Metra to Potential Customers: Come On and Take a Free Ride

Metra staff with a mockup of the free ticket: CEO Alex Clifford to left of conductor; Chairman Brad O'Halloran to the right. Photo by John Greenfield.

People who ride Metra commuter rail regularly know that it’s a relatively comfortable and dignified transit experience. The cars are clean, you almost always get a seat, the ride is smooth and the trains usually arrive exactly when they’re supposed to. You can read, talk on the phone, use a laptop, snooze or even legally enjoy a beer during your trip. It certainly beats the heck out of driving across the Chicago region on many counts: safety, cost, reliability, stress reduction, environmental sustainability and more.

So why do so many folks in the Chicago region choose to drive between the city and the suburbs when they could take an efficient, relaxing rail commute instead? Metra brass thinks it’s because they don’t know what they’re missing, and they have an ingenious strategy to get new people to switch. The transit agency will be giving away two free tickets to any destination in the system to 500 people per week for fourteen weeks – a total of 14,000 tickets, good for the next 90 days. The recipients, who must be 18 or over, will be randomly chosen from those who register at

While there doesn’t seem to be any method for preventing current Metra riders from scoring free tickets, the hope is that the lion’s share of the winners will be newbies. To promote the giveaway to people who currently commute by car, the agency is spending roughly $390,000 on marketing, including billboards visible from expressways and radio spots in English and Spanish following traffic reports and gas price updates, as well as Internet advertising. The billboards emphasize the financial, time-saving and relaxation benefits of making the switch.

Sample billboard design. Photo by John Greenfield.

From the contest website:

On the train, frustrating hours you once spent in traffic are replaced with relaxing time getting work done, answering e-mails, texting friends or reading. You also save an additional twelve hundred dollars a year that lost time and wasted gas used to cost you in traffic. Not to mention the costs of parking fees, tolls and wear and tear on your vehicle – and your quality of life.

This afternoon at a press conference under the undulating glass ceiling of Millennium Station, Metra leadership heralded the promotion as an innovative way to build ridership. “Metra is an integral part of the way Chicagoland moves and works,” said Chairman Brad O’Halloran. “But many of our riders move away or change jobs. Many people are new to the Chicago area and may not know about Metra. Others need to be reminded that Metra may be an option. In fact, we believe that if more people tried Metra they would become regular customers.”

CEO Alex Clifford noted that the recent urban mobility study by Texas A&M showed the average Chicago area resident wastes 51 hours per year in traffic. “The truth of the matter is, traveling by car in Chicago is a highly unpredictable experience,” he said. “Conversely, in 2012, Metra trains system wide were 96 percent on time.”

It remains to be seen just how many Chicagoland car commuters will take Metra up on their offer to exchange traffic jam hell for two tickets to transit paradise. But the agency should be applauded for trying a fresh approach to marketing commuter rail.

  • david vartanoff

    Hey, Metra, time to implement the Gray Line priciples all over. Starting w/ accepting CTA passes for Metra service within CTA’s service area.

  • It’s about time that Metra got serious with its marketing and used messages that actually sell the service. Focusing on the kind of marketing that actually convinces customers – of any product or service – is the right move. That focus? Our product costs less than the alternative.

    Metra’s current marketing consists of boring-looking billboards on its tracks as they cross expressways with things like, “Fly to work” and “We’re on time, are you?”

    There was no call to action, no information for drivers to respond to immediately (or when their call is stuck in bumper to bumper traffic).

  • I love the idea of being able to use Metra within the CTA service area. I’d pay an extra $20 a month to do so ($120 total). Or it’d be cool to have Metra at a lower monthly price for weekday rush travel in the winter when I don’t ride my bike as often to work.

  • CL

    This is awesome — I signed up! My Metra route follows a CTA route closely enough that it makes no sense for me to pay more for Metra, but if I won the free ticket I would use it.

  • david vartanoff

    The point here is that Metra and CTA are just different pieces of the government we all support through taxes. Insisting Metra cooperate more w/intra city CTA riders is our right.

  • Thrown Roe

    Presumably the cost of this promotion is more than paid for by the price hike on 10-Ride Tickets just last month.

  • Right. I don’t know offhand how much Metra expects to raise with the fare hike, but the giveaway really doesn’t cost the agency anything except lost revenue due to some of the winners using free tickets for trips they otherwise would have paid for. Metra is spending $390K on the marketing for this, plus $25K to the ad firm that created the campaign, but they should be buying advertising anyway – this is their first major ad campaign in five years. As the old saying goes, “The man who advertises his business, has one.”

  • Andrew

    Metra trains do stop in the city. They are actually going to be making more stops on the south side to accommodate CTA red line users while the south part of the red line is under construction.

    I take the Metra BNSF line from Pilsen into the loop sometimes instead of the Pink Line. It’s super fast (5 min) and only costs $2.75. A zone A monthly pass is only $78 bucks which is pretty cheap. Plus you can drink a beer and use the bathroom on the train unlike the CTA.

  • I know, what I’m saying is that, where the stops are within the CTA service area (by which I mean all of Chicago, Evanston, and Oak Park), it would be nice if there were a hybrid unlimited pass for travel on both systems within that service area. Maybe charge a little more for it. I would use Metra for rush periods when I go downtown, and CTA for getting around to other neighborhoods.

    This is how it is in Paris, where I had a pass and could use the RATP metro and RER lines within Paris zones 1-2 (Paris itself and the first ring of suburbs), even though the RER is run by two entities (depends on the line). On the weekends, as a student, I could travel on any line to any zone (1-6) which reaches essentially any suburb in the Ile-de-France using metro, tram, RER, or Transilien trains.

    Of course their transit is more subsidized than ours. I’m just saying, I like the idea.


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