Metra as a separate agency

Discussion related to commuter rail and rapid transit operations in the Chicago area including the South Shore Line, Metra Rail, and Chicago Transit Authority.

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jfrey40535
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Metra as a separate agency

Post by jfrey40535 » Mon Mar 19, 2012 12:28 am

I'm looking for information and discussion on the existence of Metra as an independent operating and funded agency and how it relates to its ability to fund service and capital projects verses other transit operators across the country where commuter rail is owned and operated by a single agency, say NJ Transit for example.

1. Has the separation of rail and transit in Chicago allowed Metra to flourish, retain its railroad identity and quality of service? Or is it a hinderance?
2. Is there a problem with competition between services, say subway-bus vs. commuter rail?
3. How are compatibility issues handled, i.e. fares? If one is a regular rider of commuter rail and bus, how difficult is it to combine fares, passes etc?
4. Would Metra function as a stronger agency if it was rolled up into RTA with the transit operators?
5. Should other struggling passenger rail operators in the U.S. consider the Metra model? Why, Why not?

Thanks!

CHTT1
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Re: Metra as a separate agency

Post by CHTT1 » Mon Mar 19, 2012 11:50 am

1. The existence of the four agency (RTA, Metra, CTA, Pace) transit structure in the Chicago area works much better than you would expect. From a political standpoint, Chicago Democrats get to run the CTA, while suburban Republicans control Metra and Pace. The original RTA structure which controlled all three operating entities was a disaster. For instance, at one point, the RTA held the line on CTA fares, while drastically increasing Metra fares. Suburban residents were rightly upset and the legislature came up with the four-headed system we have today. Metra operates a great system, but has not been immune from problems, such as the former director skimming hundreds of thousands of dollars while the board of directors was completely obiblious to the situation. I think a commuter rail system operates better when not connected to transit or bus operations.
2. There is some competition between CTA rapid transit and Metra, but it allows riders to make a choice. If they want to pay higher fares for better service on Metra, then so be it.
3. This is the real bugaboo with Chicago transit, while CTA and Pace allow cross use of their transit cards, they're not compatible with Metra, since CTA and Pace riders pay a flat fee (although there are some Pace premium fare express routes), while Metra fares are based on distance traveled. The legislature has mandated that all three agencies come up with some kind of universal fare system, so hopefully, people a lot smarter than me can figure something out.
4. No
5. I'm not sure what you mean. What operations do you consider struggling? The present transit system in Chicago works because both city and suburbs benefit from it. In other place, it might not work at all.

jfrey40535
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Re: Metra as a separate agency

Post by jfrey40535 » Mon Mar 19, 2012 12:06 pm

I'm from the Philadelphia area and am referring to SEPTA, which is a rollup of the former Philadelphia Transit Corporation, the Reading/Penn Central, Red Arrow bus and trolley, and the Frontier/suburban bus lines. SEPTA has axed many rail routes and trucated miles over the years, and there's no hope of getting any of it back under the status quo, there's also an abhorrance to doing so, even on a very small scale, such as a 3-mile, 1 station extension.

There is alot of investment here in building out the bus system. Many cost intensive infrastructure pieces are being added to bus routes, such as "bus loops" where millions are being spent on concrete shelters, employee restrooms and landscaping. About 1/3 of the annual $300 million capital budget goes right to bus replacement each year, with remaining funds used for station improvements on the railroad.

The biggest need right now is replacement of aged bridges and power stations for the electric trains. Those items have been deferred since the agency was awarded some discretionary grants for a new fare system and more station improvements.

Since Chicago is so unique, I wanted to get a good background of the pros and cons of what is in place, and if it is a better model than a "all-in-one" that is in place here. Thanks for your input.

doepack
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Re: Metra as a separate agency

Post by doepack » Mon Mar 19, 2012 11:20 pm

jfrey40535 wrote:1. Has the separation of rail and transit in Chicago allowed Metra to flourish, retain its railroad identity and quality of service?
For the most part, yes. One of the biggest advantages that Metra gained from the split was the ability to directly negotiate the various contract, or trackage rights agreements with the host railroads apart from the routes they eventually owned and operated directly. In pre-Metra days, RTA dealt with the host railroads directly, which was often a complex, and frustrating task, due in no small part to well-documented financial problems of the Rock Island and Milwaukee Road at the time. In fact, the NIRC (Metra's RTA predecessor) was initially formed by the RTA to receive the commuter rail assets (or the remaining decent parts of it) of the Rock Island, and to relieve CNW of running the service, which had reluctantly did so initially after the Rock quit. And until the 1984 reorginazation, the Rock was the only railroad NIRC directly operated; other railroads either continued to deal with the RTA directly or with the various mass transit districts (like NORTRAN, WSMTSD, etc.) that were set up in Lake, DuPage, and Will counties primarily as a conduit to receive funds for new cars, locomotives, and buses.

Since Metra became a seperate agency, commuter rail service has been enhanced by extensions, newer and/or remodeled stations, more new equipment, and expanded services. If the old setup had continued, all of these improvements would have occurred eventually, but likely have taken longer to become reality...
jfrey40535 wrote:2. Is there a problem with competition between services, say subway-bus vs. commuter rail?
The lobbying between the agencies for a larger share of the transit pie from the RTA used to be very cutthroat and ruthless, especially during the first two decades or so after the split. And the only real reason it's died down in recent years is because the state is broke, so there isn't much to fight over nowadays. For all that though, I've never observed any real efforts from one agency to "steal" riders from another, and I'd say that's because each agency serves a certain clientele; some riders use a combination of the three, but the majority use just one mode; and most transfers are between CTA bus and rail...
jfrey40535 wrote:3. How are compatibility issues handled, i.e. fares? If one is a regular rider of commuter rail and bus, how difficult is it to combine fares, passes etc?
Last summer, Gov. Quinn signed legislation that requires the three agencies to come up with a universal transit fare card by 2015. Metra has started accepting credit cards as forms of fare payment, and have also recently introduced TVM's at the downtown stations, but there's still the whole deal of how to resolve Metra's open, distance-based fare system with the relatively closed systems of CTA and Pace. That remains a major hurdle yet to be figured out...
jfrey40535 wrote:4. Would Metra function as a stronger agency if it was rolled up into RTA with the transit operators?
It's hard to say, but politics has a long history of being a disruptive, and divisive force in this town, so I have my doubts. Like that old song goes '"...you gotta keep 'em seperated..."
jfrey40535 wrote:5. Should other struggling passenger rail operators in the U.S. consider the Metra model? Why, Why not?
Perhaps. It won't work everywhere of course, but Caltrain in the Bay area runs a pretty impressive operation, and has a similar setup to Metra, in both type of equipment used and the composition of its board; which is comprised of members from the counties that it serves. Metra has a six member board, one from each county, and I believe Caltrain has a nine member board, with three each from the three counties in its service area...
Last edited by doepack on Tue Mar 20, 2012 1:39 am, edited 1 time in total.
--Dorian--

justalurker66
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Re: Metra as a separate agency

Post by justalurker66 » Mon Mar 19, 2012 11:41 pm

doepack wrote:Last summer, Gov. Quinn signed legislation that requires the three agencies to come up with a universal transit fare card by 2015. Metra has started accepting credit cards as forms of fare payment, and have also recently introduced TVM's at the downtown stations, but there's still the whole deal of how to resolve Metra's open, distance-based fare system with the relatively closed systems of CTA and Pace. That remains a major hurdle yet to be figured out...
Does the law require integrated fares or just integrated payments?

As noted, there are premium bus routes where getting from point A to point B has a different fare based on whether you take the express. Could Metra's routes remain a premium service where people pay more to get from point A to point B in an express manner?

Unless the law requires point A to point B to be charged the same regardless of mode I don't see how integrating payment method would change anything except the need to carry more than one transit issued method of payment.

justalurker66
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Re: Metra as a separate agency

Post by justalurker66 » Mon Mar 19, 2012 11:43 pm

jfrey40535 wrote:5. Should other struggling passenger rail operators in the U.S. consider the Metra model? Why, Why not?
Only if there was something noticeably wrong with the way they are currently doing things. Personally I'd expect cities to move toward more integration, not less. If the system was too big to manage I could see it get split up.

doepack
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Re: Metra as a separate agency

Post by doepack » Tue Mar 20, 2012 1:29 am

justalurker66 wrote:
doepack wrote:Last summer, Gov. Quinn signed legislation that requires the three agencies to come up with a universal transit fare card by 2015. Metra has started accepting credit cards as forms of fare payment, and have also recently introduced TVM's at the downtown stations, but there's still the whole deal of how to resolve Metra's open, distance-based fare system with the relatively closed systems of CTA and Pace. That remains a major hurdle yet to be figured out...
Does the law require integrated fares or just integrated payments?

As noted, there are premium bus routes where getting from point A to point B has a different fare based on whether you take the express. Could Metra's routes remain a premium service where people pay more to get from point A to point B in an express manner?
I think the goal here is to come up with a card that's similar to the Chicago Card, only with expanded capabilities for use on Metra and Pace. I don't think there'll be any changes to Metra's fare structure, but getting the compatible equipment for use on trains and/or stations seems to be the one of the sticking points. Not sure anyone really knows how it's all going to work yet.

Link to the article...
--Dorian--

justalurker66
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Re: Metra as a separate agency

Post by justalurker66 » Tue Mar 20, 2012 9:33 pm

doepack wrote:I think the goal here is to come up with a card that's similar to the Chicago Card, only with expanded capabilities for use on Metra and Pace. I don't think there'll be any changes to Metra's fare structure, but getting the compatible equipment for use on trains and/or stations seems to be the one of the sticking points. Not sure anyone really knows how it's all going to work yet.
Thanks for the link.

I can see an intermediate step where a Chicago Card could be used purchase a ticket at a vending machine the way credit cards can be used now. It would be interesting to be able to "tap in" on a conductor's PDA and pay a fare ... but they would have to come up with a seat check system. The tickets are good for that now.

The "open" system of Metra which allows boarding of trains before paying a fare and expecting the conductor to check customers between stations also expects customers to find a seat and stay put. As long as one isn't disrupting other passengers no one cares if you change seats on a bus or CTA train - you're in the paid zone and that is enough.

An electronic seat check system could be devised that would put colored dots next to each seat with a scan label - the conductor would scan the label then scan the ticket or accept payment and their collection device would communicate with the train to change the seat status. It could be set for zones as well, with the "OK" light going red when the zone is exceeded. It would be harder to change seats with such a system - one can't just take their ticket / seat check with them. And in a dispute proof of payment would be limited. If one paid with a credit/debit or Chicago card the transaction could be found by tapping again but cash fares would need some receipt - which gets us back to paper tickets. Turning entire trains into paid zones and paying at the door would slow boarding.

There is a lot to work out - but unified payment is a good example of how the agencies can work together while remaining separate.

BTW: The iGo version of the Chicago Card shows promise - a transit fare card that can also be used for car sharing. If one card can be used for public and private services I don't see why one card can't be used for CTA, Pace and Metra without changing the fare structure.

doepack
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Re: Metra as a separate agency

Post by doepack » Tue Mar 20, 2012 11:43 pm

justalurker66 wrote:The "open" system of Metra which allows boarding of trains before paying a fare and expecting the conductor to check customers between stations also expects customers to find a seat and stay put. As long as one isn't disrupting other passengers no one cares if you change seats on a bus or CTA train - you're in the paid zone and that is enough.
When riding Metra, you aren't necessarily "tied" to your seat. Changing seats is ok, as long as you take your ticket or receipt with you, and let the conductor know.
justalurker66 wrote:An electronic seat check system could be devised that would put colored dots next to each seat with a scan label - the conductor would scan the label then scan the ticket or accept payment and their collection device would communicate with the train to change the seat status. It could be set for zones as well, with the "OK" light going red when the zone is exceeded. It would be harder to change seats with such a system - one can't just take their ticket / seat check with them. And in a dispute proof of payment would be limited. If one paid with a credit/debit or Chicago card the transaction could be found by tapping again but cash fares would need some receipt - which gets us back to paper tickets. Turning entire trains into paid zones and paying at the door would slow boarding.
True, which is why Metra may have to install gates or, in an ironic twist, bring back turnstiles to turn the platform area into a "paid" location like CTA; if an option like this is chosen. Only this time, turnstiles would have to be installed system-wide, of course...
--Dorian--

justalurker66
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Re: Metra as a separate agency

Post by justalurker66 » Wed Mar 21, 2012 1:18 am

doepack wrote:True, which is why Metra may have to install gates or, in an ironic twist, bring back turnstiles to turn the platform area into a "paid" location like CTA; if an option like this is chosen. Only this time, turnstiles would have to be installed system-wide, of course...
Ick. Just let them buy their tickets with the Chicago Card. The MED mainline and other well separated stations and lines could create "paid" zones but there are too many stations, especially on the non-MED lines, where the additional fencing and security needed to maintain a paid zone would be problematic.

Plus if no one was checking tickets on the train zones would be meaningless. One could pay their way in and stay in the paid area until forced out at some point by security. It would be good for someone wanting to ride around on a one zone ticket (making sure they exit in the right zone) but would not maintain the integrity of the current fare system. (One would need to tap in and out to prove they did not exceed their zone.)

And NICTD riders would need to go back to the PAL phones to enter or exit a station on the MED (other than Millennium).
Ick.

doepack
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Re: Metra as a separate agency

Post by doepack » Wed Mar 21, 2012 2:21 am

justalurker66 wrote:
doepack wrote:True, which is why Metra may have to install gates or, in an ironic twist, bring back turnstiles to turn the platform area into a "paid" location like CTA; if an option like this is chosen. Only this time, turnstiles would have to be installed system-wide, of course...
Ick. Just let them buy their tickets with the Chicago Card. The MED mainline and other well separated stations and lines could create "paid" zones but there are too many stations, especially on the non-MED lines, where the additional fencing and security needed to maintain a paid zone would be problematic.
Right. Mind you, I'm not wild about it either. And I don't even want to know how much the fares would have to go up to pay for all of that.

The bottom line is, they've got 2 years and change to figure this out. I'm not an expert on this by any means, but whatever the solution winds up being, I hope it's a simple, viable fare-paying option that most folks can live with...
--Dorian--

CHTT1
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Re: Metra as a separate agency

Post by CHTT1 » Wed Mar 21, 2012 9:48 am

doepack wrote:
justalurker66 wrote:
doepack wrote:True, which is why Metra may have to install gates or, in an ironic twist, bring back turnstiles to turn the platform area into a "paid" location like CTA; if an option like this is chosen. Only this time, turnstiles would have to be installed system-wide, of course...
Ick. Just let them buy their tickets with the Chicago Card. The MED mainline and other well separated stations and lines could create "paid" zones but there are too many stations, especially on the non-MED lines, where the additional fencing and security needed to maintain a paid zone would be problematic.
Right. Mind you, I'm not wild about it either. And I don't even want to know how much the fares would have to go up to pay for all of that.

The bottom line is, they've got 2 years and change to figure this out. I'm not an expert on this by any means, but whatever the solution winds up being, I hope it's a simple, viable fare-paying option that most folks can live with...
Metra finally got rid of the Electric District gates after a near-revolt by passengers. I don't see them bringing them back any time soon. It would be near impossible to gate off the rest of the system, so some other form of ticket collection will have to be devised. It will be interesting to see what they come up with.

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Re: Metra as a separate agency

Post by lstone19 » Wed Mar 21, 2012 10:09 am

Metra Electric's gates were workable because it's a completely grade-separated system so platforms could be made into "paid" areas. That won't work on the other lines without major capital projects. Many stations span road crossings with some cars of the train boarded from the road (passengers wait for the gates to go down, then move into the boarding position). At my home station of Roselle, the mid-platform pedestrian crossing and a short section of platform is part of a signed county bicycle trail (notwithstanding Metra's no bike-riding on the platforms policy).
While there are some who use both Metra and CTA every day and others who use both Metra and Pace every day, I think for the majority of Metra riders Metra is the only mass transit in the commute. I am on CTA maybe two or three times a year due to a need to go elsewhere. So for us, integrated fare media is a solution in search of a problem.
Larry
Roselle, IL (along the MILW West line)
ex-N&W Sandusky, Ohio

CHTT1
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Re: Metra as a separate agency

Post by CHTT1 » Wed Mar 21, 2012 12:35 pm

lstone19 wrote:Metra Electric's gates were workable because it's a completely grade-separated system so platforms could be made into "paid" areas. That won't work on the other lines without major capital projects. Many stations span road crossings with some cars of the train boarded from the road (passengers wait for the gates to go down, then move into the boarding position). At my home station of Roselle, the mid-platform pedestrian crossing and a short section of platform is part of a signed county bicycle trail (notwithstanding Metra's no bike-riding on the platforms policy).
While there are some who use both Metra and CTA every day and others who use both Metra and Pace every day, I think for the majority of Metra riders Metra is the only mass transit in the commute. I am on CTA maybe two or three times a year due to a need to go elsewhere. So for us, integrated fare media is a solution in search of a problem.
I agree. I think the need for a uniform fare system is largely overstated.

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Re: Metra as a separate agency

Post by Tadman » Thu Mar 22, 2012 8:12 am

At today's status quo, you guys may be right. That said, today's status quo is that you work within ten minutes walk of your respective station. A guy who gets off the train at LaSalle probably doesn't work north of Chicago Ave, or west of Halsted.

But the city is pretty packed in the Loop and near-loop areas like West Loop, River North, and South Loop. There are some follow-on areas that are ripe for commercial development such as far-west-loop and far-south-loop that could be well-served by a Metra->CTA combination commute. I think this may be why politicians are pushing for combined payment methods, to develop these areas better. I agree somewhat, because otherwise this development will wind up in the burbs, and when you both live and work in the burbs, you probably drive to work.
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