Chicago Transit Advocates Encourage Rapid Transit Conversion of Metra Line

Chicago Gold LineGold Line would upgrade existing commuter rail service to frequent operation, with new trains and stations.

The Chicago Tribune reported yesterday that a community organization on the South Side of Chicago was pushing for the improvement of a commuter rail line along the south lakefront in preparation for the city’s planned 2016 Olympics and for the benefit of a transit-deprived community. The project would improve service most dramatically by providing for a full fare integration between the city’s inner city rapid transit system and its region-wide commuter operations. If implemented, the project’s successful completion would provide a model for the improvement of commuter rail systems around the nation.

Like most American cities, one of Chicago’s biggest transit problems is that its Metra commuter rail network is not joined with its CTA local buses and rapid transit trains. This means that commuters riding from south Chicago do not have the option of a free transfer between the two networks; they have no incentive to ride a bus to a Metra station to get downtown when taking a bus all the way downtown is far cheaper, but takes much longer. Riding Metra alone is typically more expensive than comparable CTA options, even though the two often serve the same neighborhoods.

The Gold Line plan would attempt to solve some of those problems by converting parts of the Metra Electric line, which runs from Millenium Station downtown south along the waterfront, to CTA operation at a cost of $160 million. This would require new faregates, 26 more train cars, and several track and station upgrades. The project would also include the creation of a new station at 35th Street in Bronzeville. While the service would continue to be operated by Metra, customers would ride the trains as if they were CTA-owned, and they would be able to transfer without extra cost to CTA buses and rapid transit.

Most importantly for people living along the lakefront, trains would now run at maximum 10-minute frequencies from 6 am to midnight, ensuring that the system is reliable at most hours. Trains on the Electric Line currently run once an hour during off-peak times, making it hardly an option for people who need to get around the city during the day. The same service options are offered on most of the Metra network.

The plan has been proposed by Southsiders Organized for Unity and Liberation (SOUL), which is a community group that appears to be interested in virtually all matters of public policy. Their proposal has a strong resemblance to the “Gray Line” plan proposed in 2006.

In addition to serving many of the areas being considered for use if Chicago’s bid for the 2016 Olympics is picked, the service would expand options for the South Side, which is also likely to receive new rapid transit service in the form of a Red Line extension in the coming years. Much of the area is impoverished, minority, and losing population relatively quickly, unlike communities in and around the Loop, which have seen rapid development in recent years.

Any implementation of this project would lead to substantial benefits for the city, but it shouldn’t be seen as a direct expansion of the rapid transit network, which is what the Gold Line name implies. Rather, the project should serve as the first step for a reevaluation of the role of commuter rail in inner-city areas. Chicago should be planning to fully incorporate Metra services into the CTA system within the city, making it possible for local commuters to move between the two networks fare-free and with few logistical problems. This would require a long-term implementation program, including the installation of fare gates, equalization of ticket prices, and the construction of improved connections between the lines. Metra would become something of a faster version of CTA that could offer better, convenient services to neighborhoods around the city that are close to train lines but lack efficient, all-day operation on them.

Image above: Gold Line plan, from Chicago Weekly

36 Comments | Leave a Reply »
  • I think Americans are particularly blind on this issue for reasons I’ve never been able to figure out. When I lived in Berlin, I could use my transit pass to ride intercity trains as a shortcut across the city. But people seem to think that commuter trains are commuter trains and local transit is local transit and never the twain shall meet. It results in bizarre proposals like the one to extend the Washington Metro’s Green Line to BWI Airport, even though the MARC Penn Line already follows the same route and could be brought up to transit-level headways much more cheaply.

    • Drewski

      The huge difference–even before you talk about train technologies–is that the vast majority of populated German areas are covered by a transit association, a Verkehrsverbund. A Verkehrsverbund is a GmbH company owned by member governments. In Berlin, the result is that you can choose nearly any available mode to get from, say, Potsdam to Oranienburg, but your fare is determined by number of zones, not by mode. The transit association doesn’t require all operators to be merged, which is why you don’t see geographical monsters like SEPTA or the old LA RTD in Germany. In the US, this would require moving past the squabbling over which funds subsidize which services.

      One point of clarification on jfruh’s point about “intercity” trains. I’ve never heard of a Verkehrsverbund where any pass would be valid on an Intercity, Eurocity, or ICE train. Sometimes Regional Express trains are included, sometimes not. States contract with Deutsche Bahn (or other operators) to provide local and regional services, while IC/EC/ICE trains are long-distance and nearly always operate at a profit.

      It takes a fundamental support of public transit to operate service this way. Germany is inclined to do this, not least because a high subsidy for one rail line may be justified by increased ridership on both urban and suburban/rural buses connecting to it. Compare Berlin and DC. Berlin’s VBB contains 6 million people, the total of both Berlin and Brandenburg. Regionwide, VBB’s daily ridership is over 3 million. Imagine being in Alexandria and having a job interview in Manassas. You can watch one express bus after another in the HOV lanes on Shirley Highway, and you can see the infrequent trains on the VRE line, and the fares are different. Imagine an existing rail line replacing that freeway bus service, so that you could reach not just Pentagon City or DC by metro, but you could also make a convenient reverse or off-peak trip. In Germany, this isn’t a fantasy, it’s the standard, and that’s how you have regionwide ridership equal to half the population.

      • John W

        In London, pretty much every train except the Eurostar can now be ridden with an Oyster pass – zones are same as for the tube, bus, etc.
        http://www.tfl.gov.uk/assets/downloads/oyster-rail-services-map.pdf

        There’s only one cross-city line, Thameslink, which would probably be the equivalent of a Regional Express, but any intercity train that does stop within zones 1-6, you could use to reach a terminal – between Clapham Junction and Victoria or Waterloo, for instance.

        • Nathanael

          London’s zonal fares rock. They date back a very long way. They are the result of a certain *attitude* from successive governments of London, which brought pressure on the various operators. We seem to be able to get that attitude in a few places in the US, but not many.

      • Max Wyss

        The remarks about Verkehrsverbund and use of EC/IC/ICE are specific for Germany. Even before the Verkehrsverbund area, local/regional tickets were either not allowed on express trains, or required a surcharge. It has also to do with the divisionalization of the Deutsche Bahn, into a long-distance unit (operating EC/IC/ICE trains) and the regional unit (operatin local trains). The services of the long-distance unit are normally not subsidized, whereas the regio services are subsidized by regional authorities.

        The RegioExpress is an accellerated train operated by the Regio division. Therefore, Verbund tickets should be valid, if they cover all the zones passed through by the train are included, but it is worthwile checking…

        In Switzerland, there is no differentiation between a long-distance unit and a regional unit, and in the Verkehrsverbund which has EC/IC/ICE services, the Zürich Verkehrsverbund, a valid ticket can be used on these trains (in other words, you can take the Zürich – München ECs to get from Zürich Hauptbahnhof to Zürich Airport, for example.

        • Adirondacker12800

          In Switzerland, there is no differentiation between a long-distance unit and a regional unit, and in the Verkehrsverbund which has EC/IC/ICE services, the Zürich Verkehrsverbund, a valid ticket can be used on these trains (in other words, you can take the Zürich – München ECs to get from Zürich Hauptbahnhof to Zürich Airport, for example.

          After you pay the seat reservation charge. And reserve a seat.

          • ICE trains do not require seat reservations.

          • Max Wyss

            With very few exceptions, there is no mandatory reservation within Switzerland, and the trains which have it, are touristic expresses (Super Panoramic of MOB, Bernina Express of RhB, Glacier Express of RhB/MGB).

            And even if international trains have a surcharge/reservation fee in Germany or Austria (the infamous 6 Euro in the Zürich – München ECs for the short stretch through Austria come to my mind), there is no reservation or surcharge for the Swiss section.

            Also, as Alon states, there are no mandatory reservations in Germany; the surcharge is applied, but it does not need to be connected with a seat reservation (although in many cases, a seat reservation is recommended).

  • tacony palmyra

    jfruh, good point. There’s also often talk of extending the PATH train to Newark airport, when New Jersey Transit already offers such a service from Manhattan, and the Port Authority itself spent money to build an AirTrain to connect with NJT’s commuter rail. The inefficiencies and duplications between different services are astounding.

    • Quinn

      Never understood why the AirTrain couldn’t have been built to Newark Penn instead of building a station in the industrial wasteland that is Elizabeth and the surroundings of EWR.

  • Andy Lynch

    If Chicago wants to have any hope of getting the 2016 Olympics they have to show that they are putting money into their transit system.

  • For a variety of purely political reasons, it’s been very hard to upgrade commuter rail lines to rapid transit. There seem to be a range of barriers mostly having to do with labor-relations (since rapid transit needs to run with fewer employees per vehicle) and staff culture (a tendency for commuter-rail and rapid-transit to see themselves as different fields of professional expertise.) The fact that commuter rail often mixes with freight, while rapid transit never does, is often an issue.

    For example, most of the factors you describe also apply to the Caltrain commuter rail line along the San Francisco Peninsula, and particularly within southeast San Francisco. Few rail lines in North America have more perfect transit-oriented development: a long chain of dense small-city downtowns that all grew up around the rail line. Yet the perception that peak commuters are the only riders that matter continues to obstruct clear thinking about Caltrain’s potential.

  • adirondacker12800

    The inefficiencies and duplications between different services are astounding.

    PATH to Newark Airport wouldn’t be duplicating service, it would allow a one seat ride from Wall Street to the monorail. It would also make it much easier for people from Brooklyn to get to the airport.

    The Port Authority may have ulterior motives. PATH is overcrowded. The LIRR has been talking about direct service to Wall Street for at least 40 years. Get enough traffic to and from Newark Airport it makes sense to build “PATH express” or “NJT Transit to Brooklyn and Jamaica”. Northeast corridor commuters could change to a train that serves Penn Station Newark, Fulton Transit Center, Flatbush Ave and Jamaica on the LIRR at Newark Airport. It would relieve the overcrowding on PATH. LIRR passengers could change at Jamaica for Fulton transit center instead of going to Flatbush Ave or Penn Station and transferring to the subway to get to Wall Street.

    For a variety of purely political reasons, it’s been very hard to upgrade commuter rail lines to rapid transit.

    Some people wouldn’t consider it an upgrade.

    Metra Electric is much more like a subway system than it is commuter rail. Commuter rail more typically serves longer distances. . . I don’t want to take the D train to White Plains or the E train to Mineola… or PATH to Plainfield which was seriously discussed in the 60s and 70s. .. or the Red line to Waukegan or the Blue line to Elgin… or BART to San Jose…

  • Taking an E train that stops every kilometer to Mineola would be stupid, sure. But an E train that stops every 5 km could work. It’s all a question of how many infill stations the upgrade includes.

  • Vin

    Wouldn’t 5km between stations make them kinda far apart?

    I think the commuter rail/rapid transit distinction is fine, but better integration of the two kinds of systems is a worthy idea. Why not make sure that stations overlap as much as possible, to make the most of transfer opportunities, and increase frequencies on commuter rail? Why not make it possible to board the LIRR by swiping a MetroCard?

    Making the E train or the Red Line stop every 5 km to better serve people in Mineola or Waukegan strikes me as a bad idea, but that doesn’t mean the services can’t be better integrated.

  • Wouldn’t 5km between stations make them kinda far apart?

    In sprawling American cities (i.e. all of them), it’d be hard to achieve decent runtimes with shorter interstations. That, plus declining ridership, is why many commuter rail stations closed in the postwar era.

  • adirondacker12800

    Alon, consider blending the subway with the LIRR. To keep the time of the ride reasonable they would have to express through western Queens… oh stopping at Jamaica and Woodside lets say…. Which is what they do now.

    Blend Metro North and the Lexington Ave. Line. Ignore for a moment that there is no capacity on the Lexington Ave line to run more trains. . . They’d have to express through most of the Bronx and most of Manhattan…. just like they do how.

    Metro North more or less fills four tracks at rush hours. Swap all that traffic over to the subway and you have to build the Second Ave Subway as a four track system and probably build a Third Ave subway as a four track system. . . How do you integrate the subway’s expresses with the suburban trains? Or does the subway run all local all the time…

  • Andrew Dawson

    One just has to think about the SNCF’s RER in Paris or the London Overground.

  • Adirondacker, sure, I can’t argue with that. We can even go further and have the LIRR and Metro-North use fare gates, sparing the need for multiple conductors, and allowing people to board more quickly. Long-term, we could extend the lines to serve more neighborhoods in New York than just Midtown, Downtown Brooklyn, and the parts of the Bronx and Queens that happen to be on the Harlem Line or the LIRR Main Line.

  • Nathanael

    This plan does pop up repeatedly. It should have been done long ago. Unfortunately, for reasons I don’t fully understand, Metra has consistently underinvested in the Electric Line, which last I checked was still iits most popular, preferring to put money into lines with lower patronage — and diesel engines.

    The University of Chicago stop is in a particularly disgraceful state, and in a particularly prime location. The Roosevelt Road stop used to be the worst of all, and finally got something approaching acceptability very recently.

  • Erica Coslor

    This is an interesting idea to give over the Metra electric to the CTA, particularly if it is the case that Metra would prefer not to own this route in the first place. Having CTA own it and Metra operate it could also make good sense. This plan would make it much more convenient to travel to the loop and onward, with real benefits for people on the South Side.

    I also like the idea of integrating the fare systems, although I think the original author’s suggestion of fare equalization is improbable; Metra covers much longer distances, making by-distance rates more logical than flat rates as with the CTA.

    However, I think it would be logical to integrate Metra with the touch and go Chicago card, which carries a draw-down balance. For example, riders could touch in for CTA service, then do a touch-in & touch-out for the Metra operated service. Perhaps we could have a mobile device for the conductors on other Metra lines, as it is convenient to be able to pay on the train. (Admittedly, monthly prices could be a pain to coordinate.) This system could even be outsourced to improve buy-in, as in the case of the Hong Kong Octopus card, where you can even use the card to buy a chocolate in a train-station 7-11 or pay for parking, or the London Oyster card, which can also be used in many places for the National Rail long distance commuter service (similar to Metra). Now that would be a real Chicago card, and very convenient for hoards of Olympic tourists.

    Further, thinking about the distances vs. time costs vs. fares is important. I think it would be entirely reasonable to charge more for gold line service, given it would provide faster trips. But this is a more general question- I have always wondered why CTA doesn’t allow the bus prices to stay lower while raising train fares. This maintains the social good of cheap bus transportation–and in Chicago, buses serve almost all the same areas as rail–and the extra charge helps to provide more money to the more expensive rail service. This happens in other places. Some cities charge more for rail trips at peak times, and this additional money helps to pay for more frequent service at those times. Seattle charges more for express bus service. With the Chicago Card and newer ticket machines, these differentials are much easier to charge, and the seamless transfer system already in place is doing similar work.

  • Ted King

    More on #4
    Caltrain gets its upgrades in dribs and drabs. One barrier to its running more often is that it is diesel powered – with electrification it could run smaller, cheaper consists during off-peak periods. As it is the upgrades keep trickling in : Santa Clara County light-rail joint stns.; more light-rail service at Fourth + King (SF Muni); grade separations and track upgrades; etc. The golden carrots Caltrain is hoping for are (1) electrification and (2) the Trans-Bay Terminal extension. If both carrots were realized that would open the door for standard LA-SF service with a future upgrade to HSR.

    P.S. Check your routes – do you have spare tunnel capacity ? I’ve seen in San Francisco at least one unused tunnel bore next to the in-service, double-track bore. That can save a bundle in construction costs.

  • Ned

    Just saw this in the Chicago Sun Times: http://www.suntimes.com/sports/olympics/1748593,olympic-report-2016-finalists-090209.stng

    Metra might do best listening to this proposal! It could be an easy and cheap way to upgrade capacity on the line.

  • Ocean Railroader

    I’m thinking about looking at the Metra lines on google streetview and seeing were the electric ones end and were the oil powered ones begin to see how they link into one another. Then I’m going to photo chop them to see witch railroad lines were eletric lines could be extended to the suburb stations that don’t have eletric powered trains.

  • John Bredin

    On Metra, there is no place “where the electric ones end and where the oil powered ones begin.” It’s not like the Long Island Railroad or New Jersey Transit where lines are electrified closer to Manhattan but the wires end at some distance from Manhattan.

    The Metra Electric line (originally Illinois Central) is entirely electric from Millenium Station downtown to its outer terminals. All the other Metra lines are entirely diesel from their city terminals at Union, Ogilvie, or LaSalle Street Station to the end.

    On a related note, the Metra Electric uses high platforms with level-floor boarding and multiple-unit trains, like a metro except with larger gallery cars. The other Metra lines are more like a traditional railroad: diesel engines push or pull non-powered passenger cars, the stations have low platforms, and passengers must take four steps (including three steps inside the train) or a lift between the platform and the floor of the car. Thus, if Metra was to electrify a route, they would likely have to electrify the entire line all at once with high platforms at every station, or have new electric engines pull the existing non-powered cars.

  • Ocean Railroader

    Metra could rebuild the train statons as they extend the wires to the diesel powered statons or at least do it at one major line at a time based off which carried the most traffic first and then work there way down.

  • FG

    The IC (Metra Electric) used to be even more metro-like when it had turnstyles and electronic ticketing, which was removed because it “confused” people (more like it cost a lot and had high fare evasion, requiring conductors to check tickets on the trains anyway).

    It would be hard to convert the metra to electric running since most of them share the tracks with freight, etc.

  • Freight can run under a catenary.

  • DBX

    Metra Electric does not share tracks with freight. There are six tracks on the line, all grade separated from the road network and from each other. Four are for Metra Electric and South Shore trains, and two — without catenary at the moment — are for freight. And once the mayor’s Grand Crossing scheme is built, those two extra tracks won’t be used at all, although high speed rail advocates see it, appropriately enough, as an ideal access to the city for high speed rail.

    • Nathanael

      Well, if the Grand Crossing connection is built, the extra two tracks will be used *south of Grand Crossing*. North of Grand Crossing to Roosevelt Road, they will indeed be vacant, and I really really hope they don’t do something like ripping them up. They’d be useful for enhanced Metra Electric service at the very least.

      • Adirondacker12800

        Metra Electric will never need 6 tracks. well maybe is cars are banned, Chicago becomes Manhattan and the South Side becomes western Queens… and even then maybe not.

        • Nathanael

          Current trends are such that they’re gonna want extra tracks, for NICTD if nothing else.

          And once trackbeds are gone, they are PAINFUL to get back.

          • Adirondacker12800

            Railroads all over the world manage 20 an hour into stub end terminals with two tracks. Metra has four tracks all to itself, so 40 an hour is not unrealistic. Unless they have plans to turn Gary into Brooklyn…

            • FG

              Those extra tracks would work really well for express service, especially if we ever get Valpo rail service. Their bigger use would be back up for passenger service into union station, since they connect, if awkwardly, to it, in cases of work closures, etc.

              As a note, they (CN) are working (tie replacement) on the tracks right now, so abandonment isn’t that near in the future.

              My bigger new beef with Metra is the crummy new EMU’s. They are such a major step down from the current cars. Many commuters and conductors don’t like them – the seats are straight out of a school bus, the ride is “floaty” and there are some very poor design decisions in them. I realize that the old ones are nearing the end (well, exceeded really – lots of them have exterior rust holes) their useful life, but they could have gotten something better rather. Ideally single level multi-door cars and increased frequency of service, but oh well…

          • Drewski

            Great example of that is access to the old Cleveland Union Terminal. The bridge across the Cuyahoga was designed to be quad-track; geniuses at Cleveland RTA decided to block additional use (the other 2 tracks) by having the Red Line rapid shift from one side of bridge to the other as it crosses the river. Then, at the former neck of the station, the new Federal courthouse was built blocking a major portion of the r/w. The all-but-mothballed Waterfront line comes up from surface, which completes the blockage on the west end. Now, the new casino is slated to put a mammoth parking garage over the eastern neck of the old station. As it stands, there is no other viable alternative to this location (lakefront station would require either tunnel or high-level bridge across Cuyahoga), and even here, the sad truth is that future train services will have to be electric, to handle a steep gradient down to a level below the old platforms. This requires something like a 30′ vertical drop, either below and parallel to the old configuration, or below and perpendicular to it (which would also require massive tunnelling under Public Square). That’s not to mention the expense of building below a complex which was built as one of the largest through-station complexes in the world. As Chrissie Hynde said…

            Other cities have made big mistakes. Chicago needs to start taking a look at its rail assets and decide on at least some clear r/w preservation. In theory, the potential of the Metra Electrics could probably be matched by corridor(s) to the north, northwest or west. No matter how many trains you get into a stub-end station, what’s the point when you know you have demand beyond that terminal? Getting from the South Side into the Loop still doesn’t access other major job centers in Chicagoland, and failure to preserve such options is simply lazy and counterproductive.

  • […] Future is calling the South Lakefront Service is a continuation of the long-advocated-for Gray Line/Gold Line proposal. This would essentially convert excess capacity on Metra’s lakefront Metra Electric […]

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