Financially struggling Metra launches a marketing blitz to coax riders back onto trains

A Metra worker uses "Ghostbusters"-like gear to sanitize an onboard restroom. Photo: Metra
A Metra worker uses "Ghostbusters"-like gear to sanitize an onboard restroom. Photo: Metra

The pandemic is obviously a challenging time for public transportation systems, and Metra has probably had the worst luck of any Chicagoland transit agency. Since its normal clientele is heavily made up of white-collar workers, many or most of whom have been working from home during COVID-19, the commuter railroad has seen a 90 percent ridership drop during the pandemic. For months it essentially collected no fares, since it instructed its conductors not to check tickets as a safety precaution.

After the infection and fatality rate dropped in Illinois, Metra began collecting fares again. But the Union Pacific railroad , which runs the UP North, Northwest and West lines and is currently in a dispute with Metra, still isn’t letting its conductors collect fares, claiming it’s still worried about coronavirus safety. All in all, Metra projects a two-year budget deficit of $682.5 million.

As such, Metra is desperate to convince Chicagoland residents that it’s safe to ride trains again. Today it rolled out a $1 million multimedia PR campaign in an effort to showcase recent safety measures and convince the public that Metra is a healthy travel option.

“The thrust of this effort is to tell our customers that we’re ready for them when they’re ready for us,” said Metra CEO Jim Derwinski in a statement. “They will find clean stations and trains, a mask requirement, plenty of room for physical distancing and a multitude of signs and announcements reinforcing our efforts to help them commute with confidence.”

Metra workers clean seats in a rail carriage. Photo: Meta
Metra workers clean seats in a rail carriage. Photo: Metra

The new media juggernaut, dubbed “My Metra,” includes ads on TV, traditional radio, streaming radio, billboards, social media, website, mailings and other formats.

“‘My Metra” is about making sure we’re there when you need us,” Derwinski stated. “It’s about getting you home safely and comfortably, just as we did for essential workers throughout the pandemic. It’s about always meeting your expectations. And it’s about communicating our value and relevance to you and the region.”

The campaign will highlight Metra’s safety precautions, including “thoroughly deep-cleaning all cars and stations in the spring and summer and keeping them that way with daily cleaning, sanitizing and disinfecting, using new equipment and new cleaning methods.” Riders are required to wear masks for their entire trip, and Metra says it’s running a sufficient number of trains and carriages to allow for social distancing. The ad blitz also promotes Metra’s use of “hospital-grade air filters” and touchless hand sanitizer dispensers in each car.

Infographic-confidence-FINAL

There are plenty of signs in each car reminding passengers of the mask and social distancing rules and highlighting the safety strategies. In July Metra launched a ridership dashboard to give customers a heads-up about crowding issues on train cars, so that they can make an informed decision when planning their commutes during the pandemic.

“I don’t think it’s too early to say that 2020 will go down as one of the most challenging years in history,” Derwinski said in a statement. “Although there may be uncertainty ahead, you can be certain that Metra won’t let you down. We will do everything we can to provide the safe, healthy, comfortable and reliable service you have come to expect.”

Over Labor Day Weekend, I rode the UP-Northwest line to and from Harvard Illinois for a train + bike excursion to Madison, Wisconsin. The carriages were moderately full but mask compliance was good, and I felt reasonably safe.

Have you been riding Metra during the pandemic, and have you felt safe while doing so? Any suggestions for the railroad on how it can improve pandemic safety while encouraging more people to return to riding trains? Let us know in the comments.

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