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Metra Is Trying Several New Strategies to Lure Weekend Riders

A Union Pacific Northwest Line outbound express train races past Des Plaines station. This summer the line will see express trains on weekends as Metra hopes to encourage more ridership. Photo: Igor Studenkov

Metra is taking several steps to encourage more people to ride on weekends. Earlier this spring, the transit agency conducted a survey to figure out why weekend ridership has been dropping and what they could do to improve it. During the May 15 Metra board meeting, officials laid out the major issues the survey highlighted and what the transit agency could do to address them, given budget and capacity constraints.

One of those changes -- new, more frequent summer schedules for the Rock Island District and Union Pacific lines -- has already been announced. But the transit agency is also looking to improve station signage, add real-time arrival displays to certain stations, and encourage monthly pass holders to ride on weekends by allowing them to travel outside the zones indicated on their passes at no extra cost on Saturdays and Sundays.

Metra weekend service varies depending on the line. The Heritage Corridor and North Central Service lines don’t have weekend service at all, while the SouthWest Service line only has limited Saturday service. For much of its history, the Metra Electric line’s Saturday schedules weren’t much different from its weekday schedules, but following a 2017 service restructuring, Saturday service was reduced, especially along the Blue Island branch. And over the past few years, the Rock Island District’s Saturday and Sunday schedules have been largely identical save for two extra Saturday trains in each direction.

As for other lines, trains run an average of 1-2 hours on Saturdays and once every two hours on Sundays. And even on those lines, there are certain stations that don’t get any weekend service whatsoever. The Milwaukee District West line’s Timber Road and Union Pacific Northwest line’s McHenry stations in particular stand out because the Pace bus routes that connect them to other stations don’t run on weekends, either.

One incentive Metra currently offers for weekend riders is the $10 Weekend Pass. The $10 pass pass is good for unlimited rides all weekend.

During the board meeting, Metra planner Lynnette Ciavarella explained that survey respondents most commonly cited “more frequent service” as the improvement that would encourage them to ride more often often on weekends, followed by “faster express train service” and “later train service.”

Respondents who have stopped riding weekend trains were asked why, and most blamed service that is “too infrequent.”  Other major reasons stated for giving up on riding weekend trains were lack of “last mile” connections, and lack of a station building or any kind of shelter to protect waiting passengers from the elements. She also noted that, when asked what their alternatives for taking Metra on weekends would be, 51 percent of respondents who gave up riding on weekends said they would drive. 18 percent stated that they simply wouldn’t make the trip.

Ciavarella added that another major issue that emerged was lack of clear signage as to which trains board at which platform, as well as a lack of real-time arrival information.

Metra is looking to address the above issues in several ways. First, it’s launching a summer schedule pilot that will run from June 1 to Sept. 2. For the Rock Island District line, Metra beefed up the Saturday service to and from the suburbs, adding six trains in each direction between Joliet and downtown Chicago, increasing the frequency from once every two hours to once an hour between 9 a.m. and 6 p.m. The service along the line's Suburban Branch - which primarily serves Chicago's Beverly and Morgan Park neighborhood, will remain the same.

For the Union Pacific Northwest line, the changes are more complex. On Saturdays Metra is adding five express trains in each direction, filling in some service gaps. For inbound trains, the railroad is addressing a problem that I noticed many times while growing up in the northwestern suburbs. The train that leaves Harvard at 8:35 a.m and arrives downtown at 10:23 a.m. tends to get crowded by the time it reached the mid-point in Palatine, and the closer it gets to the city, the more it gets delayed as more and more people try to board. The new schedule splits the trip into two: One trains goes express from Arlington Heights to the Loop while another train leaves Arlington Heights 10 minutes later and makes all stops, arriving downtown at 10:33 a.m. And, in the afternoons, the extra trains will fill in the schedule gaps, increasing the service frequency from once every two hours to once an hour, though some of those trains don’t serve all stations.

For the outbound trains, the additions beef up the afternoon service, adding new trains at 3 p.m. and 5:30 p.m. that go express from downtown to Arlington Heights, as well as increasing the frequency of evening trains from once every two hours to once every hour.

On Sundays, the schedule adds three trips in each direction. This includes earlier morning trips in both directions, splits the morning inbound 8:35 a.m. train similar to the Saturday train, adds an extra morning inbound train that leaves Crystal Lake at 10:00 a.m.. For the outbound trains, it adds a 5:30 p.m. express train and a 5:40 p.m. local train,

Metra executive director James Derwinski told the board that the railroad is also working with the communities it serves to put together an online event calendar that will list events throughout the region , with directions on how to get there by train.

Derwinski said that the transit agency recognizes that many stations don’t have much in the way of weather protection. Capital funding is a major obstacle to addressing that, he said, but Metra is looking into developing “universal-type shelters” that could be added anywhere.

As for the real-time arrival information, Derwinski said Metra will soon be going out to bid for “robust, industrial TV monitors” that would work similarly to displays at major ‘L’ stations, displaying advertising, weather information and safety announcements alongside arrival times. And, to reduce the confusion about which trains use which track, the station announcements would now mention the track number, and Metra will be putting up signage to make it clear which track and which platform is which.

Finally, Derwinski noted that Metra is working to reward monthly pass users. Most people buy a monthly pass based on where they need to commute on weekdays, with the cost of pass increasing if it includes service to zones father away from downtown. While the passes are already good on weekends, currently you need to buy an additional surcharge if you're traveling beyond the designated zone on your pass. This change would eliminate that fee on weekends. “Starting June, your monthly ticket will be looked at as complete weekend pass,” he said.

Derwinski added that Metra is looking into adding more goodies for monthly pass users. “We will come up [with] what maybe looks like a reward program by the end of the year,” he said. “I think we need to reward long-term riders and our loyal riders.”

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