Metra Ridership Rising Unevenly; Development Could Maximize Its Potential

Transit-oriented development has transformed downtown Arlington Heights. Photo: JB

Start with the good news: Ridership on Metra, Chicagoland’s main commuter rail service, has grown almost 14 percent over the last ten years. It remains near the all-time high it reached in 2008, just before the Great Recession. On any given weekday, Metra provides nearly 300,000 rides across its 11 lines, or roughly as many as the CTA’s Brown and Blue lines put together. Some lines have even continued to grow, surpassing their 2008 ridership, notably the North Central Service running northwest to Antioch, and the SouthWest Service through Ashburn and Orland Park to Manhattan. Of Metra’s more-established lines, the best performer since 2008 has been the Union Pacific Northwest line, which runs through towns like Arlington Heights (pictured above) and Des Plaines that have pursued Transit Oriented Development in their downtowns.

But in other ways, the picture isn’t so rosy. Overall, Metra ridership has stagnated for the last six years, even as CTA rail ridership has grown 16 percent over the same period. More alarming, ridership on several lines — including the Metra Electric and Rock Island, which have rapid-transit-like stop spacing every half-mile through large parts of the city that lack “L” access — was falling even before the recession.

Hz Metra maps
Ridership change on Metra lines from 2004-2014 and 2008-2014.

Unfortunately, Metra doesn’t provide up-to-date information on ridership by stop, which makes more thorough analysis impossible. (The freshest station-level data available is from 2006.) But the line data is enough to see some patterns. Unsurprisingly, many services lucky enough to go through high-growth neighborhoods and suburbs have the strongest ridership. Conversely, routes that pass mostly through parts of Chicagoland that have lost population are mostly struggling.

20030531 50 Metra Electric 71st St.
Metra Electric trains run down the middle of 71st Street in South Shore, the densest community area on the South Side. Photo: David Wilson

That includes Metra Electric and Rock Island, which have the potential to serve as transit backbones through much of the South Side, but currently provide extremely spotty off-peak service. Both lines go through promising territory: Metra Electric’s main line runs from downtown through the South Side’s largest employment hub, Hyde Park, and one branch continues through dense neighborhoods along the south lakefront all the way to 93rd Street. Rock Island stops at the Illinois Institute of Technology, and then makes stops every half-mile at attractive and walkable commercial districts in thriving Beverly and Morgan Park.

The falling ridership on those lines underscores how much of Chicago’s transit infrastructure is being squandered, even as the city waits for federal funds to extend the Red Line to 130th St. A coordinated effort between Metra, Chicago, and the suburbs to increase service and encourage development around walkable stations that serve relatively high population density, could go a long way to improving access to jobs and amenities via transit for hundreds of thousands of people — and at a fraction of the cost of new rail construction.

At its most ambitious, that might look like the long-sought conversion of the Metra Electric line to true rapid transit — promoted most recently by the Transit Future campaign. But short of that, Metra could take a page from our sister city to the north, Toronto, whose commuter rail agency recently announced it would increase all-day frequency to every 30 minutes, making off-peak trips there much more convenient.

On the other side of the spectrum, the strong ridership numbers on other lines show that there is an appetite for regional rail transit. Unfortunately, Chicagoland has failed to encourage that growth and reach for its full potential. A report last year from the Center for Neighborhood Technology found that Chicago was the only American metropolitan area with an extensive rail network to see less development inside transit sheds than outside — even though property values in transit sheds grew much faster than in the region as a whole. Increasing train frequency, and enacting zoning ordinances that allow for transit-oriented development in walkable suburban centers, could turn that trend around.

With more than 240 stations and many hundreds of miles of tracks, Metra is the kind of transportation infrastructure that other American cities can only dream of. But Chicagoland’s civic leaders need to realize the potential of what they already have.

  • E V A S I O N Dennis (you get an “F”) — I don’t know IF any of them came up with any job figure at all — BUT they did RECOMMEND IT for funding. W H Y did they do that Dennis? ?

    You do know what Bill Maher said about Neil DeGrasse Tyson vs the Right Wing don’t you Dennis?

  • BlueFairlane

    I must point out that Neil DeGrasse Tyson can cite the sources for any numbers he mentions in a debate.

  • Roland Solinski

    In Arlington Heights, it does look like the overall percentage of transit commuters has declined since 2000, both in the village overall and the downtown census tract.

    IMO the better example for TOD is Des Plaines, which is far less bourgeois than AH so it doesn’t get as much hype. Its downtown population jumped by nearly 40% from 2000-2010. Transit modeshare increased from 10% to 15%. Of course, even with this massive growth, the percentage of people driving or carpooling to work still stands at 80% so we’re not exactly seeing a revolution. (NB: this is all drawn from ACS data which has huge margins of error)

    My experience on the UP-NW line suggests that many off-peak trains are at capacity, especially PM on weekdays. It’s not uncommon for Saturday inbound trains to be standing room only after Mount Prospect or so. I’ve witnessed similar patterns on other busy Metra lines like MD-N and BNSF.

  • Roland Solinski

    Also, I can assure you there are no capacity problems at the downtown terminals. A proper regional rail system has trains going in both directions at the same frequency so there is no need to store trains (and waste platform tracks) in the downtown terminals.

    The bigger problem occurs at flat junctions in outlying places like A-2 or Deval, where freight or passenger traffic on one line can force trains on several other lines to sit and wait.

  • I cited my “source” (250 Jobs x 40 Stations = 10,000 Jobs) which is a very reasonable basic estimate, if Dennis doesn’t want to accept that, the show doesn’t stop.

    Just look at all the Jobs and Development that the new Lake & Morgan “L” Station has created:

    I am curious as to why Dennis refuses to answer my questions as to why the Gray Line IS included in CMAP’s RTP — this is part of the debate also.

    I answer any and all questions from anybody Right Away when asked, Dennis just ignores my questions and immediately diverts off to something else (check it out above) — some “debate”….

  • BlueFairlane

    Just saying numbers is different from citing a source, as is linking to your own web site where all you do is say the same numbers. Your argument is not convincing.

  • So Inclusion as a “Major Capital Project” (for whatever their reason) in the State’s Regional Transportation Plan (like the rebuilding of the Circle Interchange Project) is not “convincing” enough for you either:
    Notice at the top of the CATS screen capture that it say’s “Information regarding Proposals IN [ IN ] the 2030 Regional Transportation Plan”.

    And that Official Illinois State Government Website was also “linking to my own web site” to “help you understand the project scope for the planned projects” or am I misinterpreting what it says, and the links?

    Maybe you BlueFairlane will answer this question (Dennis won’t)……..

  • Chris

    The full integration is the usual case in all of Europe..

  • Dennis McClendon

    The six questions appear to either be rhetorical questions or statements masquerading as questions. However, since you’ve asked so politely . . . .

    1. No, that’s no longer terribly meaningful to me because of how poorly the idea fared in the RTA’s South Lakefront Corridor Study.

    2. I don’t know. A lot of us saw the intrinsic appeal of the Gray Line: the IC once provided rapid transit-like service, and perhaps it should again. But on closer study, it’s not so compelling. The cost per new rider would be extremely high, it would turn lots of one-seat rides into three-seat rides, and there’s very little likelihood of spurring any spinoff development given the existing density of South Shore.

    3. I don’t know.

    4. I don’t know. I thought the CATS recommendation was that it should receive further study—which it now has, and been found cost-ineffective.

    5. This doesn’t appear to be a question.

    6. This doesn’t appear to be a question.

    Metra fare integration is certainly worth a serious discussion, because of how the South Lakefront and Beverly/Morgan Park were screwed over in the 1983 reorg. It also seems absurd that we’re talking about a Red Line extension basically parallel to the Metra Electric. But the transportation discussion is not much advanced by appeals to social equity, by playing the race card, or by posting job-creation numbers that turn out to be rectally derived.

  • There are capacity problems at Union Station at the south end during the peak period. That is why Metra is seriously considering the idea of moving SWS trains over to LaSalle Street where there is plenty of room.

  • Roland Solinski

    Agreed, but the problems only occur at peak. Turning Metra into a Euro-style regional rail system doesn’t really affect what happens at peak – it’s about off-peak frequency and stopping patterns. Peak capacity constraints are a separate issue.

  • Coolebra

    Less and greater than signs work fine, with no implied level of precision beyond that present in the underlying data.

    As for overfastidiousness, now you’re making me snicker.

    Also, perhaps you meant e.g., instead of i.e., but I could be wrong.

  • Nathanael

    The Rock Island line should be running with 15-minute frequencies all day as far as Blue Island along the Beverly Branch. The Electric line should be running with 15-minute frequencies all day as far as 63rd St. The South Chicago branch should have at least 30-minute frequencies, as should the Blue Island branch.

    Unfortunately both the Rock Island and Metra Electric also need cheaper fares within the City of Chicago, because they run through areas which aren’t rich.

    Metra has had a bad attitude about these “in city” lines for a really, really long time, and has allowed the stations to literally crumble, especially on the Metra Electric. This needs to be reversed.

  • Anne A

    I’d be happy if the Rock Island was running at 30 minute intervals during the day. Over the last several years, as ridership has decreased, they’ve made things worse by shrinking the number of open cars on off-peak trains to the point where they’re often unpleasantly crowded. Also, the number of open ADA cars on off-peak runs is rarely more than 1 or 2 per train, in spite of the fact that demand for these cars keeps increasing (families with little kids, people with bikes, travelers with big suitcases and – oh yeah – disabled people). This causes boarding delays, so trains are often 15-20+ minutes late by the time they reach Beverly.

    Guess what Metra? This discourages people from riding and creates a death spiral of ever lower ridership. Rush hour service is usually okay, but off-peak usually SUCKS.

    Whether it’s rush hour or off-peak, the operations staff at the Rock Island can’t seem to get the basic concept that ADA cars need to be in consistent locations within a trainset and along station platforms. This reduces boarding stress for those who need them, and reduces boarding delays. I’ve been on crutches for a while, and I’ve often ended up getting on non-ADA cars and having to deal with opening those vestibule doors, as opposed to hobbling down the platform to the nearest ADA car, causing extra stress on my body and delaying the train.

  • david vartanoff

    Using MED as an example, they and IC before scheduled trains during rush hours to accommodate local, medium, and longer distance riders. Examples are South Chicago Specials making only 2 stops between Roosevelt and Stony Island, while the Flossmoor and Homewood Specials ran nonstop from Roosevelt to those stations. At the same time a Kensington/Blue Island train made all the local stops on its run. Rock Island trains to Joliet skip the Suburban Branch local stops. Any competent rail operator with sufficient track capacity AND flexibility (reverse signalling on multiple mains) can operate similar schedules. One of the minor mistakes in the CREATE projects is reducing Rock Island trackage through Englewood constraining future service growth.

  • david vartanoff

    They all pay taxes which fund the various services. As to distances, a CTA rider pays the same to ride 3 blocks or city border to border. So??? The point of having public transport of all modes is citizen mobility. Every $ not spent paying fares can (and will) be spent on something else–merchandise, services, whatever.

  • david vartanoff

    In the 50s the South Chicago Branch had 20′ headways, downgraded to 30′ late in the decade. Not sure the Rock Island Suburban could fill at 15′ but 30′ would be a start, 20′ later. The key issue is fare integration so that someone living near the Beverley Branch will have the choice of the closer train over a bus to the Red Line. Long term the RI should be electrified at least to Blue Island via the Suburban Branch which would greatly benefit from better acceleration/deceleration characteristics of EMU’s and be physically connected to the MED.

  • FG

    MED’s South Chicago branch is entirely within zone B which puts the fare at $3.00, more than a CTA fare, however, the monthly fare is $85.00, quite a bit less than a CTA monthly pass. I’m waiting to see how Metra handles Vulture Card payments onboard.

    Metra will increase the service when a) the South Chicago trains are crush loaded (i.e. standing passengers when the branch joins the main line) and b) when politicians find money for wages and utility costs for the increased trains. No infrastructure changes would be required for improving frequencies, despite the efforts of another poster here. The off-peak trains are hardly deserted, but hardly packed either. 20 minute frequencies would be the max off peak for both South Chicago and Blue Island (at most).

  • FG

    Why would you only electrify only part of the line rather than the whole line – then you need dual mode locomotives or a transfer?

  • FG

    I think the through tracks at Union are VERY limited, which means through trains are limited, right? Regional rail to me means through trains at Union. Stockholm has a similar problem, long haul and commuter tail using the same two tracks through Stockholm City with major constraints on service.

  • FG

    Isn’t fare integration coming soon no matter what with mandated adoption of the Ventra card on Metra? I don’t see the Red extension as being parallel since most of the stations (and all, depending upon which proposal is adopted) are over a mile away from MED and the extension will serve that part of the south side better than increased frequency on MED would since the distance between the routes is far enough to require a bus ride and a transfer to rail and a large part of the appeal of a Red Line extensions utility is the ease of transfers which MED will never be able to offer (even if stations north of 47th were added, the longer bus ride east would offset the advantages). If we are going to object to parallel routes then we should do away with the purple line since it’s closely adjacent to a Metra line through Evanston.

  • Roland Solinski

    The way Union Station’s floorplan is set up, Amtrak has a monopoly on the through tracks, but they don’t run any through service. Amtrak often leaves trains to sit there for an hour or more. Terrible waste of capacity.

    There are a few issues with these platforms – they’re not ready to go tomorrow, they are kinked/not straight, poor passenger flow for commuters, etc – but the solutions are easy and relatively cheap.

  • Fred

    Union Station only has 2 through tracks along the river and only one of those has a platform. No trains currently go through Union Station.

  • daid vartanoff

    First because the RI District trains during rush hour operate Blue Island to the Loop via the Suburbanbranch and Joliet trains on the mainline. Second because even though I prefer EMUs, I can’t justify the cost of catenary all the way to Joliet at present, although, if the Lincoln Service were rerouted to the RI, that might tip the balance.

  • FG

    I don’t think two tracks is enough for an S-bahn style service. It’ll need to be solved quick before everything is built up around the station, which might limit expansion.

    Ideally all the tracks should have had the ability to be through trains, but that’s what we got with all the multiple RR companies of the 19th and 20th Centuries.

  • FG

    May as well go ahead and electrify it in one fell swoop (or at least plan it that way). Had some of the RR’s electrified in the 20’s as talked about (NW looked at it, I think, among others) our commuter network might look very different – or have had lots of eliminated routes like Philly which got rid of all non-electric routes as I understand it.

  • Leslie Nope

    Overlapping ranges give a great longitudinal perspective. You are always so critical, its annoying.