Metra’s Plans to Decrease Electric Service Outside of Hyde Park Has Some Problems

Metra has proposed to adopt a major schedule change this summer for the Electric District services. Photo: Jim Watkins
Metra has proposed to adopt a major schedule change this summer for the Electric District services. Photo: Jim Watkins

Metra has proposed sweeping schedule changes on the Electric District services that will increase service to one neighborhood, decrease service to other neighborhoods, and fully eliminate weekend service on the Blue Island branch.

The Metra board proposed these service changes at its monthly meeting yesterday, based on recommendations on staff to adjust service based on new housing construction in Hyde Park, and dropping ridership at stations on the line outside of Hyde Park.

In summary, Metra has proposed to:

  • Increase the number of trains between downtown Chicago and Hyde Park between weekday rush hour periods
  • Reduce service on Saturday on the main line and all branches
  • Run hourly service between 75th Street and 111th Street on the main line where trains stop every other hour
  • Reduce service on the South Chicago and Blue Island branches
  • Eliminate Saturday service on the Blue Island branch. The Blue Island Branch has no Sunday service.

Additionally, one train run on the mainline would be eliminated, and the schedules of runs before and after would be adjusted, to better spread out runs in the schedule.

The decrease in service on the Blue Island branch would also affect residents of West Pullman and Morgan Park. On a dedicated webpage describing the services, Metra said that these residents are served by Rock Island trains and CTA and Pace buses.

The decrease in service on the South Chicago branch would greatly affect residents of South Shore and South Chicago, as well as residents of Calumet Heights and East Side. Metra’s webpage said these residents are served by CTA buses, shown on a new map.

The reason for the decreases on those branches – there will be nine fewer trains in each direction on each branch – is due to train runs that “carry only one to two customers per day.”

Metra’s webpage said falling ridership is the impetus for the service changes, stating, “Ridership on the Metra Electric Line has declined nearly 14 percent over the past six years, down 1.4 million passenger trips or 61 percent of the total decline in ridership systemwide since 2011.”

One reason for low ridership, despite new train cars and “[the] most scheduled trains on our system,” which CEO Don Orseno was quoted as saying on the webpage, is that Metra fares cost vastly more than CTA and Pace fares for the same distance.

A person traveling from the South Shore commercial district to downtown would pay $4.00 for a one-way ticket on Metra, or $2.00-2.25 on CTA. Since Metra doesn’t have transfer discounts, nor through service, then the rider would have to pay for a second fare to ride a different Metra line or a CTA route. A Metra ticket from the city of Blue Island is $6.00 each way, and there are no transfers.

For Metra, this looks like a rational fare policy: charge a higher fare for a higher travel distance. For regional mobility this is irrational because it causes riders to avoid some routes altogether, and bring about these kinds of service change proposals in the light of declining ridership.

The Metra Electric District’s rapid transit-style service combined with distance-based fares appears especially illogical when you factor the lack of transfer discounts between regional services from CTA and Pace, and other Metra lines. People who have monthly passes on Metra can buy an add-on to get discounted transfers on CTA and Pace.

Metra seemed to anticipate this point with a response on their FAQ regarding the proposed schedule change. Metra posed the question, “Can you lower fares on the Metra Electric to compete with the CTA?”, and the answer “In the interest of fairness to all of Metra’s customers, that’s not an option Metra is likely to pursue. Metra sets fares on a regional basis. If we lowered fares on one of Metra’s lines without lowering them on others, then other customers from across our six-county service area would be subsidizing reduced fares on the Metra Electric.”

While that’s true, it’s also a good rationale to convert – through rebranding – the Electric District to become part of the Chicago Transit Authority. This is essentially the “Gray Line” idea that Mike Payne has been advocating for many years.

The proposed change would arguably be discriminatory because of how it would increase service in a higher-income neighborhood and reduce service in lower-income communities. The median household income of the Hyde Park community area, where three stations would see additional service between rush hour periods, ranges from $23,000 to $102,000, according to Census data. (The tract with a $23,000 median income is mostly populated by college students. Excluding this tract, the low end of the community area’s median income range is $37,000.)

In contrast, the median income of the South Chicago community area ranges from $13,000 to $42,000. In South Shore, the median household income ranges from $26,000 to $71,000. In West Pullman, the median household income ranges from $22,000 to $56,000.

Ridership decreases on the Blue Island and South Chicago branches will almost certainly be accelerated after this because there are fewer runs that enable the kind of “walk up” traffic and casual trip making that rapid transit allows. It’s possible, but unlikely, that ridership would stay the same: current riders would have to adjust their schedules to board a train that leaves earlier or later if the one they take now is eliminated.

The reduced service will also hamper any efforts to reverse declining populations, change land use patterns to support housing near transit, or otherwise base any turnaround or redevelopment efforts on the availability of high-quality transit.

Metra is hosting four open houses in June. The meetings will be from 4 p.m. to 7 p.m. at:

* June 19 – South Shore Cultural Center, 7059 S. South Shore Drive
* June 20 – Flossmoor Village Hall, 2800 Flossmoor Rd.
* June 21 – Blue Island City Hall, 2434 Vermont St.
* June 22 – Polsky Exchange, University of Chicago, 1452 E. 53rd St., 2nd Floor

Metra is collecting comments via email medschedulerevisions@metrarr.com.

  • david vartanoff

    Metra Electric AND Rock Island from Blue Island north should become fare integrated with CTA. Installing ventra readers on the platforms, abolishing paper tix (and ticket punching) in favor of random POP inspection on board is the path to greater efficiency and rider utility. Particularly MED but also the ex Rock Island are under-productive assets as currently operated; reducing service is not the way to more usage. CTA is gearing up to spend $2 billion+ extending the Red Line to serve riders in the same areas as the RI, MED, and South Shore Line already operate but at inadequate frequencies and outrageously high fares. Metra and CTA are both taxpayer supported services whose mission is public transport in furtherance of economic vitality. The gross fare differentials between using RI trains from 95th to La Salle, MED from 91st to Van Buren, and the CTA bus then Red Line from 95th St Terminal to Jackson & State is no longer justifiable from a taxpayer POV.

  • FYI, Metra recently conducted a survey about the fare structure among the monthly pass holders. I have a hunch that most of the monthly pass holders live farther out (with, of course, the ME being a notable exception). An informal survey of coworkers in zone E (n=1) indicates that monthly pass holders may tend to agree that fares should be based on distance.

    In an open comment field at the end of the survey, I was sure to note how Metra fares compare with CTA fares in neighborhoods such as Beverly, and how disadvantageous this is to residents in neighborhoods that lack L access (such as Beverly), especially considering the Metra fares in Oak Park and Evanston, which do have L access.

    I also noted the ridiculousness of stations equidistant from some arbitrary downtown location (I think I used State and Madison) being in different fare zones simply because they are different distances away from the terminal stations of their lines. (I forget which stations these turned out to be.)

    I may or may not have been very convincing.

  • Courtney

    Very good point! “In an open comment field at the end of the survey, I was sure to note how Metra fares compare with CTA fares in neighborhoods such as Beverly, and how disadvantageous this is to residents in neighborhoods that lack L access (such as Beverly), especially considering the Metra fares in Oak Park and Evanston, which do have L access.”

  • Bella Dora

    Under the proposed plan I will have no way to get home past 8:50pm except on a bus? And this is acceptable to Metra? And they mapped these routes to understand the time/inconvenience/safety associated with these actions on those of us who don’t reside in Hyde Park? And Alderwoman Sadlowski gave this plan her blessing? Thanks, but I’d rather send them my Uber bill. Getting passengers home in the safest, most efficient way possible using taxpayer dollars should be Metra’s primary concern, not focusing strictly on the commuting habits of higher income passengers in Hyde Park.

  • 1976boy

    Metra is not urban rapid transit, it is a highly subsidized suburban commuter system. It can be both, if they want it to be. Strange that it is so hard to do.

  • Bella Dora

    The ME is not entirely suburban; part of it serves the lakefront — it begins and ends in Chicago. This area has no rapid transit whatsoever and this needs to be considered. Have a look at the map. https://metrarail.com/maps-schedules/train-lines/ME/map. Since they use my tax dollars, both local and federal, and my expensive fares to subsidize their operations, I should have a say following in how I want that money spent

  • Bella Dora

    I googled the replacement service from Millennium Station to 93rd street. It requires two buses: the J14/4 and either the 95/30/71.

    My proposal to all of those in favor of scaling back service, including Metra: Take a test ride on any of these services at 10PM at night and let me know if you still agree that this is a GREAT idea

  • I want to look at the schedule for your trip. Can you tell me what your starting and ending stations are?

    The proposal was known to some people before the board meeting on Wednesday, but I don’t know who Metra talked to.

    I’ve asked Metra if they projected the net ridership change after the proposal.

  • The Metra Electric District *was* rapid transit at one point. It had 10-15 minute frequencies in some sections, and it even had turnstiles at one point (although turnstiles aren’t what makes something rapid transit).

    Currently, MED has very rapid transit-like service, but its schedules are weird. I would like them to look at “normalizing” their schedule without removing service. For example, some stations have service once every two hours, despite trains passing those stations more frequent than that. Other stations have trains 12 minutes apart, and then trains 40 minutes apart. Can those trains be spread out so that they’re a consistent 30 minutes apart?

  • Mike

    One would think that a certain alderman who’s busy trying to rezone 71st Street would instead put this fight high on the priority list, but alas…

  • david vartanoff

    Actually MED was built to be urban rapid transit. When the wires went up in 1926 Illinois Central brochures showed faster commute times than present from stations along the lines (20 minutes from Bryn Mawr to Randolph for example). In the 60s IC was a pioneer adopter of electronic faregates (which Metra removed in the 90s).
    MED has the capacity to add multiple trains all day long and bring back to the SE side the quality of service it had half a century ago.
    Most importantly, if integrated into CTA’s fares this opens up far more flexible and convenient transit options .
    BTW the 1926 brochure listed Sunday Expresses and All Night Locals precisely because not everyone then or now is a nine to five worker.

  • F. Hayek

    The goal of public transit should be to provide the most rides people for the lowest possible cost. It’s not a private limo service. It would be cheaper to buy Ubers for the ten riders than to run the trains.

  • david vartanoff

    You remind me of the Southern Pacific who offered to buy vans for the few riders of what is now Caltrain back when service was skeletal, unreliable and rider hostile. After the Joint Powers Board took over, they increased service, re-equipped the trains and speeded them up. Result, soaring ridership breaking all previous records.
    Of course, if you enjoy traffic jams, drive the Dan Ryan or LSD in rush hour.

  • Bella Dora

    Are you proposing a transit voucher system? Great. Put it on the list for discussion

  • I will attend the Metra Meetings on June 19th and 22nd, to distribute print information about the Gray Line; and based on this new effort — I will address the Metra and RTA Boards in June.

  • It’s not hard, it is a wholly POLITICAL Logjam….

  • I think the simplest method of fare collection is barrier control entry with Ventra turnstyles the same as the other “L” lines, this would require NO on-board fare collection, nor fare medium examination; and it could operate (If the Unions would agree) with a two person crew (I don’t think the MED could ever utilize OPTO, due to the Cab location and design — the operator cannot access both sides of the train.

    10 minute service north of 63rd, would provide 20 minute service on the branches; and free transfers to CTA bus and “L” routes would attract VASTLY more ridership, than continuing to operate with a separate fare structure — but more frequent trains.

    The “CTA Gray Line ‘L’ Route” is a (suppressed) Major Capital Project included in CMAP’s current Regional Transportation Plan (RTP ID# 01-02-9003), in the “unrestrained” segment; they act like it doesn’t exist, because up to now neither Transit Operator has expressed any interest in the concept whatsoever — and CMAP doesn’t want to step on any toes.

  • Don’t worry Bella, I am like a Rabid Pit Bull — and I will make doggone sure they get this right.

  • Bella Dora

    Hi Steven. The RT is Millennium Station to 93rd St (start and end of the South Chicago line)

  • southsidecyclist

    Steven, I really appreciate this article. Metra is really trying to pull a fast one and the community has to get mobilized to put a stop to it. They worry about subsidizing users. Who is going to pay for the wasteful and fanciful Red line extension. Turn it over to the CTA. This is a smoke screen to kill the service entirely.

  • Robert Kania

    I’m sorry, but if a train is only carrying one passenger, then it deserves to get cut. It would make room for more trains for the people that are riding them.

  • neroden

    Someone should point out to Metra that their FAQ is wrong! It fails to understand basic

    economics: it makes the fatal error of assuming inelastic demand.

    Someone needs to explain the concept of price elasticity of demand to Metra.

    If you cut fares in half on the Metra Electric line AND IT CAUSED RIDERSHIP TO DOUBLE, then Metra would be getting twice as many passengers and the “subsidy” given to that line would NOT CHANGE AT ALL.

    If Metra Electric prices were cut to below CTA prices, the ridership would more than double, and the rest of the region would get to pay *less* for Metra Electric In the interests of fairness, Metra should cut prices on its lines to below CTA prices, so that they will get more riders and have less subsidy.

    I agree: turn it over to the CTA, who knows how to price.

  • neroden

    Well, yes, if you’re a completely incompetent brain-dead moron who doesn’t understand anything about economics, you cancel the train.

    If you’re even vaguely intelligent, you *cut the price of the train to be equal to the CTA ticket price*, and THEN you see how many passengers you have. THEN you decide whether the train is busy.

    Right now, Metra is blatantly overcharging so of course they have low ridership. There’s no reason for them to overcharge by this much.

  • neroden

    I think there’s only one way to fix this.

    Get the Mayor and the Aldermen interested in it. This is Chicago, after all. And go whole hog. Don’t just go for fare integration. The City of Chicago *owns* the subways. Have the City of Chicago *buy* the Metra Electric line within the City Limits. They can then require that the South Chicago Branch, the mainline as far as Kensington, and the Blue Island Branch be operated as rapid transit — even require that the CTA operate them.

    Metra can be a guest north of Kensington just the way the South Shore Line is a guest north of Kensington.

    But nothing will happen unless the Mayor and Alderman start feeling a sense of ownership over the line.

  • W O W — I like your idea even better than mine!!

    The City should *own* the property (even by Eminant Domain), with Metra being given a fair price; that would HAVE to cost much less than the 2+ Billion Dollar Red Line Extension, and serve the entire South Side, instead of just south of 95th Street. Jackson Park and the Obama Library, the UoC, Woodlawn, South Shore, the Lakeside Development and South Chicago; Grand Crossing, Chatham, etc., etc.

    Then the City of Chicago would have complete control over the Physical Plant, and it’s operation, and any improvements or alterations.

    All these so-called “Black Leaders” (Aldermen, Congressmen, Church Leaders and Pastors, and Entertainers) should be involved in this; and there is time before the Metra meetings in June to MAKE SURE that they are involved.

    And by “Black Leaders” I will make sure I name some names soon!!!

    “BTM” — BUY THE MED

  • That is Alderman Hairston, and in her defense — I know for a FACT that she supports the Gray Line, but I am also just as sure for a FACT — that she has been S I L E N C E D by City Hall (threats to her children maybe? — “We know where they go to school”)…..

    Preckwinkle is different, I lobbied her FOR YEARS while she was an Alderperson, now she won’t even take my calls; and Sophia King acted like I was from Mars, with an Aluminum Foil Cone-head hat on my head when I tried to explain the idea to her.

    We need to make sure these people are made aware that their presence is needed, and required!

  • eric299

    Good article in that it suggests various transit organizations should work together to provide better service. The stumbling block is probably that fiefdoms exist in each one. Working together for the public good might jeopardize those fiefdoms.

  • ardecila

    Might I suggest that the low ridership on South Shore and Blue Island branches is because the train routing doesn’t serve the needs of those communities? Our assumption is that everyone wants to go downtown, but A) Metra Electric only serves a fraction of downtown, and B) has no direct transfers to other bus and rail systems. It’s not really tied into the grid once you get north of 51st, so if your destination is North Side, West Side or even River North/West Loop, Metra Electric isn’t gonna be super useful.

    The higher-income residents of Hyde Park, as well as tourists visiting the Obama Library or Pullman, might appreciate the higher service levels more than lower-income communities with different needs.

  • For Metra, this looks like a rational fare policy: charge a higher fare for a higher travel distance.

    Distance-based fares are rational, but the lack of free transfers is not.

  • pho nomenal

    I’m pretty sure someone has brought this up already, but I think the South Chicago branch should be converted into a rapid transit line, and the other two branches can remain with Metra. If this happens, Metra trains should only stop at 55th and 59th in Hyde Park, with the Rapid Transit taking over all the other local stops.

    The Rapid Transit could either be a streetcar/light rail or a L line with pantographs. There are many grade crossings within South Shore, so I don’t think third rail would work too well.

  • Maribel Quezada

    If the process works like it’s suppsed to, customer feedback during the open houses should be incorporated into the overall planning process. The problem is that people with a stake in the outcome complain through all sorts of informal channels but don’t show up at those mtgs or the official comment email and then complain when the outcome is not in their favor. Use the official channels people – it’s the only way you will be heard

  • planetshwoop

    This is a complete lie on their part. The fares are actually much higher per mile in the lower zones than the higher zones. A ticket to zone H is $8, or $0.20/mile. The ticket in zone C is $5.25, or $0.35/mile.

    The Metra zones are based upon 5 mile increments as the train travels. Since the charge does not increase equally per zone, it very clearly penalizes Zone B/C/D riders to make it cheaper for F/G/H etc.

    And I won’t even get into the topic of express trains, the station agents in the suburbs, and other places where Metra does not mean what it says.

  • planetshwoop

    It’s based upon the track miles traveled, which makes sense for paying railroads but not customers. I know this because Jefferson Park (NW line) and Forest Glen (MD-N) are about 1 mile apart and one is zone B and the other C — because the Forest Glen railroad happens to take an angular route.

  • Deni

    I get the whole “distance-based” fares and that cutting the MED city fares would not be fair to the other lines. So why not make it a policy that all Metra fares within the city limits match that of the current CTA fare?

  • simple

    However, there’s another error in basic economics of which we must also be mindful — confusing elastic demand with perfectly elastic demand. Nowhere in any of this information does it say anything to suggest that Metra thinks the demand is inelastic, as you claim. What Metra is implying, however, is that the demand is not elastic enough so that revenue lost by lowering fares would be entirely made up by new riders. To use your example, cutting fares in half would not double ridership. Ridership would more likely go up by some fraction of that, leaving a revenue gap that still needs to be filled somehow. This outcome is all the more likely due to the fact that Metra service is and will continue to be far less frequent than CTA service in this area. You could probably charge $1 for Metra rides on these branch lines and still not draw that many customers, because CTA’s buses still provide more direct, convenient, frequent, and in most cases faster service than Metra does for most transit trips. I would suggest that if you’re as confident as you sound that increased ridership would offset all lost revenue from lowering fares, you should put your money where your typing fingers are and offer to Metra that you will personally cover any revenue shortfall as a result of your fare experiment. If you can’t bring yourself to make that offer, perhaps your confidence and ALL CAPS TYPING is misplaced.

  • david vartanoff

    Yes!!! Should be all Metra in any area also served by CTA includes Evanston/Wilmette).

  • Robert Kania

    That actually is a good idea. The Long Island Railroad in NYC has that, but only on weekends. Not only would MED riders benefit, but also People from Ravenswood and Jefferson Park.

  • kclo3

    Well, the city could also just directly subsidize Metra to run extra city services; it’s what Philadelphia did in the 50’s to get 15-minute service on Regional Rail.

  • I work in Hyde Park but until recently lived elsewhere in the city. I’m a big fan of the Metra and take it whenever feasible, but the MED schedule through Hyde Park is absolutely bizarre during off-peak hours. If I need to get downtown during the day (say, for a meeting during business hours), there are 2, maybe 3 trains per hour, all clustered within minutes of each other. I could catch the 12:43 or the 12:45, or wait another hour to catch the 1:42, the 1:43, or the 1:53.

    In short, it seems like there are several ways that Metra could improve efficiencies on MED in addition to fares!

  • david vartanoff

    Right you are. Imagine ANY retailer open only three minutes per hour. Very poor use of assets.

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