During a summer jam-packed with delays on the Kennedy Expressway and the “L,” Gabriela Jirasek says something you don’t hear often these days in Chicago.
Her commute from Morgan Park to downtown is “wonderfully consistent.”
Four days a week, Jirasek leaves her home around 7:20 a.m. and is reliably in her seat at City Hall by 8:30, plus she’s already checked her emails and had some time to herself. Her secret? Metra.
“It’s just kind of like a relaxing trip,” said Jirasek, an assistant commissioner at the Department of Planning and Development, who typically opts for the quiet car.
She’s not the only one to praise Metra for offering a ride that feels safe, comfortable and dependable. With expressway construction backing up drivers and post-pandemic troubles plaguing the city’s buses and trains, Metra — the region’s commuter rail — is undeniably having a moment. Ridership is cresting, its users are loyal. But even it can’t shake a looming fiscal cliff faced by transit agencies everywhere and the reality that worklife, and commuting habits, are indelibly altered in COVID’s wake.
The 9 a.m.-5 p.m., five-days-a-week-in-an-office commuter is an endangered species on the brink of extinction. And that reality poses an existential crisis for transit agencies, especially commuter rails like Metra.
Now the agency’s post-pandemic recovery plans are coming into focus, and commuters could soon feel changes, from some increased fares to new ridership packages that will make a popular 10-ride card obsolete.
But perhaps the most interesting shift is Metra’s attempt to market itself as more than a vehicle to get white-collar workers downtown.
“We feel the need to really market ourselves to attract new riders,” said Michael Gillis, Metra’s director of communication. On a recent call, he described a futuristic vision of people using Metra for non-work trips, such as running errands or visiting destinations like Brookfield Zoo.
“Maybe we’re not getting one person five days a week, maybe we’re getting five people one to two days a week. So it is part of our marketing effort to draw new riders into the system,” he said.
Metra enjoys a moment. Can it last?
Ridership on Metra trains is up in recent months — an overall trend that’s been bolstered by big events downtown, such as Taylor Swift and NASCAR, as well as fed-up commuters seeking refuge from construction gridlock on the Kennedy.
But the numbers still pale in comparison to before the pandemic. According to agency data, Metra registered 2.9 million passenger trips in June, which was the highest month since the pandemic began in 2020. By comparison, the agency counted nearly 6.4 million rides in June 2019.
“Our ridership really suffered during the pandemic and we’re still not 100%, or even close to 100%, back to where we were before that,” Gillis said.
In recent months, Metra has proposed an extensive fare overhaul and zone restructure, which the board plans to vote on in November. The proposal is meant to address the way commuters’ habits have changed — and is an attempt to draw out the federal relief money the agency received as a buffer when the pandemic clobbered ridership numbers. By bringing in more money from riders next year, Metra hopes to stretch some of those federal funds through 2025.
By the end of that year, however, that funding is expected to be depleted, and Metra says the new fare structure will not even come close to softening the blow of a predicted fiscal cliff. A state-appointed panel is currently looking at possible solutions for Chicago-area transit and is expected to make recommendations before federal money runs out.
In the meantime, Metra is racing to make changes and bring riders back. In perhaps the most controversial part of its new proposal, Metra wants to nix its current 10-ride pass, which is a longtime fan favorite. Instead, the agency would replace it with a bundle of five-day passes at the same price.
Gillis says the decision is based on data that shows most people who buy the 10-ride pass typically use it for two trips per day — therefore, he argues, the bundle is an equal alternative.
But it’s not a 1:1 exchange. The new package gives riders less flexibility to share the pass in a group or to spread out the rides over a longer period as someone would, say, if they sometimes use Metra for a one-way ride.
“I think the loss of the 10-ride ticket is probably going to be the most shocking to some people,” said Joseph P. Schwieterman, a DePaul University professor who specializes in transit and urban planning — and who has been a Metra rider himself for more than 25 years.
“That’s a way of life for many people, you know, they share the 10 rides with the family, they keep it in their wallet and there’s some risk taking that away.”
Metra also seeks to do away with its current 10-zone structure and replace it with four zones, with downtown stations being designated as zone one and zones 2-4 being assigned based on distance from downtown, service patterns and ridership on each line. Under the proposal, a one-way ticket to downtown would cost $3.75 from zone two, $5.50 from zone three and $6.75 from zone four.
Metra’s current one-way tickets range from $4-$9.50, depending on distance. While the proposal would increase the cost for some riders year over year, the prices remain below pre-pandemic pricing, according to Metra.
The promotional $100 “super saver” monthly pass rolled out last summer will go away. New monthly passes will range from $75 to $135.
The plan is also focused on promoting non-downtown trips, which Metra sees as a growth opportunity. To encourage a trip to the zoo, for example, one-way tickets that don’t include a downtown starting point or destination would cost $3.75 regardless of distance.
Schwieterman said Metra’s path to pandemic recovery will require growth in those off-peak and weekend riders.
“I think we’re seeing more and more need to cater to the infrequent rider, not just the commuter,” Schwieterman said. “I think Metra is experimenting with that.”
But there are structural barriers to Metra being used for shorter day-to-day trips like getting to appointments, shopping at Ikea or seeing concerts at Ravinia.
Loyal riders, but fewer of them
Any regular Metra user knows the challenges of navigating Metra’s locked-in timetable. As a commuter rail, Metra doesn’t run trains with the same frequency as the CTA.
As rider David Klein put it, “you have to live and die by the Metra schedule, which is really frustrating.” Klein, who works at a bank, said if he gets pulled into something at work, it can set him back a whole hour on the train schedule.
Klein is among the workers who have returned to downtown — at least part of the time, but even among that crowd, the 9 a.m.-5 p.m. workday is largely a thing of the past.
“Lifestyles and schedules are changing so that the once-an-hour service, once every two hours in some cases, isn’t always consistent with the lifestyles of how people want to get around nowadays,” Schwieterman said. “Trying to rebalance service with all these different changes is really a tough call.”
Even if Metra wanted to add more frequent trains — which Gillis said it does — that change can’t happen overnight. Mixing up schedules would likely require infrastructure updates and new agreements with the freight railroads that share the tracks Metra trains travel on. All that would come at a cost, which may be out of reach for an agency barrelling toward a budgetary crisis.
Metra is far from alone. Transit agencies everywhere are searching for a more solid answer to what it means to be a commuter rail in America today.
“It’s a huge national discussion on what comes next,” Schwieterman said. “You have to be a little more of an all-purpose machine and you can’t do that just with running the same schedules as you did 10 years ago.”
For now, as Metra tries to adapt to the post-COVID era officials are in a phase of throwing spaghetti at the wall to see what sticks. As for its riders, despite their frustrations over timetables or fare cards, Metra users continue to express deep appreciation for the service. Loyalists like the comfort of the chairs, the cleanliness of the cars and the reassurance they get from having a conductor on board to keep an eye on rowdy customers. They are also quick to praise the reliability of the trains.
“What keeps me going back to Metra is the fact that I can get downtown in 20 minutes,” said Klein, who lives in Rogers Park. “It’s just mind blowing to me, having been a lifelong Red Line person. The moment I discovered how fast the Metra was, it like changed my life.”
Ravenswood resident Ryan Shepherd had a similar epiphany. He said the speed of Metra helps him get home quicker to his newborn baby. Plus, he avoids downtown parking prices.
Aviva Bollinger, who lives in Evanston, started taking Metra right before the pandemic. After years of commuting to her downtown marketing job by car, she felt like her daughter was old enough to get to school on her own, so Bollinger switched to the train and hasn’t looked back.
“If I have to sit in traffic for one more minute,” she said, “I’m probably going to rip all my hair out.”
Metra is currently collecting feedback on its proposed fare changes. Riders can send feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org. The Metra Board of Directors is expected to vote on the plan in November. If approved, it would likely go into effect next February.
Courtney Kueppers is a digital producer/reporter at WBEZ. Follow her @cmkueppers.