Observations on Metra

November 27, 2012 at 8:47 pm

Last weekend I took the Metra to and from my hometown to visit family and friends for the Thanksgiving holiday. I don’t use Metra as often as I used to when I was younger and lived far from Chicago, but I still use it occasionally and find a few problems with Metra as it currently is:

Fare Collections

Metra uses an antiquated fare system I wrote about when CTA Ventra was announced. Conductors still come around to sell and check paper tickets, which can be paid with cash only. Passengers who want to pay with a credit/debit card must pay in a staffed station. Not all stations are staffed, and some that are are not staffed at all times (especially weekends – when fewer passengers are using monthly fares and more are buying one-ride or weekend tickets). If a passenger arrives just moments before the train departs, does not have time to buy a ticket in a staffed station, and boards the train, they will be subject to a $3 surcharge per ticket for purchasing the ticket on the train.

It’s really kind of a mess for the nation’s single largest commuter rail network.

I’ve already threw the idea around that Metra should move to a proof-of-payment system where passengers must “check in” and “check out” of stations using a contactless card. This is similar to what is done in the Netherlands:

An outdoor fare verification system for the nationwide OV-Chipkaart used in the Netherlands. Credit: Wikipedia.

Passengers riding trains at the station in the photo above (Amsterdam Zuid) would “check in” by tapping their card before boarding the train. Upon alighting the same passenger would “check out” by tapping again, and the applicable zone-based fare would be deducted from the card (or verified against an existing pass). Failing to “check out” would mean paying the highest fare possible.

France does the same thing with paper tickets at SNCF stations. The machine, at every station, is used to stamp a date and time on the ticket that conductors on the train verify:

“Compostage de billets” means “Ticket validation”. Credit: Tourist-or-not-tourist.

On long-distance trains, passengers can now also pay with an eTicket:

e-billet, the electronic ticketing system on the SNCF Intercités service. Credit: SNCF.

Even Amtrak offers paperless electronic ticketing now:

Amtrak iPhone app with e-tickets. Credit: Amtrak for iPhone/Apple App Store.

All of the examples above are similar in that they do not require paper tickets and place the burden of fare-paying on the passengers themselves. How does that differ from Metra?

When I was on the Metra last Saturday, I didn’t pay my fare until I was 2 stops from my destination, despite getting on the train over an hour (16 stops) before. Many around me paid no fare at all, even with the conductor asking for fares. The conductor relied on asking the entire car for tickets in a loud voice instead of asking each individual passenger for a fare.

Since Metra recently announced a reduction in discounts a fare increase, I can’t help but think the fact that the conductors often don’t collect all the fares means that they’re taking a serious revenue hit that eventually affects those who do pay the fare. The solution is a system that makes riders pay upfront (automated ticketing machines at stations and maybe even one in the train for those arriving really late), then validate their ticket when the train comes. Random, unannounced fare inspections would mean that passengers’ proof-of-payment wouldn’t always be checked, but the inspections would have to be often and random enough, and the fine high enough, that free riding would be discouraged.

I’ve only ever had my ticket inspected by a fare inspector once in the US, on the Muni in San Francisco. Fare inspectors in Paris (contrôleurs) were very prevalent and often hidden at the top of ascending escalators. In Berlin, whose trams have ticket machines on board, fare inspectors board the train in plainclothes and wait for the tram to start moving, then turn off the on-board ticket vending machines and check all fares. The fine for having an invalid ticket (wrong zones or expired) or no ticket at all is due on-the-spot (in Paris it was 40 €), and the fare inspectors take cash or credit/debit card. If you can’t pay on-the-spot, you are issued a paper citation that can be contested (but the fine will be much higher if you can’t pay on-the-spot). On the Metra, fare inspectors could check tickets on the train or of passengers exiting the train at certain stations.

I’ve read comments that say that Metra should implement turnstiles at its stations but the design of the stations makes this hard to do and/or expensive and/or easy to evade:

Metra station in Crystal Lake, IL. Credit: Google Maps.

This is the Metra station on the UP-NW line. If there were turnstiles, some would still evade the fare by crossing (dangerously) onto the tracks and walking to where the train stops. New fences would have to be built to keep people out, and it really just wouldn’t make any sense when other, cheaper (and less maintenance-prone) technology exists.

Metra needs to take a step forward and integrate itself with the upcoming Ventra fare payment system. Eliminating human fare verification and purchasing will save a lot of money (fare inspectors would still cost money, but not as much as dedicated staff on every train, all the time). A unified fare payment system is also easier for passengers.

Quality of Announcements and Information

Another thing I noticed about Metra is the lack of some information it provides. For example, there are no system maps and/or timetables on the trains themselves or even at some stations. I think the conductor will give you a map if you ask, however.

That’s not a huge deal, but is good information to have (especially maps that show the downtown stations and public transportation connections to the rest of the City). What is still minor but an inconvenience nonetheless is the on-board announcements. I get off the Metra at Mayfair when I ride the MD-N line since it is adjacent to a bus line that passes my apartment. The Mayfair station platform is not long enough to accommodate all Metra trains, so the conductor usually makes a “the rear two cars will not open at Mayfair” announcement before arriving at the station.

The inconvenience lies in the fact that there is no indication if you are in one of those last two cars. In the direction of travel, I noticed there was an empty car (not in service) to the rear of the car I was in. Playing it safe, I walked ahead one car, thinking logically that this would mean I was not in the any of the rear two cars. That was not the case, because the conductor did not count an out-of-service car as a “rear” car. It was an inconvenience for myself and several other passengers, some elderly, who learned this when the train stopped and the doors did not open. We had to run two cars ahead just to make it off the train. It’s a minor inconvenience, but the conductors should make a better effort to notify the passengers of the car if they are in the a car whose doors will not open.

Electrification

I don’t need to elaborate on this because it’s been done well before, but complete electrification would mean faster service and quieter trains, lower cost (societal and economical) in the long run by switching from fossil fuels to a future with renewable energy, fewer dangerous fumes at Union Station and Ogilvie Transportation Center downtown, and maybe some new stations in Chicago that would offer an alternative to the CTA.

Electrification is expensive (and would be difficult since Metra does not own all of the track for its lines), but is an important investment that should be made.

Metra’s most apparent shortfall is its antiquated fare system. A better fare system would be integrated with CTA and Pace (which will be integrated with Ventra in spring 2013) and would require less human (expensive) involvement. Better still would be allowing those who pay for a CTA pass to also use Metra within the CTA service area (Evanston, Chicago, and Oak Park). This was an idea I threw around earlier (and would make a CTA fare hike easier to swallow) and could raise ridership and revenue for Metra. Having many transportation options available is optimal, and Metra could achieve more by bringing its system into accordance with modern technology.

I’ll be out until next Tuesday. I will be in New York for a vacation, and will be sure to take note of anything interesting I find relating to walking, biking, or public transit!