 years. (Infrastructure spending will hopefully be part of future Congressional recovery bills.)
Most importantly, do it for good (in an equitable manner with as much local buy-in as possible) and do it for good (run a few pilot programs if needed, but every new implementation should have a realistic chance of becoming a permanent change instead of an “emergency use only” application that disappears when we’re no longer in crisis mode).
Prediction: An already-hostile image of transit will get ramped up on steroids
Transit has been “othered” for decades, but now stereotypes about transit as a last-resort are going to go into overdrive in the age of social distancing. As the job market falters with homeless shelters already at capacity, complaints about “unsafe” and “unclean” riders on the CTA will (and have already started to) skyrocket, further depressing any demand for rapid transit. Additionally, Metra physically cannot social distance so long as they continue to rely on a conductor-based method of fare collection that relies on a face-to-face transaction with each and every rider.
After years and years of stripping transit funding down to the bone, riders and non-riders alike are accustomed to cramped, full buses and trains. This becomes a lose-lose situation for post-pandemic transit: any crowding means transit agencies can’t adequately social distance and thus are mismanaged to a fault, but empty buses and trains must mean our agencies are already supplying plenty of transit capacity so the only reason why they would want more operating funds is because they are mismanaged to a fault.
Possibility: Manage expectations, but be proactive
Transit will be in a dark place for the foreseeable future. Even when COVID-19 is behind us, the money we aren’t spending now in fares and sales taxes will manifest in the budgets of upcoming years. Homelessness in Chicago and on the CTA has been an issue for quite some time already, with no easy solutions then and even fewer now. These times will not be easy and there will be some very tough decisions that will need to be made, but it’s crucially important to remember – and hammer home the point with messaging – that public transit is essential to everyone in a functioning modern metropolis: it was essential before the pandemic, it’s essential during the pandemic, and it will be absolutely essential to an equitable, successful recovery.
The one thing we all can do right now – and this “we” involves the agencies themselves and the rest of us who care enough to fight for better transportation solutions – is to be good communicators and advocates for public transit. The CTA, Metra, and Pace are all expending plenty of manpower and financial resources to keep buses and trains safe, clean, and reliable for transit-dependent essential workers right now, and those efforts will need to continue (and need to continue to be highlighted) through the recovery. While the need to maintain social distancing efforts remains crucial to fighting the pandemic, there are ways to effectively communicate that without declaring that “public transit is unsafe for the foreseeable future”, which only serves to stigmatize those who depend on transit while tainting the well for transit’s potential market share post-pandemic. To that end, Star:Line Chicago and The Yard Social Club will be launching our #CommitToTheCommute campaign as the recovery begins, a multi-pronged campaign to do the following:
Share and promote what our agencies are doing to keep riders safe and get people back on transit, both locally and nationally
Highlight the benefits of commuting on transit at least a few times a week rather than driving or shifting to full-time work-from-home
Hosting frequent transit-based social events to help new or infrequent users feel comfortable using transit again (while supporting local bars and restaurants as well)
While we all have a new normal to get used to, and while there are most certainly challenges ahead of all of us, now is the time to look forward (and to have something to look forward to). Stay safe, stay well, and stay at home. We’ll get through this together.
On July 5, 2019, I did something possibly never done before: I went out and rode on each of Metra’s 11 lines in 11 hours. This was not a subway-challenge type of excursion where I visited every stop in the system or rode every train in service; I simply planned a schedule that involved riding on at least one train on each line, all back-to-back. The live-tweet thread of this #Metrathalon is here, and here’s the schedule I used:
CTA Blue Line
Ogilvie Transportation Center (OTC)
Harlem Avenue BNSF
Van Buren Street Station
This long-read post is a more in-depth chronicle of the excursion, and was a draft I’ve worked on in fits and starts over the past nine months. However, as the COVID-19 pandemic grinds everyday life here in the Chicago suburbs to a halt for weeks, this seems like the right time to polish this up and get this post out. As always, if you’d like to discuss the Metrathalon, hit up @StarLineChicago on Twitter. In the meantime, avoid unnecessary travel (like this), stay home if you’re sick, wash your hands, cover your cough, and be good to each other. We’ll get through this together.
Every so often, like most people (I think), I get a little flare-up of imposter syndrome, where I feel like my skill set is getting a little soft and I’m losing my edge. To a certain extent, I think imposter syndrome is healthy and a great motivator; of course, with my various neuroses and trust issues it’s probably a symptom of some deeper mental issues I struggle with. (Reminder: it’s okay to not be okay, and mental health issues are nothing to be ashamed of.)
Anywho, finding myself with Friday, July 5th open and with Metra inexplicably running a full weekday schedule – and, even more inexplicably, charging full fares instead of doing a 4th/5th Weekend Pass like they do for Thanksgiving and Lollapalooza every year – I decided to dive head-first into boosting my Metra bonafides: I chose to ride every one of Metra’s 11 lines in a single day.
Unlike the ‘L’ Challenge that requires stopping at every single CTA station, to make this challenge more achievable I ended up scheduling a journey that involved traveling on each line at least once. This schedule also used Metra’s official 11 lines and not our 14-line schematic, which would have taken significantly longer.
The overall journey – which took exactly 11 hours to meet my goal – reminded me of a lot missed opportunities in our commuter rail network, and provided a super-convenient framing device for a nice meaty blog post, which is nice because I’ve had about half a dozen half-written blog posts in my head for quite awhile that I can purge here.
If you’re not from Chicago – or if you’re from the city proper and you just assume everything west of Cicero Avenue is Iowa – I hope this post helps to succinctly (or not so succinctly) brings you up to speed on the state of suburban commuter rail service here. So let’s begin.
Chicago Union Station
My first train of the day – the 7:58am MD-W train – left out of Chicago Union Station. CUS, as the railroaders and the foamers call it, is arguably the most integral part of Metra’s system, with six of Metra’s 11 lines using the massive terminal. It’s also arguably Metra’s biggest liability, since Metra is only a tenant in the station, which is owned and operated by Amtrak. Metra and Amtrak are currently going into arbitration to settle the next lease agreement, with Amtrak wanting Metra to spend more and invest in infrastructure improvements at the station while Metra’s arguing for more control of the station; Congressman Dan Lipinski (D, IL-3) recently filed federal legislation that threatens to cut funding to Amtrak if they don’t surrender operational control to Metra. Plenty of people smarter than me on this issue are spilling more ink about this topic, so I’ll defer and move on.
The Antiquated Fleet
The MD-W train gets me to Western Avenue, where I hop off and wait for a MD-N train to take me back to CUS. At least, I assume it’s an MD-N train: there’s nothing on the outside of Metra’s diesel trains to indicate the train’s line or destination.
At Western Avenue, the inbound MD-N, MD-W, and NCS lines all stop and go straight to Union Station, so unless you’re doing something incredibly stupid like riding every Metra train in a day, it doesn’t really matter which train is which line.
However, there are two issues here: first and foremost, at the station itself, schedules are shown by line instead of by time. For 99% of Metra’s stations, that’s perfectly acceptable, but for inbound riders who don’t care about line and only care about getting downtown, it’s just another little inconvenience that makes Metra just a little harder to use. A simple special inbound schedule here (and at Clybourn) based on time of day rather than each line would go a long way for people from the neighborhood taking Metra downtown.
But the bigger issue is on outbound trains, where three lines using identical equipment and no external line markings serve the same station and then head to three very different suburban destinations. In my experience, conductors – in a rare checkmark in the “for” column of keeping 2+ conductors on each train – will lean out of the doors of the train at Western Avenue and yell out the destination. “West Line to Elgin!” is a fun little antiquated throwback when riding the train, but it’s the 21st Century and there’s no way that’s acceptable for anyone with any sort of hearing disability.
A lack of external line markings on Metra’s trains is admittedly a minor inconvenience, but it’s a good example of how Metra’s 20th-Century fleet and operational model aren’t keeping up with the demands of a 21st-Century modern metropolis. Metra’s gallery cars – an antiquated design specifically designed to assist in ticket collection efforts when the wave of the future is proof-of-payment fare systems – are emblematic of Metra… for better or worse. Aesthetically, the exterior of the coaches are timeless – corrugated polished steel really never goes out of style – but the design of the coaches themselves are not intended for the high-frequency service suburban Chicago needs to survive the challenges of the 21st Century. For any weekend, or some weekdays, when just about any special event is happening downtown, Metra will regularly incur delays “due to heavy passenger loading” since each coach only has a single door leading to a steep staircase. Even with low platforms like the majority of Metra’s stations have, more modern rail car designs have multiple doors with step-free (or at least single-step) boarding. Easier boardings with more boarding locations mean less dwell time at stations, which increases speeds while improving schedule adherence.
On one hand, Metra’s making a positive move on this front by opening up their newest rail car RFP to new train car designs, which is good. But on the other hand, they’re only doing so because an RFP for gallery cars crashed and burned with only one responsive bidder.
The airport-sized elephant in the room
With the two Milwaukees down, I got back to CUS and got on the 9:00am NCS train, which I took to O’Hare. While I was planning my journey, I tried to minimize out-and-back trips (like my previous leg to and from Western Avenue) unless I could knock a second line out in doing so. I could have taken the NCS back to Western Avenue and grabbed the next train back to CUS, but that seemed boring and counterproductive since it’d be a duplicative trip on the way back inbound.
Instead, I took the NCS to the O’Hare Transfer, where I’d take the free airport shuttle bus from the station to the terminals and hop on the CTA Blue Line. When my train pulled up, the shuttle bus was waiting for me right at the station, which was pretty convenient. When the Chicago Tribune sent their reporters on a race to O’Hare last June, Mary Wisniewski had to wait about five minutes for the shuttle and ended up coming in last place by eight minutes.
Quick sidebar about the Tribune‘s race: the race was more or less rigged to give Metra a best-case scenario (there are only ten weekday trains that go from downtown to O’Hare and the contest was timed for an easy departure from CUS) and Metra still came in dead last. However, Ms. Wisniewski had to walk from the Tribune‘s offices at the Prudential Building to Union Station instead of taking a bus or a cab, so she wasn’t even onboard the train until 25 minutes into the journey whereas her competitor in an Uber was already at about Addison or so on the Kennedy. It’s easy to imagine Metra would be more competitive if there was a faster way to Union Station, and if the airport people mover was operational instead of relying on shuttle buses through the terminal core. The Tribune‘s methodology was also slanted a little bit towards the two driving modes, since the contest was run on a Wednesday afternoon instead of during a rush hour, and since the cub reporter who took the Blue Line got lost at O’Hare (and still came in second place). Watching the split-screen video of the adventure is a good way to get a feel for it, although also noteworthy is that Abdel Jimenez, who took the Blue Line, got to Block 37 a minute after Mary Wisniewski walked through it via the Pedway. The data analyst in me wishes they took the same walking path at least to that point to eliminate as many externalities as possible, but alas, it’s still a good experiment. If the writers over at Streetsblog Chicago ever want to do a more rigorous analysis of transit access to O’Hare with a little more rigor than what the Tribune did, I volunteer as tribute.
Metra to O’Hare is one of the most significant missed opportunities in our region. For all the talk about high-speed underground “skates” (that — shocker! — ended up being a load of crap) and other, ahem, fly-by-night airport express services, we as a region continually overlook an existing connection between a major downtown transit hub and the busiest airport in the Midwest/world (depending on when you’re reading this). While downtown-to-O’Hare is the regional prize in a lot of people’s minds, we can’t overlook the added values to the communities in the North Central Service corridor if they could advertise regular, frequent, direct rail access to O’Hare. Instead, communities like Vernon Hills and Buffalo Grove have fewer trains to O’Hare in a week than the number of outbound BNSF trains run in a day. It’s easier to go from Aurora to Brookfield Zoo than it is to go from any of the dozens of offices within walking distance of the Buffalo Grove station to a major international airport served by the same train line.
Fares and Fairness
By about 9:50am or so, I was on the CTA Blue Line heading towards Jefferson Park, where I’d catch the 11:01am inbound UP-NW train. This is also one of the first significant “buffer” time slots in my schedule, due both to Metra’s infrequency and Metra’s unreliability for making transit connections. With about half an hour to kill, I grab a bottle of water from 7-Eleven and muse about the $10.25 in Metra fares I’ve already spent today and how Metra probably should’ve rolled out their Day Pass pilot by now.
No one likes paying fares, but it’s a necessary evil for transit. (Maybe it isn’t; at current service levels, Chicago’s three transit agencies could go fare-free for the cost of about $4 per regional worker per week.) However, our fare policy is backwards from an equity standpoint: we offer the cheapest (non-special, per-ride) fares to riders who can afford to buy a lump-sum $100+ pass every month. If you’re living paycheck-to-paycheck, the CTA’s 7-Day pass ($28 each and doesn’t include Pace; $112 for 28 days vs. CTA/Pace 30-Day Pass for $105) or Metra’s 10-Ride ticket (Zone A-C $52.25; $209 for 20 round-trips vs. a monthly pass for $159.50) might be all you can afford, even though you’re clearly overpaying. For a city rider on the CTA, $7 is a meal for your family; for a city rider on Metra — there are 25 Zone C stations in Chicago proper, with 21 of those located south of 79th Street — an extra $50 a month could feed your family for a week. Having Metra and CTA/Pace fares operate in two separate vacuums doesn’t help either, and is only compounded by the fact that Metra’s only “integrated” fares are predicated on Monthly Passes.
Cook County wrapped up a study showing that lowering fares and increasing frequency on Metra through southern Cook County could net a $3.4 million profit if the agencies and the County can figure out who puts up the initial $8.5 million to implement the changes. However, Chicago’s Mayor Lori Lightfoot has repeatedly thrown cold water on the proposal in a defensive move to reduce CTA ridership losses, which is misguided since getting more riders onto any bus or any train is a net positive for our region in terms of congestion, air quality, equity, sustainable development, or just about any other metric.
A better improvement that could be rolled out relatively easily now that Ventra has strong adoption rates on Metra is fare capping, which gets rid of 10-Ride and Monthly Passes in favor of tracked single-use tickets that automatically taper down to $0 per ride based on how frequently a rider uses the service. This doesn’t take care of all equity issues — after all, a smartphone is needed, and about one in five Americans still don’t have a smartphone — but it’d be a huge step forward with direct benefits to some of the system’s most financially-insecure users. Furthermore, fare capping is not a foreign concept either: fare capping now officially exists in Illinois, as Metro Transit down in the St. Louis region now includes fare capping on their Gateway Card fare product.
But Metra’s fare policies are unfair even for the more well-off clientele that makes up their core commuter market, especially in the face of climate change, stagnant rail ridership, and declining bus ridership. (Of course, since Metra doesn’t run buses, that last one isn’t a priority for the agency as a whole.) The most cost-effective way to boost ridership during the peak period — other than just running more trains, of course — is improving accessibility to stations without adding more parking that takes up valuable real estate within the station’s walkshed. However, the Balkanized system we have in suburban transit — communities by and large own and operate park-and-ride lots; Pace owns, operates, and sets fare policy for buses; Metra operates or oversees operation of trains — pits each segment against each other in what should be parts of an integrated network. In a community like Wheaton, which has four Pace routes serving its Metra station, a quarterly parking permit costs only $60, or $20 per month. Even with a $30 PlusBus add-on to a Metra Monthly Pass, the suburbs are actively subsidizing driving over taking transit, which then actively undervalues some of the most valuable land in their community (parcels of land that can be developed within walking distance of a train station) by devoting more and more space for parking. Even in places like Lisle and Naperville which, to their credit, at least charge more than the $30 PlusBus pass (but still less than the $55 CTA/Pace LinkUp pass, just in case you don’t work within walking distance of Union Station), parking is so undervalued that Naperville’s parking permit wait list is seven years long.
So we’re actively pricing low-income transit users out of the market while we’re actively subsidizing suburbanites to drive more. Great. And my train’s late.
[Editor’s note: this section was written before the Active Transportation Alliance released their Fair Fares Chicagoland study last fall, a much deeper dive into fare equity issues in our region. Star:Line Chicago contributed to the report.]
Adventures in Reliability
Metra prides itself on its on-time performance; Metra CEO Jim Derwinski recently boasted to a congressional subcommittee that Metra has averaged 93% or better on-time performance for every year since 1984. Railroads — not just Metra — already play a little fast and loose with “on time”; the industry standard is that a train is consider on-time if it arrives at the last scheduled stop within six minutes of the published scheduled arrival time; Metra gives itself more wiggle room by padding the travel time between the penultimate and last stops, occasionally by laughable amounts of time. Even just a cursory look at the published schedules like the BNSF summer schedule gives up the game by adding more time for local trains or busy weekend trains than for peak-hour express trains.
Inbound Travel Time
* includes a stop at Halsted St
Midday trains do occasionally run a little behind schedule, for various reasons. Maybe a big group all got on at once (and as discussed Metra’s fleet is not optimized for loading and unloading large groups all at once). Maybe there’s some track work that needs to be done between the peaks. Maybe there are speed restrictions due to summer heat. While there’s no shortage of things that go wrong, when there’s only one train an hour, an accurate schedule isn’t too much to ask for. However, simply throwing extra minutes at the end of the schedule is a good example of our #MovingTrainsNotPeople criticism of the railroad mindset. If you order something online and the site tells you that the package will be delivered before 7pm on whatever date, if it comes in at 2 or 3pm instead, that’s great, but that’s freight. When you placed that order, you chose your delivery option based on your specific needs: if they’re promising delivery by 7pm but you need it at 5pm, that’s not the option you’re choosing for delivery even if it will probably make it there early.
In 2020, when 81% of Americans have a device in their pocket or purse that has access to the entirety of human knowledge, including probable guesses on travel times by various modes of transportation, unnecessarily padding a train schedule only hurts Metra’s standing in mode choice decisions. If I’m starting from, say, Healy on the MD-N and heading to Union Station, Metra’s current construction schedule (track work from Northbrook to Healy) says I’ll spend 31 minutes onboard the train. This, of course, is extremely unlikely: that inbound train is far more likely to be late when it picks me up at Healy (since the construction zone is before Healy). According to the regular schedule, the trip from Healy to Union Station should take about 20 minutes, although even that is probably overly cautious since it only takes about 14 minutes to go from Union Station to Healy in the outbound direction.
What this means is that a trip that, for a trip that probably takes about 15-20 minutes, Metra is telling their riders that they need to literally double that travel time to make their trip; in turn, if that’s what Metra says on their GTFS feeds, that’s what Google and Transit and other apps will pick up as the predicted travel time, which directly affects whether or not some riders will choose to take the train or if they choose to drive instead. What Metra should be tracking and focusing on is schedule adherence, which provides a much stronger correlation to passenger experience than on-time performance. It’s a less sexy talking point, construction schedules would be tougher to push out and require more variability week-to-week, and I’m sure the initial results would not look terribly good for the agency, but more accurate, more reliable schedules will lead to stronger gains in ridership than continually moving the goalposts for a metric that’s become a Twitter punchline.
Back to the Metrathalon. My initial schedule called for taking the 11:01am UP-NW from Jefferson Park to Clybourn (scheduled arrival: 11:12am), changing trains, getting the UP-N from Clybourn (11:17am) to Ogilvie (11:28am), and transferring to the 11:40am UP-W train. The UP-NW inbound train eventually arrived in Jeff Park at 11:08am, which severely threw the connection to the UP-N into jeopardy. However, the UP-N was also running late (track construction), so while I was able to make the UP-N connection, the UP-W 11:40am connection now was in serious doubt.
Luckily, the Transit app shown above was working with Metra’s padded schedules, not actual travel times, so that UP-N train ended up getting into Ogilvie precisely at 11:39am.
Time to run.
Finger on the Pulse
I’m not a terribly fit person, which is one reason why it’s just a little ironic that I happen to run the Twitter account for a protected bike lane downtown. But, like just about anyone else who has ever taken transit, I can sprint when I need to. So when my scheduled 12 minute layover turned into a layover of about 45 seconds, I was still able to make it by running through the Ogilvie Transportation Center, albeit by a very slim margin. However, as I caught my breath in the vestibule of that 11:40am UP-W departure, I noticed something very unexpected:
Four other passengers taking a breather next to me.
Had I been more observant and less focused on keeping my Metrathalon schedule alive, I may have noticed that the other four people who were in the late UP-N vestibule with me as that train rolled in 11 minutes late were just as nervous and just as ready to hit the ground running as I was.
I didn’t actively plan it as such, but I stumbled into a rare time in Metra’s systemwide schedule that operates on something close to a pulse schedule, something I’ve discussed before on this blog. In a nutshell, pulse scheduling is a strategy of maximizing transfer potentials for transit systems that run with low frequencies, and they work particularly well with hub-and-spoke systems like Metra. The idea is that all the service comes into one central point all around the same time, have a small amount of time available to make transfers, and send the trips back out again, similar to how a heart pumps blood (hence “pulse” scheduling). In this case, there’s a UP-NW inbound train that’s scheduled to get in at 11:23am, a UP-N inbound train that’s scheduled to get in at 11:28am, and a UP-W outbound train that’s scheduled to leave at 11:40am, which means that if you’re going from, say, Evanston to Elmhurst, it can — theoretically — be a very simple, straightforward, easy connection to make.
Pulse scheduling can be a little tricky, since leaving too much time to layover makes the trip take longer and become less attractive for riders; leaving too little time risks missed connections if the inbound train gets delayed for whatever reason. However, if there are significant financial constraints that make adding service cost-prohibitive, adopting pulse scheduling is a cheap — it literally costs next to nothing since there’s no actual added service — way to make the network as a whole more usable and accessible for travelers.
Metra does not use pulse schedules, and they’ve shown little interest in doing so. Even my connection at Ogilvie here was a fluke since there’s no similarly scheduled connections between the UP-W and the UP-N in the other direction; in fact, UP-W inbound trains are scheduled to arrive at Ogilvie only 10-15 minutes after corresponding UP-N and UP-NW outbound departures, a slap in the face to anyone who actually tries to make those connections, especially when those two-hour headways creep up.
Look, scheduling trains is hard, especially through the Chicago area where passenger trains have to share tracks with freight trains and frequently cross other rail lines at grade. That said, a quick look at Metra’s weekend schedules shows that, actually, the schedules aren’t that complicated at all. For instance, here’s our Milwaukee West Travel Guide, where I lay out the schedules in something that looks a little more like a string chart than a traditional railroad schedule that splits trains up by direction. You can see it in the Saturday schedule too, but the Sunday schedule makes it painfully clear: trains leave downtown, go to Elgin, wait 10-25 minutes, then turn around and head back downtown. Once they get downtown, the train and its crew sits and waits until the next departure — which could be well over an hour — and then the cycle repeats. And that’s how mostofMetra’sweekendlinesoperate. (The UP-N and UP-NW lines are somewhat of outliers here since there are multiple yards for each line out in the suburbs, and since they share consists.)
In other words, pulse scheduling — at least for weekend and off-peak trips — probably wouldn’t be too hard at all to actually roll out: instead of building an entire network based on what time hourly or every-two-hourly trains leave downtown (almost every weekend train that isn’t the UP-N, the ME, or the Suburban Branch of the RI leaves on a :30, :35, or :40 — and the Suburban Branch leaves on the :10 specifically to meet the Main Line RI :40 departure at Blue Island), plan the schedules around having the lines converge downtown at the same time, have a 20-30 minute layover period, and then send them back to the hinterlands. I’m sure the train crews would not be a fan of this set-up — I’d much rather kill an hour in downtown Chicago than downtown Elgin or Elburn — but Metra operates to serve passengers, not their crews.
This system would also have an extra benefit of increasing inbound on-time performance during the off-peak, since the buffer time in the schedule would be built into the suburban side of the flip, rather than the city side. For instance, let’s say an outbound train takes a 30-minute delay in service (and if you’ve taken Metra on the weekends, you know that’s definitely in the realm of possibility). Currently, let’s say that train has a scheduled 15-minute flip to become the next inbound train. That means the inbound trip is starting 15 minutes late, right off the bat. Not only is that inconvenient, but knowing Metra’s core constituency is still suburbanites going into the city and back, that will actively discourage people from using Metra for that trip. But if that hour-plus of flip time is on the suburban side, that 30-minute outbound delay has no effect on the following inbound trip, which boosts reliability and encourages more people to take the train.
Of course, then the counterargument is: what happens if the 30-minute delay happens on the inbound side? The short answer is: the same thing that happens now. While pulse scheduling would greatly improve connectivity and transfer opportunities, most passengers are still just heading downtown and don’t need to worry about a connection. (Riders who are already downtown looking to head home are more of a captive audience and are more tolerant of a short delay than suburbanites arriving at an inbound station and waiting for a delayed inbound train.)
For those that are on a delayed inbound train and do have to make a connection though, one of two things can happen: (1) the connection is missed and they have to wait for the next train — which, again, is a status quo situation — or (2) for connections that are close to happening, the railroad takes a second delay.
This is where I think I lose the last remaining railroaders who are still reading this far. But there is such a thing as a good delay. If there’s a train that’s coming in within five minutes of another departure on a line that only runs once every two hours — ready for this? — hold that departing train. With technologies like GPS, radios, and just communicating with your passengers, there’s no reason someone somewhere can’t just hold the outbound train, especially if they know someone’s transferring. Here’s how it could work in practice:
An inbound BNSF train is running 20 minutes late. An outbound MD-W train is scheduled to depart 20 minutes after the BNSF train gets in.
After the BNSF train passes Western Avenue, the conductor makes an announcement: “If anyone is transferring to a different Metra train at Union Station, please tell a conductor.”
One of two things happen:
No one says anything; trains operate as scheduled. End.
Someone says they’re connecting to the MD-W train.
The conductor calls a control center to tell them to hold the MD-W for a transfer.
The control center tells the MD-W train to wait for a transfer from the late BNSF.
A conductor on the MD-W announces that the train — still about ten minutes out from its scheduled departure time — will be slightly delayed since someone is connecting from a late train.
One of two things happen:
A massive passenger mutiny on the MD-W for waiting at Union Station for an extra five minutes. Society breaks down onboard the train; each car becomes its own faction to fight for survival; someone blows into a conch shell.
Passengers barely notice and go about their conversations/drinking their train beers. Maybe someone runs up to The Junction for a refill.
The BNSF train gets in and the transferring passenger(s) quickly make their way to the waiting MD-W train.
The MD-W train leaves a few minutes late.
Now, maybe those few minutes start some huge butterfly-effect ripple through the entire network because a freight train can’t get into the Bensenville Yard on time or the Metra train ends up waiting for a CN freight at Spaulding or something. But more likely, probably not, and either way, that sort of stuff happens all the time now anyway, because maybe there’s a huge group getting off at a station and Metra’s fleet is not physically designed to handle large groups of people boarding/unloading all at once, or maybe there’s track work, or maybe there’s a slow zone, or maybe there’s whatever.
The point is, Metra probably could do pulse scheduling if they wanted to, and if there’s a good reason for them not to do pulse scheduling, it’s not public knowledge.
And, at the very least, if someone sees a group of people darting off a late inbound train and running through Ogilvie trying to make a train that’s about to pull out, maybe make sure the train sticks around for an extra minute or two just in case there’s someone with a disability or otherwise lacking my superior level of fitness.
Also, a quick note on fare policy: officially, I evaded a fare by using an active but unexpired Ventra one-way pass on the UP-W: Metra’s official fare policy requires a second full fare when changing trains downtown, which is not a good policy and should be shunned since it actively discourages using the system for anything other than trips to/from downtown. (I also don’t feel bad about this “fare evasion” because I still spent over $35 on fares for this excursion and the Day Pass should’ve been released by now.)
I got into Oak Park just before noon. It’s been four hours and I’ve already knocked out six different Metra lines in this grand excursion; five to go. It also means it’s halftime in this magnum opus as I sit here writing this well over a monthtwo monthssix months nine months after I made the journey. As I hopped on the Pace 307-Harlem bus to head down to the BNSF back on that warm July day, and now as I sit in my unemployed COVID-19 self-isolation, clacking away on the keyboard, I have the same thought:
I’m tired. And maybe this was a stupid idea.
On the Metrathalon, the 307 runs tantalizingly close to my house in Forest Park; indeed, when I’m headed up to the MD-W to head out to the burbs on a Saturday, the 307 is the bus I usually use to get up to the Elmwood Park station. I have an extra hour of downtime in the schedule, and I was planning on getting lunch, so maybe I should just go home, grab a sandwich, take a breather on the couch…
And as I blog, I realize I haven’t written half of what I need to do to document the excursion. Believe it or not, I don’t take any particular joy in complaining about our suburban transit network. I don’t like always being negative; it takes a lot of time and energy to point out issues that are obviously totally out of my control and still try to be productive with offering potential solutions or at least opportunities for improvement. There’s no shortage of people who take Metra to task online, I’ve been blogging much less regularly these days, and it’s entirely possible all of this is a liability as I hunt for a new job, so maybe I should just let this languish in the draft folder and move on to a new hobby…
Both those paths lead to the same point: a better universe where I’m better at knowing when to cut my losses, letting someone else quixotically tilt at the extremely niche windmills of suburban transit, and just having some normal hobbies like a normal person. Maybe I’d paint or know how to play piano or get really into fantasy sports or, you know, something… normal.
But this isn’t that universe. And I’m not that normal person. July 5th was my 34th birthday, and I spent my birthday riding trains for eleven hours without getting further than Joliet, and rather than just nerd out and enjoy it like a good railroad aficionado I decide to spill thousands of words worth of digital ink about how most of it kinda sucked as I scream into the void a greatest-hits epic long post that doesn’t really shed any new light on anything for anyone who has read anything I’ve written before.
Why do I do this?
Five minutes pass. The cursor patiently blinks at me, as if it knows the answer to my question but prefers to wait and let me figure it out on my own.
Five more minutes pass. I don’t figure it out.
Why do I do this? This blog (and honestly, the entire site) is a liability; I’m probably burning bridges I haven’t built yet in my professional career for a few occasional rants and repackaged information about train schedules and bars that anyone with a few minutes on Google can figure out on their own.
I wish I was normal.
Actually, that’s a lie. I wish I wished I was normal.
I’m not normal. Normal means keeping your head down, not making too many waves, and taking what you can get. Normal means knowing the difference between what you can change and what you can’t change and planning accordingly. Normal means letting someone else tilt at those windmills, letting someone else take big risks, letting someone else figure out what’s wrong with the system, and letting someone else try to fix it.
I’m not normal. I’m not good at just keeping my head down, going with the flow, and trying to nibble on the edges to change what we have out here in the suburbs. I believe in going straight at the paradigms we have today, assessing their strengths and weaknesses, and making a call for action to change them for the better, even if I’m just a small voice in a crowded room.
These windmills are my windmills to tilt at. This is what I do. Some people paint, or play the piano, or get really into fantasy sports, or whatever it is that normal people do. But I’m not normal. I help people plan train crawls, because I like helping suburbanites discover things to do throughout our region that don’t require getting behind the wheel of a car. I plan train crawls for people because I believe that the easier we make it for someone to have a good time hopping on transit and seeing the opportunities that are out there, the more likely they’ll be to ride transit more often on their own. I write this blog not because our transit agencies are necessarily failing or bad at what they do, but because the paradigm they serve isn’t suited for the challenges of the 21st Century and we all can be doing so much more for so many more people throughout our region, whether that’s big things like commuter rail electrification or organizational restructuring or small things like tweaking fare policies and getting schedules to line up.
I’m not normal. But if you’re reading this and you made it this far, you’re probably not normal either. You wouldn’t still be reading this if you also didn’t have thoughts on how to improve your community, ideas on how to get people out of their cars and exploring their communities, and strategies to do big crazy things that only seem silly until someone does them.
I’m not normal. And I’m not alone.
I pulled the stop request cord on the bus. There’s work to be done, and I have a train to catch.
Getting off the UP-W in Oak Park and with 80 minutes to kill before I had to catch the next train — the BNSF at Harlem Avenue — squeezing in lunch should’ve been no problem. Oak Park has just about everything under the sun in terms of food options, all in a nice walkable neighborhood to boot.
But I didn’t eat in Oak Park, because even with 80 minutes to go about four miles, there were three factors working against me: the frequency of the 307 bus is only every 12-15 minutes (I really should put “only” in quotes; for midday service in the suburbs that’s as good as it gets); traffic issues on Harlem Avenue that increase the unpredictability of bus schedules (although Pace is working on it); and the BNSF tracks themselves, since Harlem Avenue crosses at grade and there’s a high frequency of long freight trains that use the tracks.
So instead of bougie Oak Park, I scarfed down lunch at the White Castle at Harlem and Ogden. (To be fair, I enjoy White Castle; I am a person with many flaws.) It was out of my way and took time off my schedule, but it was on the south side of the tracks, which means backtracking to the station would be a more predictable trip since I most certainly did not want to miss my 1:20pm train, since on Metra’s busiest line trains run on two-hour headways in the middle of the day. (Honestly though, two hours at The James Joyce or Quan’s Oasis wouldn’t have been the end of the world.)
The BNSF line, from Union Station to Aurora, is by far Metra’s busiest in terms of passenger loads. It’s also one of the four lines Metra has the least control over, since it’s operated under a purchase-of-service agreement where Metra pays the BNSF Railway to run Metra’s trains and reimburses BNSF for whatever losses they take on the operation.
The line itself can best be thought of as four different, distinct segments that all lie along the same set of tracks. Two of these segments I think Metra and the BNSF would argue are the ideal model for commuter service: the section between Union Station and Cicero, where trains basically just get the hell out of the city as fast as they can; and the Aurora-Route 59-Naperville section where stations are spaced relatively far apart (each station is in a different fare zone) and surrounded by massive–bordering-on–obscene amounts of parking.
The remaining two segments put commuter rail operations more directly at odds with good urban planning. The third segment, which I’d call Downers Grove to Lisle, is somewhat similar to the outer stretch albeit with more development and less parking. Downers Grove and Lisle both built town centers around their train stations which means parking has to be limited but ridership remains robust and being able to easily walk to trains is a major selling point for local residents. However, that still didn’t quench the insatiable thirst for more parking, so stations like Belmont and Fairview Avenue are also included, almost exclusively to serve park-and-riders. The fourth segment, from Westmont through Berwyn, is what BNSF really dislikes: small whistle-stop towns with classic development patterns and not nearly as much parking as they’d like. As a result, there are 15 stations in the 10.3 miles of track between (and including) Westmont and LaVergne. Average station spacing of seven-tenths of a mile is ideal for rapid transit, but not for diesel locomotives pulling eight coaches. As a result, there’s only two trains a day that actually make all 15 stops (#1202 in, #1233 out), with all other trains either skipping a few of the stops or operating on express patterns that split the segment in two at Congress Park.
BNSF Railway — the corporate railroad itself — doesn’t particularly like this stretch of operations. With the purchase-of-service agreement, BNSF basically can only break even on passenger operations; they’re a freight railroad and they make their money hauling freight. Freight trains operate at slower speeds than passenger trains, and as inefficient it is for a diesel commuter train to decelerate, make a stop, and accelerate back up to running speed, doing so with a freight train is significantly more costly and inefficient. On stretches where passenger stations are few and far between — like the Aurora-Route 59-Naperville stretch — it’s easier for freight and passenger service to coexist: since passenger trains can go faster than freights, a freight train can cruise along at 40-50 mph behind a commuter train that will occasionally slow down, stop, and speed back up to its top speed of 70 mph. But when that passenger train has to start making one stop every mile and never able to get back up to that top speed, freight performance behind it suffers and more time is needed before a freight train can run in that slot.
Railfans call this stretch “the Racetrack” because of how many trains BNSF crams into this corridor every day. Honestly, there’s a definite art to it, especially during rush hour when there’s 23 outbound trains crammed into a two-and-a-half hour window. But as beautiful as this ballet is, it’s also ripe for errors. A train experiencing even a minor issue can quickly snowball into a crippling series of delays through the rush period, and an inconsistency in the stopping patterns used to try to squeeze every last ounce of efficiency out of the peak period leads utter confusion for non-proficient riders and just another barrier to entry at a time when ridership is stagnating at best or slightly declining. Remember those 23 outbound trains? They operate on 19 different service patterns!
BNSF Railway would happily consolidate many of these stations, and indeed, one of the reasons why Metra’s undergoing a station optimization study is to help make decisions like these. However, as we’ve discussed before, boiling station performance down to a single ridership metric is challenging at best and fatally flawed at worst. For instance, let’s take me waiting at Harlem Avenue for this 1:20pm train. The Riverside station is 4,900 feet to the west and the Berwyn station is only 2,500 feet to the east. Obviously, three stations in 7,400 feet (or honestly any distance where feet are more logical units than miles) is too many. An urban planner will say to kill the Harlem Avenue station and maintain stations around the existing walkable cores of Berwyn and (to a lesser extent because of its lower density) Riverside; a transportation planner will say to keep Harlem Avenue since the region is sorely lacking in north-south transit connectivity and Pace is already planning on improving service in this corridor that also links up with Milwaukee West, Union Pacific West, and Heritage Corridor trains. Just over the Des Plaines River, Brookfield has a similar dilemma: Congress Park is already a peak-only station, so a full closure wouldn’t move the needle too much; however, the Hollywood and Brookfield stations are only half a mile apart, but the former is a family-friendly walking distance from a major suburban attraction (Brookfield Zoo). Do you close Hollywood and start running bus shuttles from Brookfield station? Who operates them? Who pays for them? Would a bus shuttle change the mode choice decision a family makes to take the train to the zoo on the weekend? And just west of there you have another tough decision with two LaGrange stops just five blocks apart from each other: do you keep the busier LaGrange Road stop and lose all the parking offered at Stone Avenue, or do you make people going to and from downtown LaGrange walk further and make Stone the primary station?
This is typically the part of the blog post where I make some sort of call to action on how things can be made better, but honestly there are no good choices here. BNSF will likely argue that station consolidation needs to happen before passenger service frequency increases dramatically in the off-peak (although modest service increases from last year’s summer schedule were made permanent, which is great) so that passenger service doesn’t interfere too extensively with freight movements, but each possible candidate for station consolidation would have serious negative impacts to either the regional transit network and/or for the walkable, sustainable suburban communities we need to be supporting and promoting. Even the cop-out “just get rid of the freight trains” argument fails here, since that would either require offloading more intermodal freight onto trucks (which increases roadway wear-and-tear and adds to regional pollution and congestion) or building new dedicated grade-separated freight-only tracks in the region, which would be incredibly expensive and disruptive to plenty of suburban communities.
In the meantime, I made it to Union Station on-time and now have just under an hour to kill before I hop on the Heritage Corridor. Time to grab a cold one at The Junction and head to the south suburbs.
For those of you unfamiliar with Metra’s system, of the railroad’s 11 lines, the Heritage Corridor is barely one of them. It’s easy to overlook though: with seven stations and seven trains a day (total, not seven round-trips), it’s quite possibly the worst single commuter line in the country. That’s not hyperbole; the closest lines with comparable service that I could find are commuter railroads that are hardly Metra’s peers: the Altamont Corridor Express in the Bay Area operates eight trains a day and the Sounder between Seattle and Everett, Washington, which also has eight dedicated trains a day but the good sense to work with Amtrak to provide additional commuter service.
Like many — but most certainly not all — critiques this blog has, this issue is not solely Metra’s fault. The Heritage Corridor line between Chicago Union Station and Joliet is extremely heavily traveled by freight trains and Amtrak; the four at-grade crossings with other freight railroads don’t do the line any favors either. To Metra’s credit, they’re doing what they can with the corridor: a new station opened in 2018 in Romeoville, and a new afternoon outbound trip was added in 2016.
That added train — that leaves at 2:45pm on weekday afternoons — is the train I took for the Metrathalon. Since my previous BNSF train got into Union Station at about 1:50pm, it was very unstressful to get to the Heritage Corridor train. The Heritage Corridor, as the least-utilized line in Metra’s system, also operates with some of the shortest consists. My train had only three coaches; being basically a holiday weekend, I was one of about five people in my car, and yet Metra still had their usual crew of a trainman, conductor, and an engineer.
The trip itself was uneventful — with no delays at all, we got into Joliet eight minutes early. For me, it was an easy trip and, when the train’s running on time, plenty convenient. However, since the line runs so infrequently, communities like Summit, Willow Springs, Lemont, Lockport, and now Romeoville miss out on the benefits a suburb like LaGrange or Palatine or Glenview get with off-peak and weekend service, even though the Heritage Corridor communities are still on the hook for a station building, park-and-ride facilities, and everything else needed for train service.
Of course, there’s an easy solution to this problem, and it lies within five minutes of most of the corridor: over the last few years, Pace has expanded their express bus service on Interstate 55, which parallels the Heritage Corridor. Ridership has gone gangbusters since Pace and IDOT worked out bus-on-shoulder operations: since 2011, Pace’s ridership in the corridor increased by 600% as on-time performance went from 65% to over 90%. Pace recently opened a new park-and-ride facility in Plainfield to handle the demand, and daily ridership on Pace’s I-55 service now significantly exceeds the Heritage Corridor. With a managed lanes project planned for Interstate 55 that will increase speeds and improve reliability even more for Pace buses in the corridor, there are challenges ahead for the Heritage Corridor.
But herein lies the problem: we really shouldn’t be worrying about two separate transit facilities competing against each other, but the structure we have for suburban transit in Chicagoland unnecessarily puts Metra and Pace in adversarial positions for corridor services like these. While the agencies do overwhelmingly play nice with each other — Metra heavily relies on Pace for weekday shuttle services to and from many suburban stations, especially along the BNSF line — since each agency still needs to hit its individual farebox recovery ratios and balance a budget to the RTA’s approval, Metra and Pace fares are not integrated and services like the Heritage Corridor and Pace I-55 express service become a zero-sum game. I can’t imagine a scenario anywhere else where supplemental bus service to augment constrained commuter rail service would be seen as a negative because it’d “cannibalize” service, yet that’s what we see in this corridor and elsewhere in the region, where Pace and the Tollway invest heavily in upgraded service on the Interstate 90 corridor while Metra still has the east-west I-90 STAR Line officially on their planning books.
I’m old enough to remember Pace Route 835, which was a Metra-subsidized bus route that operated to boost capacity on the SouthWest Service before Metra expanded the infrastructure needed to operate more trains. However, these days we’ve seem to settled into a paradigm where Metra runs trains and Pace runs buses, and never the twain shall meet. I believe the core of the conflict remains finances and fare policy: even with Rebuild Illinois, Metra is so deep in the state-of-good-repair hole that Metra’s board would be reluctant to invest in a fleet or services that aren’t a train, and Metra doesn’t want to lose fares from riders switching to Pace buses (and likewise Pace probably isn’t too wild about sharing fares with Metra from a corridor that continues to show ridership growth).
But now is the time for the RTA to step in and work with Metra and Pace to determine a larger strategic plan for the southwest suburbs, before the managed lanes on Interstate 55 get built and change the overall commuting patterns in these parts of Cook and Will Counties. The paltry train service offered on the Heritage Corridor is nonetheless an essential link to downtown for communities in the Des Plaines River valley (with much, much higher capacities than buses can provide); we cannot risk losing it to service cuts. Likewise, those same communities can be much better served for every trip that isn’t a traditional commute by more robust transit service off-peak and weekends, especially considering how downright laughable weekend service is on the nearby SouthWest Service.
Metra and Pace are both huge assets for the Chicago suburbs, each in their own right, but if we want to take congestion, livability, and climate change seriously, we need a fully integrated transit network that prioritizes mobility and accessibility rather than one where occasionally the bus schedule lines up with the train schedule to provide a “transfer” that requires a second full fare. Right now we have one agency that runs suburban trains and one agency that runs suburban buses. We need transit agencies that move people instead.
After a short layover in Joliet, I hopped on an inbound Rock Island train. Previously, I hadn’t taken the Rock Island south of Blue Island, so I was a bit startled when I quickly discovered yet another one of Metra’s little idiosyncrasies.
As many riders already know, most of Metra’s lines operate “right-handed”: that is, where there are multiple tracks, the train generally operates on the right-most track in the direction of travel, similar to how American drivers drive on the right side of the road. However, as a legacy of the Chicago and North Western railroad, the three Union Pacific lines run left-handed, which is a peculiar bit of history and a bit of a barrier to entry for unfamiliar riders.
And then there’s the Rock Island.
If you were designing a transit system to be as confusing as possible, the Rock Island is the gold standard: the track inbound or outbound trains use changes by the time of day. There’s an odd beauty in it: typical 9-to-5 commuters get to board their morning train and alight their evening train from the same platform at their home station. But if you’re unfamiliar rider — maybe a parent taking their kids to a museum or a few bros playing hooky to go to a Sox day game — it’s quite easy to show up at the right station at the right time and still miss your train because you’re trapped on the wrong platform when the train pulls in.
This may be a good example of the divide between operations and capital in our transit funding models. This midday track change likely occurs because trains of a certain length need to use the longer platform at each station, but rather than lengthening the platforms (a capital cost, of which Metra has many others competing for priority), a suboptimal operational model is used instead that may have an impact on ridership (which thus influences the operations budget). In the long run, this is a relatively minor issue and doesn’t compare with functionally-obsolete 100-year-old bridges, but it’s still important to identify these small issues that can pose any barrier to entry for infrequent riders, as it’s easier and more cost-effective to make an infrequent rider a regular than it is to try to win over a new non-user.
Speaking of the need for consistency, the train I was on was not scheduled to stop in Robbins because I guess that one minute travel time savings was crucially important somewhere else along the line.
With nine lines officially in the books, it was time to change trains at Blue Island and transfer to the Metra Electric. Blue Island functionally should be considered a terminal, and in our maps we portray the station as a three-line transfer station between Rock Island Main Line trains, Rock Island Suburban Branch trains (which we consider an additional line), and Metra Electric Blue Island/City Main line trains. In practice, however, the station area is… well, it’s a very unique setup: the central “station” is between two sets of double tracks, but there’s only a single platform serving each set of tracks, and they aren’t island platforms. This arrangement greatly restricts operations and the ability to add more diesel trains, since regardless of direction only one train on the main and one train on the sub can use the platform at once. In the meantime, the Electric Line terminal is across Vermont Street from the Rock Island station and across the main line from the platforms. As a pedestrian, it’s a very unwelcoming environment with cars and trains just sort of all over the place.
Once I boarded the Electric Line train and we departed, however, the strengths of the Electric Line were immediately apparent. After about eight hours of riding diesel trains, the quick acceleration and deceleration of the Highliner electric multiple unit trains was very noticeable — and much appreciated. Even with the additional stops, the trip just felt quicker, and it likely was quicker, since with level boarding and better acceleration and deceleration there’s less dwell time at each station. I’m not going to spill much more ink on the Electric Line as a whole — there’s plenty to read on the topic from some great advocates — other than to say that the Electric Line is an underutilized South Side asset because we keep trying to operate commuter rail over a rapid transit line.
I’ll also use this opportunity to support electrifying the Rock Island, or at least the suburban branch, where diesel trains stop every half mile between 87th Street and Blue Island. While widespread electrification of Metra’s system shows up on plenty of advocates’ wish lists, starting with the suburban branch of the Rock Island makes the most sense: the stop spacing of the branch is well-suited for the quick acceleration and deceleration provided from electric multiple unit trains; higher frequencies on the South Side and the south suburbs are important from a regional equity standpoint; and the Blue Island branch of the Electric Line means Metra could share a fleet (and shops) between lines rather than starting elsewhere in the network in relative isolation.
I got off at Van Buren Street, which… well, if you’re a tourist or a suburbanite coming into downtown Chicago for the first time in awhile, just push through to Millennium Station.
From Van Buren Street I hopped on a CTA bus and got back to Union Station for a quick out-and-back on the SouthWest Service to Wrightwood. I always hate ending these grand adventures on an out-and-back trip because it’s very anti-climactic: I rode on 11 Metra trains on 11 Metra train lines in 11 hours exactly, and I’m getting off in Wrightwood to… wait a few minutes and get back on an inbound train.
Overall, I’m glad I made this excursion. Even though it ended up costing me $36.50 when it should’ve costed me about $16.50 for the Round Trip Plus day pass (get it together, that pilot was approved in 2018), I was glad I was able to practice what I preach by getting out there and using Metra as a unified system. While there’s no shortage of things that can be improved, it’s also important to appreciate the strength of the system that allowed this to happen. We as Chicagoland residents are blessed to have a wide-reaching commuter rail network that spans 242 stations throughout the city and suburbs. It’s a network that we critique and complain about because we appreciate it, we want it to be successful, and we know how much better it someday could be.
As the covid-19 pandemic spreads and as a ground stop on just about all aspects of American life sets in, we’re facing a lot of unknowns in the world of suburban transit these days. The bottom is falling out of mass transit demand as workplaces shift to work from home or mass layoffs as schools, bars, restaurants, and just about everything else shuts down. While no service reductions are scheduled for CTA, Pace, or Metra — yet — they are likely on the horizon. BNSF conductors reportedly announced to morning commuters that service reductions will start Wednesday; Metra meanwhile refuses to confirm or deny any upcoming service changes.
My guess is that Metra will very shortly announce that they’ll go to their alternate schedules, which generally are reserved for significant weather events. (It’s not guaranteed that they’ll do this, of course, but the BNSF, MED, MD-N, MD-W, Rock, UP-N and UP-NW alternate schedules have all been updated within the last 72 hours, so make what you will of that.) The alternate schedules are good: off-peak cuts are minimal (except for late night trains, which are mostly cut), with most of the changes happening at the peak of the peak. Metra deserves credit for maintaining those off-peak runs, however in the era of flattening the peak and social distancing there are a few other immediate changes we would recommend for all our transit agencies:
Suspend face-to-face fare collection. With other agencies like the Illinois Tollway taking the dramatic step to go towards all-electronic tolling and closing manned toll booths, and while transit agencies will likely be running a fare surplus as monthly passes go unused (or unrefunded), keeping riders and front-line employees safe from the coronavirus should take precedence over fare collection. Metra’s conductors serve important safety functions onboard trains: performing inspections, communicating with dispatch and the operator, operating wheelchair lifts, etc. Suspending fare collection can also lower the number of conductors needed on each train, which allows for smaller crew sizes and once again, fewer front-line contacts with potentially infected riders.
Open all the coaches in each consist. One of our Metra pet peeves for years, this recommendation takes extra urgency now: open every coach in every consist to allow passengers to spread out (maintain six-foot separation) rather than opening coaches as needed. This also goes for CTA service: don’t cut off-peak trains into smaller 4-car consists. Now is not the time to try to save a few bucks on electric.
Maintain off-peak service. While most of us hunker down and while social attractions shut down through the end of the month, there are still plenty of workers who do need to get to jobs, and plenty of them have untraditional hours. The front lines of a pandemic are first responders and health care workers, of course, but janitorial staffs, grocery store workers, supply chain employees, etc. are also vitally important. Off-peak service is crucial to serving all of these off-hour commuters.
Plan ahead. While the bulk of the disruption will likely occur between now and the end of March, it’s important to remember that there’s no toggle switch that magically gets flipped on April 1 that gets everything back to normal. Having a smooth transition to normalcy will be important to getting riders back on transit. To that aspect, seeing NICTD’s announcement today that March monthly passes will be good through April is a smart strategy that doubles as a ridership appreciation tactic.
Don’t panic. The ridership numbers are going to drop dramatically. It’s okay. Most of them will come back in a few months.
Think outside the box and take notes. While public health is obviously the top priority for everyone during a pandemic, these are also unique circumstances for unplanned pilot projects. Want to change staffing models? Try a new fare collection technique? Work out an operational issue? Now’s the time to try with limited impacts on ridership.
For the rest of us: wash your hands, cover your cough, avoid unnecessary travel, and make good choices. We’ll get through this together.
This blog post started as a hypothetical experiment. Earlier this week, since I have some time to kill for the indefinite future, I woke up bright and early to make a pre-dawn trip down to the Interstate 55 corridor. I figured the trip would be good field research for at least two potential posts: one discussing how bad the BNSF reverse commute offerings are (seriously, look at this outbound morning schedule, to get from Berwyn to Naperville it’s somehow faster for me to take a train to Union Station and get right back on an outbound train than it is for me to try to get a single-seat outbound train), and one discussing some idyllic future state where Metra could get buses like Pace’s express coach buses to bolster and improve exurban service that reduces the reliance on diesel consists to pick up a handful of people off-peak when it makes more sense to bus them to a convenient transfer point and increase train frequencies where the vast majority of the riders are instead. (Looking at you, Union Pacific Northwest).
What I found instead are three separate service providers with a whole bunch of service offerings that overlap and could actually complement each other if it wasn’t for our siloed fare policies and service planning procedures.
Too Many Cooks
Let’s identify all the players really quickly. There’s obviously Metra, with their seven Heritage Corridor trains per weekday. Train service is crucial: Metra’s diesel consists are great for moving large numbers of people very fast with few intermediate stops, which describes the Heritage Corridor perfectly; unfortunately, the tracks are crowded with plenty of slow-moving freight cross-traffic, so adding train service is a significant challenge. But there’s also the suburban bus operator Pace, with a variety of express premium services along Interstate 55 where buses operate on the inside shoulder when the expressway is congested:
Pace Route 755, which runs from Plainfield to Chicago Union Station with stops at the Old Chicago park-and-ride, the Damen Pink Line station, and a bunch of street stops on the West Side;
Pace Route 850, which runs from Bolingbrook (more specifically, the Canterbury park-and-ride) to the Magnificent Mile;
Pace Route 851, which does basically the same thing as the 850 except starting from the White Fence Farm park-and-ride instead of Canterbury; and
Pace Route 855, which runs from Plainfield to the Magnificent Mile with additional stops at the Burr Ridge park-and-ride and supplemental service to the Bridgeview Transit Center.
Note: there’s also Pace Route 754 in this corridor, but since it only operates a single reverse-commute round-trip and only serves Lewis University, for the purposes of this conversation I’m not including it.
Then there’s also Amtrak, which shares the tracks with Metra (technically, both Metra and Amtrak have trackage rights; Canadian National controls the tracks). Amtrak runs ten trains a day between Chicago and Joliet: eight Lincoln Service trains — which are primarily funded by IDOT — one daily round-trip for the long-distance Texas Eagle train. Lincoln Service trains also stop at Summit, although inbound Amtrak trains are prohibited from picking up anyone at Summit and stop to discharge passengers only. Also note that there are more Amtrak trains in this corridor than Metra trains, so finding a way to tap into Amtrak’s regional service to also provide commuter service — which has been done elsewhere — would be a massive benefit.
And then there’s also Pace again, which runs two additional routes that conveniently connect to BNSF trains: the 825 provides weekday peak service from Canterbury to Lisle (with timed transfers), and the 834 provides local service six days a week between Joliet and Downers Grove with stops at the Lockport Heritage Corridor station, the Old Chicago park-and-ride, and the Canterbury park-and-ride. When the BNSF is running expresses, these trips are competitive with Pace’s express bus service to downtown; however, the lack of fare integration can make these trips more cost-prohibitive for regular commuters.
Put them all together and there’s a robust corridor of 111 transit trips every weekday, which also includes off-peak and reverse commute schedules as well. That doesn’t even include a bunch of convenient connecting services to Summit, such as Pace’s 307 (which connects to the BNSF at Harlem Avenue as well as the Bridgeport Transit Center) and the CTA’s 62H (which connects to the Orange Line at Midway Airport).
It’s important to note that these are existing services and current conditions: unlike plenty of other entries on this blog, I didn’t crayon out any service expansions or extensions or add any trips that aren’t currently operating. If anything, there might be a few more trips than what’s shown here since I didn’t include any 834 trips during the peak (since there are faster ways to/from downtown) or any trips that required a transfer of more than 20 minutes. These are existing conditions, but since Pace does Pace stuff and Metra does Metra stuff, they’re almost never presented as a unified system.
That said, a quick look at the combined schedule just begs for some minor tweaks that could dramatically enhance the service even further. Just a few low-hanging fruit scenarios:
Could those eight Amtrak trips make flag stops at the other Heritage Corridor stations? Can this suffice as weekend service for the Heritage Corridor?
Could some 834 trips cross the Des Plaines River at Romeo Road and serve the Romeoville station off-peak as well?
Could Burr Ridge runs be extended to stop at Willow Springs and Lemont?
Of course, as long as the fare policy stays the same — where Metra and Pace more or less pretend there are two separate networks rather than one unified network unless you have a monthly pass AND you’re willing to pay an extra $30 — the full potential of this corridor will remain unrealized. That’s an awful shame since Pace service in this corridor is busting at the seams — a 600% increase in ridership since 2011 — and the Heritage Corridor is one of Metra’s few bright spots in regards to ridership growth as the only line that didn’t lose riders between 2018 and 2019.
This corridor is an ideal candidate for an integrated fare pilot project, and in the meantime if Metra’s willing to pop the hood on the Heritage Corridor schedule to add another train or two, now’s the time to work with Pace (and maybe IDOT) to approach the schedule change in a more holistic way that improves mobility and accessibility for commuters throughout the southwest suburbs.
Last fall, the Active Transportation Alliance released their Fair Fares Chicagoland report, a thorough analysis of the fare policies of our region’s three transit boards and made recommendations on how to make Chicagoland transit more accessible and equitable, with a particular focus how to improve for lower-income riders. The primary recommendations focused on reduced fares for low-income citizens; reassessing statutory farebox recovery ratios; an integrated fare system that connected the three transit boards; decriminalizing fare evasion; and free fares for area youth.
Fares are a necessary evil for transit riders (or not), and on the surface cracking down on scofflaws to try to boost revenue rather than approving another fare increase seems like a logical step to take to remain accountable to regional taxpayers. However, there are a few ominous signs that this is focusing more on punishing riders than actually boosting the bottom line, considering how much money Metra’s throwing at this enforcement push. Metra readily admits they have no idea how much fare evasion actually costs the railroad (which means they have no idea what to expect in terms of increased revenues), and they decided the best way to inform riders of the change was through mass printings — branded with the Metra Police badge — distributed on ALL the trains throughout the system Friday morning.
But most egregiously, Metra believes the best way to crack down on enforcement is not only by using police to do ticket spot checks (great timing announcing a bolstered police presence to enforce fares right before Martin Luther King Day weekend, by the way), but also by adding even more conductors to trains. From the Trib:
Metra also reminded riders that if a customer does not produce a paper or mobile ticket or refuses to pay the fare on board with cash or via the Ventra app, “Metra may remove that customer from the train and police may issue citations for state and/or county offenses,” the leaflet said.
The railroad said Metra police will be complementing the efforts of conductors to validate fare collection. Metra CEO Jim Derwinski said the railroad has added more conductors to help with the collection effort. Metra also will be posting signs throughout the system about fare compliance and potential penalties.
Each Metra train has no fewer than three employees onboard (an engineer and two on-board personnel including conductors); this is a Metra policy that is not necessarily required by any federal or state regulations. From a railroading perspective, conductors have an important role in operating the train: they assist the engineer, perform safety inspections at the beginning and end of each trip, operate the lifts for disabled riders, and so on. However, most riders know the conductors for checking — or not checking — tickets. Metra claims the latest fare enforcement push is partially based on complaints from riders “that when trains are crowded, not all fares are collected, which is unfair to those who pay,” according to the Trib article. (Of course, when someone says something along the lines of “why the hell am I paying $200 a month for a ticket they don’t always check?”, that’s a comment on the fare cost, not fare enforcement.)
Just about anyone who has ever ridden Metra with any frequency almost certainly has plenty of anecdotal tales of free rides, where they simply never saw a conductor during their entire trip and therefore never bought a ticket. Fare overriding, where riders will buy a ticket for a shorter zone pair than where they’re actually heading, is a little more difficult to track and enforce. No one has ever really dug into fare compliance on Metra trains, and the railroad claims this new enforcement push is part of an effort to squeeze out some data they can present to the Board of Directors as part of ongoing conversations about modernizing the overall fare structure. (Still waiting on those Day Passes that were promised in 2018, by the way.)
The data that does exist, however, suggests that “fare evasion” — in this case, where riders are actively trying to avoid fare collection efforts — isn’t really that much of a significant issue on Metra. Julia Gerasimenko, the Active Transportation Alliance’s Advocacy Manager, noted in a terrific letter to the editor today that there have only been a total of 43 arrests on Metra between 2016 and 2018 for fare enforcement.
What is more of a problem, however, is fare collection, which shouldn’t be confused with fare evasion. Since Metra does not operate on a proof-of-payment system (which, spoiler alert, is probably where Metra should be heading), there’s a reasonable expectation by riders that the point-of-sale for the ticket transaction will be handled onboard the train, whether that’s launching the Ventra app or handing cash to a conductor. Metra’s own fare policy describes it as such:
Riders must present a valid ticket to onboard personnel or law enforcement on request or be prepared to purchase a ticket with cash or through the Ventra App.
Furthermore, Metra’s (non-criminal) penalties for fare noncompliance are slaps on the wrist: a $5 surcharge if you pay cash onboard the train when you boarded from a station that had a ticket agent on duty (which can easily be circumvented by purchasing your ticket on the Ventra smartphone app onboard, which is yet another way that the system punishes the poor), and the same $5 charge is also the penalty for overriding a ticket. Overriding also requires the purchase of an incremental ticket, which costs $1 for the first zone and 50 cents for every zone thereafter. In other words, the most egregious overriding scenario possible — let’s say you’re doing your best Snidely Whiplash impression and buying an Ogilvie-Clybourn UP-NW Zone A-A ticket to ride all the way out to Harvard — comes with a punishing fine of $10: $5 penalty + $1 for the first extra zone, Zone B + $4 for eight 50-cent additional Zones C-J, which would make your total trip cost $14 (since a Zone A-A ticket is $4). Now, if you were a functioning member of society and simply paid the correct fare from the get-go, the fare costs $9.50, which somehow is only $4.50 cheaper even though the fare evader got “punished” with a $5 fine.
This gap between the penalty and the ticket cost is because incremental fares haven’t caught up with the more recent fare raises elsewhere in the system, which due to rounding have inconsistent increases between zones: it’s officially cheaper to buy a Zone A-B ticket ($4.25) and buy an incremental ticket onboard to go to Zone C (+$1.00) than it is to buy a Zone A-C ticket ($5.50).) In fact, the fare system has atrophied to the point where it’s always cheaper to get a one-way Zone A-B ticket and a second incremental ticket to your final destination rather than buying a direct ticket. It’s really stupid, and we don’t recommend it because it’s a hassle for conductors and requires paying in cash, but it’s totally legal. But don’t do it, because Metra needs the cash.
One-Way Ticket Price
One-Way Zone A-B + Incremental
A ten-ride Zone A-B ticket costs $40.50. Just saying. But don’t do it, it’s stupid.
Gaming this math out further, let’s say you’re a chronic fare evader: you live along the MD-W in Elmwood Park (Zone C), but you know there’s only two minutes between Elmwood Park and Mont Clare (Zone B), so you decide to get a $123.25 Zone B monthly instead of the $159.50 Zone C monthly and lie your pants off, telling the conductor you got on at Mont Clare every day. If the conductor gets wise, they’ll slap you with the overriding penalty of $6 ($5 penalty + $1 one-zone incremental). If you’re a gambler, you can wager that you can get caught up to six times in a month and still come out financially ahead. (Editor’s note: The Yard Social Club and Star:Line Chicago obviously do not encourage fare evasion. Do not try this.)
In both of these nefarious cases, the solution remains simple: if conductors make several passes through the train at strategic locations, the fare evaders should be caught pretty simply, with no need to get law enforcement involved unless a passenger gets unruly after getting called out on the evasion. At the high end of the spectrum, the best way to fight fare evasion in a conductor-based system is to dramatically increase staff so each car has at least one conductor who would theoretically check every ticket between every station; however, that would undoubtedly be prohibitively expensive, which means some level of fare evasion has to be tolerated. Labor remains the largest expense for most transit agencies, and conductors aren’t cheap: I pulled the salaries of the conductors from RTAMS, crunched a few numbers, and estimated that the average hourly wage for a conductor is $47.05, taking the annual salaries of conductors who worked for the full year and assuming they worked 2,080 hours (40 hours/week x 52 weeks/year), although Metra’s onboard staff is historically known for working plenty of overtime. In other words, for Metra to break even on their increased staffing for the fare enforcement push, each added conductor needs to bring in at least $50 of additional, previously-uncollected fares each hour of their shift to financially justify the additional staffing. Considering the downtime conductors have between runs or on deadheads during rush hour, when they obviously can’t be collecting new fares, it’s likely that breakeven figure is even higher when only considering time in revenue service.
Metra’s official fare policy — published and adopted in November 2019 — gives onboard personnel discretion significant latitude in how to handle fare evasions: conductors are permitted to offer an “onboard fare collection envelope” to someone who is unable to pay a fare “as a one-time courtesy” (which could end up with a collections agency coming after the offender). Or conductors can kick the person off the train at the next stop and are required to immediately notify law enforcement for arrest and prosecution. That kind of discretion is almost guaranteed to result in inequitable outcomes.
If a passenger fails to provide a ticket for travel and is unable to purchase a paper or mobile ticket, onboard personnel may issue an onboard fare collection envelope as a one‐time courtesy to the passenger, with instructions for sending payment to Metra. Riders who receive an onboard fare collection envelope for failure to pay a fare must remit the applicable one‐way fare for the transportation provided, plus a $5 service charge or present a valid Monthly Pass to a ticket agent to void the fare payment envelope. Passengers who fail to send in the required fare payment may be subject to additional claims action.
Onboard personnel are authorized to remove any passenger from a train at the next scheduled stop for fare evasion, including refusal to provide a valid ticket or purchase a ticket on board and/or refusal to accept an onboard fare collection envelope to remit a fare later, or use of a counterfeit or altered ticket, including refusal to demonstrate mobile ticket security features when requested. Metra personnel must turn over any passenger removed from a train for refusal to pay a fare or for use of a counterfeit or altered ticket to the Metra Police Department or local law enforcement officials for prosecution.
It’s discouraging that, at a time when national trends are pointing towards more fair fares and decriminalizing fare evasion, Metra is going the opposite direction. It bears noting that some of these national trends are controversial, especially for law-and-order small-government conservatives. However, in this case, even the good government types will likely see the problem in Metra’s new strategy: it’s entirely possible — possibly even probable — that all this effort in combating fare evasion will end up costing the railroad more than simply allowing whatever fare evasion exists to simply go on existing. But bringing cops onboard to hassle people who can’t afford a $5 penalty and spending more money than what’s getting brought in to do so is bad for everyone.
To be clear, this blog does not intend to demonize conductors (or cops, for that matter), nor do we advocate for a widespread staffing reductions that lead to job losses. Even in a shift to proof-of-payment, we would advocate for a hiring freeze and transitioning some onboard staff from conductors to non-police fare inspectors to protect current staff from any change in employment. But while there is no official data regarding the issue (at least publicly; there may be some internal studies, but that’s unknown), we do have a dataset that can be useful: the Diverging Approach Metra Trip Log, our ongoing database of hundreds of rides on Metra over the last year and a half. Most of the rides are likely my own, but the link is public and we do get entries from other riders throughout the region. (Please keep logging your trips, or if you haven’t started, take the 30 seconds to complete an entry next time you ride the train and help us build a more robust database.) While it’s not terribly rigorous from a statistical standpoint since it’s entirely opt-in, it still provides us with a good baseline to use for some of these discussions.
While we don’t have any data on actual fare evasion, we do have data on fare collection. As of this writing, our log suggests that fare collection rates on Metra are decent, with room to improve: 92.9% of trips made that got logged included a conductor collecting a fare for the trip. Digging into the crosstabs however, there are definite trends based on time of day: conductors are most strict on weekday afternoon outbound trains, with 99% of trips having a conductor check tickets, while off-peak trains see fare collection rates drop off, bottoming out at about 84% for weekday midday and weekend trips.
Time of Day
Missed Fares Reported
Total Trips Logged
Peak – Inbound
Peak – Outbound
Reverse – Inbound
Reverse – Outbound
Weekday – Midday
Weekday – Evening
Due to a low number of respondents, collection rates for reverse commuters are not calculated.
The results are pretty clear: Metra has a fare collection issue on off-peak trains, or at least if fare collection is an issue, it’s a bigger issue on off-peak trains than peak period trains. To Metra’s credit, I did notice on the two weekend trains I rode this week that conductors were more prompt than usual collecting my fares, so maybe the fare enforcement push is working. However, the data suggests one simple idea: maybe we aren’t at the “add cops to trains” level of a fare evasion crisis here, and the “problem” such that one exists is a larger structrual issue with Metra’s entire fare model, from conductor collection to zone pairs.
But in the meantime, it’s important to remember that not all fare evasion is “evasion”. Plenty of the fares are there. Either come and take them, or go to proof-of-payment.
The Diverging Approach Metra Trip Log is intended to be an open source of data. Please add to it, and feel free to use the data as you’d like! If you do go on some deep dives and publish anything, please attribute it to Star:Line Chicago. If you’d like to copy over the spreadsheet to run your own analyses, send me a DM on Twitter.
Breaking the summer hiatus to quickly join tonight’s chorus. I pride myself on using this blog to opine about suburban transit issues, since there are plenty of people smarter than I who are better suited to spill ink on urban transit issues.
That said though, there’s plenty of overlap in those missions. In many cases, the difference between some neighborhoods and some suburbs are nothing more than quirks of geography or politics; likewise, for the still-significant number of suburban commuters who work in the city, the two issues are often inseparable.
Or rather, they should be inseparable. The lack of connectivity and consistency in our overall network is well-documented. If I’m taking the Milwaukee West line into or out of the city – as I am wont to do on Saturdays – whether I get on at Elmwood Park (burbs) or Mont Clare (city) shouldn’t make much of a difference. Especially since those two stops are about a 15 minute walk apart, with the #90-Harlem almost perfectly bisecting that walk, running right down Harlem Avenue.
But, of course, it does matter. Mont Clare is fare Zone B; Elmwood Park is fare Zone C. Walking across Harlem Avenue costs/saves $1.25 each way, which is insane when you think about it. But moreover, as Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot made painfully obvious tonight, Metra is for the suburbs, not the city. Responding to what should’ve been a lay-up of a question – does Chicago support Cook County’s pilot to lower fares and increase frequency for existing transit that serves the South Side – the Mayor decided to follow in the footsteps of her predecessors:
“I’m not in favor of it based upon the analysis that we’ve done,” Lightfoot said. “I’ve spent some time talking with (CTA President) Dorval Carter about it, and it looks like it is essentially a transfer of CTA passengers to the Metra line.
“Obviously there’s an area of the South Side where we need to have better transportation services,” Lightfoot said. “That Metra line is underserved, and I’m absolutely willing to work with Metra and the county, but this particular proposal I think causes problems for the CTA and I’m not going to support something that would have the effect of diminishing ridership at the CTA.”
This is, to say the least, very disappointing but also very enlightening: the Mayor controls the CTA board while Chicago only has one seat at Metra’s 11-seat table, so the Mayor’s vested interest in boosting the CTA’s ridership numbers trumps supporting initiatives that, by necessity, need to be spearheaded by suburbanites even if they’ll benefit tens of thousands of Chicagoans.
While there’s plenty of obvious reasons why this is an absolutely terrible way to run a regional transportation system (and really makes you wish there was some sort of regional transportation authority that could integrate the various modes of transit somehow), as a suburban resident (Forest Park) who relies on the CTA (Blue Line), I’m personally left at a loss as to who has my back on transit issues. Plenty of Chicago mayors have made clear – but, hat tip to Mayor Lightfoot, not this clear in quite awhile – that the CTA is for Chicagoans and Metra is for the unwashed hordes beyond the city limits, leaving inner-tier suburbanites in the lurch. This manifests itself in other ways as well: 26% of the CTA’s non-accessible ‘L’ stations are suburban, even though suburban ‘L’ stations only make up 14% of the system.
I’m bringing back my favorite map from Chicago-L.org as a reminder that it doesn’t have to be like this. Back in 1937 when the city was planning the full extent of the rapid transit system, what we now call commuter rail was considered a crucial part of a rapid transit network that would serve 93% of all Chicagoans. Back when the railroads were privately owned, it made (some) sense that Chicago would be concerned about a public/private split of non-motorists, but it’s 2019. Metra is the only game in town for rail service beyond the reach of the eight CTA lines (for better or worse), but worrying about cannibalizing the transit market is not the fight we should be fighting right now as the world continues to burn and as we need to curtail our fossil fuel use. We need to be focusing on efficiency and sustainability and moving people. Whether that’s on the CTA or on Metra or on Pace, it doesn’t matter. The fact that it does matter is an indictment of our system as a whole, and that goes beyond the Woman on Five.
With your guidance and support, the City of Chicago can be the catalyst to better connect our three transit agencies to serve everyone in the region more fairly, equitably, and frequently. The City of Chicago’s sustainability goals shouldn’t end at the city limits, and indeed better suburban transit service will directly improve the livability of the city as well as fewer regional travelers feel the need to drive to wherever they’re going.
But by pitting agency against agency and rider against rider, we all fall further behind. I urge you to reconsider your position on this issue, and hope you are able to see the opportunities this pilot program would offer those who live and those who work in the City of Chicago.
Last week, this blog dove into Illinois’s forthcoming capital bill, with a skeptical look at extensions to Metra’s BNSF service into Kendall County. While the merits of the $440 million Kendall County extension price tag can be debated, the $3.8 billion elephant in the room is the megaproject at the other end of the BNSF line, the massive One Central project over the Metra Electric tracks at 18th Street. (Mayor Lightfoot is not pleased that the capital bill includes language that lets the state pursue a public-private partnership for the massive project without additional input from the city.)
One Central bills the transit center (which somehow will cost two-thirds more than the entire CTA Red Line South extension from 95th/Dan Ryan to 130th Street) as “the intersection of transit, civic and community interests at this iconic Lakefront destination” and “Chicago’s Opportunity to Integrate Transit”. To be fair, there’s no argument that (1) the site has lots of potential since it’s currently connected to Metra Electric trains and Amtrak Illini/Saluki/City of New Orleans trains passing through the site, and (2) the Museum Campus is woefully disconnected from downtown and the city as a whole. While this project can absolutely serve as a catalyst to maximize those opportunities, the execution as currently proposed deserves more than a little bit of skepticism, especially as a developer tries to get Illinois taxpayers at least partially on the hook for $3.8 billion of transit investment in a region with plenty of more pressing needs.
First and foremost: does Chicago need a brand-new centralized transit hub? The short answer is, we already have a pretty darn good one. It’s about 125 years old, and we named our central business district after it. With a few glaring accessibility needs for people with mobility issues, The Loop is incredibly effective as a centralized transit hub that links rapid transit lines from around the city as well as convenient (within a block or two) connections to commuter and regional rail. The Loop is brilliant because it distributes peak period traffic throughout the CBD, allows for both through-routing and terminal routes that end downtown, and keeps trains moving since there are no stub terminals (although historically eachelevatedrailroadcompany did operate an auxiliary stub terminal adjacent to the Loop).
Then there’s Union Station, Amtrak’s primary non-East-Coast hub and where six of Metra’s 11 lines terminate. Chicago recently completed a very nice bus terminal directly connected to the lower-level rail concourses and there’s been some buzz I’ve heard about including a direct connection to the Clinton Blue Line station as part of larger-scale redevelopment of some Amtrak-owned land in the West Loop. While Union Station is plenty crowded and cramped, there’s no real reason to believe a new transit hub a mile and a half away as the crow flies down by Soldier Field will fix what ails Union Station (or the Loop, for that matter), especially not to the tune of nearly $4 billion. Even One Central’s proposed link with Amtrak is underwhelming, since there are only three Amtrak services that use that line, and all three offer transfers to the Metra Electric in Homewood already.
Second, let’s be honest: centralized transfer hubs without integrated fare policies will inevitably lead to underwhelming outcomes, since passengers are charged two full fares to complete a trip. It’s hard to see how One Central would encourage a Metra Electric rider to pay an extra $2.50 to get on an extended Orange Line to get into the Loop when they could just ride the ME the rest of the way to Van Buren or Millennium and hoof it for free, other than the pure convenience factor (in which case, proposed operations will have a much bigger impact on the effectiveness of the transit center — more on that later). This is a common theme on this blog and among other Chicago transit advocates, so I won’t dive too far into this at this moment, other than to point out how far even a fraction of $3.8 billion could go to get Metra’s fare structure more solidly integrated with the CTA and Pace.
Third: while it’s good to see that Mayor Lightfoot is jumping in to slow down the momentum on the process as a whole to get more public input on the project, it’s a bit of an indictment of our various planning agencies and the service boards that there’s enough of a vacuum around the Museum Campus that an out-of-state developer can just hop in with an expensive transportation plan that doesn’t seem to make all that much sense and we just go ahead and sneak part of it into an important statewide capital bill. There was some momentum back in 2014 when the Chicago Park District announced they were looking into a long-range plan for the Museum Campus and Mayor Emanuel announced a Museum Campus Transportation Task Force, but both proposals seemed to wither after plans for the Lucas Museum fell through. A comprehensive plan for downtown-area transit and transportation with some actual teeth to it would help guide investment with clear long-term expectations vetted by the public, rather than letting investment guide transportation plans based on what a developer finds most profitable in the current market.
And fourth, and maybe most important: $3.8 billion is a hell of an investment for transportation infrastructure, but with no operational plans or funds to go along with the capital improvements, there’s no guarantee any initiative would be a success. (In a case like One Central, it’s also an omission that offloads a negative externality — the cost to serve the development — onto the public sector without becoming a line item in the project’s own budget.) The balance, or lack thereof, between capital funds and operating funds is one of the largest fatal flaws in how we fund our transit networks. The two separate silos of money too often create competing priorities within a single region or even within a single agency. Toss in good old-fashioned politics — capital projects make for great ribbon-cuttings and press releases; operational improvements, not so much — and it’s a fundamentally flawed system. (Once again, kudos to Illinois legislators for including some ongoing recurring annual capital funding for transit in the recent capital bill.)
The transit operating plan to actually serve One Central is frustratingly vague, at least from what’s been in public documents so far. (The project team has reached out to Metra to discuss the preliminary plans; Metra sounds open-minded but non-committal to the development thus far.)
The crux of the transit center relies on the St. Charles Air Line, which cuts through the South Loop just north of 16th Street between the Metra Electric and Canadian National tracks to the east and the BNSF and Union Station south approach tracks via the St. Charles Air Line bridge over the Chicago River. Currently, Amtrak’s Illini, Saluki, and City of New Orleans trains use this connection to cross over the Chicago River and back into Union Station in a pretty annoying, time-consuming maneuver. The One Central site itself would sit atop existing Metra Electric tracks, yards, and the 18th Street station. The One Central proposal adds additional transit options by building a spur line off the Orange Line along the existing railroad tracks into a stub terminal at One Central, as well as routing Metra BNSF trains over the St. Charles Air Line into One Central. There’s also a “CHI-Line” transportation feature — Bus? Tram? Hyperloop? — that would link One Central and McCormick Place to the Museum Campus and Navy Pier via the McCormick Place Busway and/or Columbus Drive (the exhibits aren’t clear, and actually show two different alignments).
What appears pretty clear to me is that, at least in this preliminary stage, the developers are taking an all-of-the-above, throw-it-at-the-wall-and-see-what-sticks approach to transit at One Central: if it’s on the map, drag the line to the site and they’ll figure out the details later, regardless of what actually makes sense from a regional perspective. For one thing, CREATE will eventually move Amtrak trains off this section of track (lol oops); I’m also not confident that Metra would go along with splitting off some trains on their busiest line to serve One Central instead of Union Station, let alone sending all BNSF trains to One Central. Furthermore, with capacity issues during the peak period on the BNSF, any option that has two different terminals would need a transfer station to allow riders to change trains based on their desired terminal, and likewise that transfer station would need to be fully ADA-accessible to allow for full use of all platforms. (The nearest station that meets that criteria would be Cicero.)
The CTA Orange Line spur track also doesn’t make much sense. First off, a spur track along the existing freight tracks would require a new junction on the Orange/Green Line in a section that currently has four tracks with a full interlocking immediately south of the proposed junction at 16th Street, and there’s existing development in the northeast and southeast quadrants of the crossing that would likely need to be either demolished or significantly altered to build connecting tracks. (The exact directionality of the planned junction is unknown, since it’s conveniently hidden behind a building in the “Transit” exhibit above.) Either way, trains coming into One Central appear to enter into a stub terminal, which means the CTA operator would have to change ends before reversing the train back out onto the main line towards either Midway or the Loop, a significant operational inconvenience. My guess is that the developer is envisioning splitting off Loop-bound trains from Midway to create two Orange Line service patterns: Midway-One Central and Midway-Loop, with transfers between branches at Halsted. This would let the developer advertise single-seat trips from One Central to Midway, a pretty significant selling point for businesses and future residents but at the expense of other regional travelers with less service between the Loop and Midway.
Finally, the “CHI-Line” proposal seems to be the standard prerequisite to any transportation plan involving the Museum Campus: “something something utilize the McCormick Busway.” While the McCormick Busway is of course underutilized, currently only used to shuttle conventioneers between McCormick Place and the downtown hotels, the dirty little secret about the Busway is that it doesn’t actually go anywhere useful: the Busway is entirely grade-separated (or at least, separated from the neighborhood streets that get bridged over it) from 25th Street to Lower Randolph, bypassing the Loop but terminating in the bottom level of the multidimensional part of Chicago’s downtown street grid with no good way to get up to surface streets in the Loop. Connecting the McCormick Busway to the Loop Link or Lake Shore Drive or north Michigan Avenue would be great, but it’s surprisingly difficult given how the streets are laid out and interact with each other in three dimensions. The One Central concept also takes a few liberties with how the Busway is actually constructed, including some sort of grade separation over/under Lake Shore Drive at McFetridge Drive (which probably can get shoehorned in there somehow when you have $3.8 billion to play with). It’s also worth noting that the “Mobility” exhibit above ignores the McCormick Busway entirely and uses surface streets instead (McFetridge-Columbus-Middle Randolph-Lower LSD to Navy Pier). Either way, the CHI-Link at this point definitely seems like more of a rough concept than an actual proposal.
I don’t want to be a wet blanket here: if a developer has enough cash to develop sky rights over the Metra Electric and is actively willing to integrate transit options to better connect the South Loop, the Museum Campus, and downtown to each other, it should be seriously considered. I just wish that, if the state is willing to enter a public-private partnership to create a monumental regional transit hub, the operational aspects of how transit connects and interacts with the existing regional system be considered and addressed alongside capital needs and concerns.
Oh, if only someone would come up with a better operational plan for a future regional transit hub at One Central to start some conversations about the best ways to serve the site, the Museum Campus, and the region as a whole…
The Star:Line ONE CENTRAL TRANSIT PLAN
If we’re going to build a $3.8 billion transit center, let’s do it right. First and foremost, there needs to be a general acknowledgement that investments in a One Central transit center must include improvements outside the footprint of the project. In this case, the most significant external improvement I’ve included in my back-of-the-napkin sketch here (toggle the layers in the embedded map above) is a new approach ramp between the St. Charles Air Line bridge and the south approach to Union Station. This connection would not only improve efficiency for Amtrak service (until it gets rerouted as part of CREATE P4 as noted above), but it’s also an integral plan in other regional transportation improvement plans including Midwest High Speed Rail Association’s ambitious CrossRail Chicago initiative. It’d take some creative engineering to avoid taking out Amtrak’s maintenance facility or too much of Metra’s BNSF yard, but it probably could be done.
In no particular order, here are the key aspects of the Star:Line plan.
DIAMOND LINE EXTENSION
Landmark Development’s concept required either a split or a rerouting of Metra’s BNSF service to serve One Central, which would require some sort of transfer facility to maintain a connection to Union Station. Our plan turns that on its head and makes One Central the transfer center (think Seacaucus Junction) where Metra Electric trains split to serve different parts of downtown. Our proposal recommends routing South Chicago Branch trains — what we call the Diamond Line — through One Central, over the St. Charles Air Line, and into Union Station on electrified tracks. The South Chicago Branch was chosen due to its relatively high frequency and relatively short current run time. This would provide direct connections between Union Station and One Central, which would actually enhance regional mobility since now seven Metra lines would have a connection to One Central and McCormick Place rather than just the BNSF and ME. This also would happen to serve as Phase I of CrossRail Chicago, the eventual plan to get electrified service between O’Hare and McCormick Place.
18th STREET ELEVATED
As previously discussed, creating a spur route off the Orange Line at the freight railroad tracks creates a few issues with existing junctions and existing development nearby. However, moving the spur track two blocks south and over 18th Street would allow the tracks to tie into an existing junction (where the Orange Line splits off the Green Line) and over a surface parking lot in the northeast quadrant instead of requiring a building relocation. (Obviously noise would be an issue on this alignment for local residents, but noise would likely be an issue with an elevated alignment along the freight tracks as well.) Depending on how the junction is constructed, this location opens up a lot of different service patterns over the Red, Orange, and Green Lines. Here’s three of my favorite routing options:
The Q Line: Named for the overall shape of the route, the Q Line would function as a new Loop circulator, with service only between One Central and the Loop. Unfortunately as a standalone option it’s not great since it will increase congestion on the Loop, so this might be better served as an off-peak-only offering in conjunction with a different option, including…
The Red Line Spur: Passenger loads on the Red Line are significantly unbalanced between the North and South Sides, with the former having notably higher ridership demands. This option would send some southbound Red Line trains leaving Roosevelt up the 13th Street Incline onto the Orange/Green Line tracks (similar to the Red Line trains getting sent to Ashland/63rd during 95th/Dan Ryan construction) and over to One Central via the new 18th Street Elevated. Cutting service to the South Side is more challenging from a political and equity standpoint however, so this option may work best during peak hours only to complement an off-peak Q Line.
The Teal Line: The Teal Line and its subsequent secondary options kill two birds with one stone by serving One Central and also giving the Block 37 superstation a reason to exist so Chicago won’t have to repay $175 million to the feds. The Block 37 superstation included a planned northwest-to-southeast crossover between Clark/Lake in the Dearborn Subway and Monroe in the State Street Subway; a decent amount of the crossover was constructed before the project got mothballed. So the question is, can the crossover be completed for less than $175 million?
Option 1: Re-route Blue Line trains that terminate at UIC-Halsted through Block 37 and out to One Central. A straightforward option, but it may overcrowd Monroe and Jackson in the State Street Subway and crowd Clark/Lake with Blue-to-Blue transfers.
Option 2: A new standalone service (the Teal Line) between Jefferson Park and One Central to add additional service to the congested northern Blue Line. Would likely require a new yard somewhere to store and service trains.
Option 3: My personal favorite crazy idea, this proposal would reroute northbound Orange Line trains down the 13th Street Incline into the State Street Subway, through Block 37, and out to O’Hare to add service to the Northwest Side and to create a single Airport Line. This would also involve turning all Blue Line trains at Jefferson Park, except runs to/from Rosemont Yard and overnight service. With a single Midway-O’Hare service operating, a dedicated fleet of 7000-series (or whatever the next order ends up being) cars with luggage/bike racks could be used for the combined service. Since this proposal would also take Orange Line trains off the Loop Elevated, One Central would be served by a full-time Q Line.
North and South CHI-Line Circulator Buses
The CHI-Line would serve One Central with circulator buses and dedicated BRT-style stops along the McCormick Busway, primarily serving tourist destinations. The line would run from the Adler Planetarium, through the Museum Campus down to 18th Street, cross under Lake Shore Drive, and onto the Busway at One Central. Buses would continue north with stops at 11th Street, Balbo, Jackson, Monroe, and Millennium Station on the Busway. Buses would then head east on Lower Randolph, north on Lower Columbus, west on Lower South Water, and north on Lower Michigan Avenue to cross the Chicago River with stops at Lower Michigan/Lower Wacker to serve the Riverwalk and at Lower Michigan/Hubbard. From there, new bus lanes on Grand and Illinois would connect the rest of the CHI-Line to the Navy Pier bus terminal.
PACE ROUTE 955
If the One Central developers wanted BNSF service because they wanted to better connect the western suburbs to their development, I’ll say what I said to Kendall County last week: try a bus instead of a train first. The McCormick Busway’s south end is at 25th Street just one block east of the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Drive interchange on I-55, so One Central could work with Pace to start a new service that connects the Plainfield/Bolingbrook corridor to One Central via the Busway. If the Pace service can combine with CHI-Line service to the Museum Campus and/or Navy Pier, there’s even the potential for some weekend ridership gains for Pace.
It’s important not to look a gift horse in the mouth, so if developers like Landmark want to make a significant investment in our regional transit network, it’s in our best interest to find ways to leverage their offer. That said, just because they’re willing to kick in cash doesn’t mean we should simply go along with whatever they propose without weighing proposals on their merits, including operating costs and logistics involved with significantly changing well-established transit routes. One Central is still an exciting megaproject and has plenty of merit, but before the state makes a serious commitment for a transit hub, there are still a few kinks that need working out.