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Experts look to post-Covid era as an opportunity to improve Chicago’s public transportation system

While the Delta variant continues to run rampant through American cities, public transit experts said it could also be an opportunity to overhaul Chicago's aging public transit system.

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.

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"It's a patchwork of former and current freight rail companies... It's not Metra talking to itself, it's us talking to three different dispatches." Reiley said. "Union Pacific has their dispatch in Omaha... BNSF is in Fort Worth."

Added to this, the fact that commuter cars often need to share tracks with freight trains makes the Chicago area "an incredibly complex rail environment," she said.

Both the mechanical and coordination problems inherent to a busy but aging rail system also lie downstream of funding issues. There's just not enough of it. For 2021, the company has a total budget of a little over $1 billion, only about $380 million of which is earmarked for investments and improvements.

"We're working with what we have right now," Reiley said.

The company's largest investment project at present is its ongoing Rolling Stock Modernization Plan, which began in 2014. As part of the $2.4 billion project, this January the company approved the purchase of up to 500 new passenger cars from French manufacturer Alstom Transportation. 200 were purchased initially, Reiley said, with an additional option to purchase the other 300 at a later date. The first of these cars could appear on Chicagoland tracks by the mid-2020s.

Another improvement Metra is currently piloting is a new schedule for four lines: BNSF, Metra Electric, Rock Island District and Union Pacific North. The most substantial changes were to the Union Pacific North line, which services wealthy suburbs such as Evanston and Ravinia. The Metra Electric and Rock Island schedule adjustments, though less drastic, are also part of Cook County's Fair Transit South Cook initiative. This pilot project seeks to improve ridership among the less-wealthy south suburbs of Cook County by reducing fare prices from between 40% and 53%. Single ride tickets on these lines now cost, at most, $4.

These tentative changes are only possible to the extent that they are, both Schwieterman and Reiley said, due to the challenges and opportunities the Covid-19 pandemic leaves in its wake. But Schwieterman said the pandemic has also boosted car use, and cars and highways are historically the great killers of American public transportation.

"Car ownership continues to rise... people are being creative to avoid transit," he said.

Besides challenging public transportation, cars and trucks are collectively one of the country's worst sources of pollution. They produce nearly one fifth of all U.S. carbon dioxide emissions. Highways also have a dark legacy, especially in Chicago. They were often built over low-income Black and brown communities on the south side to facilitate white flight to the suburbs.

To combat the growth of car use, Schwieterman said faster, more frequent buses — similar to Metra's pursuit of regional rail — could play a key role.

"We have lost low-hanging fruit. Express bus schedules are scarce," Schwieterman said.

Chicago resident Pedro Bortoto, who regularly takes public transportation from his home on the north side to his job on the south side, agreed with Schwieterman. He said faster, more regular buses were something to which he'd like to see the city commit, alongside an extension of L service to more south south side communities.

CTA officials did not return requests for comment on this issue.

"Rails and better buses need to be extended to those southwest neighborhoods," Bortoto said. "They need to be extended for sure. The southwest part of the city has no [public transportation] access."

Bortoto, a historian who originally hails from a suburb of São Paulo, Brazil, said he saw parallels between the Brazilian government's own dismantling of much of its public transit systems in the early 80s, and the creeping loss of public transportation funding in the U.S.

Case in point, the Biden administration's proposed Bipartisan Infrastructure Bill funnels a significantly smaller percentage of federal dollars to public transportation projects than to it does to roads and bridges. It slashed the original $85 billion slated for transit projects in the American Jobs Plan down to only $39 billion.

Without greater funding, both Schwieterman and Reily said that what public transit could realistically be achieve in a post-Covid world is limited. But they also both said that to not attempt anything would to be waste this, perhaps, once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.

"It's all subject to the availability of capital funding, what we can do," Reiley said. "But we're looking all over the world for what people are doing."

Follow Dave Byrnes on Twitter

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