CHICAGO (CN) — There is a man in Union Station with a box of late-excuse papers. He hands them out to job commuters whenever the Metra trains are running late.
He hands them out often.
Slow Metra trains are just one facet of a larger problem that many Chicagoans and residents of outlying suburbs deal with on a daily basis: a public transportation system in desperate need of modernization.
The Covid-19 pandemic has not helped any of these issues — the Chicago Transit Authority reported that ridership on city trains and buses decreased by 78% and 62%, respectively, between January 2020 and 2021. Metra reported an even steeper decline; between January 2020 and 2021, ridership dropped by over 92%.
But for all these bleak numbers, public transportation expert Dr. Joe Schwieterman said the pandemic also represents the opportunity for significant public transit improvements. Perhaps not such a drastic change that it would dethrone cars as the region's dominant form of transportation, but a noticeable increase in the speed and frequency of buses and railcars.
Metra especially stands to benefit from this opportunity, in the form of a concept called regional rail.
"It's this concept called 'regional rail,'" Schwieterman said. "It's a way to shift focus away from just peak rush hour service."
Regional rail, Schwieterman explained, can be thought of as an alternative to the city's current focus on 'commuter rail' service. Under the commuter rail paradigm, most Metra service is concentrated at specific high-volume periods of the day; usually between 6 and 10 a.m. and again between 3 and 7 p.m. Certain CTA services, such as the express Purple line, are also concentrated within these hours.
But the pandemic has changed the way people commute. Fewer are commuting at all, and those that are, at times outside the traditional rush-hour window. Schwieterman said this opens up a door for change to regional rail — where train and perhaps bus service is spread more regularly throughout the entire day — that may not have been possible before the pandemic.
"The traditional rush hour will never return to what it was," he said. "I think, with post-Covid lifestyles, we should make improvements outside of rush hour a priority."
The concept of regional rail may be new and exciting for Chicagoland, but it's already the norm in most other developed nations. In Chicago's Japanese sister city Osaka, riders on the regional Kosei line can expect a train every 10-30 minutes between 5:50 a.m. and midnight. In Birmingham, England, local trams run every 15-30 minutes between 4:45 a.m. and 12:45 p.m. Compare this to Metra, where some service lines have historically only run once per hour outside rush hour, and several lines don't run at all at mid-day or on weekends.
There are multiple challenges to instituting a regional rail system similar to those in Europe and Japan, but the biggest material problems are aging equipment and a lack of coordination between the myriad private companies that own different parts of the rail system. Both contribute to delays, stoppages, and congestion on the tracks.
"The biggest thing is the aging locomotives," Schwieterman said.
"Some of those cars are over 65 years old," Metra spokesperson Meg Reiley confirmed. "We do work hard to maintain them, but... they've gone through rebuilds so many times that it's time to say goodbye."
But it's not just the locomotive cars that can suffer mechanical breakdowns. Signal lights, track switches, the rails themselves; all require constant maintenance and some are as old as the outdated cars themselves.
Compounding the issue, all these components and rail lines are owned by separate companies — like Union Pacific and BNSF — each with their own priorities and levels of funding. Not stepping on each other's corporate toes is a constant struggle, Reiley said, even more so coordinating rail traffic and planning regular services.