Metra To Study Changes to Make its Fare Structure More “Creative”

tickets, tickets.
Metra wants a consultant to study how it might changes its fare structure. Photo: Jessica Davidson

Metra, the regional commuter train operator, is seeking a consultant to develop “creative recommendations” on how to change its fare structure. The consultant would be in charge of finding the pros and cons of the current fare structure, comparing it to Metra’s commuter rail peers around the country, and building a model that allows Metra to test how different fare policies would affect ridership and revenue. The Request for Proposals is due at the end of the month.

There are some drawbacks to Metra’s current fare policy. Trips that have a nearly equivalent route via the Chicago Transit Authority ‘L’ and bus cost over $1 more, which in some cases means people are opting to take a slower but cheaper trip via CTA. There’s also no transfer discount except for those who buy $55 Link-Up passes to be used on CTA in combination with a monthly Metra pass during rush hours only.

Recently Metra raised the fares for trips within and between Zones A and B at a higher percentage than other zones, partly because of the need to stick to $0.25 increments. A coalition of South Side community organizations has asked transit agencies and legislators to study transfer discounts, and integrating fares with CTA and Pace because they say the Metra Electric line is hampered by a fare structure more appropriate for suburban lines. The Kenwood, Hyde Park, South Shore, and South Chicago neighborhoods are entirely within Zones A and B.

Metra spokesperson Michael Gillis said the RFP offers room for a unique fare policy, and that any recommended changes would “reflect our efforts to modernize operations and increase ridership. We want to see creative and innovative fare structure scenarios that can bring some excitement to our product.”

Changing the fares, or allowing new kinds of fares – like transfer discounts – could have positive ramifications for the nine million people who live in the region. People would have new transit travel options if transferring between a Metra train and a CTA or Pace bus didn’t require two full fares.

Unfortunately, Gillis said that reviewing transfers is beyond the scope of the RFP. “This is really meant to take a look at Metra’s internal fare policies to see if we can come up with some creative and innovative ways to meet the needs of our customers while still meeting our business and statutory requirements.”

One of Metra’s peers is Metrolink, a commuter rail system serving the Los Angeles metro region. They have a regional fare card, similar to Ventra. Customers who pay a Metrolink fare can transfer for free to all of the bus, light rail, and subway lines operated by the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority (branded Metro), as well as bus lines run by 14 other regional operators. Metrolink has 55 stations on 7 lines, while Metro has 80 train stations on six lines and many more bus stops.

Gillis said that part of the reason for the Metra study is “to access the capital required to invest in the cost of modernization – including new train cars, infrastructure improvements and expanded service.”

An Illinois law passed in 2011 required the Regional Transportation Authority – which oversees CTA, Metra, and Pace – to develop a transfer fare policy by January 2013, and a “universal fare” system by January 2015. The Ventra card and app largely satisfy the latter requirement, but there’s still no transfer fare policy between CTA, Metra, and Pace. However, as Gillis pointed out, the state RTA act “gives the boards of CTA, Metra and Pace the responsibility for setting the fares for each agency.”

There’s a benefit in having fare structures set by a regional agency. In Paris’ metropolitan region, known as the Île-de-France, the autonomous government agency that directs regional transit operations started a universal fare card last year that offers access to nearly all transit providers – including subways, buses, and commuter rail – for a single monthly fee. This means there are unlimited free transfers, and the zone structure was eliminated.

Commuting patterns in the Paris region are no longer just suburb-to-center, but also suburb-to-suburb. This is also the case in the Chicago region nowadays. Transport Politic blogger Yonah Freemark recently noted “a zonal system radiating from the center is a relic of that antiquated economic geography.”

Freemark wrote that while the Parisian universal fare card will save some commuters hundreds of euros a month, it will also cost the government hundreds of millions of euros more to provide the service, a cost that will be paid for by an increase in the employer-paid income tax. On the plus side, the additional ridership spurred by the new policy is likely to reduce the number of driving trips.

Implementing a cross-agency fare system in Chicagoland wouldn’t be free but it’s surely worth studying.

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  • neroden

    Metra fares absolutely should be the same as CTA “L” fares within the same area, specifically:
    — Millennium Station to 93rd St./South Chicago (Electric line S Chicago branch)
    — Millennium Station to 95th St/Chicago State (Electric line)
    — LaSalle to 95th St./Beverly and Longwood (Rock Island line)
    — Union to Harlem Avenue (BNSF line)
    — Ogilvie to Oak Park (UP-West line)
    — Union to O’Hare Transfer (North Central Service)
    — Union to Franklin Park (Milwaukee-West Line)
    — Ogilvie to Edison Park (UP-NW Line)
    — Union to Morton Grove (Milwaukee-North Line)
    — Ogilive to Wilmette (UP-N Line)

    This would be a fairly radical restructure of Metra fares. But it’s worth it. It would take a lot of pressure off the overcrowded CTA and put it on the less-crowded Metra.

  • It would increase their ridership, too.
    And once you run the train, it costs the same for it to carry 100 people as 1,000 people.

  • ardecila

    > “Trips that have a nearly equivalent route via the Chicago Transit Authority ‘L’ and bus cost over $1 more, which in some cases means people are opting to take a slower but cheaper trip via CTA.”

    Due to Metra’s paltry frequencies and express trains that skip stops in Zone A/B, this is rarely true. When factoring in the average wait time, the CTA is very often faster for the same trip.

    Physically, Metra lines are CAPABLE of delivering quicker trips downtown for people who live near the stations, but nobody wants to utilize them that way.

  • Sorta. The average wait time would only make a difference if you expect to arrive at a station and get on a train soon. But people who use Metra time out their day to use the Metra schedule. A lower price makes it more likely that one would now attempt to arrange their day to take advantage of the Metra schedule.

  • Cameron Puetz

    Ravenswood is one of Metra’s busiest non downtown stations despite the duplicate service from the Brown Line. There appear to be many people there who want to utilize Metra for a faster trip.

  • Pat

    Say these Metra lines become more crowded, do they have more flexibility adding extra cars than the CTA does? No only the availability of the rolling stock, but the platform lengths?

  • Chicagoan

    Rogers Park as well. The Morse station is half a mile away, but a lot of people live in Rogers Park and work downtown, so they chose Union Pacific North rather than the Red Line. There’s so much untapped capacity in Metra’s Chicago stations, it’s incredible.

  • Anne A

    “scenarios that can bring some excitement to our product” – Seriously? Something like “make the product desirable and feasible for more riders” is more realistic.

  • Anne A

    My understanding is that there’s a little more nuance to it. They often haul around empty cars but don’t open them because a conductor can only work x # of cars and there’s some additional expense to running lights and ventilation (as opposed to car being dark). I don’t know what percentage that additional expense would be, but it’s certainly a fraction of the fixed cost of operating the train.

  • Anne A

    It’s common on most off-peak trips for Metra trains to have some empty, dark cars. They just need to have enough conductors working to cover them. Platform lengths at most stations are already adequate for existing trainsets.

  • BlueFairlane

    I don’t know that I buy that argument. I think I’ve established here that I’m pretty cheap, but lowering the price of Metra to CTA levels isn’t going to make me rearrange my day, especially when I know I can just continue doing what I’m doing the way I’m doing it for the same price.

    I don’t use Metra, but are the lines we’re talking about really so lightly used that they could handle a big influx from CTA?

  • Anne A

    For off-peak trips, many Metra lines have capacity. See my comments elsewhere in this thread about empty cars.

  • Pat

    Yah, I’m specifically talking peak times.

  • david vartanoff

    I would expand your parameters as follows. MED as far as Blue Island–Rock Island same, MED to at least Kensington–preferably to a restored Wildwood Station — better service for Altgeld Gardens, South Shore to Hegewisch–w/restored intermediate stops making the Red Line Extension unnecessary,

    In all cases full CTA fare honoring via ventra or equal.
    In answer to the capacity questions, The Rock Island hosts very little freight–none on the “Suburban Branch” , MED–none, South Shore between Kensington and Hegewisch, some.
    As Mike Payne has pointed out in his Gray Line proposal, MEd is vastly underused at present. and I would add that maintaining greater capacity is why many of us wanted the third track retained on the UP North during the bridge rehab. All of these “commuter” services had multiple local stations competing directly w/CTA predecessors into the 50s/60s.

  • david vartanoff

    except for the 19th century ticket punching. Going POP and abolishing the extra ticket collectors is key. A few fare inspectors–at lower cost will catch the scofflaws.

  • BlueFairlane

    Off-peak doesn’t really matter. It’s what things look like at rush hour that’s important. Is there peak capacity to handle more traffic?

  • Chicagoan

    I used to take Union Pacific North to work everyday and it was always pretty packed, there were never any seats when it made it to Rogers Park. I think the argument is that by adding more trains and not skipping stops, Metra is a great way to handle the huge influx of riders on the Northside. Ravenswood and Rogers Park are both very popular stops, even though there are CTA lines half a mile away, tops.

    If they manage to build the Peterson-Ridge station, it’ll be just as popular, I think.

  • Viewing Metra and its fares as a “product” is an interesting position.

  • Metra can add additional cars more easily than CTA can, but every two additional cars requires an additional ticket collector.

  • Rogers Park metra is as popular as it is because of the large proportion of the white population who view the Howard stop as a rotating storm of knives coated in drug-addicted rapists.

    I have been told such NONSENSE about how “unsafe” the Howard stop is — even at times when I was riding it several times a week! — that the racial element of the warnings is impossible to miss.

    Metra does very, very good business by catering to the kind of white people who want to never have to sit next to a black person on their commute.

  • Chicagoan

    The Rogers Park Metra station is so popular due to the fact that you can get to the Loop in half the time, compared to the Red Line.

    When I rode Union Pacific North, the train went from Rogers Park to Clybourn to Ogilvie in what felt like quite a swift pace.

    Honestly, I think your critique is baseless. Rogers Park is one of Chicago’s most diverse neighborhoods. There are black people, white people, Loyola students, Mexicans, newfound immigrants, it’s a mixed bag and that’s what most Rogers Park citizens love most about their community.

    I think they take Metra for the convenience, not any kind of racial decision.

  • JeffParkNIMBY

    Good point. I assume the RFP doesn’t include looking at the stupid fact that ticket collectors exist in the first place.

  • The ridership of Metra getting on at Rogers Park is majority-white. The neighborhood is not. The specific reason people were warning me off of using the Howard Red Line station is because, in the view of the habitual Metra-riders, it was “obviously” criminal — and also majority-black in use, at least as far as the people warning me were concerned.

    Trust me, it was impossible to miss the racial aspect once I noticed it. It’s uncomfortable to think about, but in a city as segregated as Chicago is, the CTA is significantly browner in its userbase than Metra is, and it’s not accidental that this is so.

  • Chicagoan

    What do they do, though? Almost all of the Metra stations are grade level, it’s not like the CTA. Not trying to attack your post, I’ve actually been thinking about this issue.

    What’s the solution?

  • A lot of people think occasional spot checks will work well. I’m not sure I buy it, but that is the belief among the anti-conductor agitators.

  • JeffParkNIMBY

    Since turnstyles are unlikely, do the next best thing.

    Use the Ventra card to swipe in and swipe out of the system. Readers could be placed on each platform for preboarding. You would also use the reader at your exit station to swipe out. It would then deduct the appropriate fare based on actual distance traveled.

    (Transport for London uses this on the Docklands Light Rail. DLR is basically a subway system that goes through the financial district, so it can work for large numbers of people if implemented correctly.)

    You follow this with frequent and random verification on the train, using handheld scanners, to prevent people from gaming the system. (Something I witnessed firsthand in London.)

    Anyone who has not paid should get a large fine that would erase any potential monthly savings.

    In the end, you need fewer conductors to cover the same number of cars because they are not checking everyone. As a bonus, you can have more cars open.

  • JeffParkNIMBY

    Are you saying Metra riders are cheap and dishonest? ;)

  • mkyner

    Combine that with CTA-like turnstiles at the downtown terminals where most people get off. Sydney has a system like that for their commuter service. Unenforced tap in at suburban stations, and forced tap downtown. If you didn’t tap in at your suburban station when you got on, you’re charged the full amount for that line as you exit as though you got on at the furthest station.

  • lindsaybanks

    They need to start charging more for parking at stations where there is wait list for permits (at several stations this wait is over 10 years). And then they could charge less for rides and you’d probably get more riders and people would find rides, take buses, ride bikes, or walk to more stations. And people who don’t use the train now might consider it if they are guaranteed a parking spot, even if they have to pay more.

  • Cameron Puetz

    Metra has no control of most of its station parking. The station parking lots are usually owned and run by the village. Parking rates are a matter of village policy, not Metra policy.

  • OF COURSE while they seek to hire somebody to make “proposals”, Metra manages to IGNORE Free Input directly from the Communities involved:

    Metra’s Electric District services waste hundreds of thousands of transit dollars every day, by directly competing with adjacent CTA routes; when they could be working together for the benefit of both, and the Communities that they serve.

    A FREE Transit Proposal (purposely placed in the Public Domain) for Metra and CTA: CMAP RTP ID# 01-02-9003

  • neroden

    Spot checks work marvellously in many countries. Basically fare inspectors get on and do a complete sweep of the train… but not on every train and not on every day. If you’re trying to evade your fare and you’re commuting, you *will* get caught about once a week.

  • planetshwoop

    LA did / Does have this. I’m sure reading some of their fare box recovery info would explain if it would work.

  • Not necessarily. Beside the fact that Metra is basically utilizing every car in the fleet (their spare ratio is far below industry standards) there is also the question of platform capacity at the downtown terminals as well as yard capacity in the storage yards.

  • I think this is the crux of the issue. Speaking in marketing terms, if Metra wants to capture its market (i.e. increase its ridership) in the city it needs to stop much more frequently than it does and stop at potential high ridership stations. Look at its stops on Western Avenue and Clybourn, two stations in predominantly industrial areas but have decent ridership (for Metra, anyway) because Metra has every one of its trains stop at those stations. Thus, more frequent service.

  • See my comment above. Metra is basically using every available car they have in the fleet (their spare ratio is low by industry standards). Platform lengths for the current trainset (up to 11 cars) are fine in the downtown terminals though there would be constraints beyond that, particularly at the south end of Union Station. And platform lengths many other stations throughout the system are not even adequate for current trainsets, so you’re looking at significant capital costs.

  • lindsaybanks

    That’s not entirely true. Usually, there is a written contract between the Village and Metra or rail owner (BNSF/UP/etc). At some places, it is written into the contract what the price structure should be. And any changes need to be approved by Metra.

  • I’ve seen a few communities openly defy their contract with Metra and raise parking fares. Doesn’t happen often, but it has. Mostly because the operating & maintenance costs exceeded the parking revenues.

  • ardecila

    Doesn’t this have ripple effects, though? You raise the parking rates and some number of people will switch to driving, especially for recreational trips that are the bulk of Metra’s evening/weekend ridership.

  • ardecila

    Actually, yes. The seats are usually full on Metra, but only certain trains have significant amounts of standees and many trains could certainly have more. In the case of Ravenswood, for example, lots of people choose to stand on Metra for a faster trip rather than get a seat on the Brown Line.

    The problem is that virtually any number of standees kills Metra’s antiquated conductor ticketing system, since the conductor can’t see or get to everybody in the few minutes between station stops.

  • ardecila

    I assume you mean Grand/Western, as the Western stop on BNSF is very lightly used.

    This is really where the city should step up and allow residential growth in these areas. Most Metra lines run in industrial corridors, but Ravenswood has been a smashing success because the “industrial corridor” is only 1 block wide and surrounded by dense residential.

  • There is an elasticity argument to be made that this is the case. But more likely, you see drivers switch to another Metra station. Now, when communities along a line raise rates in a short time span, as recently happened on the BNSF Line, then riders would weigh taking another line, driving, or just paying up. One benefit of downtown Chicago is that it’s not particularly friendly to drivers – horrible traffic and expensive parking will deter most people from driving downtown.

  • Yes, I meant Grand/Western. And I agree with you on Ravenswood.

  • lindsaybanks

    Conversely, there are also people who drive because they don’t know if they will find a parking spot or because they can’t find one. Since prices are low and demand is high at some stations, all the daily fee spaces are full by 7 am. If you can’t find a spot, you have to drive anyway. When parking costs more (or is full insanely early), more people get dropped off and take buses. Bus ridership to the Route 59 station is pretty high.

  • lindsaybanks

    And what happens…? Nothing? I’d be curious to know more about these communities…

  • Chicagoan

    The Ravenswood Avenue industrial corridor is the definition of how preservation enriches communities. They could have torn down all of the industrial structures and built new, but it was saved. Now, charming cafes, chic office spaces, craft breweries, craft distilleries, wedding spaces. I could keep going. Just a very cool area, people are paying over 25K to have their wedding at the Ravenswood Event Center.

  • lindsaybanks

    Park Ridge is considering higher parking fees. They “told the City Council on March 28 that Metra will have final approval over the coin box fees.”