With ridership steeply dropping, Metra, Pace, and South Shore have pared down schedules

A South Shore Line train in Michigan City, Indiana. Photo: Jeff Zoline
A South Shore Line train in Michigan City, Indiana. Photo: Jeff Zoline

Chicago’s transit systems have facing stiff headwinds lately due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Illinois’ “Stay at Home”order, and plunging ridership. But they’re doing their best to continue serving transit-dependent residents and first responders, while struggling to stay afloat financially.

We’ll have an update on the CTA later today, but here’s what the other agencies have been doing lately. Both Metra and Pace are offering free rides to medical personnel as long the Stay at Home order is in place. Metra and the South Shore Line have both reduced weekday schedules, especially during rush hour. Pace has reduced schedules on free routes and modified schedules for commuter shuttles that connect to Metra trains. The South Shore Line won’t be allowing bikes on trains like it usually does come spring. And Pace is giving certain paratransit riders a break for shorter-distance trips.

All of the transit agencies are encouraging riders to avoid non-essential trips in order to reduce their exposure to the virus and prevent dangerous crowding, and observe social distancing while riding by staying 6′ away from other riders if possible. And they all emphasized that they are disinfecting their vehicles and stations on regular basis.

Metra

On Monday, the commuter railroad reduced its weekday schedules after a significant number of riders who would usually commute to work began working from home. Most of the cuts were to rush hour expresses — the lines either eliminated express trains altogether or severely reduced them. This is especially noticeable on the BNSF line, which normally has rush-hour expresses going in both directions in the mornings and afternoons. On lines that didn’t have many expresses to begin with, such as the North Central Service, the number of morning trips were reduced. Metra also eliminated many of the evening trips on most lines, in both directions.

While on some lines, the non-rush hour service frequency was more or less preserved, others, such as the Rock Island District and the Metra Electric District, saw service reductions. But even so, the Metra Electric still has trains running at least once an hour for most main line and South Chicago stations, once every two hours for the Blue Island branch stations, and once every 30 minutes for Hyde Park and downtown Chicago stations. The Heritage Corridor line, which was already a rush-hour only line, is keeping the same schedule as before the crisis.

South Shore Line

As an Indiana transit agency that normally serves a large number of Chicago riders, the Northern Indiana Commuter Transportation District, which runs the South Shore Line has to take both Indiana and Illinois regulations into account. The South Shore Line cancelled all express trains, most notably, an express that leaves South Bend at 6:00 a.m. Eastern Time and arrives at Chicago at 6:55 a.m. Central Time, eliminating the only practical option for people commuting from Pete Buttigieg’s hometown to the Loop. And it reduced off-peak trips as well, with some trains spaced as much as three hours apart.

The South Shore Line also noted on its website that, even though it reduced the schedule, it is still running the longest trains possible to encourage social distancing. And while normally the South Shore Line would begin accommodating bikes with special racks on some runs beginning April 1, the transit agency announced that it won’t allow bikes on trains this year until further notice. And to prevent crowding, the railroad cancelled the previously scheduled “Kids Ride Free” promotion that was supposed to run from March 21 – April 6.

Pace

Pace has two main functions. It provides fixed-route bus service in the suburbs and paratransit service throughout the entire Chicago region, including the city proper. It also operates several commuter express routes for shift workers at UPS and Amazon facilities throughout the area.  Five of those routes serve UPS sites and two of those routes go to Amazon facilities.

As of March 25, the agency has seen a 63 percent drop in fixed-route ridership and a 75 percent drop in paratransit ridership. And effective March 25 medical personnel can ride Pace for free if they show their employee IDs.

In terms of fixed-route service, Pace’s biggest change is that it no longer serves malls and shopping plazas where all the stores are closed. And with no sporting events happening at the moment, all of the express services to stadiums have been cancelled. The schedules for “shuttle bug” rush hour commuter shuttles have been adjusted to better match the Metra schedule changes. And Route 754 service, which normally provides express service between the Blue Line’s Clinton station and Lewis University, has been suspended because the university is closed.

The change also affected free routes where municipalities pay the operating costs that would normally be covered by fares. The Rosemont Circulator has been suspended. The Niles Free Bus routes — routes 410, 411, and 412 — have switched to the weekend schedule.

The three routes tend to have significantly more senior riders than most other routes, because what they lacks in speed they makes by dropping passengers off close to their destinations. While village parks and facilities like the Niles Senior Center are closed, the routes are still the most convenient way to get to stores like Wal-Mart and Jewel-Osco for people with limited mobility (the buses practically practically stop at the door).

On the paratransit end, Pace is still encouraging riders to avoid non-essential travel. And it’s reducing fares for the city of Chicago Taxi Access Program, which allows riders to pay $3 for taxi trips that would normally cost up to $30. Effective March 23, riders no longer have to pay the $3 fare, though they still have to pay the regular cab fares for anything beyond the 30 miles.

Connecting Transit Services

ChicaGo Dash, the rush-hour express service between the city of Valparaiso, Indiana and downtown Chicago, has been cancelled for the duration of the Stay-at-Home order.

River Valley Metro primarily serves Kankakee County while also providing two express services, one that connects to the Metra Electric Line at University Park and one that connects to Midway airport. It made adjustments to the University Park service to match the changes in Metra schedules, but otherwise, it’s keeping the service the same. The transit agency is making the service free for the duration of the executive order because, according to its website, riders have no way to buy transit passes during the lockdown.

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