We’re Not Done With the Metra Electric District Line

Far South Sider Peter Taylor discusses why we need to convert the electric line to rapid transit service.

The Metra Electric District line. Photo: Eric Allix Rogers
The Metra Electric District line. Photo: Eric Allix Rogers

I’m a proud and militant South Sider and a product of the Chicago Public Schools. I grew up at the top of Roseland when it was a vibrant retail center and proud middle-class community. The deterioration I have witnessed over the last 40 years just makes me sick. For decades I have lived walking distance from the Metra Electric District line. I used it when I could, but the trains ran too seldom and left me with another fare to pay wherever I got off. Many of my neighbors don’t even know where the Metra Electric goes. I am not against the Red Line Extension. I hope it gets built; we deserve it. But in this challenging time, much of the service it would provide could be put in place at perhaps one tenth of the cost and one sixth of the time by transferring the Metra Electric (ME) to the CTA system.

The Metra Electric was built by the Illinois Central Railroad to provide more frequent commuter service to the growing communities along its passenger line. It was exquisitely designed to provide light, quiet, low impact rapid transit. For many years CTA-level service was provided along its length. South Siders of a certain age will remember there being a transfer station at 63rd and Dorchester where one could easily move from the Green Line to the Illinois Central (now ME). It was understood that the Metra Electric could extend service beyond the limits of the Green Line. When the Red Line began service in the Sixties certain deficiencies in the ME were exposed. There was no economical way to connect to the CTA; you had to pay two fares. This condition continues. The trip on the ME became single purpose for those that work downtown. This represented a last vestige of transit elitism.

After a series of fare increases, ridership has dwindled and Metra has been trying to kill the Blue Island and South Shore branches of the ME for years — they reduced service to these branches last year while increasing service to Hyde Park. But these branches are exactly where they need to be to provide the best transit service for the neighborhoods they are in. Converting the Metra Electric has been proposed to Metra and the CTA by a consortium of transportation advocacy organizations and community groups called the Coalition for a Modern Metra Electric. With the Obama Presidential Center soon to be built and the Pullman National Monument in development, the Metra Electric is positioned to get more than enough ridership to be a viable rapid transit line.

Again, the Red Line extension is a fine idea, and once a transit-friendly federal government is in Washington again, it could become a reality. Extending the Red Line has the potential to transform the South Side. With clean-sheet planning, neighborhoods can be served whose residents have been sadly isolated from access to Chicago’s many job and educational opportunities. Park & Ride lots are planned for the Red Line stations that will pull commuters off the horribly congested Bishop Ford expressway for a swift trip into the loop.

My issue with the Red Line extension plan is the time it will take to implement it. My community is hurting. When the factories and steel mills closed much of our working middle class employment was cut out from under us. The resources involved in the Modern Metra Electric have been in plain sight for nearly 50 years and successive administrations have been content to let the communities crumble. My neighbors are great people and they need to be able to get to better jobs the same way the other sides of town do. And to allow their growing incomes to nurture local business. Why continue to stymie these communities for 8 – 10 years when the service could be provided in less than two. Holding my community hostage In that differential cannot be justified. We have already wasted eight years just talking about the Red Line Extension. Our communities should not be put on hold while we wait for execution of that project.

The other issue is money. This Federal government is not friendly to urban dwellers. The funding for the Red Line Extension is nebulous, dubious at best. In a tax strapped city and financially broken state, our government needs to make better decisions with our money. Institute the Modern Metra Electric. And if you can get the money use it to improve the radial transit connectivity in Chicago with the resources we have. The current hub and spoke model of the CTA rapid transit reinforces segregated neighborhoods by isolation. As the modern urban environment has matured, cities late to the game have realized that more transit improves the quality of life by un-encumbering movement. Chicago is beset with transit lines that don’t connect and don’t serve the citizens well as it could because it hasn’t evolved. Such as extending the green line to Midway airport. Connecting the Red Line to the Green Line and rapid transit from Midway to O’Hare. We must insist that our elected officials should work to provide for our needs. Yes the Red Line Extension would be better. Build it if you can. But convert the Metra Electric Now.

  • Kevin M

    Thank you, Mr Taylor. I don’t live near the ME, but I fully support integrating it into the CTA system for all of the reasons you stated.

  • Jared Kachelmeyer

    Got to be cheaper than building new infrastructure. Though unfortunately Metra isn’t in great financial shape right now.

  • CIAC

    “For many years CTA-level service was provided along its length. South Siders of a certain age will remember there being a transfer station at 63rd and Dorchester where one could easily move from the Green Line to the Illinois Central (now ME). It was understood that the Metra Electric could extend service beyond the limits of the Green Line. When the Red Line began service in the Sixties certain deficiencies in the ME were exposed. There was no economical way to connect to the CTA; you had to pay two fares. This condition continues. The trip on the ME became single purpose for those that work downtown. This represented a last vestige of transit elitism. After a series of fare increases, ridership has dwindled..”

    Notice how the rise in car ownership is completely ignored in that history, even though it was largely about the middle part of last century. It’s as if nothing happened since that time period except for changes in transit.

    “and Metra has been trying to kill the Blue Island and South Shore branches of the ME for years — they reduced service to these branches last year while increasing service to Hyde Park. But these branches are exactly where they need to be to provide the best transit service for the neighborhoods they are in. ”

    Why? The areas on the South Chicago branch are dying. They’ve been losing population for quite a long time. The Blue Island branch had a tiny ridership at the times the service was cut (even though Blue Island has actually been gaining population) because there’s plenty of other transit service available. It’s one of, I think, two suburbs that are served by two Metra lines. Why is that a priority? Should they not have added service to Hyde Park and the far south side (in which they also added service, though you didn’t mention it) and instead kept as much service in Blue Island?

  • Chicagoan

    South Shore is on the South Chicago line and it’s added population since 2010.

  • Obesa Adipose

    Could you please provide a reference for your S Chicago population statement? For the first time in 30 years I recently visited the area where my mother’s family lived – around 86th and Burnham – and the neighborhood is pot marked with empty lots where houses and businesses used to be. Commercial Ave looks deserted.

  • Obesa Adipose

    I think converting ME to a more readily available service like the el would not only help the far south and southeast side but also the lakefront communities between the McCormick place and Hyde Park which currently have few stations and infrequent stops.

  • CIAC

    South Shore’s population has declined almost 15% since 2000: https://www.point2homes.com/US/Neighborhood/IL/Chicago/South-Shore-Demographics.html It’s apparently been steady since 2010 but with it the number of people already so low that seems beside the point.

  • Kevin M

    “The areas on the South Chicago branch are dying”
    Another way to put this: the areas on the South Chicago branch have fallen victim to private and municipal divestment. What has happened was not random market forces but real intentional forces (on national, state, and local levels) against middle class communities (especially those of color) over the past several decades.

    The past is written, and it does not paint a good picture of humanity, but the future can point toward smarter and more equitable outcomes. Even if a north-sider only looks at this issue through the myopic lens of what they personally have to gain, a stronger South Chicago leads to a stronger Chicago with a larger tax base to share the costs of our public services and institutions. Building and investing around expensive transit infrastructure that *is already built* seems like a very smart use of precious public and private resources–especially if you believe that transit-oriented communities are the future.

    Lets not curse the future with the prejudices of the past.

  • Jeremy

    “the number of people already so low”

    I wouldn’t expect anything less from IAC. Population of South Shore is 51,451, far greater than Bridgeport (33,878), Jefferson Park (27,264) and North Center (34,623). Population Density is also greater than those community areas’.

  • Cameron Puetz

    Is there any traffic on the ME besides Metra, South Shore and a few Amtrak trains (City of New Orleans, Illini, and Saluki)? The decline of freight traffic to south side industries, has left this corridor very overbuilt for what it’s being used for. While most Metra lines have freight traffic and get by on 2 or 3 tracks, the ME has 6 tracks. If Metra isn’t interested in operating city service, or fare integration can’t be worked out, it should be possible to turn two of those tracks over to the CTA to run rapid transit service without impacting suburban commuter operations. Create a set up similar to the west end of the Green Line where Metra and CTA trains operate side by side.

  • CIAC

    That assumes that a slight increase in Metra service on the South Chicago branch would have a major effect in improving the area as a whole. The evidence suggests the opposite. Metra did not reduce service on the South Chicago branch over the last several decades and this did not prevent the area from declining. The first time it significantly reduced service to that area was last fall. I agree that transportation infrastructure can have an enormous impact on the economic success of a particular area, and thus the region as a whole. But the planning for it must be done smartly or else it wastes money that could be going to more useful transit purposes.

  • Chicagoan

    You didn’t read what I said.

  • Obesa Adipose

    You said “… it’s added population since 2010.” prove it.

  • JacobEPeters

    The way that the platforms are laid out & the way that commuter rail service operates at a terminus like Millennium Station, means that in order to increase service on 2 tracks handed over to CTA without impacting the existing suburban commuter service, you need to avoid those services crossing over each other. Otherwise you would be capacity constrained by that junction rather than by the track capacity.

    In order to operate those two tracks completely separately from metra, there would need to be a short tunnel to get the outbound commuter track to the east side of the right of way north of 18th street so that the eastern platforms at Millennium Station could still be used in a typical commuter rail service pattern, but the furthest west platforms could be used in a way more similar to the way the O’Hare terminus on the Blue Line operates. Such a service pattern would also likely require a new maintenance yard that was separate from the yard used by Metra.

  • david vartanoff

    Canadian National, which operates on the 2 easterly tracks uses this route to move freight between yards on the far South Side and the North West Side.

  • david vartanoff

    Imagine that the Dan Ryan were only available to use during rush hours and for a few minutes during other times of day. Further, imagine that most of the Ryan’s on/off ramps were closed so that it mostly was useful from outside the city to the Loop but had no direct connection to any other highways. How long would Chicagoans tolerate such underuse of transport infrastructure? Metra Electric Division was designed and built out in the 1920s to be a high passenger volume, fast, and frequent transit system,
    The critical steps to making better use of this asset are restoring frequent service and immediate integration of CTA fares/transfer rights in all areas where CTA operates. Placing ventra card readers on the platforms is relatively cheap and supposed to be in Metra’s future plans anyway.
    CTA’s Red Extension calls for a station at 130th St exactly where the South Shore station had been until 1960. Running MED trains between Kensington and Hegewisch with new ADA compliant platforms at the four former locations on this route could be done at a tiny fraction of the Red X budget and much sooner.

  • Marilyn Rosen

    Has there been any talk of adding ME stops in Bronzeville? It is crazy that the ME runs straight from 47th (which is only a flag stop) to 27th street. There should definitely be a stop at Oakwood / Pershing.

  • Steven Vance

    The only stop that Metra has been wanting to add (in Chicago) is one on the UP-North line at Ravenswood/Peterson. But it didn’t get the funding it needed, so that is on hold, indefinitely.

  • david vartanoff

    Former stops were located at 31st, 35th, 39th, and 43rd according to a 1952 TT in my collection. There were also more local stations south of 63rd St which was before Amtrak an intercity long distance station as well as for locals. And, as Mary Wisniewski reminds us in the Trib there used to be a Kenwood Branch of the L terminating at the MED and 43rd Place.
    The post WWII years were not kind to public transit.

  • Marilyn Rosen

    Thank you for that information — very helpful! It would be great to bring back some of those stops. With the city focusing so much on improving access to the lake front to revitalize South Side neighborhoods, this seems like complimentary undertaking.

  • david vartanoff

    Further details from my 1952 TimeTable. Back then there was a fourth track starting at the south end of the Van Buren Platform., and there were two more tracks from Roosevelt to 51st St. There was a 5:18 PM from VB departure which after Roosevelt Road made only 67th St before Stony Island at 5:35 PM. 17 minutes from VB to Stony is quick. No MED trains run that fast today.

  • Dale_Doback

    We can talk about “Improving” the Southside until we’re all blue in the face (and I’m assuming most here would be in agreement on that fact), but the main factor in this line’s feasibility is the Lake. Period. It’s astonishing that the lakefront doesn’t have better rapid access / connectivity. And with all the new development coming this way in the coming years (Obama Center, Michael Reese redevelopment, McCormick/McPier Entertainment District, etc), it just makes too much sense to better unite the Loop with the Southern Lakefront. Michael Reese is the real wildcard here … depending on what goes there (it won’t be Amazon), but another tech park or some other form of major development could easily command and support this additional infrastructure … all the way down to the Obama Center and beyond. BUILD!!!!

  • buddah

    I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again the best idea for south Chicago would be to extend the CTA green line from 63rd and cottage grove and let the city build a new CTA ROW next to the IC from 63 rd. to 67th st, and then let the CTA take over the Metra south Chicago branch and using there tracks. Eliminating Metra train equipment totally on the route and reallocating it with CTA train equipment that can run every 10-15 mins. The gray line and other ideas are nice ideas but IMHO not the right fit by far, Also Metra has repeatedly said it does Not and will Not run any rapid transit service on the south Chicago line.
    With that said it only makes sense to transfer that branch of the Metra line over to the CTA with its flat rate fare system. let Meta electric continue running on the University park and Blue island lines as there end points serve suburbs which is what Metra is suppose to do.
    CTA would incur very little cost compared to the red line extension that needs an entire new ROW built . The cost to turn the south Chicago branch into a CTA line would cost IMHO $250 million or less , simply because the ROW is in place, Stations are in place, and all that’s really needed is to build a new transfer station at 63rd and the IC for transfers from Metra to CTA, remove the overhead cat wires along the south Chicago branch and install a third rail, add a short concrete wall and fencing next to the tracks and your done. Compare that to the red line extension at 2.3 Billion for the 6 mile extension and extending the green line is steal of a deal. ( Note: the city would need to build a bridge for stony island traffic over the tracks with the addition of CTA frequent service)
    Chicago has CTA Rail service along the lake going all the way north, even purple and yellow lines extending into the suburbs but no Rail service south along the lake, thats a crying shame. This would be the quickest, easiest, sensible, and most cost efficient way to achieve that. Area Residents would much rather A flat rate rapid transit green line extension over the long bus trips to a rail station that they currently have to do now. However bottom line is also Chicago needs a revitalization of the south east side with new industry, jobs and new housing. when all these factors come into play it makes the idea of extending the green line a much more viable idea.

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