Diverging Approach: Downtime

The light at the end of the tunnel that is the COVID-19 pandemic gets a little brighter by the day. The holidays are behind us and, thankfully, Illinois did not appear to have as large of a post-holiday spike in cases as was anticipated. Vaccines are slowly being rolled out, case positivity is falling, and most regions of the state are moving forward to lower tiers and fewer restrictions. Of course, days are also getting longer and, while we’re still most definitely in the depths of winter, calendar pages keep turning towards warmer days and being able to spend more time outside. There’s plenty to be optimistic about.

Also cause for optimism are recent statements (and a few actions) by our commuter railroad. As we celebrated last week, Metra announced their intent to move forward with the first non-gallery-car coach procurement in the agency’s history, and more recently, Metra’s CEO Jim Derwinski mentioned that Metra would “love to start experimenting… with one of our partners on something that I’ll call regional rail, where trains are much more frequent,” going on to suggest half-hour off-peak headways and fifteen-minute peak headways. The article also says that the CEO alluded to flattening the peak a bit: “[Peak] Trains may be shorter, they may not be as frequent, but definitely [will address] the things that people want — express trains from where they’re at, the busiest stations downtown, that sort of thing.”

This is, of course, good news. Leadership at Metra is certainly starting to talk the talk, and there’s plenty of reason to hope and believe that in the very near future the railroad will start to walk the walk as well. Unfortunately though, some of the recent service changes we’ve seen don’t fully match that ambition: added service on the Milwaukee North that went into effect last week, for instance, brought back the odd one-direction semi-skip-stop pattern on morning trains that just about exactly matches the historic MD-N schedules (but still lacking the more robust reverse-commute trains that were being piloted in 2019).

There is also — in this blog’s opinion — cause for concern to focus so many resources on peak-period express services. While it’s true that everyone loves riding on an express train, while the agency still has a $70 million operational budget gap to address, adding service that by definition only benefits a select few riders does not seem to be an efficient use of funds.

For instance, today Metra announced that, beginning February 1, the Rock Island will be adding several new trains, including a second express round-trip to/from 80th Avenue. This means that, effective February 1, the Rock Island line will have more express trains now than it did before the pandemic hit. While it’s true that 80th Avenue was one of the busier stations on the Rock Island in pre-pandemic times, it’s also true that a majority of riders who rode the RI boarded downstream of 80th Avenue. Social distancing is of course important these days, but crowding onboard RI trains does not appear to be a significant issue according to Metra’s data.

Boardings at LaSalle Street are not included.

A similar trend is evident throughout Metra’s system: long-distance express trains most benefit riders who live furthest away from the downtown core, even though (using 2018 data) 45% of Metra’s ridership came from Zones A-D, with an overall plurality of riders boarding in Zone E.

Downtown boardings are not included. Note that Zones K and M have since been merged into Zone J.

The other issue with focusing on restoring peak period express trains — and, in some cases, peak service in general — is a raw inefficiency with scheduling crews. Metra’s service area is robust, with lines that extend as far as 65 miles from the downtown core (UP-NW). What this means is that scheduling peak-only service means most trains can only get a single revenue run in before the peak ends: a crew begins out in the hinterlands and makes their trip into the city and, in most cases regardless of local or express format, there simply isn’t enough time to deadhead the train back out to the end of the line with enough time to still arrive downtown by 9am or so. That crew and the train then sit idle for several hours until the evening rush period, where they make an outbound run and, once again, run out of time to make it back to the city for another evening peak trip.

Local media taking Metra to task for spending too much on onboard labor costs is something of a long-standing tradition, and to be clear this post is not accusing the agency of waste or accusing workers of any fault of their own. Conductors and engineers are essential, safety-critical staff that are necessary to the ongoing safe operation of trains and the safe loading and unloading of passengers throughout revenue service. (Conductors on Metra also collect fares and check tickets, but in more modern networks this is done differently and as such they really shouldn’t be considered essential duties in the 21st Century.) Likewise, onboard staff and their unions should always fight for the best pay and working conditions they can negotiate.

What this post is arguing for instead is using post-pandemic service restoration plans to totally reimagine scheduling as a whole, including how crews and equipment are deployed and operated throughout the system. To that point, the upcoming service change on the Rock Island is also somewhat promising: while there is the new express round-trip scheduled and even though the added two consists and crews still have to deal with midday downtime, it appears that the same consist and crew will be operating an early-morning round-trip, and additional added peak-period service on the suburban branch also includes filling some existing holes in the midday schedule.

Below is a stringline chart of service on the Rock Island, a draft of a larger project I’m working on to try and determine the most efficient use of crews and equipment on each of Metra’s lines using published schedule data. (There are a few reasons why this post is titled “downtime”, after all.) The dashed consists below (pink and lime) reflect the new service that will be added on February 1: note how adding two new consist/crews will serve ten new runs.

Also note that there are still two black “unpaired” peak trips, which suggest a long layover during the midday, and likewise note the long layovers for the pink, blue, and gold consists. Based on my estimations, Metra needs to operate eight consists throughout the day to provide scheduled service on the Rock Island, and despite that there’s still a gap from 11:50 to 12:10 every weekday where there are zero trains in service anywhere on the line.

Yes, there are more of these coming, and yes, there will be more in-depth explainers to accompany them once I get them all up on the site.

These charts are also useful because they very easily show not only where there are gaps in service, but also what resources are available to fill them: in this case, Consists Pink and Blue (or one of the two peak-only consists) could be used to interlace service through the midday period to halve the midday 2-hour headways on the main line and, depending on labor rules, the only added cost to Metra would be fuel.

I’m a certified Professonal Transportation Planner with two college degrees and I’m using my talents to draw lines on Excel charts. Things are going great!

For the record: while added service is always great, it’s nonetheless concerning that there’s little if any public feedback loop on these schedule changes. On the aforementioned Milwaukee North changes, for instance, several stations actually lost service as part of the schedule update (Deerfield, Lake Forest, Prairie Crossing, Grayslake, Round Lake, Long Lake, and Ingleside each lost one inbound train; Libertyville lost two inbound trains). We’re all blazing new trails as the pandemic continues and the “new normal” still feels very fluid and elusive, and — as we’ve literally told Metra before — it’s important now to work with the communities most impacted by service changes to help determine the best ways to make service more responsive and efficient.

It’s been nearly a year since the pandemic first ground life in Chicagoland (and around the world) to a halt, and faced with some of these catastrophic changes we’re all forced to adapt to, our local transit agencies deserve no shortage of credit for the work they’ve done to keep transit (mostly) operating for essential workers, with Metra in particular deserving additional credit for indicating that the agency is open to the seismic shifts that will be necessary to keep the railroad relevant as we eventually transition back to whatever the “new normal” looks like. In the meantime, the need to find new ways to operate and to leverage assets — both capital assets and human assets — to provide robust, responsive service to help ensure an equitable recovery for everyone in our region.

Transit, bars, and restaurants are all experiencing extreme financial hardships throughout the pandemic. The Yard Social Club remains committed, now more than ever, to use our unique little corner of the internet to help all three by providing up-to-date resources and services to help Chicago-area residents ditch their cars for an afternoon and enjoy a transit-focused pub crawl. If you’d like to support our operations to help support sustainable suburbia, be sure to follow @YardSocialClub and @StarLineChicago on Twitter.

Diverging Approach: Beginning of the End

It happened. It finally happened.

At today’s board meeting, Metra’s board finally marked the beginning of the end of the loathed gallery cars by approving an (up to) $1.8 billion contract with Alstom to build new, modern, bilevel passenger coaches. These low-floor coaches will include more modern amenities, including dedicated bike racks, powered doors throughout the coach (including lavatories and between coaches), partially-heated floors and more. Other than the unwieldy boxy design (that is apparently intentional to make them better blend in with the existing gallery car fleet), this procurement is a massive step forward for a more modern, more accessible, actual 21st-Century fleet.

Check out the video here:

The initial contract is for a base order of 200 coaches, with options for up to 300 more; Metra’s existing fleet is 840 cars, so even if the contract is maxed out we’ll still have gallery cars around for many more decades.

To be clear, the procurement still is far from perfect: cycling advocates have pointed out that the vertical bike racks as shown can be difficult to use with heavier bikes; this fleet of unpowered cars does nothing to create a more nimble, more flexible fleet of multiple-unit coaches that can be more efficiently used for “milk run” all-stop operations that would be important for better off-peak frequency; and this blog is still concerned with spending $61.6 million on new coaches in FY2021 while the railroad reports a $70 million as-yet-unaccounted-for gap in operations funding for the same duration.

But it’s important to not let the perfect be the enemy of the good and still celebrate success stories like these. This is a huge step forward for Metra, and while there are still lots of operational deficiencies that need to be addressed post-pandemic, everyone involved — including all of us squeaky wheels who did bend the board’s ear — should be proud of the work done to make this procurement a reality and to finally roll out a 21st-Century fleet befitting one of the nation’s largest passenger railroads.

There’s still much work to be done in terms of modernizing operations to make Metra the regional rail provider it needs to be for a post-pandemic suburban Chicago: pulse scheduling, proof-of-payment, integrated transfers, and increased service are all pressing needs, as well as the looming shadow of the aforementioned $70 million budget hole this year. But today is a day for celebration and appreciation. Today is a victory, and tomorrow we keep pushing forward.

A thank you to friend-of-the-blog @inaoifeble who kept tabs on today’s board meeting and live-tweeted the spectacle. The video of the full board meeting is available on Metra’s website (meeting starts at about 1:23:40).

Diverging Approach: Now What

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 dramatic reinventing 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 each drive 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.

Slide Into My DMS

Using a rare non-Diverging Approach blog post to discuss some personal matters (and I promise, I’ll get back to blogging soon). As many readers already know, in addition to being a suburban transit nerd and advocate here at The Yard Social Club and at Star:Line Chicago, I’m also a professional transportation planner. For over a decade, I’ve worked in Chicago’s transportation industry as a consultant and, more recently, in the public sector with stints at the Chicago Transit Authority, Metra, and the Illinois Department of Transportation. This is also why every page on this website and every downloadable PDF here includes a quick little disclaimer that everything I do here is totally unrelated to my current and various past employers.

Unfortunately, after two years at the state, my position was eliminated as part of a larger court-mandated job reclassification effort. I was given the opportunity to apply for the replacement position and while I was invited to interview for the new position, I ended up not being the selected candidate. It was obviously disappointing, but I have no hard feelings towards the agency and I wish my co-workers and my replacement the best of luck moving forward.

While I was at IDOT, I eventually ended up becoming part of the agency’s internal Dynamic Message Sign (DMS) committee, and I ultimately ended up becoming one of the more prolific authors of some of the safety messages motorists have seen on interstates and expressways throughout the state. If you’ve driven on Illinois expressways over the last 18 months, there’s a very good chance you’ve read some of my work once or twice.

With March upon us — and with plenty of extra time on my hands — I wanted to take something of a final lap of my time as one of those DMS writers and to have some fun with the modest following we have on our social media accounts (and if this ends up landing my resume on an extra desk or two, all the better). I’ve pulled out 68 of my favorite messages that I was responsible for and assembled the “Slide Into My DMS” bracket. All throughout March, I’m inviting you all to follow us on the Star:Line Chicago Twitter account and vote for your favorites in head-to-head matches. The full bracket is located in this Google Sheets document, and the matchups (and much of the bracket introduction you just read) are all located in this Twitter thread.

It’s important to note that I was only one person on the DMS committee, and that some of the messages also came from a contest IDOT ran in 2018 and from some peer Departments of Transportation, so you may have a few personal favorites that aren’t shown here. However, everything in the bracket includes my contributions to the zeitgeist, so maybe there are a few in here you enjoyed as well.

Bracket Rules and Format

The official bracket is over on Google Sheets, which will also include links to active and past matches, which are in the form of Twitter polls. Poll durations may vary, but each poll (except the play in matches, which have already concluded) will be open at least 48 hours. Each day, four new polls will open, and all polls will be included in the same Twitter thread for easy reference. Follow us on Twitter @StarLineChicago to participate!

The Kennedy Region

The Kennedy Region includes 17 messages that were based on current events, ranging from annual events like Chicago’s Air and Water Show to more esoteric pop culture milestone anniversaries (generally 20th, 25th, 30th, etc.) that take a little digging to appreciate. But here’s the cheat sheet.

1ARUBA, JAMAICA // TEXTING’S A // MISTAKE-A8/26/19StatewideCelebrating the 30th Anniversary of The Beach Boys’ Still Cruisin’ album, widely regarded to be their worst album to date.
2YEAH, IF YOU COULD // NOT TEXT AND DRIVE // THAT’D BE GREAT2/20/19StatewideOffice Space‘s 20th Anniversary. Ended up with over 87,000 upvotes on Reddit.
3SLOWING DOWN // IN WORK ZONES // IS SO FETCH10/3/19StatewideOn October 3rd, he asked me what day it was.
4TRY PUMPKIN // THE BRAKES // IN WORK ZONES9/11/19StatewideScheduled to run concurrently with Morton’s annual pumpkin festival, and the annual PSL fever.
5ANO TEXTING // NO SPEEDING // NO KETCHUP7/12/18Chicago-areaTaste of Chicago 2018.
5BDRAG YOUR HOTDOGS // DIP YOUR BEEFS // DROP YOUR PHONES7/10/19Chicago-areaTaste of Chicago 2019. (“Drag it through the garden.”)
6POP QUIZ, HOTSHOT: // NOT BUCKLED UP? // WHAT DO YOU DO?6/10/19StatewideShoot the hostage.
7HEY CHICAGO, WHAT // DO U SAY? DID U // BUCKLE UP TODAY?4/8/19Chicago-areaCubs home opener.
8DON’T BE ALL BLUE! // TAKE FIVE TO // DESIGNATE A DRIVER8/29/19Chicago-areaJazz Fest.
9BEAT DA PACKERS // BEAT DA TRAFFIC // USE MASS TRANSIT9/5/19Chicago-areaBears home opener (on a Thursday night).
10BABY, YOU’RE MUCH // TOO FAST: SLOW // DOWN IN WORK ZONES6/7/19StatewideWe miss you, Prince.
11DIDN’T BUCKLE UP? // YOU CHOSE… // POORLY5/24/19StatewideThere’s probably a “no ticket” joke in here too somewhere.
12“OH, IT’S // JUST A TEXT?” // DON’T GIMME THAT9/26/19StatewideThe Biz never sleeps.
13“DON’T YOU // FORGET ABOUT ME” // -YOUR SEAT BELT2/15/20StatewideDoes that answer your question? Sincerely yours…
14SAVE THE FLYING // FOR THE PILOTS // OBEY SPEED LIMITS8/16/19Chicago-areaAir and Water Show.
15DON’T BE A // FOOL IN THE RAIN // WIPER ON LIGHTS ON8/15/19StatewideGetting the Led out.
16GET BUSY LIVING // GET BUSY DRIVING // PUT THE PHONE AWAY9/23/19StatewideI guess I just miss my friend.

The Eisenhower Region

The Eisenhower Region includes 17 holiday-themed messages. Don’t take the seeds too seriously here; I put my finger on the scale a bit to make sure the Halloween and Christmas messages were all grouped together.

2STARTING 2020 // ON A HIGH NOTE? // DESIGNATE A DRIVER12/31/19StatewideNew Year’s Eve (and cannabis legalization)
3BOOS, NOT BOOZE // SAVE A SCARE // DESIGNATE A DRIVER10/25/19StatewideHalloween
5OH WHAT FUN IT IS // TO RIDE IN A SOBER // DRIVER’S SLEIGH12/20/19StatewideChristmas
7GREEN LIGHT BEER // LEADS TO // BLUE LIGHTS HERE3/17/19StatewideSt. Patrick’s Day (meet me downtown this year!)
8TEXTING IS TACKY // TELL THEM YOU LOVE // THEM IN PERSON2/14/19StatewideValentine’s Day
9SIPPING MARGARITAS // OR MINT JULEPS? // DESIGNATE A DRIVER5/4/19StatewideCinco de Mayo and the Kentucky Derby
10ACOLUMBUS MADE IT // BECAUSE HE DIDN’T // TEXT WHILE SAILING10/14/19StatewideColumbus Day 2019
10B“DISCOVER” YOUR // SEAT BELT // CLICK IT OR TICKET10/8/18StatewideColumbus Day 2018
11EXTRA HOUR IN JAIL // FOR DRUNK DRIVERS // THIS WEEKEND11/2/19StatewideDaylight savings time ends
14SCARIEST COSTUME: // A DRIVER // WHO TEXTS10/31/19StatewideHalloween
15NO SALE IS // TO DIE FOR // SLOW DOWN11/29/19StatewideBlack Friday

The Stevenson Region

The Stevenson Region includes 16 special messages displayed for particular concert or one-time sporting events throughout the state. These are also pretty indicative of my varied tastes/guilty pleasures in music.

SeedMessageDateArtist and Location
1DON’T BE A SUCKER // GET AN S.O.S. OUT // TO A SOBER DRIVER9/19/19Jonas Brothers @ United Center
2A SAFE RIDE HOME: // SEE IT, LIKE IT // WANT IT, GET IT6/4/19Ariana Grande @ United Center
3GET THE RIGHT // STUFF: HANG TOUGH // WITH SOBER DRIVERS6/14/19New Kids On The Block @ Allstate Arena
4DON’T GET BROUGHT // DOWN WITH A DUI // DESIGNATE A DRIVER7/27/19Electric Light Orchestra @ United Center
5HEADING HOME? A SOBER DRIVER CAN // SHOW YOU THE WAY7/28/19Peter Frampton @ Northerly Island
6BELIEVE WHEN I SAY // PLEASE PUT YOUR // PHONE AWAY8/10/19Backstreet Boys @ United Center
8GET A SOBER ANGEL // TO DRIVE AND // THERE’S NO PROBLEM9/28/19Chance the Rapper @ United Center
9DON’T LET ME DOWN // GET CLOSER WITH A // DESIGNATED DRIVER10/4/19The Chainsmokers @ United Center
10IF YOU CAN’T BE A // 4-TIME WORLD CHAMP // BE A SAFE DRIVER10/6/19USWNT friendly @ Soldier Field
12BUCKLE UP // DOO DOO // DO-DOO DO-DOO10/28/19Baby Shark Live @ TaxSlayer Center
13ONE LOOK // (AT YOUR PHONE) // COULD KILL7/7/19Alice Cooper @ Peoria Civic Center
14WHAT’S THE DEAL // WITH PEOPLE WHO // DON’T BUCKLE UP?12/19/19Jerry Seinfeld @ Peoria Civic Center
15GOT DOUBLE VISION? // IT’S URGENT // DESIGNATE A DRIVER6/23/19Foreigner @ Assembly Hall
16MEET YOUR SOBER // RIDE HOME BEFORE // YOU START TO SWAY7/20/19Michael Buble @ Allstate Arena

The Dan Ryan Region

The Dan Ryan Region includes 18 messages displayed for no particular reason other than promoting safe driving.

* – My last day at IDOT was 2/20, but messages were scheduled through early March.

Follow the matches and vote on the Star:Line Chicago Twitter account. And yes, feel free to slide into the DMs.

Diverging Approach: Reboot

They say, “write what you know.” For me and this blog, that usually amounts to my variety of (mis)adventures on Chicago-area transit. I originally started this site as a suburban advocate for transit, providing train crawl resources to make it easier for suburbanites to plan fun outings on Metra in the hope that, if someone has a good time on transit when they’re just hanging out in the suburbs on a weekend, they’ll be more likely to choose transit for future trips. Earlier this year, I realized that being a suburban advocate for transit wasn’t enough; I also needed to become a suburban transit advocate, someone who fights for a better transit system to serve the suburbs. That’s when I launched Star:Line Chicago and this blog, as someone who knew just enough to be dangerous with my modest background working at the CTA and Metra.

I enjoy running this blog, and I’ve gotten a lot of productive feedback from friends, industry peers, and a few laypeople who have stumbled upon the site.

But, as regulars know, I became somewhat less of a suburbanite this summer, when my wife and I bought our first house and moved from our rented two-flat in LaGrange to our bungalow in Forest Park. In doing so, I traded in my Metra monthly for a CTA/Pace 30-Day pass. If you’re not familiar with Forest Park, the village lies in one of the grayest areas of suburban living: our taxes don’t go to CPS and we’re not officially Chicagoans, but we ride the CTA, our houses have city lot sizes and alleys, and our neighborhoods are very diverse. The difference for a childless household in Forest Park and in a neighborhood like Jefferson Park is basically where our property taxes go and what color the streetlights are.

And Jefferson Park has Metra.

As some of you have probably noticed, since the move I’ve blogged (and tweeted) more frequently about Pace than Metra, since that’s my experience now. Living in Forest Park is a great opportunity for me to get to know the Pace system better, an important part of going car-less or car-light in the suburbs. Expect more Pace material in the future; I’m hosting our first-ever bus crawl in January if you want to experience Pace first-hand.

But I’m still a Metra regular; I’ve simply gone from a “normal” Metra commuter to an off-peak specialist. I’m writing this on the Milwaukee West right now.

And off-peak is Metra’s biggest weakness and greatest opportunity,

Earlier this week I put together a Crawl Concierge request for someone out in Geneva who wants to crawl the UP-W. The UP-W – officially my nearest Metra service, in Oak Park and River Forest – ‪is apparently on a construction schedule (which didn’t show up as a service alert on the Ventra app or on Metra’s website), which means the official schedule says inbound trains get to Ogilvie on even hours,‬ instead of on the odd :50s as scheduled. ‪To put it another way, according to the published schedules, an inbound rider from Elmhurst could get off at Oak Park, wait 8 minutes, transfer to the Green Line, make all 13 stops to Clinton (the stop before Clark/Lake) and beat the UP-W train to Ogilvie.‬

‪Of course, it doesn’t actually take 32 minutes to go the 9 or so miles from Oak Park to Ogilvie; Metra adds the time padding to maintain its on-time performance. Likewise, the train probably won’t actually get into Oak Park as scheduled at 3:28pm.

The national standard for on-time trains is as long as the train reaches its final destination within 5min 59sec of the published arrival time, the entire train is on time; tacking on extra minutes at the end of the run is an easy (and lazy) way to maintain on-time performance.‬ It also leads to what I call “Schrödinger’s Delays”, where in this case a train can come into Oak Park well behind schedule but magically makes it downtown on-time. The customer experience is waiting longer on a cold platform for a train that could arrive 15 minutes after when the schedule says it’ll get to the station, just to see Metra present a stellar on-time performance at the next board meeting.

Whether Metra wants to believe it or not, it’s almost 2019, and people use technology and transportation apps to help make their mode choice decisions when they travel. Construction schedules that provide for more realistic arrival/departures at intermediate stations would have shorter in-vehicle times and can help make transit more attractive, even if it means getting downtown a little later. ‪During the week, Metra has an inherent competitive edge: going downtown requires driving through heavy traffic and paying for expensive parking, giving the train a speed and cost edge, especially considering Metra runs frequent express trains on many lines. But off-peak, Metra needs to be more aggressive in courting ridership.‬ ‪Trains run slower (more stops) and less conveniently (higher headways), whereas there’s less road traffic and cheaper parking. And sure enough, by time period off-peak is where Metra’s seeing the worst losses. ‬

Courtesy of Metra’s September 2018 Ridership Report.

‪Of course, Metra’s Weekend Pass went up 25% this year ($8 to $10) so that undoubtedly plays into those ~10% year-over-year ridership losses for Saturdays and Sundays, but that’s all the more reason why Metra can’t afford to slack off on weekend schedules.‬

Metra needs to run more weekend trains. Full stop. And, let’s be honest, there’s zero appetite for that from the board due to budget issues. But the next best thing is doing a comprehensive audit of weekend service and modernizing the schedule.‬ ‪Growing up in Itasca, I got to know the weekend schedule of the Milwaukee West pretty well, and as far back as I can remember the only difference between 1989’s schedule and 2019’s schedule is a few minutes here and there.‬ Thirty years ago, ‪hourly inbound morning trains and hourly outbound afternoon trains make sense if “banker’s hours” were needed for Saturday half days. But Metra needs to realize that in 2019 their core market on weekends is leisure riders and families, not white-collar downtown workers.‬ ‪Suburbanites make a definite choice in how they get downtown outside of rush hour, and they choose not to ride Metra on weekends because two-hour headways to come home at night are insufficient. ‪

Metra needs to better understand how travelers use their system when they don’t have the inherent advantages of the rush hour market. Off-peak, people take Metra either because they absolutely have to or because they absolutely want to, with not many riders in between.‬ Adding later trains would get more people on morning trains, an induced demand Metra fails to tap.‬ ‪Kill the outbound 1:30p, 3:30p, and/or 5:30p Saturday afternoon departures on each line that has them and replace them with 7:30p, 9:30p, and/or 11:30p and see what happens. (Hint: more people will choose to ride the train.)‬

‪In this era of funding constraints, Metra’s (rightfully) trying to pick off all the low-hanging fruit they can when it comes to fleet maintenance (rehabs, buying second-hand, etc.), but on the schedule side all they have in their toolbox is botching PTC rollouts and ongoing threats of service cuts.‬ ‪Metra’s greatest opportunities for growth are off-peak and reverse commutes, but their bread-and-butter continues to be peak hour peak direction commuters that is almost the sole focus of the agency as ridership slides.‬

Off-peak ridership boosts aren’t the silver bullet Metra needs for everything to be okay; as the Metra board says at every opportunity, Metra’s underlying funding model is outdated and inadequate. But that’s no excuse for Metra’s off-peak service to run on outdated and inadequate schedules. Nibbling on the edges of the margins is not a long-term way to run a railroad, but Metra has to accept they aren’t just a railroad any more. Metra needs to think of themselves as a suburban transit provider first and a railroad second.

But they don’t. And they won’t.

Which is why I still tilt at these windmills. Being able to take Pace to Metra is a big reason why my wife and I will be a one-car family after the new year – even though we don’t live in a Metra community – and every day there seems to be a new, dire warning about how man-made climate change will doom us all. Metra needs to evolve to better serve the suburbs for 2019, not 1989.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Diverging Approach: The Freakin’ Weekend

This post originated as a (buzzed) thread on @StarLineChicago‘s Twitter account. It is mildly edited. Follow us on Twitter for more suburban transportation content and critiques.

First and foremost: it’s a long weekend. Stay safe, party responsibly, and remember that Metra Weekend Passes are good Saturday, Sunday, AND Monday this weekend. Give your car a break and ride the train!

Since it’s a long weekend, Metra also rolled out “early release” schedules for those of us who had to work on Friday. Unfortunately there is no default “early release” schedule system-wide, which seems like a missed opportunity to make the system more rider-friendly, but I digress.

I’m writing this onboard the BNSF 7:00 local to Downers Grove, which was “packed” with inbound riders when it arrived at Union Station. (“Packed” was in quotations due to the artificial scarcity Metra routinely uses where additional coaches don’t open up until the train is almost at standing-room-only passenger levels. I understand it makes life harder for the conductors to deal with a full consist with only a handful of people on board, but still, opening up an extra car or two would greatly improve the customer experience if you can find a seat without sharing or if your group can sit together when the train is at 50% capacity.) But that’s not terribly important (even though there was one afternoon inbound delay due to “passenger loading”), and there was also an inbound train that had to express due to freight train interference, and BNSF threw on an extra train to accommodate (according to Twitter, at least).

All this brings up a useful conversation on a holiday weekend: kudos to Metra for adding service for commuters quitting work early, but what about suburbanites heading downtown for the holiday weekend? People in the suburbs like going downtown. Especially on Friday nights. Especially on holiday weekends. And especially especially when the weather is decent. Metra knows their bread and butter is people from the burbs heading downtown and taking the train back home when they’re done, and they usually focus on the work commuter rush. Which is fine and will always be Metra’s core constituency. But the leisure rider component can’t be overlooked. On weekend nights, suburbanites like going downtown to have fun, and if they take Metra downtown they’ll take Metra home.

Metra needs to run more frequent outbound evening trains on weekends. Ask any suburbanite about trips to the city, and the refrain is overwhelmingly common: “I want to take the train, but I don’t want to wait two hours if I miss my train home.” So they drive.

On Fridays, the opposite is true: there are generally plenty of trains to get home, but getting downtown requires a little more strategy. (And it’s more expensive because Metra doesn’t start their Weekend Passes on Friday nights, which they should.)

So for holiday weekends when demand is high – or maybe every summer Friday – here’s an easy fix for Metra: open up the deadheads. When Metra adds afternoon service to trains leaving downtown, that train ends up empty somewhere down the line. Then that train closes up and runs express back downtown to make the next outbound run. (That empty trip is a “deadhead”.) This means Metra is running more inbound trains on Friday afternoons before long weekends, and generally (because it’s a special “early release” schedule) there’s more flexibility in the schedule itself to add some time to make a few more inbound stops.

Open up the trains and advertise that Metra is offering additional/express service to the city in advance of the holiday weekend. It costs Metra nothing extra, since that train and that crew is deadheading anyway. Even if it only picks up 30 riders on that inbound train, whatever, that’s 30 new riders who are going to also take Metra back home at the end of the night. If Metra is going to alter service for a holiday weekend, leverage that opportunity to get more people from the burbs downtown instead of focusing almost exclusively on getting commuters home.

From a financial perspective, the early release service for regular commuters largely serves the monthly pass or 10-Ride crowd, whereas additional inbound afternoon service serves the one-way crowd, which means Metra can earn higher per-passenger fares for those Friday leisure trips. We encourage Metra to accommodate those riders heading downtown for fun: an underutilized market to tap in an era of declining ridership. Open up the deadheads and see what happens.

Have a safe Memorial Day weekend, and we’ll see you on the train!

Diverging Approach: Eat Elon Musk’s Lunch

The O’Hare Express project is back in the news now that Elon Musk and his Boring Company is bidding for the project. The project, which started as a pet project from the second Mayor Daley to get express rail service between downtown and O’Hare Airport, most recently ended up with the CTA holding the bag on a $400-million hole in the ground underneath what’s now known as Block 37. Since Elon Musk walks on water in the tech community, his interest in the project is nothing to scoff at. A subset of urban planners fawn over his every move in regards to electric vehicles (which are good), autonomous driving (which will probably be a mixed bag), and his Boring Company’s tunnels (which are currently actively sabotaging a subway expansion project in Los Angeles) as a total paradigm shift in how we move around our cities, and they’re probably right: there’s no going back at this point, for better or worse.

Back to Chicago. The O’Hare Express project is back from the dead, with three corridors under consideration: a corridor paralleling the northern half of the Blue Line; a corridor paralleling the southern half of the Blue Line, then following a freight corridor through River Forest, Melrose Park, and Franklin Park; and the existing Metra North Central Service corridor.

The northern Blue Line corridor obviously already connects downtown and O’Hare in a pretty straightforward alignment. Chicago’s aviation commissioner proposed simply double-decking the Blue Line for express service, which is an, uh, interesting proposal given that the Blue Line runs in a subway, and as an elevated, and in the median of the Kennedy.

In the past, I’ve argued that the most feasible alignment for any airport express service would parallel the southern Blue Line in the median of the Eisenhower, which was built extra-wide to host the Chicago, Aurora, and Elgin interurban tracks before that railroad ceased operations during construction of the Eisenhower. From there, the airport express train would operate along the freight line connecting Forest Park and O’Hare (which is part of the southern alignment under consideration), but running at-grade through River Forest’s residential neighborhoods would probably be a non-starter. Furthermore, this line would open up new transit opportunities for developments and institutions in the near western suburbs (notably Triton College) under a more local service pattern, which of course is not being considered as part of the project.

But this entire conversation misses a huge point: Metra is already in a perfect position to offer premium service to O’Hare over existing trackage. Indeed, the NCS does serve O’Hare and, if you’re able to catch the train, it’s faster to downtown than the Blue Line: trains 102 and 108 make the trip from O’Hare to Union Station in 33-35 minutes, compared with 40ish minutes on the Blue Line from O’Hare to Clark/Lake.

In the past, the Metra “connection” to O’Hare hasn’t been more than an afterthought: yes, Metra ostensibly serves the airport, but requires transferring to a bus to transfer to the Airport Transit System people mover in Remote Parking Lot E before you get to the terminals. This extra time on-property at the airport kills any time savings compared to the Blue Line, and given Metra also charges a significant price premium — O’Hare is Zone D, so one-way tickets are $6.25, which is even higher than the CTA’s $5 boarding charge at O’Hare — it’s not a realistic alternative for travelers. Besides, running only ten trains each day in each direction on the NCS means travelers probably would need to do some contortions to get a Metra train that works with their flight schedules. And, of course, the NCS doesn’t offer weekend service, which is a huge shortcoming on the line and the source of ire for many northern suburbs along the line, which are proactively working with the RTA to study potential funding options that would allow for expanded NCS service. This blog wholeheartedly supports these communities in pursuing innovative financing options to expand off-peak service opportunities in this corridor.

It’s easy to sit here and say “run more NCS trains”, and just about every regional transit advocate has said that at one point or another. However, Metra’s behind the 8-ball a bit since they don’t actually control the line. Let’s back up a second for an explainer.

Most people think of Metra as a monolithic entity that runs the region’s 11 commuter rail lines, and to a significant extent that’s true: Metra has a unified ticketing system (and yes, your ticket is good on any line as long as you stay within the zone pair on the ticket), Metra’s planning staff oversees capital planning efforts throughout the region, Metra’s social media person has to deal with complaints from all the lines, etc. However, the actual system is much, much more complicated.

Generally speaking, there are three types of agreements Metra has for actually running the trains:

  • Full control. On the two Milwaukee lines, the Rock Island, the SouthWest Service, and the Electric, Metra owns and controls everything: they own the tracks, they own the trains, engineers and conductors are Metra employees, etc. (In the case of the SWS the tracks are actually leased to Metra, but it functions the same.) Even then though, Metra may outsource some things like dispatching to other railroads.
  • Trackage rights. On the Heritage Corridor and the North Central Service, Metra owns and staffs the trains but a freight railroad owns the tracks and as such Metra has to play by their rules. This is one of the reasons why HC service is almost non-existent (and why we think Metra should work with Pace or run their own buses to offer complementary bus service under the Heritage Corridor brand) and why it’s difficult to add train service to the NCS. Technically, since Amtrak owns Union Station and a mile of track in either direction, the Milwaukees and the SWS occasionally have to deal with that as well.
  • Purchase-of-Service. When the RTA was first organized in the 1970s to subsidize commuter service, they paid the freight railroads to operate commuter rail service. Over time, four lines – the BNSF Railway and the three Union Pacifics – still use this set-up. On these trains, Metra owns the trains themselves, but everything else – including staff – is under the jurisdiction of the host railroad. Metra has the least control over these lines: since they’re owned and operated by freight railroads, it’s not surprising that those railroads tend to prioritize their profitable freight operations rather than passenger service that was mostly grandfathered in from previous railroads they purchased and merged with over the years.

Back to the NCS: Metra initially launched the North Central Service under trackage rights with the Wisconsin Central Railroad. Since then, however, Wisconsin Central was bought by the Canadian National (CN) Railroad, which is less-receptive to expanding passenger operations. For instance, in 2006 Metra invested in additional stations and significant (but not full) double-tracking through the corridor in an effort to raise the number of daily trains from 10 to 22. However, to hit that magic number of 22 trains, Metra had to operate rush-hour skip-stop trains, which did speed up operations a bit but also allowed Metra to operate two trains within a single window of time. (The skip-stop trains have since been consolidated into a single all-stop to cut costs.) The 22nd (now 20th) train also required some creative scheduling: the last inbound train each night serves Antioch, Lake Villa, Round Lake Beach, and Washington Street before switching to the MD-N and running express into the city the rest of the way. This effectively leaves most of the corridor without an inbound train after 6pm.

Whenever additional NCS frequency comes up, the response is usually a quick “no” from either Metra or the CN, since the corridor is a key part of moving CN freight trains from points north into Chicago, including freight yards in Bensenville and Schiller Park (the former of which requires trains reversing down the MD-W through Franklin Park, leading to some notorious street delays in that community). Since railroads generally don’t play nice with each other, re-routing CN freight trains off the corridor using a different railroad’s tracks is frowned upon (although the CN did purchase the Elgin, Joliet, and Eastern (EJ&E) railroad to allow them to bypass Chicago as needed – and more or less killed the actual STAR Line proposal at the same time).

But what if the focus was less on getting all the way to Antioch and more on just getting service to Rosemont and O’Hare? Two new developments are making that a more attractive possibility.

First and foremost, O’Hare is nearing completion of their consolidated rental car facility adjacent to the O’Hare Transfer NCS station. Most importantly in this context, O’Hare’s people mover is also being extended to the facility. Now Metra riders will be able to walk from train to tram and go straight to the terminals without a bus connection. While dealing with the people mover is still less desirable than going straight into the terminal core like the Blue Line does, it’s worth noting Terminal 5 fliers will still need to use the people mover, and Terminal 5 will start to see more domestic flights as part of the “Global Terminal” core revisioning the city’s Department of Aviation is currently working on.

Second, the Village of Schiller Park applied for an RTA grant to create a transit-oriented development plan on the site of the current CN yard. If the yard is expected to wind down operations in the near future, additional land could be reserved for Metra-dedicated trackage. There would still be constraints at the B-12 Junction (where the NCS splits off the MD-W), but it’s not unreasonable to consider the possibility of Metra-dedicated track from O’Hare to River Grove and using the existing three-track MD-W main line the rest of the way to Union Station. (A stub track at the O’Hare Transfer station would also be needed to allow crews to change ends off the main line.)

It’d be great to roll out full weekend service to the entire NCS corridor, but that’s a heavy lift due to freight implications (and at-grade railroad junctions with the UP-NW and MD-N). But in the meantime, Metra can eat Elon Musk’s lunch and operate dedicated express service to O’Hare in the very short-term future. Current travel times to O’Hare from Union Station are officially as low as 32 minutes including stops at Belmont Avenue, Schiller Park, and Rosemont, which means direct service could break the half-hour mark. While O’Hare express is the target of the current plans the city is pushing, being able to directly serve the Rosemont entertainment district would broaden the customer base and potentially tap another funding source in the Village of Rosemont, which hasn’t shied away from kicking in for transportation infrastructure improvements especially as their “Pearl District” continues to develop and come online.

If you want to see how easy this trip could possibly be, join us for Star:Line Social on Friday, June 15 as we take the NCS to Rosemont to check out the Chicago Dogs. A limited amount of tickets are still available!

Diverging Approach: A Letter to Metra

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

To whom it may concern:
I am writing in regards to the proposed changes to Metra’s BNSF schedule.  First and foremost, I would like to thank Metra for opening up the proposed schedule changes to public comment.  Seeking feedback from your riders on proposed schedule changes is admirable, and I sincerely hope the input you receive is both constructive and instructive as to what Metra’s ridership would prefer in changes to existing service.
Secondly, I would like to thank Metra for taking the initiative to add additional time when flipping trains. While I am aware that investments in Positive Train Control (PTC) are prompting this recommended change, additional buffer time between trains will help Metra maintain schedule adherence and help absorb minor delays when they occur so late trains don’t get any later.  This is an admirable goal, and I thank Metra for pursuing it.  However, having reviewed the proposed schedule changes, I have many concerns about how this will affect BNSF ridership — myself included as a regular commuter from LaGrange Road.
First and foremost, I don’t understand why additional time to flip trains is required as part of PTC implementation.  For Metra and the BNSF to spend tens of millions of dollars on a safety system that can’t be operated in push-pull mode seems to be a significant missed opportunity. Furthermore, while I understand both Metra and BNSF treat safety as job number one (as they should), the utility of an entirely separate job briefing when flipping a train — even if the train is deadheading back to Union Station or to an outlying terminal — seems wasteful and could easily be consolidated into a briefing at the beginning of a dedicated out-and-back run rather than a trip in each direction.  As such, I am not convinced that the BNSF requires as much additional time to flip the train as reported by Metra and the BNSF.
Secondly, while adjusting schedules to address crowding issues in the AM Peak is admirable, adjusting schedules for PM Peak crowding is not needed.  Bluntly stated, riders on outbound trains who cannot find seats during the afternoon peak simply did not arrive at Union Station early enough.  If riders barely make the outbound departure and must stand, so be it: I am sure that many Naperville/Route 59 riders would rather stand for 32 minutes than sit on a train that takes 45+ minutes to reach their stations.  However, riders on inbound trains in the morning do not have that luxury; the train is as crowded as it is when it gets to your station and boarding passengers must deal with it.  While an additional inbound express train from Aurora-Route 59-Naperville was added in the proposed schedule, the new schedule shifts the morning peak period deeper into the midday period, with some express trains arriving at Union Station after 9am.  Adding that additional Aurora-Route 59-Naperville express train comes at the expense of pushing a Lisle-Hinsdale express train to arrive at Union Station after 9am as well as pushing a Fairview Avenue-Congress Park train to arrive at Union Station at 8:59am.  As I’m sure most of the comments you’re receiving will tell you, in my experience the busiest trains of the AM peak period arrive downtown before 8:30am.  Pushing some of these trains to arrive at Union Station later will encourage existing riders to move to earlier trains, which is not only an inconvenience (no one wants to wake up earlier) but also adds additional riders to trains you want to decongest, which is counter-intuitive.  To address crowding at Naperville, I recommend instead converting the morning schedule to something more similar to the afternoon schedule, where Aurora riders utilize Lisle-Belmont-Downers Main trains and reserve dedicated express service to Route 59 and Naperville (your #1 and #2 suburban ridership stations).
Thirdly, the changes to the PM Peak schedule unnecessarily complicate the schedule, which raises an additional barrier to entry for new or infrequent riders.  The existing schedule is complicated enough as it is — in two instances, I personally get back to LaGrange Road sooner on certain express trains that leave after earlier local trains — but this proposed schedule takes that to an entirely different level.  The proposed schedule aligns express trains to arrive slightly after earlier local/other express trains, so intermediate riders who may not be coming from downtown will miss potential connections by a matter of minutes.  Currently, trains can be grouped into roughly four express zones: Aurora/Lisle-Belmont-Downers Main, Naperville/Route 59, Hinsdale-Fairview Avenue, and Congress Park-Highlands. Some trains will combine two of those zones, but otherwise the schedule is pretty consistent. Under the proposed schedule changes, however, west of Hinsdale riders will need to know what individual trains stop at their station in extreme detail, since the stopping patterns on the proposed trains do not appear to follow much rhyme or reason.  This again contributes to a significant barrier for potential new riders and makes the system much more unfriendly, and has the potential to make significant delay situations at Union Station that much more inefficient and problematic for riders.  Furthermore, the proposed schedule increases scheduled travel times from Union Station to Naperville by a full 25% (from 32 minutes to 40 minutes): and as your second-busiest station which deals with AM crowding in exchange for perhaps the best commuter rail express service in the country, this is probably a non-starter for a significant number of your riders.
In summary, with the coming changes of PTC, the way I see it Metra has two options: either work with the PTC implementation to fit the existing schedule as well as possible, or use this opportunity to throw out the existing BNSF schedule and rebuild it from scratch, focusing on existing and projected ridership habits and trends to create a schedule that prioritizes moving riders, not trains.  Instead, it appears that Metra is taking the bold approach of doing neither of those, tweaking the existing schedule somewhat arbitrarily rather than doing something truly bold and squandering an opportunity to reverse the slow loss of ridership from the BNSF we’ve seen for the past several years.  Metra’s BNSF service is an absolute asset to the entire Chicago region, and I do not see how these schedule changes improve satisfaction of existing riders or encourages other commuters to become Metra riders.
I encourage Metra to use this opportunity to reimagine the entire BNSF schedule to better serve current and potential riders and to take these considerations into account when adjusting schedules on other Metra lines as PTC continues to roll out.
Once again, I appreciate the opportunity to provide feedback on the proposed BNSF schedule changes, and I look forward to supporting Metra in the agency’s goal to provide better transit service for suburban Chicago.
As a reminder, today we’re rolling out STAR:LINE Chicago, The Yard Social Club’s new transit advocacy group focusing on the Chicago suburbs. We’re on Facebook, on Twitter, on Instagram, and right here on Diverging Approach.

Weekend Guides are here!

Spending any amount of time looking at a Metra schedule or system map will inevitably lead you to think, “there’s a lot going on here, there’s got to be a simpler way to present all this.”

This might not be that way, but it’s something.

Today we’re rolling out our comprehensive Weekday Commuter Rail guide map that attempts to categorize the myriad types of routes and stopping patterns Metra operates throughout their system into one simple, easy-to-understand system that looks and feels more like transit than Amtrak. In a nutshell, here’s how our system works:

  • Rather than naming lines based on Metra’s legacy railroads (e.g., Milwaukee West, Rock Island, etc.), lines are lettered and grouped into corridors. Corridors are named after parallel roads and highways the railroads follow heading into downtown.
  • Lettered lines may be subdivided into different stopping patterns primarily for weekday peak period (“rush hour”) trips, focused on express/limited trains and local trains.
  • Due to the intricacies of Metra’s schedules, not all formats fit the trains exactly, and that’s okay. Some stops may be skipped, some may be added, etc., but similarities between trains were identified and those trains were grouped together.
  • All routes have two directions: inbound and outbound.

Here’s the weekday map:

Check out the PDF here.

With the weekday system mapped out, we also rolled out a weekend version. The next logical step was creating companion weekend timetables. Unlike Metra’s official timetables, and with our luxury of focusing only on weekend schedules, we were able to create an easier-to-read document with only one list of stations, with inbound trains moving up the list on the left side and outbound trains moving down the list on the right. This helps avoid the inevitable confusion many people wind up in with Metra’s timetables, which separate inbound and outbound trips. Each train is clearly marked with its lettered stopping pattern, which readers can match up with the maps.

Pick your terminal and check out your line’s weekend service below: