Metra riders: we hear you and Metra leadership and state legislators should too

Recently, we at Active Trans asked our members to share with us a few of their recent experiences with Metra as 2014 kicked off.

Many people shared stories of being stranded in sub-zero temperatures on platforms waiting for trains that weren’t coming.

They talked about service alerts that are inaccurate, trains that are late so often they’ve nearly cost passengers their jobs, and jam-packed cars made even more crowded by delays caused by equipment failures and shortened trains.

With more than four feet of snow having fallen in Chicago already this year and 11 days with temperatures below zero, some delays are inevitable and forgivable. But some of the problems we’ve noticed have been here all year long and are indicative of more systemic problems in Metra’s leadership and funding.

Metra riders, we hear you.

To make sure these concerns aren't ignored, we are taking these messages to those who can be held accountable: Metra leadership and our state legislature.

Soon the State’s House Mass Transit Committee will host a hearing on some of Metra’s recent shortcomings. We’ll be there to testify.

We’ll also follow up with Metra’s interim CEO to reiterate transit rider’s priorities for improving Metra service.

Here’s what we’re pushing for in 2014:

1) On-time arrival: Metra only works when it’s reliable. Riders count on trains to be on time no matter the weather, time of day or day of week. Metra reports an on-time arrival rate of 95 percent for recent years, but for weekend service when trains are already only operating once every two hours or less, on-time rates can be as low as 83 percent.

2) Communication: Riders have made it clear that communication is key for getting through trouble spots like rough weather, construction and unforeseeable delays. We need clear and accurate announcements about service alerts that are easily found online and clearly conveyed at the stations themselves. Even communication as simple as which side of the tracks to stand on to catch the correct train needs to be improved.

3) Technology: Metra needs to offer real-time train updates -- both online and at the stations. Metra needs to offer Ventra as a payment system on trains and/or at stations, and make it possible for anyone at any station at any time to board and pay with cash or credit. Riders have also been calling for wi-fi on trains which, in addition to being a great service offered by other commuter rail lines, is also required by law before 2015. This is the last chance to implement these changes.

4) Expanded service: Metra riders throughout the region are calling for more frequent trains and expansions of train lines. We especially support expanding service on the Heritage corridor, which operates between Chicago and Joliet, but serves few people because it runs only 3 round-trips a day!

We want Metra to provide better service to transit riders, and we’re going to tell them so.

But we recognize that many of the problems we find so frustrating -- the broken down train cars that cause crowding and delays, the slow assimilation to new technology and the limited service -- are directly related to the lack of funding for transit systems in our region.

As of December 2011, the amount of money needed over 10 years to have our total transit system in a state of good repair is $31.1 billion dollars. Of that total, Metra needs $9.7 billion.

It will take more than strong leadership within Metra to take that happen. For starters, our legislature will need to decide that our transit system is worth investing in.

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Metra ideas

1) Metra can work with local communities to produce and enhance Bike to Metra maps. Some of the funding Metra receives can contribute to local planning. This may increase ridership and will increase the "communication" in #2 on your priority list above.

Towns and villages include Bike to Metra in their plans; having funding available and a comprehensive network plan will speed up the process (to create the maps) and provide more people info about safe routes. It will help highlight areas where improved infrastructure is needed (improvements themselves not to be funded by Metra, but perhaps identified in coordination with local planning and Bike to Metra map creation).

2) Separate, and related shoot for the moon idea: bike themed train runs. Perhaps coordinate dates/times for larger bike events in the city. Do earlier trains run to get people to the Marathon in Oct? Why not trains to get people downtown for Boulevard ride days, or for Bike the Drive? Yes, logistics and capacity issues exist, and they can be addressed and resolved if we put our minds to it! Start small - bike theme pedestrian rides (fewer logistics and bikes to deal with). Metra can partner with walk coordinators and cross-market getting people to a city or other burb walk event by taking Metra.

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