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Service boost means BNSF Line will get Metra’s first-ever across-the-board weekend schedule, starting April 29

In addition, Halsted Street station will get weekend service, and Downers Grove's Fairview stop will become an off-peak stop.

A BNSF train at the downtown Brookfield station last July. Photo: Igor Studenkov

This post is sponsored by Keating Law Offices.

Metra is significantly boosting weekend service on the BNSF Line, Metra’s busiest line. In a first for the railroad, the schedule will be the same for Saturdays and Sundays.

The changes will take effect on Monday, April 29. Under the new schedule, the BSNF will run 18 trains in each direction during the weekend, 20 percent more than it currently runs on Saturdays (15) and 80 percent more than it presently runs on Sundays (10). For the most part, the trains will run once an hour, with consistent headways for local trains. Metra is also tinkering with the weekday schedules, but the changes will less drastic. 

The weekend trains will no longer serve the Stone Avenue station, one of the two BNSF stations serving southwest-suburban La Grange. But they will stop at Chicago’s currently weekday-only Halsted Street station, which serves the University of Illinois Chicago’s south campus and east Pilsen. On weekdays, off-peak trains will now stop at the currently rush-hour only Downers Grove’s Fairview Avenue station.  

Metra spokesperson Michael Gillis told Streetsblog the changes are part of the railroad's broader effort to increase ridership by improving off-peak service and creating more consistent headways. The railroad believes there’s an untapped demand for more frequent weekend service and service to the Halsted station. Gillis said Metra will look at BNSF’s weekend ridership over the next few months and "If the ridership returns are fruitful" and there are enough crews and equipment available, it may look into creating weekend schedules on other lines.

The BNSF Line route. Image: Metra

New Schedules

The BNSF Line runs between Chicago's Union Station and downtown Aurora. It has one regularly served intermediate stop in Chicago, Pilsen’s Western Avenue station (not to be confused with the Milwaukee District/North Central Service station in Humboldt Park). The Hollywood station (named after the surrounding subdivision) is the closest station to Brookfield Zoo. 

While the South Shore Line had weekend schedules for decades, Metra tended to have separate schedules for Saturdays and Sundays, with Saturday schedules getting more trains.

As Gillis noted, Metra had taken steps towards unified weekend schedules with Metra Electric and Rock Island District lines. Both lines have trains that run on both days, but both have Saturday-only trains.

Gillis said that the change is part of Metra’s broader push to move to a regional rail model, with more off-peak service and more regular headways.

“While the BNSF Line is almost always our busiest line during the weekdays, it is not always the busiest on weekends, so we think there is some weekend demand not being addressed by our current schedule,” Gillis added. 

Under the new schedule, Chicago-bound local trains would leave Aurora once every hour from 5 a.m. to 7 p.m., and every two hours the rest of the evening. The pattern is reversed for Aurora-bound trains - the first three morning trains run two hours apart, then once an hour the rest of the day. The schedule keeps the two Chicago-bound express trains and one Aurora-bound afternoon express train - it just adjusts the departure times to create consistent headways between expresses and the locals. 

For weekdays, Metra is keeping the same service frequencies, while slightly tweaking the off-peak departure times and which express trains stop at which stations. Click here to see how the changes will affect your train, or to check out the full schedule.

Photo: Igor Studenkov

Station Stop Changes

Like other  lines, the BNSF Line has several stations that off-peak and weekend trains usually skip. Gillis explained that, when trying to figure out the new stop patterns, Metra used the "walkshed" concept. If there are two stations within walking distance of each other, it’s safe to skip one of them.

"For the off-peak schedules we are attempting to strike a balance between speed and coverage. We want trips to be fast, but we don’t want to leave any area without reasonable alternative service," Gillis said. “For this schedule change, we conducted a GIS analysis to see how those who walked to certain stations would be affected if stations were skipped."

La Grange is served by two Metra stations: the Stone Avenue and downtown La Grange Road station. The two stops are within around 0.4 miles of each other, and it’s easy to see why Metra chose the latter as the La Grange weekend station. The downtown station tends to have higher ridership, and it has intermodal connections. Three Pace bus routes serve the La Grange Road station, while the Stone Avenue station gets none. The downtown station  doubles as a stop for Illinois Zephyr and Carl Sandburg trains, a state-supported Amtrak route pair that serves western Illinois. 

Walkshed also played a role in making the Fairview station a weekday off-peak stop. Downers Grove has three stations: the downtown Main Street station, Belmont Road station on the east side of the village, and Fairview station on the east side of the village. Main Street is the only one with Pace bus service. BNSF off-peak trains regularly stop at the Belmont Road and Main Street stations. "Fairview Avenue was largely in its own walkshed," Gillis said. 

Halsted station is located near Halstead Street, in the middle of the rail embankment that separates Pilsen and the Near West Side community area. Since UIC opened its south campus in the early 2000s, the train stop has become a logical stop for students commuting from the western suburbs. The station has historically been rush-hour only, but in recent years, Metra gradually added off-peak weekday service.

"We have seen promising ridership growth at [Halsted] station by adding it to off-peak weekday service, and we felt that there was weekend potential there too, being so close to UIC and the Pilsen neighborhood," Gillis said. 

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