“Gray Line” Advocate Mike Payne Wants Rapid Service on Metra Electric Line

Mike Payne and the Gray Line
Mike Payne is advocating for CTA ‘L’-like service on the Metra Electric District branches to Pullman and South Chicago via Hyde Park and South Shore.

The idea of Metra running its Hyde Park and South Chicago-bound Electric District line more like a CTA ‘L’ line may be gaining traction. If so, much of the credit goes to advocate Mike Payne, who has been tirelessly promoting the concept online and at public meetings. He calls this proposed rapid transit service as “The Gray Line,” since that’s one of the few colors that doesn’t yet appear on the Chicago Transit Authority train map.

The Electric District is already the Metra line with the highest frequency of trains, but it’s still a commuter-oriented service. Payne’s Gray Line proposal would take that to the next level by running trains every 10-to-15 minutes, expanding the reach of the city’s rapid transit network to more South Side residents. He’d like to see the Gray Line fully integrated into the CTA rail system, appearing on ‘L’ maps and collecting CTA fares.

I interviewed Payne last month at Union Station, a convenient meeting place because he was going to take Metra’s BNSF line to his home in a western suburb after attending the Urban Innovation Symposium at UIC that morning. He previously lived in South Shore and other Chicago neighborhoods for decades until he was laid off after working 35 years as an office machines repairman – he now works the night shift at a gas station. He seems to have a good understanding of the transportation challenges many South Siders face.

Payne told me he first came up with the Gray Line idea in 1996 when he was taking his aunt to a bank at 71st Street and Jeffery Boulevard in South Shore. He said an Electric Distict train would pull up at the adjacent Bryn Mawr station and open its doors, but he didn’t see anyone get on or off the train. “That’s a waste of money, it’s not carrying anybody!” he recalled thinking at the time.

Payne says Metra and CTA are competing with each other by not having coordinated schedules, and that the Electric line train comes once an hour outside of rush hour – hardly often enough to be useful. He also believes that Metra’s more expensive fares causes many people to choose the CTA in situations where Metra is also an option – even if the CTA trip takes more time.

The Metra fare from South Shore and South Chicago to the Loop is $3.75. Bus fare for the CTA’s #J14 Jeffery Jump and #26 South Shore Express buses, which serve different parts of South Shore, is $2.00. Depending on where you live and where you’re going, it might be an option take a bus west to the Red Line, which would cost $2.25 ($2.50 for the return trip), but it would be a much longer trip than taking the Electric line. When Payne lived in South Shore, he would ride the 79th Street bus about four miles west to the Red Line to go downtown in order to save money, even though the Electric line was two blocks away.

Map of the Metra Electric district line and branches, showing Hyde Park, South Shore, South Chicago, and Pullman neighborhoods.
Map of the Metra Electric district line and branches, showing Hyde Park, South Shore, South Chicago, and Pullman neighborhoods. Image: Steven Vance, Stamen, OpenStreetMap contributors, Metra GIS data

Payne showed me his model of an Electric line car modified for rapid transit service. He has eliminated the bathroom and pushed back other walls to make a larger vestibule, so there’s more room for standing and quicker boarding. He added the CTA’s logo to the outside to denote their involvement in marketing and scheduling the train, and staffing the stations.

The Gray Line is very similar to the Gold Line concept that Active Transportation Alliance and the Center for Neighborhood Technology are promoting as part of the Transit Future campaign to fund new transit lines via Cook County revenue. But while the Gold Line proposal is about adding trains, the Gray Line plan would also add turnstiles and CTA staff at stations.

Payne says the number of workers needed per Metra train – and the costs of paying their salaries – would be reduced greatly if Metra brought back turnstiles because they wouldn’t have as many ticket collectors. Additionally, his Gray Line proposal also provides this enhanced rapid transit service to the Pullman and South Chicago neighborhoods while the Gold Line branches off at 71st to include only South Chicago. The Gray Line wouldn’t run on the University Park and Blue Island branches.

Kyle Whitehead, campaign manager at Active Transportation Alliance, said, “Active Trans supports increasing frequencies on the Metra Electric lines so it operates like a true rapid transit line. Obviously there are different ways this goal could be accomplished and at this time we’re not supporting one approach over another.” He noted that the organization has met with Coalition for Equitable Community Development and other groups organizing for improvements on Metra Electric.

Many South Side-based organizations, including the South Chicago Chamber of Commerce and the Coalition for Equitable Community Development, submitted a letter to the editor of the Chicago Maroon asking transit leaders and elected officials to, among other changes, integrate fares and schedules with CTA and Pace operations, because the Metra Electric “is hampered by a fare structure more appropriate for suburban lines”.

Payne is proud that the Gray Line is the only citizen-led project included in GO TO 2040, the comprehensive regional plan, but that status hardly gives it any oomph for implementation. CMAP planner Jesse Elam said the Gray Line is listed as part of the South Lakefront Corridor study, which mentions the Gray and Gold Lines, on the plan’s “fiscally unconstrained projects” list (to be built if transit agencies had unlimited funds). But the study didn’t recommend a rail project, and nothing has come of it since it was completed in 2012.

Steve Schlickman used to run the Regional Transportation Authority that oversees Metra, CTA, and Pace, and he said in an email “the Gray Line proposal in concept has merit [as it] would provide a level of transit service to neighborhoods that do not have the same transit access as other neighborhoods served by the L.” Additionally, he said it “could obviate the need” to build the Red Line extension to 130th Street. Schlickman warned, though, that there are “some very significant capital costs associated with a change from Metra to CTA service” and the CTA doesn’t have excess money for capital projects.

Asked if CTA would “adopt” parts of the Electric line’s operation, spokeswoman Tammy Chase outlined all of the ways that CTA has improved bus and rail service on the South Side, including rebuilding the Red Line’s Dan Ryan branch tracks, “continuing planning work” for the Red Line extension, and adding more trains to the Red Line. Directly, she said, “it would be up to [Metra] to alter service on that line, so we couldn’t begin to speculate on marketing or scheduling.”

Payne points out that none of these changes would be that different from the way the Electric line used to run – like rapid transit. In some decades last century, Illinois Central – from which Metra bought the Electric District line – trains ran every 10 minutes and used turnstiles to collect fares. The Illinois Central even had magnetic-encoded paper tickets starting in 1966, just like the ones CTA used from 1997 until 2013.

Its electrification happened in 1926, due to concerns about pollution from its steam engines, which “touched off a boom in apartment construction en route” in Hyde Park and “supplied the IC with more riders” [PDF]. It’s possible that a return to what was – more trains and CTA fares – could spur reinvestment along the line.

  • THANKS Steven, sincerely…….

  • al_langevin

    Kudos to Mike Payne in his effort to get the Gray Line going. We as riders of public transportation have a much better idea about what’s needed.

  • david vartanoff

    Thank you Steven for putting this out. And a huge thank you to Mike for your efforts to get this moving. The referenced pdf is mostly correct though outdated as Metra is supposedly committed to adopting Ventra so once that occurs, the only excuse for lack of fare integration is lack of political will. IMHO, the station staffing of the Gray Line need not be CTA employees, the issue is honoring CTA fares/transfers/passes.
    Of course, once the RFID cards are implemented with TVMs and readers on all Metra platforms, the no longer needed “collectors” can be eliminated by attrition.

    Some further thoughts; there is enough ROW to restore tracks 5 and 6 between 51st and the interlocking N of Roosevelt Road. If we ever get going on either real HSR, McCormick Place to O’Hare/Crossrail, the extra tracks will be useful. FWIW, there is also enough ROW to add 5&6 S of 51st as far as Kensington for any of the above projects. as well as increased Metra, South Shore Line, and Gray Line service.

    Last but not least, older IC and South Shore Line Timetables show previous stations both near WildWood and 124th, and 130, which if restored as part of the Gray Line would obviate the Red Line Extension at massive savings and earlier implementation.

  • Fare integration will be key to making the Metra Electric as useful as it should be. Ben Fried just posted an interesting pdf of case studies that make this point plain.

  • Deni

    Great info, thanks for sharing.

  • southsidecyclist

    Thank you Steven for bringing this to the front. And Mike Payne for continuing to champion a very important equity issue. The Gray Line would enhance CTA level rapid transit for over 150,000 residents for the farsouth and southeast sides. In one year, not the near decade it will take to build a red line extension. Think of all the unemployed and underemployed residents now being made to suffer while the nebulous redline extension is being finalized. Outsiders will say the Gray Line would emiminate the need for a redline extension. I think not. Evanston and Skokie have two CTA lines in addition to Metra. The Gray Line is the least expensive way to address an equity sorespot.

  • The Red line shift to the Dan Ryan has never been optimal in terms of being a real TOD choice. For me the best option would be to shift the Red Line to the electric Metra tracks which would produce a true Lake Shore line both north and south. Maybe even change the color to a lake colorish Cyan.

    Someone here was concerned that having the Red Line right on the lake for several miles diluted the TOD effects. Since high rises could be built over the tracks air rights (yes/no?) and even integrated into stations that would be an interesting development.

  • david vartanoff

    Leave the Red Line south where it is. What IS needed is more functional transit in underserved regions. Item, restore the Green Line east to Stony Island with a convenient transfer to the MED @ 63rd. Extend the Green Line west from Ashland to link up w/ the Orange Line. Restore the 58th St Station on the Green. Presto. de facto service from several neighborhoods to Midway. Bring the Rock Island service from Blue Island in under CTA fares via Ventra, andadd a transfer station to the Green Line to facilitate access to Midway. Restore the Paulina Connector far enough north to connect to the Brown Line as well as the Blue,i and build a new link south to the Orange. Airport to airport connection w/o going downtown, better servicetothe Med Center and UIC.

  • I like it when you talk dirty.

    I’m old enough to have changed trains from the el to the Illinois Central at 63rd. I remember also stopping at Loomis going west on what is now the Green and wondering why they didn’t extend to Ashland sooner.

    But there is a cost to going both directions which is A and B trains.

    As for the “Paulina Connector”, that I have never heard of and I don’t see any existing tracks north of Lake. I don’t think there is anything there now to restore. Maybe that rusting bridge over the west lines just west of Paulina? Otherwise it’s like building a brand new rail transit. $$$$ Likewise the link south to the Orange.

    But these are not the glory days of the American Empire anymore and actual new rail won’t happen until government and economy destroying neo-liberal approaches to ruling are reversed. If you catch my drift.

    That’s why talk of BRT is the new rail. The Ashland BRT could make many of the N/S connections you mention. And remember just as Loop Link is presage for Ashland so is Ashland presage for Western. And from there a short hop to Cicero. 79th and 63rd anyone.

    As for Airport to Airport, express buses riding some of the new dedicated BRT lanes (with whatever needed passing opportunities) could do a nice job.

    I like all the rest of your ideas, but I am not really familiar enough for an intelligent critique. You sure can think outside the box, though.

  • BlueFairlane

    I see no logic in shifting the Red Line east and further isolating the southwest side.

    I wouldn’t worry about TOD and the Red Line until we start seeing TOD along the Green Line, which follows roughly the same path and is already prime for that sort of thing and lined with empty lots.

  • david vartanoff

    The Paulina Connector is the latter day name for the original elevated route from Marshfield Junction toward Logan Square (the early end of what is now the Blue Line) Indeed the bridge you mention is a remnant. My point is that Chicago needs much more rail–and quality bus–services.
    As to experiencing a re run of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, somewhere recently I commented that none of the current rulers are even civilised enoughto play a violin (Nero…) However, as historians can attest, although Rome as the capital declined, Constantinople emerged as a shining center of civilisation–there were no Dark Ages inthe Eastern Roman Empire. We can sit back and watch the rot, or do something…
    If the J14 Jeffrey Jump is an example of how to spend FTA $$ with very little to show for it, but spin and grin ribbon cutting, we need to get smarter. It is a goodbus service, but the exclusive lanes and the promised traffic signal priority are the only real achievements.

  • southsidecyclist

    And I would add that the Blue Island line should also be part of the Gray Line. If not Metra would just kill it and that would remove some of the benefit for West Pullman, Calumet Park and Blue Island.

  • JoeDokes999

    The key issue for transportation in Chicago is the damage caused by highways. Highways do not belong in cities and cause profound damage. Cities that remove highways experience growth.

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