Metra Can Follow Toronto’s Lead and Run All-Day, Frequent Service

Metra Electric
Metra Electric service is frequent, until you go south of the three-branch split at 63rd Street. Photo: Eric Alix Rogers

Toronto’s suburban commuter rail service, GO Transit, used to run its trains on a schedule that would seem familiar to Metra riders — bringing commuters from the suburbs in by 9 a.m. and shuttling them from the city after 5 p.m. Last year, though, it launched a new schedule that doubled mid-day frequencies on its two Lakeshore rail lines, from once per hour to every 30 minutes, “turning GO from a bedroom commuter service into full, regular transit,” said Ontario transportation minister Glen Murray. Their reward: a 30 percent increase in ridership on those lines in a year’s time.

Yonah Freemark, writing in The Transport Politic, identifies three characteristics that led to GO Transit’s strategy shift: high-level political leadership at the provincial (state) level, committed leadership and a new strategic direction within the agency, and the fact that GO owns most of its tracks.

Over here on the other side of the Great Lakes, commuter rail ridership on Metra has been growing much more slowly. Some lines are growing, but other lines are declining. Metra, like GO, could gain riders if it switched to “all-day” service that served people whenever they need to use transit — serving people on their schedules, instead of making people adapt to the train’s schedule.

Metra focuses on a central core system, mostly serving workers commuting to downtown Chicago from the suburbs in the morning and back in the evening. Even on the Metra Electric line, which before World War Two ran a rapid-transit like ten trains an hour past high-rises in Hyde Park and South Shore, just one train stops at most stations during the noon hour. It’s hard to use Metra for spontaneous trips – and trips for all of life’s purposes, not just work or carefully planned day trips – if you might have to wait an hour or two for a train.

Hz Metra maps
Ridership has declined on two lines (Rock Island and Electric) whose infrastructure and urban setting is especially ripe for more frequent service.

If Metra wants to expand all-day service, it should start where GO started — with leadership. Two consecutive Ontario provincial premiers (governors) campaigned on adjusting the budget to prioritize transit, and raising taxes to provide more transit service. Whether that means new subways, new streetcars, or both has been a long battle ever since, but improving service on the Lakeshore lines was one quick way to start — the tracks, trains, and stations were already there. Three more GO lines will soon follow, and long-term plans include gradual capital improvements to support even more frequent service.

In Chicago, the push for more transit resources recently got a jump-start when the Active Transportation Alliance and Center for Neighborhood Technology launched the Transit Future campaign, pushing Cook County commissioners to come up with new local transit funding. Those funds could expand transit infrastructure and service faster than usual, adapting Los Angeles’s strategy using local tax revenues to match billions of dollars in federal grants and loans. Many Cook commissioners have signed on to the campaign, but so far only to say they agree that it should happen.

A few extra track connections could also make it easier to run trains across the region. The Midwest High Speed Rail Association has advanced CrossRail Chicago, which would expand suburb-to-suburb options and make it possible to run frequent trains from the northwest suburbs to the south side.

Priorities and leadership within Metra are also shifting. Metra recently started developing a new strategic plan in July 2012, with the most recent progress being a board presentation in January. Spokesperson Tom Miller said then, “due to leadership changes, and the need to focus on a few other pressing priorities, it was delayed in its completion.” A source who worked closely with Metra and asked to remain anonymous said the process was delayed because of the CEO scandal, board shakeup, and most recently because of the need to finalize the next budget.

The strategic plan that GO Transit adopted in 2007, according to Freemark, indicated the agency’s move “beyond just serving peak travelers into central Toronto.” Metra’s plan, according to the source, is not about operations or service, but “directs overall strategic planning” and discusses Metra’s role as a transit provider now and in the future, its strengths and weaknesses, and “how could it serve its customers better.” These answers will then inform a set of policies which could lead to service changes, the source said.

That’s with an emphasis on the “could.” The January presentation [PDF] recommended “reverse commute” and “express/limited stop service” as policies to develop — but then ranked service enhancement and expansion last in their capital priorities. Some of the other strategic planning policies in the plan include how Metra interacts with other transportation modes, how it manages parking, and transit-oriented development around stations.

The strategic plan could also consider how much track Metra owns, which is a huge advantage when trying to run more trains down the track. While Metra doesn’t own 70 percent of its track like GO does, Metra does own several lines outright, and leases the tracks out to freight railroads. Metra owns 36 percent of the routes it runs on, notably the entirety of the Rock Island District, the Electric line and its branches, and the Milwaukee West line to Elgin. The Rock Island and Electric lines – both with closely spaced stops within the city – are showing the greatest ridership declines, even though they run through many transit supportive neighborhoods on the south side.

Metra spokesperson Miller said we can expect to hear more about the strategic plan at Metra’s next board meeting, on August 15.

  • Harold

    Gee, they instituted 100% more service and got 30% more riders.

    That should pay for itself in no time!

  • Eric S

    The way it’s worded it isn’t clear whether there was a 30% increase in ridership on the Lakeshore Lines only or on GO Transit overall.

  • Wewilliewinkleman

    Sharing lines can be a problem.

  • bfr12

    Doubling mid-day frequencies isn’t a 100% increase in service. Looking real quick at Metra’s UP-NW line, it would take less than a 50% increase in the number of trains to provide a minimum of half-hour service all day long.

    Now that extra 50% of service doesn’t mean Metra needs to collect 50% more in fares. They’re already paying for the trains, right of way and labor anyways so why not get more use out of them. As long as the extra riders pay for the fuel and additional wear and tear, it’s a plus!

  • Harold

    Are midday train crews really getting paid to sit around idle half the time?

  • bfr12

    Yes, according to shifts are up to 13 hours. Hard to pay them for 4 hour rush, tell them to go home for 5 hours, then back again for 4 rush.

  • Harold
  • Deni

    It’s about serving the transportation needs of the region, not “paying for itself.” It is a public transit system, not a Chipotle. Public schools, fire departments, and police departments don’t pay for themselves either.

  • Deni

    It is incredibly frustrating that this city – like most American cities – doesn’t use the infrastructure that they’ve got already to serve the needs of the population better. There are so many parts of the city that are under-served by rail transit that Metra lines go right through.

    I was up in Lincoln Square one time for dinner and then had to go meet a friend for a show at the Hideout. Lincoln Square being right by the Ravenswood stop, the Hideout being very near Clybourn, which is what, a 5-minute ride? But no train scheduled until like two hours later.

    Electrify all the Metra lines, build high-level platforms and let’s have S-trains like Germany to augment our metro (L) service.

  • Rail rodder

    That would suck for the employee.

  • Thank you for pointing that out. I’ve edited the text to identify that it was about the two Lakeshore lines.

  • Michael Schabas

    The key to persuading Toronto to run frequent two way all-day services on GO was analysis my firm did which showed that it costs practically nothing, because passengers actually pay more to ride than the incremental costs. The trains and tracks are needed to carry the peak, and even the train crew have to be paid for an 8 hour shift. Since the train companies in the UK were privatized, all day services have been doubled or tripled. Toronto is now going to run every 15 minutes all day each way on all 7 GO routes

  • Lisa Curcio

    Back in the last century when I lived in Barrington and worked long hours in the Loop, I drove because the schedule after 6:00 p.m. was so sparse. If there had been better service, taking the train would have been a far better choice to get me home at a reasonable hour.

  • Totally. I’ve heard this situation more than once, where a person who drives now considered Metra but thought it arrived at the wrong time. In one instance, a former classmate got a new job in Lake County. One train from Chicago would make her arrive 45 minutes early to work, thus she would have to wake up 45 minutes earlier, or arrive 15 minutes late to work.

    Some businesses may be flexible about staff arrival times but just as many others are probably inflexible.

  • Moaz Ahmadmoa

    Kudos to your firm for providing the analysis…though I’m sure that GO Transit already had similar analysis and data. While GO Transit moved from hourly to 30 minute service on the Lakeshore corridor in 2013, the first steps to make this possible took place in 2004 when GO Transit started widening the Lakeshore west corridor to 3 tracks from Port Credit to Burlington junction.

    Negotiating track time with freight railways (whether they or Metrolinx own the tracks) is also a significant challenge that is preventing more service from already being offered on lines that Metrolinx already owns. The railways have made it clear that Metrolinx must pay for corridor and track upgrades or they will not cooperate.

    The possibilities of 2-way all-day GO rail service are significant and popular…but there will be costs in upgrading Union Station tracks and platforms, converting from diesel to electrification etc…and that is going to cost $12-15 billion and take as much as 10 years.

    Cheers, Moaz

  • Moaz Ahmadmoa

    If I recall correctly the 30% increase was actually in the first summer in 2013and there would be subsequent growth in September (with more people returning to work & school). Beyond that, the city of Toronto has begun a massive overhaul project (2 year lane closure, occasional full highway closures overnight) on the Gardiner expressway which runs from downtown Toronto to the western border, roughly parallel to the railway corridor…so there is probably a notable increase in passenger demand in 2014.

    I’m looking forward to seeing updated data from GO Transit.

    Cheers, Moaz

  • Wewilliewinkleman

    The privatization of Brit rail came at a high cost in terms of the cost paid by passengers.

  • Michael Schabas

    Really? So why have passenger numbers doubled, growing faster than any country in Europe? Do you make your statement based on facts or just asseriton?

  • Wewilliewinkleman
  • Michael Schabas

    There is no free lunch, and some UK rail passengers pay more. But the average fare has not actually increased in 20 years. What is the objective? Low fares, or better services that attract high ridership? The Guardian has good crosswords.

  • Wewilliewinkleman

    With the housing costs growing in London pushing more and more of the middle class further out of the city, the comuting costs have skyrocketed for average workers.

  • Michael Schabas

    That must be why the population is growing so fast and the trains are so crowded. And car mileage has actually declined 10% even in the outer suburbs. If you are obsessed with keeping transit fares low, you get what you pay for.

  • Michael Schabas

    Many of them supplement their incomes with part time jobs. and it is not exactly a secret that if you work in public transit, you are not signing up to a 9-5 lifestyle

  • Wewilliewinkleman

    Maybe you’re right. But there are a lot of commenters on these boards that truly believe you can do all this expansion and not have it come at a cost. Taxpayers and passengers. Today’s article in the Guardian seemed appropriate. Even with privatization, the trains in the UK still are subsidized by the government. Currently in Illinois unless you raise fares or taxes (neither being a popular notion) you have nothing. More taxes on drivers and parking may work in Canada, but Illinois fragmented style of government it will not go far. And dangling the prospect of doubling train schedules like Toronto and in the UK without revealing what costs are for the rail passengers and taxpayers who supprt it is not the full story.

  • Joseph Palmer

    This, combined with a wish for Pace to do the same thing, would make getting to my mom’s place in the suburbs much easier to deal with, rather than having to call for a cab or have her always having to pick me up. The bus service there only runs on rush hour schedules.

  • Joseph Palmer

    I wish I could press the up arrow on this comment more than once.

  • Rob

    I agree. It’s almost free to do and makes a lot of sense, especially the lines Metra owns outright. Just start tomorrow. Same for Pace. Living in the suburbs i would use transit to get to the city more if the trains ran more especially in off peak times.

  • Str0ng

    Kudos to scamming the city for such basic cost-benefit analysis. It’s only because of these unions that lock in ridiculous unnecessary hours that this was possible in the first place. If they just had 4 hour shifts, far more money would be saved not having all day service.

  • “But there are a lot of commenters on these boards that truly believe you can do all this expansion and not have it come at a cost.”

    I disagree. The bigger hurdle right now is that many of the transit agencies, as well as the RTA, are not doing the studies, not conducting the cost-benefit analyses for service that’s quite different than what they currently provide. (Or they’re not publicizing it.)

    We don’t want incremental changes here and there so stop running those numbers. A decent example of this is the 2012 CTA decrowding plan that swapped a decrease in bus service for an increase in train and different bus service.

    For more on London transit, check out this article:

  • R.A. Stewart

    “It’s almost free to do and makes a lot of sense …”

    And thus will never be considered …

  • Str0ng

    The unions are bankrupting state and local government agencies. They “negotiate” with the same politicans who’s pockets they line.

  • “this is how we’ve always done it” – That was the reasoning CEO Don Orseno mentioned was behind the work log swap issue the inspector uncovered and publicized last week.

  • FG

    MED is cheaper to Hyde Park than by CTA if you buy a monthly pass as it is now ($85 Metra vs $100 CTA). Trains are not crush loaded enough (i.e. not at all) for Metra to justify increasing service unless the state/city stepped in to provide funds for increasing it. .

  • Dennis McClendon

    There’s also the rather significant problem that Metra receives no tax revenue from the city. People here keep acting like we have some sort of regional transportation authority. But thanks to the crisis of 1983, we have suburban transit and we have city transit.

  • Anne A

    A few years back, I interviewed for a job that would have involved a reverse commute. Service was infrequent enough that taking Metra (only transit option) would have wasted lots of my time. Driving wouldn’t have been much faster, and would have required buying a car. The job did not pay enough and was not attractive enough for a driving commute to make sense.

  • Nathanael

    Metrolinx has put its money where its mouth is by buying nearly all the tracks from the freight railways. Negotiating track time turns out to be pretty easy when you own the tracks; if the freights don’t cooperate, it doesn’t matter, you’re the owner and you can kick them out. So they do cooperate.

    There are a few routes used by GO which are key to Canadian freight service, which the freight haulers are going to retain ownership of. And on those routes the freight hauler can simply prevent expansion of passenger service, and justifiably. So Metrolinx has to build its own pair of tracks in these areas. This is expensive. Unfortunately, there are large segments like this on the Lakeshore West, Milton, and Kitchener lines, which are the three which are most popular and most in need of service expansion.

    Metra does not have these problems. On Metra Electric and the Rock Island line, Metra is completely in control and doesn’t need to ask any freight hauler for permission to do anything. There’s essentially no freight on UP-North and Metra could probably buy it if Metra asked. BNSF has been very cooperative on the BNSF line. Metra simply isn’t *trying* to provide frequent service. Probably because “this is the way we’ve always done it”.

  • Nathanael

    The reason trains on Metra Electric aren’t crush loaded include:
    – the higher-than-CTA fare (if you don’t have a monthly pass)
    – the stupid schedules. Run consistently every 15-minutes, watch ridership go up.
    – the extremely poor physical condition of the stations. Roosevelt Road recently got improved from “intolerable” to “tolerable”, but many of the other stations along the line need similar basic maintenance work.

  • buddah

    well you have it half right, 1) electrify all metra lines. Upfront it will be a great cost but over time the savings in diesel cost over the cost of electricity it will pay for itself in 15-20 yrs give or take. 2) NO new high platforms. Metra electric keeps theres but diesel metra should not upgrade to high platforms, why? Almost ALL Metra diesel lines share track rights with freight trains and there are a lot of freight trains that wont clear a high level platform( width restrictions), thats why metra electric has its own lines.

    A better idea would be just to get rid of the roughly 100 diesel locomotives and purchase electric locomotives but use the same metra gallery cars and stations that are currently in use. this is is a huge savings as Metra would not need to purchase almost a Thousand new train cars and demolish and replace 100s of stations.

    With these savings alone in electrification and keeping there current rolling stock and stations Metra’s diesel modified to electric lines could go from 1 train per hour service to one every 20-30 mins service ( 2-3 per hour) and still not break the piggy bank. While adding new service at a low cost IE: Metra electric extended to Kankakee IL ( one 2 car train every 2 hours), Metra Milwaukee North all the way to Milwaukee WI ( one 4 car train every 1-2 hours service), Metra elgin line to Rockford IL ( 1 short 2 car train every 2 hours).


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