Tag: Metra

S-Bahn, RER, and Overground

This blog post was inspired by Steven Lucy’s comments on Twitter about three different “regional rail” networks.

New York Governor Kathy Hochul announced in her State of the State speech the other day that the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA), a state authority that operates New York City’s transit, would do a feasibility study for the “The Triboro” (or “Interborough Express”).

The line would use existing freight railroad rights of way to connect Queens and Brooklyn (ironically there isn’t a third borough connection).

Screenshot of a tweet from @RegionalPlan on January 5, 2022. Text of the tweet: “🚨 TRIBORO IS MOVING FORWARD 🚨 @GovKathyHochul just announced @MTA will launch an environmental impact statement for Interborough Express, an above-ground rail line using existing tracks through Brooklyn and Queens, and two-thirds of RPA’s Triboro proposal #StateOfTheStateNY

Transit Twitter has been abuzz, as reusing infrastructure is a really good idea!

John Surico, a professor in New York City, tweeted, “Wonder if NYC is about to have its London Overground moment. An overlooked transit project using freight lines, ended up being way more popular than expected. Since led to new routes, changed where Londoners saw themselves living, and connected otherwise disconnected locales.”

Steven Lucy, a business owner in Chicago, said in response, “Everyone says ‘Chicago RER’ or ‘Chicago S-Bahn’ but I think Chicago is ripe for a London-style Chicago Overground.”

I think all three – RER, S-Bahn, and London Overground – can be grouped as “regional rail”, which constitutes passenger trains running between center cities and their suburbs, stopping at the major stations and a few key stations in the cities, at frequencies higher than commuter and intercity rail and lower than rapid transit.

Regional rail is not quite a walk-up-and-board service, but it’s better than having the hourly or every other hour off-peak service that most United States cities with passenger trains endure.

What are they?

Someone asked Lucy, “What’s the difference between those three?”

Lucy: “My view: they all kind of operate similar service but have different histories.”

I’ll summarize those, and show some of my photos since I’ve ridden and experienced all three types of regional rail.

S-Bahn

Lucy: “Most S-Bahn systems share tracks and stations with long-distance trains (Berlin huge exception) and mainly serve one corridor in city center with branches to burbs.”

An S-Bahn train at the Munich Hauptbahnhof
Most S-Bahn trains in Germany have the same livery: Blocks of red with white around the doors. The Munich S-Bahn train is shown above. The Berlin S-Bahn, pictured below, is the oddity.

The “S-Bahn” branding, in particular, is used only in German-speaking countries, while in Denmark you’ll find the S-tog. The Wikipedia article for S-train reports a few other networks with similar branding.

S-Bahn trains typically use the same fare structure as the metros (rapid transit) they intersect with. And, in Germany, most S-Bahn trains look the same! Berlin is a major exception, and there are also some smaller networks with unique liveries. German regional transit is owned by cross-state cooperative transit agencies called “zweckverband” (a singular word there) who can operate lines themselves or contract them to other operators, and often S-Bahn services are contracted to DB, the federally-owned railway corporation.

An S-Bahn train passing the O2 World stadium

RER

Lucy: “RER was built from scratch post-war, mostly underground in city, to relieve both metro lines and traditional commuter rail.”

When used without qualifiers, RER means “Réseau Express Régional” in French, for Regional Express Network, and the term refers to the hybrid system used in Île-de-France, the region that includes Paris and its suburbs. Many of the lines are interlined, meaning they share routes and stop at some of the same stations. That means that some stations will have high-frequency service and appear to have a “walk up and go” function, but not all trains stopping there are going to the same place.

RER double decker commuter train with level boarding
RER trains are double decker. This model also has very wide doors with level boarding. Sydney’s regional rail trains (SydneyTrains) also have very wide doors and level boarding, which facilities expeditious boarding and deboarding.

The acronym works great in English, though –Regional Express Rail – and it’s being used in Toronto to denote a project to increase frequencies on the GO Transit commuter rail lines.

To call something that’s not in Paris “an RER” would mean that a transit authority is increasing the frequencies and service hours (later runs) of a commuter line and adjusting the fare structure to make it usable for more people.

The goal is to build a transit system that supports non-work trips at any time of the day for everyone; rather than weekday rush hour commuters that many regional trains in the United States (cough Metra cough) serve.

It’s debatable whether the Long Island Railroad (LIRR), Metro North Railroad (MNR), and New Jersey Transit (NJT) in the New York City metropolitan area are a type of “RER”. There are some periods in their schedules, outside of peak periods, when there is better than hourly service, but the two systems do not have fare integration with buses, PATH subways, or NYC Subway, adding a barrier to people using the complete network.

London Overground

Lucy: “Overground took over some underused / disused lines and is kind of a lower-capacity mesh to the complement the Underground, mainly non-radial trips.”

On the Transport for London map, all Overground lines share the same hue of orange, and are identified by their geographic names. S-Bahn lines are typically called “Sx” where “x” is a number, and the five RER lines are letters A through E.

Hoxton Overground station
Hoxton station on the East London line.

I think it’s neat that the London Overground runs on original embankments between buildings in the city, making its presence very visible, much like the stations on Chicago’s four-track North Side Main Line (all of the Red, Brown, and Purple Line stations north of North Avenue).

One thing that several people noted in the various branches of conversations on Twitter were the effect on land use and development after the London Overground lines opened. I don’t know the details, but some said it accelerated gentrification.

London Overground train arriving into Hoxton
A London Overground train arrives into Hoxton station.

In Chicago, I don’t think converting Metra to an RER system would accelerate gentrification across the system because the current characteristics that inhibit or mitigate gentrification in many of Chicago’s neighborhoods (one of that characteristics is Chicago’s segregation and aldermanic privilege situation, which is better described by the Chicago Area Fair Housing Alliance).

The situation would be a little different if Metra added new stations or restored historic stations, as stations change market and neighborhood development fundamentals. For example, there used to be a station (with trains from Metra’s BNSF predecessor) two blocks from where I live in Little Village. The station area is now John G. Shedd Park.

Metra’s current leadership has indicated their desire to increase service frequency, but remains opposed to electrification (a key change to increase service frequency and operational efficiency and reducing costs) and has not indicated a desire to revamp their operations “style”.

Metra is confusing, part 57 – Boarding trains at low-use stations

Of the many things Metra does to discourage ridership, here’s a new one to me: You go up to the platform towards your destination and there’s a sign that says “your train might actually stop at the other platform, which is entered from the other side of the street”.

I was with two friends and we were planning to board a Metra UP-West train to Geneva, Illinois, to start a bike ride on the Fox River Trail.

What the sign actually says, as you can see in the photo, is “Notice! Some trains from Chicago board from opposite platform”, but I think my interpretation is accurate.

The sign at the station increases stress. It would be slightly more helpful if there was another sign that said which trains this situation would apply to.

We brought our bikes up to the platform that was labeled “trains from Chicago”, which Metra has labeled “Platform 2”. Union Pacific, which runs their freight trains and operates Metra’s trains, is a left-running railroad in Chicago, meaning trains run on the left track in the direction of travel.

A minute after we settled in to wait 10 minutes for the train, we noticed the sign. A freight train started down this track, and we’re wondering, “is this freight train the clearest indication that we should head now to the other platform?”

We even tried to deduce which track the outbound train would run on by watching signals (one will eventually turn green).

The container freight train passed our platform, preventing a Metra train from arriving there. But maybe the freight train would clear the tracks soon enough for the outbound Metra train to stop here?

When it looked like the freight train wasn’t gonna clear the track in time, we moved to the other platform. It’s good we did. About 1 or 2 minutes before the train arrived, an announcement confirmed our choice of platforms. Phew!

What made this maneuver of ours between platforms complicated was that we had bikes and it takes an extra moment to carry them down and back up stairs.

While the Metra approached and started slowing down, there was just the slightest fear it wasn’t actually going to stop. The train had more coaches than necessary for the demand and only the last car opened. So you watch like 7 coaches pass by.

This being the Kedzie station on UP-West, we were probably three of 10 riders here this whole week. In the current schedule, only 41 percent of the weekday trains stop here.

The announcement of the boarding platform was hard to hear over the freight train noise, the platform identification sign for “Platform 1” – the middle platform – took a moment to see and verify. But, and here’s the clincher to this part of the story, the announcement didn’t come with enough slack for us to have “run” over to the correct platform – with our bikes – and not feel stressed about what should be a seamless ride-up-to-the-platform-and-board start to the trip.

Photo from “Platform 1” (a center platform) with our arriving Metra train on the left and the freight train that ended up stopping in front of the original platform we ascended.

We took the last outbound train of the morning that stops at Kedzie to Geneva. Then we biked south on the beautiful Fox River Trail to Aurora. We missed the train and didn’t want to wait 2 hours (😬) for the next one so we biked northeast to Wheaton along the Illinois Prairie Path’s Aurora Branch and made it on that inbound train just in time to go home.

A map of our journey shows the 25 mile bike route from Geneva to Aurora via the Fox River Trail (cycling mostly on the west bank), and from Aurora to Wheaton via the Illinois Prairie Path’s Aurora Branch. Interurban trains used to run along both trails.

We saw a new piece of “regional” infrastructure on our trip, a new pedestrian and bike bridge over the Fox River in Aurora, Illinois. The verdict on their brand new pedestrian & bike bridge is…it’s very cool. I wish it had greenery, though.

The brand new Riveredge Park Pedestrian Bridge was opened on June 11, 2021.

The bridge is characterized by a large, central, vertical concrete beam that provides the structural spans. At the ends of the bridge, the beam separates the walking and biking paths, but at the center the decks rise up while the beam appears to drop down and there’s an open and combined deck at the center. The deck is also widened at the center so that there’s some gathering space outside of the paths of travel.

The deck rises up and the center structural beam appears to drop down as you reach the center of the span. The dropped beam creates some bench seating. The center seam is for illuminating the space above the bridge. Behind the photographer is an opening between the center beam to create a gathering space and a crossover point.

How to bike out to the Fox River Trolley Museum

Visiting the Fox River Trolley Museum is a fun day trip for anyone who likes Chicago train history or trolleys and streetcars generally. The FRTM is free to browse, and rides cost $5 each or pay $8 for unlimited rides (adult prices).

A Chicago Aurora and Elgin interurban electric train
Decades ago, it was possible to ride this Chicago Aurora & Elgin train all the way Batavia, Illinois, from Chicago. The CA&E’s former right of way is now the Illinois Prairie Path, the first rails-to-trails project in the United States.

The museum is not accessible to people with disabilities. It’s open Sundays from May to October and some holidays (check their calendar). The museum has two portable restrooms, but I recommend using the permanent and spacious ones in County Park.

Trip option 1, the short and direct option: Take Metra’s MD-West line to National Street and bike 15 minutes south along the Fox River Trail. The trail passes County Park, where there’s a playground, restrooms, and bike parking. Lock your bike here and walk on the gravel path from the park to the outdoor museum.

Trip option 2a, the really convenient option: Have a friend who loves planning multi-modal bike trips dig into the Metra schedules and send calendar invitations to everyone in the group so there’s great expectations as to when and where the trip starts and ends. Thank you, D.S.!

Trip option 2b, the longer one that incorporates more cycling: Take Metra’s BNSF line to Aurora Transportation Center (ATC). The BNSF line has Metra’s new bike cars on specific runs (check the schedules). This is important because it means you can bike with a larger group of people than before since your group’s size is less subject to capacity constraints for bikes on standard Metra trains – without bike cars – and unpredictable directions from Metra conductors. Additionally, on standard Metra trains, the posted bike capacity may be inaccurate if the conductors have not opened all of the coaches.

This is the bike car on Metra's BNSF line, at the Aurora Transportation Center
This is the bike car on Metra’s BNSF line, at the Aurora Transportation Center.

After disembarking at the ATC, ride to the north side of the center towards the river and use the signalized intersection to cross the high-speed road to the Fox River Trail. From here on out you’ll be following the FRT northward via its off-street and on-street sections. The trail is mostly off-street, so that’s fun, and it’s nice to have so much shade.

You can basically just bike north and follow the FRT signs but you may want to review a trail map ahead of time because it’s often possible to bike on either side of the Fox River and there are advantages to riding on one side over the other in some segments. For example, from downtown Batavia north to Fabyan Villa, I prefer the west side. At Fabyan Villa you’ll have to switch to the east side.

From Aurora, look for FRT direction signs that say “Batavia”, and then “Geneva”, and then “St. Charles”, and finally “South Elgin”. I believe the only option for cycling through downtown St. Charles is on-street, and there are some hills on its FRT street sections so be prepared or look for an alternative route.

This is as good a point as any to mention that you could shorten the bike trip by taking Metra’s UP-West line to Geneva, which is north of Aurora, and heading on downhill streets to the riverfront and crossing the pedestrian bridge underneath the Metra tracks to join the Fox River Trail on the east side to head north.

My two friends and I ate at Flagship on the Fox, an American restaurant and pub with seating indoors, on a covered patio, and outdoors. The Flagship Burger, with onion rings, avocado, bacon, and white cheddar cheese was delicious. Next door is Pollyanna Brewing Company, but which doesn’t sell food.

A lot of the FRT follows the old Aurora, Elgin and Fox River electric railway line! Can you believe that there used to be interurban trains running up and down the Fox River connecting the towns there (which I mentioned above)?

The Aurora, Elgin & Fox River Electric was an interurban offering both freight and passenger service between Yorkville and Carpenter, Illinois. Operations began as early as 1895 and closely followed the Fox River for its entire route. It underwent several mergers and names over its lifetime before eventually becoming 40 miles in length and operating two streetcar services in Aurora and Elgin.

As with most interurbans, the AE&FR was overtaken by buses and the automobile, and passenger service was discontinued in 1935. Freight service continued along portions of the route up until 1972.

AbandonedRails.com

The AE&FR ran on the Fox River’s west bank from Aurora to St. Charles, where it switched to the east bank. On approach to South Elgin, however, and due to a big bend in the Fox River, it kept going straight and found itself on the west bank again.

A bend in the Fox River moves the AE&FR interurban line from the east bank to the west bank again.
The former AE&FR bridge crossing the bend in the Fox River is now part of the Fox River Trail. Photo: Eric Allix Rogers

A minute or two after crossing the bend in the Fox River on the former interurban’s bridge, you’ll encounter the southern end of the Fox River Trolley Museum’s demonstration track. Less than 10 minutes later and you’ll be arriving at County Park where I recommend parking your bike.

What’s the timing on this? I don’t know. My friends and I took our time cycling and stopping for photos and eating. The relaxed riding nearly prevented us from being able to ride a trolley. The museum runs a trolley once an hour every hour, and we arrived a few minutes after the most recent trolley left the station. We needed to be in Elgin to ride Metra’s MD-West line back to Chicago at 15:55, and the next full ride would take so long that we would miss that train, and since it’s Sunday, it’s safe to assume that the next Metra train runs two hours later.

The volunteer staff at the museum were sympathetic to our case and created a special charter for just the three of us! The two operators and an apprentice took us on a shortened journey down the line, from Castlemuir (the home station) to a switching yard of sorts halfway down the line. The yard is where trains could be rerouted to a track that joined up with former Illinois Central tracks going east-west.

Our motley crew. Eric captioned this, “NBD just a private excursion along the Fox River in an old North Shore Line car!” Photo taken by one of the qualified train operators.

We rode the former North Shore Line car 715. This car used to run between Chicago and several cities along the North Shore, including Evanston and Willmette (where the Chicago Transit Authority’s Purple Line runs now), Skokie (where the CTA’s Yellow Line runs), and further north to Milwaukee. Check out the North Shore Line’s route map on the Northwestern University Transportation Library’s website.

Former North Shore Line car 715 at the Fox River Trolley Museum

You would have also seen car 715 running around the Chicago elevated loop, and making stops at the existing Belmont and Wilson elevated stations (although both of those have been replaced and tracks re-aligned for slightly faster service).

Once you’re done enjoying the historic trains at the FRTM, get back on the Metra and go home. Check out Elgin’s riverfront if you have to wait, and there are restaurants in downtown Elgin.

Elgin, Illinois, riverfront

Damn, Metra is expensive

tl;dr: Metra costs nearly twice as much for the same trip

I went to Pullman today for a preservation organization’s task force meeting hosted by Chicago Neighborhood Initiatives. Their office is in this weird US Bank office high-rise surrounded by open space, a golf course, warehouses, and an interstate.

There are many ways to get there. Some people drove their own cars from nearby neighborhoods, others shared a ride hail car, and I and at least one other person rode Metra, the region’s commuter rail service.

The Metra Electric District line has fast service between its downtown terminal at Millennium Station and 111th Street (Pullman), scheduled for a 36 minute run. The MED is Metra’s most regional rail-like service, with several electric train services per hour during some hours.

I rode a Divvy shared bike from the station nearest my office (300 feet away) to Millennium Station – in order to get to the station faster – and boarded the Metra about five minutes before it departed.

Us Bank tower in Pullman

Taking CTA, a separate transit operator in Chicagoland, is also an option. I could have taken CTA from my office at Madison/Wells to CNI’s office in the high-rise with less than 3/5th of a mile walking. Google Maps predicts that this trip would have taken 1:06 (one hour and six minutes). It would have cost $2.75 ($2.50+25 cents transfer)

Metra, on the other hand, excluding the marginal cost of my Divvy ride because I have a $99 annual membership that nets me unlimited free rides of up to 45 minutes, took 56 minutes (5 on bike, 36 on train, 15 on foot) and cost $5.25.

A 14 percent shorter trip via Metra cost me 90 percent more. If I wanted to have saved the 15 minute walking trip and taken a CTA bus, that would have been an extra $2.25. CTA and Metra do not have integrated fares ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

Cook County President Toni Preckwinkle and the Cook County Government is trying to do something about the price differential, and reduce the prices on the faster (and more comfortable) Metra rides. Mayor Lori Lightfoot is blocking it. Go figure.

Update, February 16, 2021:

See beyond the Bloomingdale Trail’s west end

The wonderful Bloomingdale Trail ends at Ridgeway Avenue because any further and you would be bicycling on or next to active passenger and freight railroads.

Even if you walk up to the solstice viewing area at the terminal, which is slightly elevated above the trail level, you can’t get a good view of Chicago’s west side.

Just over the fence is the Pacific Junction where three Metra Lines here (NCS, MD-W, and UP-NW) and Amtrak run. Ten years ago, Canadian Pacific serviced industrial clients along the Bloomingdale Line branch from the junction.

Also in this video are three schools, the former Magid Glove Factory, and the Hermosa community area.

I filmed this on Friday with a DJI Mavic Pro.