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

Moderators: JamesT4, metraRI

  by tuna
 
I do not know much about trains, but I often ride Chicago's Metra commuter rail system and I am constantly struck by how it seems to be squandering the amount of dedicated land and right-of-way that it has by being way too slow and not being competitive enough with cars.

My station is about 25 miles away from the Chicago terminal, and an express train might take a minimum of 50 minutes to make that trip. If its not rush hour and there are no express trains, or you simply can't make one of the few rush hour express trains that stops at your station, the transit time is closer to 60 minutes.

Why? Shouldn't the dedicated right-of-way of the train tracks allow trains to be much faster? Why can't my trains go faster than the 50mph that they seem to top out at? If there are two primary railroad tracks, why can't those split into 4 lanes at train stations to allow some trains to pass while others pick up passengers? Wouldn't this allow for a better scenario where there could be many more separate trains, each with much smaller passenger capacity, making more stops at stations and each being "more express" (skipping more stops)?

I just look at all the land and track that is dedicated to this train line and I think its a shame that my 25 mile trip into Chicago would take more than 25 minutes. These trains should be doing at least 80mph and there should be more of them stopping at fewer stations each. I mean, if the trains are going to be this *, why not just rip out the rails, pave over that same land, and operate a Bus Rapid transit system that during rush hour could run direct from most stations to the terminal at 60mph. Travel times would be way lower.
  by Otto Vondrak
 
tuna wrote:I do not know much about trains
True. Maybe we can help you there.
I often ride Chicago's Metra commuter rail system and I am constantly struck by how it seems to be squandering the amount of dedicated land and right-of-way that it has by being way too slow and not being competitive enough with cars.
So land acquisition is somehow related to the overall speed and performance of your train?
My station is about 25 miles away from the Chicago terminal, and an express train might take a minimum of 50 minutes to make that trip... Shouldn't the dedicated right-of-way of the train tracks allow trains to be much faster? Why can't my trains go faster than the 50mph that they seem to top out at?
Could the train go faster? Possibly, but I don't think you'd have a very comfortable ride without a four-harness seatbelt. When you drive the car, do you floor it off each green light and come to a screeching halt at each red? That would probably shave a few minutes off the driving time... Plus, is there an exclusive dedicated lane from your house to your destination? I'm not entirely following your comparison.
I just look at all the land and track that is dedicated to this train line and I think its a shame that my 25 mile trip into Chicago would take more than 25 minutes.
There's that correlation between land occupied and relative speed of your train. Does not compute.
These trains should be doing at least 80mph and there should be more of them stopping at fewer stations each.
Under your plan, we'd need a 10-track-wide system to accommodate your one-station-stop-80-mph-express-train-service.
I mean, if the trains are going to be this *, why not just rip out the rails, pave over that same land, and operate a Bus Rapid transit system that during rush hour could run direct from most stations to the terminal at 60mph. Travel times would be way lower.
Ooooo, you said a bad word. Anyway, I'm not making that connection between the land occupied and the speed of your train, but if you bulldozed the railroad and all its facilities tomorrow, that would be a lot of taxable land coming off the rolls, and I don't think the towns would be too pleased about losing that revenue (not to mention the freight railroads would have a bone to pick with you, too, since they run over many of Metra's lines and operate the passenger trains for Metra). What's more, bus rapid transit would be nowhere near as efficiently as moving the same number of people as the trains do. First off, you get a lot more capacity with trains. Second, you get a lot longer service life with rail equipment, and far fewer consumables than a bus fleet.

I'll let smarter people than me get into the details and specifics of how trains are operated around each other, why certain trains make more stops than others, and the intricacies of maximum asset utilization.

-otto-
  by Tadman
 
Otto makes some good points.

1. The railroads were built pre-1900, before the homes and neighborhoods sprang up. It's very hard to acquired land and build more tracks. The commuters that get subsidized rides also fight the railroad, believing that more trains = more noise and pollution.

2. The train is the most efficient way of carrying lots of passengers downtown. If a gallery car can hold 150 people, times 10 cars, that's 1500 passengers on each train. If those 1500 passengers were to drive in a single file line, it'd be 10 miles long. It'd also require 3000 gallons of gas to get them to work and home, where a train roundtrip would require about 80 gallons of diesel. Also, that train goes back out and picks up another load.

3. In comparison to BRT, you can't pull up the rails because most lines have freight service. Lines like BNSF have quite a lot of freight. You'd have to find them a new railroad if you took the current one, and it's much harder to build a new railroad than add a track - see above issues about railroad track building. Also, BRT simply isn't as efficient at hauling lots of people downtown. I don't have much empirical evidence to back this up, other than noting that it isn't that popular around the world for highly-trafficed routes like Metra BNSF (63,000 riders/day) or Metra Electric (39,000/day).

4. Finally, Metra may be slower than cars at off-peak times, but there's no way I'd drive at rush hour if Metra was available. It's much cheaper than driving and it's definitely better than screaming at your steering wheel while you watch traffic cool its heals at the junction. Fun fact: the name "the junction" does not refer to the merge of 90 and 94 on the north side. It refers to the C&NW/ MILW junction immediately to the west of the 90-94 merge, where WBBM's traffic reporter used to sit in the railroad tower and phone in roadway traffic reports.
  by lstone19
 
As Tadman said, these railroads were originally built over 100 years ago. That means they weren't built with the expectation of the sort of commuter service on them today.

The times you mention make me think you could be on my line (Milwaukee West). Unfortunately, it is slow. 10 mph crossovers, 15 mph curves, and other speed restrictions on tracks that were laid out long before anyone thought trains would be capable of 70 to 80 mph slow things down. The easternmost five miles of that route takes 15 minutes and there's nothing that going to change that anytime soon.

But it moves people. I've been working in the Loop for two months now and while my day (home-to-home) is over an hour longer, the commute is a lot less stressful (and I'm reading a lot more books!). No way I'd trade the train trip for driving to the city.
  by justalurker66
 
tuna wrote:I do not know much about trains, but I often ride Chicago's Metra commuter rail system and I am constantly struck by how it seems to be squandering the amount of dedicated land and right-of-way that it has by being way too slow and not being competitive enough with cars.
What line?

If you're talking about the MED (Electric District) then you're talking about a mostly four track dedicated right of way that is 100% commuter trains. Run the trains a 60 MPH and add 30 seconds for each station stop plus a little time to safely pull in to a station and pull away and you have a workable schedule. (The trains can run faster but 60 MPH is a good number to start with to pad the schedule for delays.)

Most of the other lines don't belong to Metra ... so despite a two or three track mainline Metra is at the mercy of the freight railroad to have a track good enough to run on.

If you want to run 79 MPH you'll need to upgrade the railroad. Not as hard for the MED running in it's own ROW with only one grade crossing. For the other lines it is a lot of work. These fools in cars and semis seem to think that they can beat a train at a crossing. Even pedestrians occasionally cross at the deadlyist time. Speeding up the trains makes the problem worse. Fools, despite lights and gates, see a far off train and think they can beat it. The faster the train the more likely those fools will lose. Fully grade separated lines with central platforms accessed via stairs/elevators (such as the MED) work best. Low level platforms where people can or must walk across active rails to get to where they board are more dangerous.

If you want pullouts at each station so trains can pass you're talking more money. Remote switches and traffic control. More land next to the tracks. More maintenance. And the pullouts only help if the speed problem is being caused by expresses catching locals on the same track. Scheduling improvements can work around that issue better than more hardware.

And while it may seem that there is plenty of real estate next to the line for all the improvements you want perhaps you should take a closer look at what space is there. If you're talking about the MED there is space for an extra track or two ... but does a four track mainline really need a fifth or sixth track? Historically the MED was six tracks from 67th St North but some of that land was given away for (of all things) a busway and the rebuilding of Lake Shore Drive. On other lines one would have to inspect every section of the ROW to see what is in the apparently "available" space. Most likely you'll find signal cabinets and access roads for maintaining the track. And remember ... on most "Metra" lines the track and the space next to it isn't theirs - it is the freight railroads.

One might be able to race a train from one station to another and win (a measure of how competitive the trip is) but where do you park and how much does it cost? And how fast can you actually go (not peak, but average)? The trains are not that slow.
  by EricL
 
I don't know, there are a few things that really make you scratch your head.

Ever since the big RI project on the south side - new signals, new bridges, new track, the whole nine yards - MAS has been decreed to be LOWER than what it used to be. The speed limit is only 50 from 16th St to Root St; I forget what it is from there to Englewood (pretty sure it's not 79 though). Before that project, those trains used to really cook between Gresham and downtown. Not anymore. And then that new station stop just slows it down even more. It's pretty pathetic when you look out the window to the adjacent freeway, and the cars are zooming past you.

Another example - the SWS. At NO point along that line are trains permitted to make any better than 55.

The speed limit on the MD-W remains 70, even after all the old jointed rail was replaced. And every train must slow to 30 at Grand Ave, because a bunch of stupid motorists' cars got smashed one Thanksgiving eve night, over five years ago.

A big slowdown that affects all Metra operations is the 'door light' circuit. It became a FRA requirement a few years back, and now locomotives have been modified such that they won't load until the door closed circuit is complete. It used to be, the trainman could shut all the doors except the one where he was, and jump inside and give the "two go to" while his local door was still chiming "Caution... the doors are about to close..." This doesn't sound like a big deal, but it wastes seconds, which over the course of a run turn into minutes... especially on all-stop trains. Not to mention the fact that there are any number of reasons why the door circuit might fail, even when all the doors are, in fact, closed. All of this because a lady got her violin caught in a door a long time ago, and we all know what happened next.

Within a few years, once PTC is in full swing, things are only going to slow down even more. I foresee a lot of penalty brake applications, when the "space-age technology" doesn't feel like the engineer is slowing down quickly enough. I think that a skilled engineer, who is able to make good time through aggressive, cracker-jack train handling, is going to see his ability to do so quite hampered.

Just some thoughts...
  by metraRI
 
EricL wrote:Ever since the big RI project on the south side - new signals, new bridges, new track, the whole nine yards - MAS has been decreed to be LOWER than what it used to be. The speed limit is only 50 from 16th St to Root St; I forget what it is from there to Englewood (pretty sure it's not 79 though). Before that project, those trains used to really cook between Gresham and downtown. Not anymore. And then that new station stop just slows it down even more. It's pretty pathetic when you look out the window to the adjacent freeway, and the cars are zooming past you....
The speed limit has actually increased on RI since the mainline relo/bridge project. What used to be 55mph from 25th Street to 60th Street, is now 79mph. Gresham to Blue Island is now 79mph as well, which was previously set at 60mph. Improvements to Gresham Junction also allow express trains to run at track speed, instead of having to slow to 25mph. These improvements have cut 3-6 minutes off the travel time of express trains.

Until April 3rd (RI's new schedule) many trains did not reach 79mph purposely in order to stay 'on time' due to excessive padding. The two Midlo express trains that would run track speed ran 5-7 minutes early, daily. This has improved with the new schedule, which took 6 minutes off the running time between LaSalle and Midlothian.
EricL wrote:Another example - the SWS. At NO point along that line are trains permitted to make any better than 55.
This is only the case between Union Station and Ashburn, south of Ashburn SWS has a 79mph limit.
  by E Runs
 
lstone19 wrote:As Tadman said, these railroads were originally built over 100 years ago. That means they weren't built with the expectation of the sort of commuter service on them today.

The times you mention make me think you could be on my line (Milwaukee West). Unfortunately, it is slow. 10 mph crossovers, 15 mph curves, and other speed restrictions on tracks that were laid out long before anyone thought trains would be capable of 70 to 80 mph slow things down. The easternmost five miles of that route takes 15 minutes and there's nothing that going to change that anytime soon.
That being said I challenge anyone to find an alternate way to travel those easternmost 5 miles in 15 minutes or less. It's just not going to happen and I take full advantage of living half a mile from the Galewood station.

I don't think the OP realizes Mertra operates largely over rails that are own by an entity other than themselves.
  by EricL
 
metraRI wrote:
EricL wrote:Ever since the big RI project on the south side - new signals, new bridges, new track, the whole nine yards - MAS has been decreed to be LOWER than what it used to be. The speed limit is only 50 from 16th St to Root St; I forget what it is from there to Englewood (pretty sure it's not 79 though). Before that project, those trains used to really cook between Gresham and downtown. Not anymore. And then that new station stop just slows it down even more. It's pretty pathetic when you look out the window to the adjacent freeway, and the cars are zooming past you....
The speed limit has actually increased on RI since the mainline relo/bridge project. What used to be 55mph from 25th Street to 60th Street, is now 79mph. Gresham to Blue Island is now 79mph as well, which was previously set at 60mph. Improvements to Gresham Junction also allow express trains to run at track speed, instead of having to slow to 25mph. These improvements have cut 3-6 minutes off the travel time of express trains.

Until April 3rd (RI's new schedule) many trains did not reach 79mph purposely in order to stay 'on time' due to excessive padding. The two Midlo express trains that would run track speed ran 5-7 minutes early, daily. This has improved with the new schedule, which took 6 minutes off the running time between LaSalle and Midlothian.
EricL wrote:Another example - the SWS. At NO point along that line are trains permitted to make any better than 55.
This is only the case between Union Station and Ashburn, south of Ashburn SWS has a 79mph limit.
OK, thank you. My ETTs must be grossly out of date (even though they date from after the RI work and SWS expansion).
  by lstone19
 
E Runs wrote: That being said I challenge anyone to find an alternate way to travel those easternmost 5 miles [of the Milwaukee District] in 15 minutes or less. It's just not going to happen and I take full advantage of living half a mile from the Galewood station.
Well, how's this for a start. Grade separate A-2. Not easy but doable. Maybe the MD lines come in on the north side of the UP and then cross the UP tracks 1/4 to 1/2 mile east of A-2. Or don't worry about the legacy railroad distinctions and eliminate many of the crosses there by sending UP-W trains to Union while sending one of the MD lines to Ogilvie. Ignore how things are done now and figure out where you'd send trains and design A-2 if you were starting from scratch today.

Last night I realized that there is no speed difference (conditions permitting) between going through A-2 on a Clear signal and on a Restricting signal. I was on 2235 (5:05p) and we had stopped east of A-2. When we finally started moving through A-2 and into Western Ave. and what I judge to be normal speed for the move. It was only when we came around the curve and I could see our head-end that I realized we must be moving on a Restricting signal as the rear end of the train ahead had not yet cleared the west end of Western Ave. even though our head end was already in the east end of Western Ave. (apparently something happened to 2233 (4:55) and that had us the two NCS trains and us riding his yellows until we started making our stops (Mont Clare to Mannheim). We had a good run to Itasca but then we had caught him and it was a slow run on to Roselle where I could see the home signal at Roselle West was at Stop. 2235 is then express to National Street while 2233 makes all stops so no doubt the remaining riders (including a co-worker - I will ask today) on 2235 had a slow ride the rest of the way. How does all this relate to the OP's slow question? Just like the roads, when things are scheduled to maximize utilization, all it takes is one little delay to start a ripple that delays lots of trains. It's one of the costs of an over-capacity system (be it rail or road).
  by E Runs
 
lstone19 wrote:
E Runs wrote: That being said I challenge anyone to find an alternate way to travel those easternmost 5 miles [of the Milwaukee District] in 15 minutes or less. It's just not going to happen and I take full advantage of living half a mile from the Galewood station.
Well, how's this for a start. Grade separate A-2. Not easy but doable. Maybe the MD lines come in on the north side of the UP and then cross the UP tracks 1/4 to 1/2 mile east of A-2. Or don't worry about the legacy railroad distinctions and eliminate many of the crosses there by sending UP-W trains to Union while sending one of the MD lines to Ogilvie. Ignore how things are done now and figure out where you'd send trains and design A-2 if you were starting from scratch today.
Sorry, what I meant was taking an alternate form of transportation for those 5 miles: car, bus, bike, on foot, etc., not making the train itself faster. Taking 20-25 minutes to reach downtown is great for my city-dwelling-self but I can imagine those last miles crawl by for suburban commuters and as you've mentioned, infrastructure can certainly be redesigned and/or utilized better.

Your proposal actually makes too much sense, especially since Metra owns Ogilvie, for an industry who just keeps doing things because "that's the way they've always been done."
  by tuna
 
I am talking about the UP North Line. There is no cargo service.

Why would you have to build more track the whole way through? There are already two tracks. Thats enough to have one track in each direction. I'm saying just build switches at/around each station that would allow a "stopping" track in each direction so that there would be a total of 4 lines at each station. An inner 2 lines for passing through and an outer 2 lines for picking up passengers. You use computer programs to make sure that trains aren't scheduled to smash into each and you have 5 independent backups on each train each capable of preventing it from smashing into another train. The amount of new land you would need to acquire to do this would be minimal. A lot, possibly most, of the extra land you would need to do this would already be on the train station property given that each already has a large parking lot.

I guess this is more of a train technical/regulatory question because it seems so common sense and yet I don't know for certain that there is any train system in the world that relies on switching tracks so often.
  by Tadman
 
@Larry, that's one of the best ideas I've heard for a while and it would balance things well. UPW has 30k riders/day and MD has 45k total. It would not be an even trade, but I cannot figure out why 100% of MD and UPW trains must cross each other. Makes little sense other than "That's how we used to do it".

@Eruns, I don't remember exactly what's in CREATE, but it was designed to solve problems like this by heavily upgrading to local rail infrastructure. The railroads would've got freight through town faster, which creates jobs. The commuters would've got a faster ride and higher capacity, which opens up more living choices and less expensive living choices.

Instead, the Gov has his mitts in the cookie jar and also robbed RTA blind with the "seniors ride free" program. Ergo, we slog along on legacy arrangements.
  by lstone19
 
tuna wrote:I am talking about the UP North Line. There is no cargo service.
Freight service. Nobody calls it cargo service in the U.S. And there is freight service although thanks to a freight bypass line, most of it is in Lake County and north.
tuna wrote:
Why would you have to build more track the whole way through? There are already two tracks. Thats enough to have one track in each direction. I'm saying just build switches at/around each station that would allow a "stopping" track in each direction so that there would be a total of 4 lines at each station. An inner 2 lines for passing through and an outer 2 lines for picking up passengers. You use computer programs to make sure that trains aren't scheduled to smash into each and you have 5 independent backups on each train each capable of preventing it from smashing into another train. The amount of new land you would need to acquire to do this would be minimal. A lot, possibly most, of the extra land you would need to do this would already be on the train station property given that each already has a large parking lot.
Unfortunately, it's not that simple. We already have systems to insure separation of trains (it's those signals that somewhat look like traffic lights). But, due to the need to make sure that they insure separation of trains in worst case conditions (including freight trains that have much, much longer stopping distances than passenger trains), they generally keep trains at least five minutes apart when operating at the speeds typically found away from terminal areas. So your passing tracks at stations would require a train to stop for about ten minutes (five minute wait for the follower to overtake and then another five minutes to let it get sufficiently ahead).

And, if you take over the parking lot for your passing tracks, where do the customers park?
  by tuna
 
lstone19 wrote:
Freight service. Nobody calls it cargo service in the U.S. And there is freight service although thanks to a freight bypass line, most of it is in Lake County and north.
Hmm there are definitely no freight trains from the terminal to Lake Bluff, I can say from personal observation. Not on the two tracks that carry the Metra trains at least. Maybe Freight trains start at the Great Lakes Naval Station stop or farther north, but thats already the 22nd out of 27 stops.


lstone19 wrote:Unfortunately, it's not that simple. We already have systems to insure separation of trains (it's those signals that somewhat look like traffic lights). But, due to the need to make sure that they insure separation of trains in worst case conditions (including freight trains that have much, much longer stopping distances than passenger trains), they generally keep trains at least five minutes apart when operating at the speeds typically found away from terminal areas. So your passing tracks at stations would require a train to stop for about ten minutes (five minute wait for the follower to overtake and then another five minutes to let it get sufficiently ahead).

And, if you take over the parking lot for your passing tracks, where do the customers park?

As I said there are no freight trains on the areas I am talking about. I don't know if there are freight tracks somewhere else that are also called the Union Pacific North Line, but the Metra tracks are dedicated through all the stops I've ever been at, the vast majority of the stops. Also my idea for train timing involves smaller trains which probably means that they can stop faster. If you have trains that can come from full speed to a full stop in 1 minute, which isn't even that fast (as in it wouldn't be uncomfortable for passengers, I don't know how feasible it is for train technology), I don't see why you would need anywhere near 10 minute headways. By your own description, Metra is relying on these "traffic lights" and the human work of conductors to avoid crashing into each other. There should be a more efficient way that takes away human error and could lead to lower headways.

I'm not saying run on exactly the same infrastructure with exactly the same trains. What I was trying to get at in my OP is that the UP North line has these 2 tracks dedicated for commuter rail service, with no freight interference, no complicated junctions with other lines, what if the federal government wanted to invest a lot of money into developing the future of commuter rail, something that would be much faster and more competitive with cars for getting from the suburbs to the city center. So you take the existing land, stations, and tracks of the UP North line and lines like it that have continuous dedicated right of way, and you develop a system to be much faster... are there any systems like this that exist? That have been designed and publicized?

What if gas prices looked to stay very high for the long term, and that led to a political shift where the government was going to start shifting highway funding dollars to mass transit programs. Is there any sort of commuter rail technology proposal that could make people happy about switching from using their cars to the train? It has a dedicated right of way the entire way into the city, it doesn't have to stop for traffic, it should be faster than cars.