Chicago Regional Rail Leaders Plan for Post-COVID Future

Written by David Peter Alan, Contributing Editor
image description

For the past three years, Railway Age has been reporting the progress of our railroads, including regional/commuter, as the emergency caused by the COVID-19 virus worsened and, more recently, has begun to subside. While ridership on the nation’s regional/commuter railroads still lags far behind pre-COVID numbers, including during traditional peak commuting hours, it is now picking up, and managers are thinking about what the future will be like as we enter a new era.

There are a host of challenges ahead, from obtaining needed funds after the federal COVID aid runs out, to right-sizing the peak commuter service to meet reduced demand at commuting hours, to staying relevant as full-service railroads. Against this backdrop, the leaders of Chicagoland’s two regional railroads explained their plans on Feb. 17 at Metra’s offices in Chicago: Jim Derwinski, Executive Director and CEO of Metra, and Mike Noland, President and General Manager of the agency known officially as the Northwest Indiana Commuter Transportation District (NICTD), but known popularly as the South Shore Line since 1926.

The occasion was a forum sponsored by the Hagestad Sandhouse Rail Group, named for the sandhouses from early railroading where sand for traction was dried in a room that offered a warm place for railroaders of all crafts to gather in the winter. The organization, now affiliated with Northwestern University, began in 2002 as an effort to connect active and veteran rail practitioners with students and academics interested in rail-related issues. It is named after its founder, Douglas Dean Hagestad.

Joseph L. Schofer, Professor Emeritus at Northwestern’s Robert R. McCormick School of Engineering & Applied Science, moderated the session. He started with some background about the regional railroad services in the Chicago area, saying, “Public transit is the adhesive that holds our cities together.” He then introduced the primary issue of concern, noting that new communications technology has enabled more workers to do their jobs from home or another remote location, especially since the COVID virus struck. He also said that “the trade-off between communication and transportation has finally come to life,” and added that the nature of demand for peak period commuting is “substantially evolving.”

The audience was familiar with the Chicago rail scene. Metra is the agency that operates all regional rail service between Chicago and the suburban counties on the Illinois side of Chicagoland. Historically, railroads such as the Burlington, Chicago & North Western, Rock Island and Milwaukee Road operated the trains, but the services were consolidated under Metra.

Jim Derwinski.

Derwinski kicked off his presentation by saying “COVID is constantly changing,” and that “commuter rail takes people from ‘out’ and brings them ‘in.’” He also noted that the office day is starting later and ending earlier. For the future, he said that Metra’s goal is “fast, frequent, hourly service throughout the day” and noted that is railroad is “shifting from a commuter rail to a regional rail thought process.” He called for schedules that would “avoid mis-connects” and noted that ridership was up on the lines operated by Union Pacific (historically C&NW).

Derwinski said that wants to look for benefits that Metra can bring to the region, beyond just former riders coming back to the trains. He called for more-frequent service, more trains to accommodate reverse commuting, better transfers, and service that would be more equitable than the pre-COVID schedules. He highlighted new fare structures: day passes for $10 and as low as $6, monthly passes for $100, and reduced fares on the South Side. He complimented the employees who keep the rolling stock clean, especially the ones at Elgin who started power-washing cars. He concluded by describing Metra construction projects, new rolling stock, the railroad’s rehabilitation program, and projects under the CREATE Program—a series of projects designed to facilitate freight movement through and around Chicago slated to deliver some benefits for passenger trains, too.

Mike Noland

Noland then began his presentation about the South Shore Line, which runs through Chicago’s South Side along the historic Illinois Central Electric line (now Metra Electric) to such places in Indiana as Hammond, Gary, Michigan City, and South Bend Airport. He began by acknowledging that ridership on his railroad is down 57% since 2019, and commuting is down by even more, but he claimed that the railroad could get the riders back by “delivering a better product.” He acknowledged that some remote work is here to stay and expects that working two or three days a week at the office could remain a common practice. Despite these COVID-related ridership declines, Noland wants to move toward hourly off-peak service and reduced travel time, and hopes to double current ridership. He added that “better frequency is essential in the post-COVID reality.”

Noland also described the South Shore line’s construction projects, including the West Lake Corridor, which will branch off to the south at Hammond and proceed 5.5 miles along the Indiana side of the state line toward Dyer-Munster. There would be four new stations, with five peak-hour through trains in each direction, and shuttles to and from Hammond at other times to provide full service. Other plans include adding a new platform at Van Buren Street Station in downtown Chicago and moving from the east side of South Bend Airport to the west side, although neither option would serve downtown South Bend.

In response to questions, Noland expressed his hope that the double-tracking project now under construction would be completed sometime next year, with the West Lake Corridor in service in May 2025. He also said that he plans to take some of the short turns that now flip at Gary Station and extend them one stop east to Miller, Gary’s most-prosperous neighborhood. He told another questioner: “We need to give people reasons to shift—a better product to compete with motorists believing they have more control.”

During the question period, Derwinski praised the Commuter Rail Coalition (he is currently Chair of that organization’s Board) for bringing regional railroads together. He noted that ridership on different railroads has not recovered uniformly: 60% in New York and 90% on Tri-Rail in South Florida, but far less in California: 45% on Metrolink in the Los Angeles area and only 35% on Caltrain into San Francisco from the south. He also noted that the recovery is stronger in Europe (75%) and Asia (85%) than in this country, compared to pre-COVID levels. He added that it would be “a long time” before Metra would enhance service on its “weaker” lines, and concluded by saying that a solution “has to be a broad, comprehensive thing” with economic, environmental and transportation elements, that they are all essential. He then said that rail is undervalued, but it can serve as an alternative to road congestion.

A review of the current schedules for the two railroads reveals different pictures of their respective recoveries from the COVID-era ridership declines and consequent financial difficulties, both current and impending. Metra is improving service on many of its lines. Some full-service lines have returned to hourly mid-day service during the week, while others still run only every two hours during those times. The last trains on most full-service lines left Chicago about 12:30 a.m. on weekday nights before the virus struck, and some lines again have a train that leaves downtown that late. On other lines, the reduced COVID-era span of service, when the last train left at 10:30 or 11:00 p.m., is still in effect. The standard for weekend service remains every two hours for most of the day, with some additional frequencies, the same as it has been for many years.

On lines that ran essentially only during peak commuting hours, the story has not been as positive. On the Heritage Corridor to Joliet along the historic Alton Route (now UP, also used for Amtrak trains to and from St. Louis and the Texas Eagle), there are three commuter trains into Chicago in the morning and back out in the late afternoon. North Central service to Antioch runs essentially only for peak hour commuters, less service than had been offered before COVID. The Southwest service to Orland Park has returned with a strong weekday schedule for a line that began off-peak service relatively recently, but there are still no trains on weekends.

While Metra makes progress toward recovering former service levels, that has not happened on the South Shore Line. The standard level of off-peak service is every two hours or less on weekdays and weekends, especially east of Gary. There are still only five trains each day to the South Bend Airport, many of which have no connections with local Transpo buses to or from downtown South Bend. I commented on this situation two years ago in my profile of then-incoming Transportation Secretary and former South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg. The editorial about transit in that city bore the headline Complete Streets, Incomplete Transit, and the South Shore Line’s plans will not change that situation.

When the COVID-19 virus first struck almost three years ago, Railway Age, Railway Track & Structures and International Railway Journal provided team coverage of its effects on passenger and freight rail service and rail transit, on a global basis. We have continued our coverage here at Railway Age about its effects on Amtrak, VIA Rail in Canada, and rail transit in both countries since then. Along with that coverage, we have raised issues concerning the future of commuting,. Most of the nation’s regional railroads rushed to restore their pre-COVID peak period schedules, ridership notwithstanding. The “T” in Boston did not, and Chicago is planning for a post-COVID railroading future. They seem to be outliers, but they also might be the innovators.

Tags: , , ,