TagMetra

What’s up from Europe: frequent diesel trains

I’m staying in Groningen for three nights, the northernmost big city in the Netherlands, with about 190,000 inhabitants. About 20 meters from my bedroom window is a passenger train line on which diesel multiple units (DMU) running frequently.

I hear the train come very often and I snapped a few photos, of course. As I saw the train frequently run, with 1-2 diesel cars, I thought that Metra – Chicago’s hub-and-spoke commuter rail system – needs to implement a nimbler operation with more runs to make it more convenient to use transit. I tweeted that thought.

The train is a “Stoptrein” because it makes all stops. This is one of four passenger train classes: “Intercity” trains make few and distant stops, the “Sneltrein” offers express service to a small number of local stops, the “Sprinter” class makes a medium number of local stops.

I can see from the schedule on 9292.nl that the train, after 21:00, runs every about every 26 minutes in each direction. At other times of the day there may be two trains four minutes apart or 15 or 24 minutes apart. Stadler in Switzerland built these “GTW” DMUs which accelerate faster which could improve the timetable.

I suggested that Metra run this rolling stock on the UP-West and UP-North lines because of their existing ridership and closely spaced stations. Also, UP-North doesn’t have freight trains so it should be easy to get a waiver from the Federal Railroad Administration to use lighter weight European trains. UP-West is another “streetcar suburb” line having trains stop frequently during rush hour in city centers; stations are 4-10 minutes away from each other so the train can’t reach high speeds quickly between them.

(I wish the train didn’t run so frequently here because I have only a single-pane window.)

What if Metra employees were late to work as often as Metra passengers?

trainmageddon

A malfunctioning Metra Electric train in January. Photo by Eric Rogers.

It was a big deal to news media this morning when new Metra CEO Don Orseno reported at an Illinois House mass transit committee hearing that the commuter-focused rail system experienced a 30% on-time rating in January, when the “polar vortex” hit. (Apparently polar vortex is not an event that happens to a place, but is the name of a climate pattern that’s always there hovering above Canada and occasionally dips down over the United States.)

Most Metra passengers are commuters, going to work. A hair over 300,000 travel each weekday; service is drastically lowered on weekends and holidays, offering less than half the service of weekdays.

What if the organization of Metra, including all 2,500 employees in addition to the contracted railroad workers (let’s say 3,000 people), showed up to work with the same performance rating that their passengers experience?

First, Orseno – a career railroader who drives to work from Manhattan where a train comes leaves three times each day – would miss 11 work days of work each year (of 260 work days), based on their overall 95.8% on-time rating in 2012. Some routes are worse and others better. But collectively 3,000 people would miss 32,760 work days each year. That’s a lot of missed work.

Put another way, everybody – all 3,000 of them – is going to show up 20.16 minutes late to work because they’re missing 87.36 hours each year (of 2,080 hours they’re supposed to work and being 4.2% hours late). But again, I have no idea who’s working 8 hours and who’s working longer. (One of the problems Metra had during #Chiberia is that many workers hit the federally mandated limit and there weren’t always workers to take their place.)

Thankfully the Chicago Transit Authority, Pace, and ever-expanding highways and tollways are available to pick up the slack in Chicagoland’s transportation supply.

Another thing, this post is full of averages of averages, so it’s really imprecise. Today, Metra was reporting delays on a single train run of 16-100 minutes – a pretty broad estimate, but another train had a possible delay of 26-110 minutes. During the worst storm Metra experienced on January 5th and 6th, some train runs dumped passengers on platforms in subzero temperature.

Orseno reported today at the committee hearing that a “I don’t want to say middle-level” manager at Union Pacific made the call to dump the passengers. This has been “corrected” by only allowing a senior level staffer at Union Pacific make this call. Metra, which doesn’t have any performance-related incentives in its contracts with the freight railroads, apparently cannot stop this decision.

I’m waiting for the day when Metra is run like a transit system and not a railroad.

Note: I excluded vacation days because, well, no law requires organizations to offer paid or unpaid vacation days and there are probably several tiers of vacation-giving at Metra that I don’t know about.

Can you rely on Metra after hearing a story like this?

Tweet shows a different Metra line but is representative of experiences since #Chiberia began in January. 

My friend Shaun relayed this story to me about his coworker who rides Metra’s BNSF line from the Aurora/Naperville area, the commuter train in Chicagoland that carries over 300,000 people each weekday but fractions on weekends (because it rarely runs).

The train he was about to board Wednesday morning with several other people arrived and when the doors opened only one of the two sliding doors opened. The other one was stuck shut. So he “touched” it to get it to open up and the conductor yelled at him.

The conductor said “we’ve told you several times to not do that!” seemingly referring to other people who had done so, not my coworker himself. The conductor told him a guy at the last stop did that and it “broke the door.” (sounds like it already was!])

The conductor told him it would be a $500 fine if it happened again. At that point my coworker said he just shut up. When my boss tried to get on the train the conductor told him he wasn’t allowed to board! There was apparently plenty of room to get on so this was at the “conductor’s discretion.” Coworker had to wait 20 min for the next train [in single digit temperatures, no less], missed a meeting, etc…

Just completely shocked me that they wouldn’t let him on the train for pushing the door open (no sign, conductor wasn’t at the broken door to tell people not to touch it, etc.).

This started a conversation about our perceptions of Metra.

Steven: “It’s right that the new Metra CEO [Don Orseno]* wants to work on communication, but I think he needs to emphasize customer service overall.”

Shaun: “In Ogilvie Transportation Center tonight, same announcement played: ‘some trains are delayed. We will continue to update you.’

Every few minutes — no actual information. Lot of work to do I’m guessing. Wonder how many Metra people in charge ride their trains.”

Steven: “I rarely ride Metra for ‘important’ reasons (like going to work or for meetings). The last time was on the Electric to a meeting in South Shore in October.

Every time I ride I feel that the lumbering of the trains as they exit the stations (switching tracks, they sway side to side) is analogous to how Metra operates: ‘move in a slow, heavy, awkward way’.”

Shaun: “It reminds me of a novelty train ride. Like at an amusement park.

I only take it from work to home. To work is too risky. CTA is consistent (lately actually, Red Line at morning rush is so frequent I don’t even check the arrival times while walking to the station).

Kind of funny how you say you can’t rely on Metra for work or meetings, considering that’s what people use it for.

* Orseno, who’s been there for decades, said at the Metra board meeting where he was promoted to executive director from his interim position that he drives to work because the SouthWest Service “doesn’t get him to the office early enough, or home late enough” (Chicago Tribune).

However, Orseno lives in Manhattan so you can see how the infrequency would be a problem: this station only has three trains per direction per day. Remember from my previous post that Chicago rapid transit service has only shrunk since 1950. I wonder what he can do about that…

Stop locking at the Clybourn Metra station overnight

This is a resolution.

WHEREAS, I love GIS.

WHEREAS, I was reading this blog post on the Azavea company blog about bike theft prediction and trends in Philadelphia.

WHEREAS, I analyzed bike theft location in Chicago in 2012 and the Clybourn Metra station emerged as the most frequent Metra theft location.

WHEREAS, I searched the Chicago Stolen Bike Registry for “clybourn” and several thefts have been reported to the registry in 2013.

WHEREAS, I believe the Chicago Police Department still doesn’t allow searching of their database for bike thefts thus leaving the CSBR as the premier source of data.

WHEREAS, I am watching this show called The Bletchley Circle wherein a group of four fictional women who cracked codes in World War II are solving a murder mystery in 1950s London.

BE IT RESOLVED that you should not leave your bicycle parked at the Clybourn Metra station overnight as it is a terrible place to leave a bicycle parked. Why? No one is around most of the time to socially secure your bicycle.

This is a great place to get your bike stolen. In the dark. Overnight.

Chicago’s train stations are dead zones

Perhaps not all of them: Millennium Station, serving Metra Electric and South Shore Line trains, was rebuilt and given a facelift and new tenants (including a few restaurants) when the City of Chicago constructed Millennium Park atop it. And not Northwestern Station since it has two food courts, activity from the thousands of workers above, and the new(ish) French Market.

But look at Union Station and LaSalle Station – they tell passengers to stay away. It’s obnoxious (and noxious) to be in them. These two stations have quite the space available for pleasant activities and waiting areas. Union Station has the Great Hall and a bar but it’s also a Great Distance away from the platforms. LaSalle Station is probably the worst: a dozen machines squawk at waiting passengers – if there are any – to tell people who are blind where each track is. Every 3 seconds.

I made a video to demonstrate a little of how unlovable train stations are in the United States. Not every station has the squawk boxes right in the main, but empty, waiting area, but the desolation and difficult access is widespread.

There’s a whole lot of nothing at LaSalle Station. Photo by Jeff Zoline. 

Metra finally updates its marketing strategy

Photo of a new billboard by John Greenfield. 

My Streetsblog Chicago partner John Greenfield writes about Metra’s new push to get more riders: free tickets.

The transit agency will be giving away two free tickets to any destination in the system to 500 people per week for fourteen weeks – a total of 14,000 tickets, good for the next 90 days. The recipients, who must be 18 or over, will be randomly chosen from those who register at MetraRail.com/TestDrive.

While there doesn’t seem to be any method for preventing current Metra riders from scoring free tickets, the hope is that the lion’s share of the winners will be newbies. To promote the giveaway to people who currently commute by car, the agency is spending roughly $390,000 on marketing, including billboards visible from expressways and radio spots in English and Spanish following traffic reports and gas price updates, as well as Internet advertising. The billboards emphasize the financial, time-saving and relaxation benefits of making the switch.

It’s about time that Metra got serious with its marketing and used messages that actually sell the service. Focusing on the kind of marketing that actually convinces customers – of any product or service – is the right move. That focus? Our product costs less than the alternative.

Metra’s current marketing consists of boring-looking billboards on its tracks as they cross expressways with things like, “Fly to work”, “We’re on time, are you?”, and “Easy come, easy go” (what does that even mean?).

There was no call to action, and no information for drivers to respond to immediately (or when their call is stuck in bumper to bumper traffic).

An example billboard over the Kennedy Expressway, south of Grand Avenue. This sign says “Easy come, easy go”. 

I need a visualization tip for showing pedestrian and auto traffic in downtown Chicago

Madison Street over the Chicago River. Pedestrian traffic is very high, and very constrained, near the Metra stations.

Here’s the goal:

Show that pedestrians don’t get sufficient space or time to have a high quality pedestrian experience given that they comprise the largest mode share on streets in the Loop. The trips are highly delayed at traffic signals, pedestrian space is encroached upon because of automobile turning movements, and the sidewalks aren’t wide enough for two-way or even one-way traffic at certain times of the day. It’s possible to build our way out of pedestrian traffic…

Here’s an example data set:

On October 3, 2006, for all of the 24 hours, at 410 W Madison Street, there were 17,100 automobiles counted.

On some day in summer 2007, for 10 hours, at 350 W Madison Street, there were 43,987 pedestrians counted.

The two locations are practically the same as the bridge here prevents more pedestrians or automobiles from “slipping in”.

It’s possible to download the data sets from CDOT’s Traffic Tracker so you can see the whole city on your own map, but you’ll have to do some digging in the source code to find them.

Stolen Bike Registry data: Which train stations have the most bike theft?

If you can help it, don’t park your bike on the sidewalk under the tracks at the Clybourn Metra Station. Too many opportunities for theft here. 

The Stolen Bike Registry is a website created by Chicagoans for people to notify the community that their bike has been stolen. I make no claims to the accuracy or completeness (or anything) about this list or the dataset from which it was created. Because of less than optimal data collection practices, and a diversity of website users, the location information is difficult to comb through and present. I’ve used Google Refine to clean up some of the location data so that I can pick out the theft locations that represent CTA or Metra stations.

This is a list of the most reported bike theft locations that are CTA or Metra stations, from about June 13, 2006, to April 2, 2011, representing 1,740 bike theft reports*. It’s not known how many bike thefts were reported to the police because they don’t know.

CTA (13 stations)

Logan Square Blue Line CTA 8
Rockwell Brown Line CTA 5
Addison Brown Line CTA 2
Fullerton Red/Brown Line CTA 2
Paulina Brown Line CTA 2
Western & Milwaukee (Blue Line) CTA 2
Western Brown Line CTA 2
Addison Blue Line CTA 1
Chicago Brown Line CTA 1
Damen Blue Line CTA 1
Ashland Orange Line CTA  1
Cumberland Blue Line CTA 1
Wellington Brown Line CTA 1

The new bike racks at Clybourn Metra station are in a more visible spot. Maybe there’s even a security camera pointed at them some of the time. 

Metra (24 stations)

Clybourn Metra 19
Ravenswood Metra 18
Edgebrook Metra 4
Evanston Main Street Metra 2
Forest Glen Metra 2
Healy Metra 2
Lake Cook Metra 2
Ogilvie Metra 2
57th Street Metra 1
College Avenue Metra Train Station 1
Corner of Maple & Church in downtown Evanston, near Metra 1
Glenview Metra Station 1
Harlem Metra Station Berwyn, IL 1
Irving Park Metra Stop 1
Jefferson Park Metra 1
LaSalle Street Metra 1
Mayfair Metra 1
Metra Station at Davis Street, Evanston 1
Morton Grove Metra Station 1
Prairie Crossing Metra Station 1
Rogers Park Metra 1
Union Station Metra 1
Western Metra Station 1
Wilmette Metra 1

* Reports come from around the world. 10 dates have been excluded because their dates were anomalous, empty, or not possible.

Updated September 30 to correct a Metra station and combine it with another.

“My” new bike racks have appeared at CTA and Metra stations

I received some exciting news last week in the form of a photo a friend posted to Twitter. He took it at the Chicago Transit Authority (CTA) Loyola Red Line station and it features a double deck bike rack from Dero.

Photo by Erik Swedlund.

Erik didn’t know this, but that bike rack was installed there because of a project I worked on at the Chicago Department of Transportation (CDOT) in 2009. The working title was something like “bike parking RTA ICE grant”. That means an Innovation, Coordination, and Enhancement grant from the Regional Transportation Authority. It was also known as round 2 of transit bike parking. You might know round 1 as the project that put hard-to-use double deck bike racks at four CTA stations: Midway Orange (well used), Sox-35th Red (mostly well used), Damen Blue (not used), and Jefferson Park Blue (mostly well used) – all opened in 2008. Round 1 was paid for by CMAQ funding CDOT received in 2003.

The scope of my involvement was limited to finding stations “at which sheltered, high-capacity bike parking will be used most effectively”. Looking back, that should probably have said, “will be most used”. What does “used most effectively” even mean? The scope did not include deciding what the bike parking area would look like, or how many spaces there would be. That was up to an engineer who was managing the overall grant and project – I just recommended stations.

Summary of my methodology

I developed my own method (after researching the method for round 1 selections, and other methods) to select several train stations geographically distributed around the city where bike parking would be most used. I developed a spreadsheet and inputted the station attributes my method required. The formula then ranked the stations. The outcome I wanted was essentially a number that represented the likelihood of people cycling to that station. I tweaked the formula many times based on what rankings it came up with and whether or not the top ranked stations fit expectations I came up with for a station that would have a lot of people cycling there (access mode data didn’t exist at all for CTA stations, and was old for most Metra stations).

For example, if my formula ranked Pulaski Orange very high, did that station fit the expectations of a station that attracted a lot of CTA passengers to arrive by bicycle?

After coming up with a “top 30″ of geographically diverse CTA and Metra stations, my boss and I rented an I-GO car to visit 15 of them to record measurements of physically available space, take photographs, and discuss things like how people might access the station with their bicycles (it wasn’t always clear, and many stations turned out to have sufficient bike parking for the amount of people who cycled there).

To make this project respect geography, and to do it as simply as possible, I divided the stations into north and south categories, separated by Madison Street. Stations in the south category were compared only with fellow south stations. I don’t know if this was an appropriate to consider geographic equity, but I had limited time and resources to develop a method and complete this project. In other words, I did the best I could and I think I did a pretty good job. Hopefully time will tell and I can learn from successes and mistakes with this project. That it’s actually being constructed makes me very happy.

Considering the stations

Lots of u-racks at the 55th-56th-57th Metra station in Hyde Park. Photo by Eric Rogers. 

I recommended that bike racks for the 55th-56th-57th Street station be installed at 57th Street because it has more space than the other entrances. Here’s what else I said about the space:

North side of 57th St, east of station house

This space is very large like Space C, but it’s extremely grungy and dank. The restaurant in the station house is currently storing its garbage bins here. The space receives natural light all day because of a gap in the viaduct. There’s an attendant at this station house on weekdays from 6 AM to 2:30 PM, but this person has NO view of the space. 57th St is one-way east of Lake Park Ave, and two-way west of Lake Park Ave.

Sheltered, except for gap in the viaduct roof.

I’m happy to report that the situation has been improved over the description in my “station profile”: the sidewalk concrete was replaced, and the walls and pylons were cleaned and painted white. The restaurant’s garbage bins were moved east in the open air (not under the viaduct). Another change was at Loyola Red Line station: I recommended they be installed in one of two outdoor locations but the bike racks were installed inside the station house.

The other tier 1 locations in my recommendation were Western Orange Line and 95th Red Line (both CTA). Howard Red Line was a tier 2 station (and is built), along with Ravenswood Metra and Logan Square Blue Line. I found out later that the Howard Red Line station also received some double deck racks. Ravenswood station is being completely replaced soon so I understand why that didn’t get any new bike parking as part of this project. I don’t know why Logan Square Blue Line didn’t receive any, if Howard did. It might be that there wasn’t enough money in the $375,000 grant, or that someone has other plans for the CTA station.

A sixth station was part of the project, but not part of my recommendations. The Clybourn Metra station (2001 N Ashland, serving both the UP-North and UP-Northwest lines) was already in planning and design phases and was included in the RTA ICE grant round 2 project to complete the funding arrangement. The bike parking area at Clybourn was to be paid for by Chicago TIF funds; combining the TIF funds with the RTA ICE grant would provide the local match the RTA ICE grant needed (requiring a local match is typical).

See more photos and information on Grid Chicago.

Do people really know the cost of driving?

Billboard over the Kennedy Expressway advertising Metra and that it’s “easy come, easy go”.

Updated 11:50 AM: I was mistaken about the vote timing: the Metra board will vote on the fare increase plan on November 11, 2011, not October 14, 2011.

I’m having a wonderful time reading the minutes from Metra’s September 2011 board meeting. This is when Metra staff made their first fare increase proposals. They made a second proposal at the October board meeting – this is available for public comment. These minutes are not yet available.

Here’s Lynnette Ciavarella, Senior Division Director Capital and Strategic Planning, talking about how Metra is cheaper than driving, in the same discussion she had with the board about how Metra fares have not been keeping up with inflation:

She [Lynnette Ciavarella] concluded that it is well known that commuter rail fares are much lower compared to the cost of driving downtown everyday. In previous meetings, staff has used a Drive Less/ Live More calculator. Staff has modified this calculation to be much more conservative. The drive cost now is calculated at traveling 22 days per month, averaging 25 mpg, at $3.95 per gallon, and an average cost of parking downtown at $18.00. The Metra fares no longer include a parking component, so under this approach, a Metra customer living 20-25 miles from downtown under the estimated proposed fare scenario could potential save over $5,000 per year.

I disagree that it’s well known that taking the train to work downtown is cheaper than driving. It does not advertise this; I don’t believe any Chicago transit agency publicizes this fact.

Metra has cryptic messages on its billboards: “Easy come, easy go” and “The way to really fly” neither describe what Metra is and where it goes nor the benefits of using it. These billboards are often placed on train viaducts over the highway so people driving in traffic jams can see them.

The message they should be sending is right there in the meeting minutes: “Take Metra downtown instead of driving and save $5,000 each year”. Complement that text with a link to a new website that helps interested drivers find a station near their home and a schedule; sign them up for a local parking lot wait list or tell them how to ride their bike to the station on a good route and lock up properly when they arrive.

The Drive Less Live More website, operated by the Regional Transportation Authority (RTA), has a maps page that links users to CTA station maps, a PDF of an RTA system map, a broken link to a Metra system map, and links only to an Illinois bike map, not the Chicago bike map. This doesn’t make it easy to switch to transit! The Metra homepage does have a “station finder”.

Study: American Public Transportation Association (APTA), March 2011 -  $11,889 annually in Chicago.

Board meeting minutes

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