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Non-mystery trains? Metra promises more accurate arrival data on its new tracker

Train positions on several Metra lines as of early Friday afternoon.

Much has been said recently about the CTA's COVID 19-era reliability problems. There's been less discussion of Metra's challenges with restoring service as society slowly recovers from the pandemic, but it's an equally vexing issue.

Since the hub-and-spokes commuter railroad's focus is on transporting suburbanites to and from downtown jobs, its ridership has been particularly hard-hit by the switch to remote and hybrid work during COVID. While total average weekday CTA ridership was at only 56 percent of 2019 levels as of last October, Metra weekday ridership was at a mere 44 percent of pre-pandemic levels as of November.

Metra has been gradually restoring service that was drastically cut back during the Stay at Home era. For example, the railroad will increase number of weekday trains on SouthWest Service from 12 to 30, starting next Monday.

Waiting for a Metra train can sometimes feel like "Waiting for Godot." Photo: Eric Allix Rogers
Waiting for a Metra train can sometimes feel like "Waiting for Godot." Photo: Eric Allix Rogers
Waiting for a Metra train can sometimes feel like "Waiting for Godot." Photo: Eric Allix Rogers

But Metra reliability appears to have become more of an issue than before COVID. For example, in a December 27 letter to the Chicago Tribune, Glenview resident Linda Bruce said the 6:57 a.m. Milwaukee District North train she takes downtown never shows up on time, sometimes instead arriving in Glenview as late as 7:15. Then one day recently it appeared at 6:57 on the dot. She called it a Christmas miracle.

In the wake of a new INRIX report that found Chicago's is the most congested region in the country (here's an explanation of why these studies should be taken with a grain of salt), the Metra Twitter account gloated a bit over the news.

Chicago traffic congestion? Never heard of it. 💅

— Metra (@Metra) January 11, 2023

Indeed, riding Metra to work is a great way to avoid having to worry about traffic jams caused by car drivers. But the replies to the tweet highlighted issues the commuter railroad still needs to address to become a more reliable, convenient, and pleasant alternative to driving. Commenters mentioned infrequent service; delays caused by signal problems and freight train traffic; outdated locomotives and carriages; the need to switch from diesel to electric power systemwide; and more.

Metra's latest effort to win back rider confidence was this week's announcement that the system has launched metratracker.com, "a new real-time train-tracking website that lets customers see precisely where their trains are and when they will reach their stations." (Metra has been tracking trains since 2010.) The new site is also supposed to make it easier to view schedules and plan trips.

“This new train tracking system is a major upgrade and will be a dramatic improvement in our communications to... customers,” said Metra CEO and executive director Jim Derwinski. “It enables us to do a better job of tracking trains and conveying timely, accurate information, and also includes a variety of interactive new features.”

The site provides three main functions (Metra's language):

    • Station Times – This option allows customers to check for train departure times from their selected station. When they pick this option, they will be asked to select the line they use and their origination and destination stations. Once they’ve made their selections and click “Continue,” the next page will show all trains scheduled to make that trip in the next two hours, with the train numbers and predicted or scheduled departure times.
    • Real-Time Map – This interactive map allows customers to see the location of trains along the line or lines that they select, so they can see exactly where their train is and how soon it will reach their station. Customers can click on stations or trains on the map to see real-time information about trains and schedules.
    • Trip Planner – This option allows customers to plan a trip using Metra and other modes of travel between addresses or locations that they select. They can request the “Best Route,” “Fewer Transfers,” or “Less Walking” and choose “Leave Now” or enter their preferred departure or arrival time.

The new train tracking system was created by Woodbury, NY-based Clever Devices and cost $26.7 million. It required the installation of new GPS tracking devices and other network equipment on over 1,000 railcars and in 238 stations. Currently the tracker is fully operational on six lines: Metra Electric, Rock Island, Heritage Corridor, North Central Service, Milwaukee District West and Milwaukee District North. The railroad says coverage on the remaining lines, including the three UP lines, SWS, and BNSF, coverage, will increase as it completes the installation of new tracking devices this year.

Clicking on a train icon on the map gets you its predicted arrival times at upcoming stations.
Clicking on a train icon on the map gets you its predicted arrival times at upcoming stations.
Clicking on a train icon on the map gets you its predicted arrival times at upcoming stations.

Metra says the train tracker system has other features that will upgrade communications. For example, employees in the Train Reporting and Customer Communications Center (the facility that handles customer communications) can send texts to trains and platforms that will instantly be turned into audio announcements and displayed on platform signs. The railroad says the system will more accurately announce the arrival of the next train, or announce that the next train is running express, on platforms.

Metra spokesperson Michael Gillis told Streetsblog the data that is being used by metratracker.com is already also being used by the Ventra app and more than 600 third parties that requested and have access to the railroad's GTFS-RT feed, such as the Transit app, Google Maps and Apple Maps.

BNSF trains on the Metra Tracker website at about 12:25 on a Friday afternoon.
BNSF trains on the Metra Tracker website at about 12:25 on a Friday afternoon.
BNSF trains on the Metra Tracker website at about 12:25 on a Friday afternoon.

One thing about having a visual representation of where Metra trains are is that it really highlights how sparse the service is. For example, above is a depiction of the trains on the BNSF Line as I'm typing this, around 12:25 p.m. on a Friday. It's notable that, even on the system's busiest route, only one inbound and one outbound run are visible. A world-class commuter rail system should provide more options for departure times, rather than forcing you to wait an hour or two for the next train if you miss your run.

Have you tried using the new Metra Tracker yet? Let us know what you think of it in the comments.

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