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Growth is Metra's only option for survival

November 16, 2017

Last week, the board of Metra, Chicago’s commuter rail service, voted to raise fares and cut service. Fare hikes are nothing new to Metra riders, but coupling them with service cuts is an eye-opener.

Metra calls their situation “unsustainable,” which is probably an understatement. “Death spiral” comes to mind. The death spiral is classic public transit trap. Faced with a budget shortfall, operators reduce costs by cutting service and increase revenue by raising fares. This has the effect of driving riders away, which only makes the problem worse, and the cycle repeats. This is where privately-run transit and passenger rail services found themselves after the post-war automobile boom, leading to eventual public take-overs.

Is “death spiral” a bit hyperbolic for Metra today? Maybe not. Joe Cahill had similar thoughts in his Crain’s column.

The other troubling thing is Metra’s five-year strategic plan, also adopted at last week’s board meeting. The plan is essentially, “keep doing what we’re doing now, but a little bit better.” There is no bold vision for growth, only a fight for survival.

Metra’s only option for survival is aggressive growth.

Metra needs more financial support from the state, but any requests for more funding will fall on deaf ears unless Metra can offer something in exchange: more service. Better service. Metra, like any service provider, needs to be selling a product that people want, not just one they feel is their only option.

Other commuter rail systems around the world have re-invented themselves for the 21st century. They’ve shifted from only serving the traditional rush-hour commute to providing frequent, all-day service in both directions.

Paris is considered a pioneer in this concept, called Regional Express Rail, but it’s hardly a European-only idea. New York’s Metro-North now runs off-peak trains at least every 30 minutes on its New Haven Line, and is studying how to further increase frequency. Toronto’s GO Transit is in the midst of a system-wide upgrade that will quadruple the amount of service it offers. Trains will come every 15 minutes on the busiest lines, using new, lightweight, electric multiple-unit trains.

Boarding a modern commuter carThat’s another carrot Metra should dangle in front of riders: modern, comfortable trains to replace the 1950’s-era gallery car design. New trains would accelerate faster, use less energy, be safer, and offer conveniences like bike racks and work tables. As pictured here, they have two doors per car, with less stairs to climb, making getting on and off faster and easier.

Keeping trains running frequently all day would make better use of the fixed costs that Metra faces. More convenient service will attract more riders, bringing more fare revenue. It’s an equation that works for other commuter rail systems around the world, and it will work for Metra.

Metra is facing a big problem, and its only solution is to make an even bigger plan to invest in its future.

Richard Harnish
Executive Director

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Articles we enjoyed

Is this the beginning of the end for Metra? (Crain's Chicago Business)

Metra board OKs fare hikes, service cuts for next year — and warns there could be more (Chicago Tribune)

NARP petitions Supreme Court to review case regarding on-time performance standards

“Roads are not enough”: Commission exploring Front Range passenger train service preps lawmakers on their pitch  

Amtrak touts new locomotives for local passengers

California High-Speed Rail Authority Awards Early Train Operator Contract to DB Engineering & Consulting USA