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
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.”

  • Leggy Mountbatten

    Adequate signage that would encourage new users would probably be helpful as well.

  • rwy

    I’m looking at the schedules for transfers, and I see the same problem as before. To catch the Saturday outbound UP-NW the leaves Clybourn at 10:38 I’d have to take an inbound UP-N line train that arrives at Clybourn at 10:05 and wait over a half an hour for the transfer.

  • Anne A

    Some of the things they could do to make the passenger experience better are SO basic, like displaying current time on digital displays on platforms. That would be especially useful at LaSalle St. station. It’s nice to know at a glance whether you need to sprint to make that train or if you have an extra minute – or five.

  • heymcdermott

    Linking the weekend pass to the CTA and Pace transit should be a no-brainer.

  • Rob

    Part of the problem is using Metra takes at least double or more time than just driving especially on the weekend. The downtown Metra stations are far removed from where people want to go and frequency needs to be at least hourly. This doesn’t count the time to get to the station then park and get inside. Also, once you pay $20 for at least 2 parents, kids are free at least, then I could have found a parking place for that price using a parking app on my phone. It’s just too easy for most people in the suburbs to just drive and save the hassles of taking transit.

  • Kevin M

    These changes that Metra are trying out this summer actually address two of the issues you just noted. They are running more of an hourly schedule on several of their lines and they are adding express trains on a couple of these as well. Those changes make transit more competitive than driving for a large number of suburban families.
    Yes, families still have to be willing travel on a schedule, and the costs might be a little higher, but the train provides a much safer and lower-stress option over driving. Also, most kids I’ve met absolutely love riding on trains.

  • david vartanoff

    A more serious experiment would make the weekend pass valid for ALL CTA travel in the same period.

  • Mitchell Brown

    Do you write software code?

  • Mitchell Brown

    How much do you think it costs for just one of those display signs? Also, do you write software code?

  • heymcdermott

    No, sir. I mean wanting to link the systems would be handy.

  • heymcdermott

    But I see this is your response to everything. Are you a Metra official looking for someone to write code, or just being snarky? Yes, everything costs money. If it gets the service more riders, that’s called a good “ROI”

  • Anne A

    There are 2 *existing* signs at LaSalle that USED to display the time, so I know that the capability exists. Now they just refer people to the Metra web site – not very useful if you’re running to catch a train.

    I used to write code. Something like time isn’t hard.

  • William Reed

    This is a nice point. Most Metra riders don’t even consider Metra-Metra transfers (from the same station or even across the loop), so I’m not sure that survey data would capture potential increases in ridership if Metra thought to increase the ease and marketing of transfers. (Of course this would be best integrated across other systems, but here I just mean within Metra). A separate but related point: weekend riders tend to be thought of as suburbanites taking day trips into the city, but many city residents also enjoy trips to the suburbs on the weekend (Metra has made some nice quasi-vintage marketing material promoting this type of trip a few years back). Smart intra-Metra transfers could capture lots of city residents wanting smooth trips out of the city while also making many more suburban-city trips attractive alternatives to driving.