Commuter Rail Stop Distribution

One of the features of American commuter rail is that it’s intended to be used by suburbanites. The propensity for making nearly every station a park-and-ride, with poor pedestrian access, is one effect of this. Another effect is stop distribution. It’s not just stop spacing – many commuter lines have tighter stop spacing than some European and Japanese lines – but rather where the stops are dense and where they aren’t. Normally, a commuter line will have densely spaced stops in the city, where the population is denser and there are more connection points and important destination, and thin out in the suburbs, where speed is more important. American commuter lines are different – in the city they make very few stops, since they don’t connect well to local transit and are treated as too special, but in the suburbs, at least the inner suburbs, they have very frequent stops.

For examples, let us compare Metra and the Paris RER. I’m choosing the RER because it’s an express system, meant to provide fast service within the city rather than comparable stop distance to the subway. Some RER lines even have a slightly American-style station distribution, if they don’t go deep into suburbia, making them more like express subway lines in New York, though even then the difference is much smaller than in the US, without even such long nonstop segments as 59th-125th Streets on the A/B/C/D. Metra is where the American stop distribution tendency is the most extreme, though the lines I picked are those for which Wikipedia lists mileage for stations. All distances in the following table are in kilometers and start from the Chicago terminus or from Châtelet-Les Halles.

UP North BNSF Line Milwaukee North RER A to Marne-la-Vallée RER A to Cergy
4.5 2.9 4.7 2.8 1.8
10.5 6 10.3 4.8 4.5
15.1 11.3 13.2 7.8 9.1
17.7 14.5 14.5 12.3 10.5
19.3 15.5 16.4 14.5 14.8
21.4 16.1 18.7 ~15.5 17.5
23.2 17.7 23 17.6 18.8
24.5 18.8 26.1 20 25.6
25.4 19.8 28 22.7 29.7
26.7 21 30.3 24 ~32.5
28.5 22.1 34 30 34.8
30.9 22.7 36.9 35 38.6

Observe that the stop spacing for the first 3-5 stops is very express, but drops to that of an average subway for the Metra line beyond that. The UP-North line is especially egregious – despite serving the densely populated North Side, it barely stops there, letting the Red Line do all the work. Meanwhile, on the RER A, this is not the case – although stop spacing tightens slightly beyond the first few stops, the effect is small. Even the long nonstop segment between Etoile and La Défense (the second and third stop on the RER A to Cergy) is not enough to create the same effect seen in Chicago, and to some extent other American cities.

Bear in mind, the RER is explicitly an express railroad, though it is fare-integrated with local transit within Paris proper. Systems called S-Bahn, as well as commuter rail in Japan, range from operationally indistinguishable to operationally barely distinguishable from wholly-urban rapid transit. Thus their stop spacing is much smaller, especially in the urban core.

Part of the issue is that there’s not much development around railroads in American cities, since development follows arterial roads and urban transit instead. This is related in both directions to the failure of commuter rail to provide good urban service: there’s upzoning around subway and light rail stations, but not around commuter rail stations. But even when there is development near commuter rail stations, such as around Forest Hills in New York, service is suburban-focused (midday LIRR frequency to Forest Hills is hourly).

Whatever the ultimate cause of this, the result is that commuter rail is not usable where people are most likely to ride transit. Thus it is not too useful for a transit revival. The present revivals proceed from the inside out, starting from the urban core and expanding to outer-urban neighborhoods and then inner suburbs. At each stage, it’s useful to expand transit a little bit beyond the reach of the revival to capture additional ridership, and perhaps hit an anchor, and so there’s room for additional transit use from farther out. This is short-circuited when urban and suburban transit are kept segregated. So far it’s not been enough to prevent some transit revival in some American cities, such as New York and Washington, but it’s a problem in such cities as Boston and Chicago and may prove a problem everywhere once cities run out of subway-accessible areas.

92 comments

  1. Matthew

    It is a huge problem here in Boston. Forget Ruggles, at least they see a train every so often. There used to be three stations in Brighton on the Boston & Albany (now Framingham/Worcester). Allston, Faneuil, and Newton Corner. All of them were eliminated either before or during the construction of the Turnpike Extension. If you live in Brighton you have to go all the way down to Back Bay (sometimes Yawkey) to get on the train which passes by your home. There’s no good transit to the following stop in Auburndale, outside the city, in Newton. Somerville is similar with regard to Lowell and Fitchburg — though Brighton is part of Boston and Somerville is not (may as well be).

    There is finally talk of restoring the Allston station, maybe in a few years…

    • Alon Levy

      Oh, yeah, how the hell could I forget the Worcester Line? The relevant numbers to the table are 39 on the bottom row (Ashland, the 12th stop) and 13.1 on the third row (Newtonville), and even that comes entirely from Boston’s having two city-center stations in that area rather than just one; at just over 9 km, the Yawkey-Newtonville gap is even longer than the UP-North gaps.

      • Matthew

        Whoops, you’re right, Newtonville is the closest. I often think of Auburndale because it’s about a 20 minute walk from Riverside – something I considered doing occasionally when I cared about getting to Framingham. Looking now I realize there actually is a bus from Watertown via Newtonville. Runs every 40 minutes or so, only when the sun is up! Wowie…

        The Allston station will likely happen once Beacon Park packs up this year. There’s a lot of condo development going on near Cambridge Street, also New Balance and Harvard. People are anticipating a new station. I think the main question is where. The old depot is currently a restaurant, so it’ll have to be another spot.

      • ofsevit

        This gets in to the history of Commuter Rail in Boston (and how it almost was wiped out in the early ’70s). When the Turnpike was built, it was quite adamantly opposed by Newton, which was happy with its rail service in to the city and didn’t want a highway built through town; in fact it took unfounded fearmongering by William Callahan that Prudential wouldn’t build their new tower without the turnpike to finally turn the tide (this whole thing is a great read). According to the 1952 timetable, there was an early train that got to South Station at 5:20; 7 trains served the Newtons during rush hour with hourly service during the midday. There was a gap in the evening. Newtonville, however, was a major station and saw 28 trains per day. The 1945 transit plan envisioned two of the four tracks being used for Highland Branch-style service; and the Highland Branch was quite successful upon opening in 1959. When Newton finally conceded to highway construction, they were promised that Express Buses would be able to use the new highway. Those are the same buses that today sit in gridlock every morning and evening.

        In 1972, a total of 639 people used the Worcester Line daily. The entire line! Today there are half a dozen trains with at least that many riders each; the Worcester Line has grown nearly 2000%. (The entire Commuter Rail system had 15,000 riders; a quarter of what it has today; the anemic South Side had just 5000 riders; ridership was focused on the New Hampshire mainline as those areas did not have a direct connection to the city via I-93 until 1973.) In any case, Newton never really got back the service the once had, with only about a dozen trains in each direction. A lot of this is because the stations are only single-sided; this was fine for the post-Turnpike traffic in 1975, but woefully inadequate today.

        As for the inner stops, none of Brighton is served, and Allston may be served once West Station is built. In the longer run, the terribly-named “Boston Landing” station will have more service, and Newton Corner would be a terrific location for a station at some point as well (especially if the awful intersection there were made less hostile to walking and bikes). The corridor is so underutilized; a local train every 10 minutes at rush hour and 15 or 20 minutes midday would be brilliant (especially with a park-and-ride/suburban shuttle facility near 128), especially if some were routed to Kendall and North Station or Sullivan/Assembly via the Grand Junction. That’s a whole other comment. Or post. In any case, West-Brighton-Newton Corner would make the inner stop spacing much more sensible.

  2. Beta Magellan

    Along the Chicago & Northwestern (now Union Pacific) lines, service to urban stations was discontinued in 1958, 18 years before subsidies for commuter rail came into play. I’m guessing the main reasons for discontinuation were competition from the CTA’s integrated surface and rapid transit fares (which was cited in David M. Young’s Chicago Transit: An Illustrated History as a reason for plummeting ridership on the IC’s [now Metra Electric] urban services in the 1970s), fewer revenue-miles from urban passengers, and the need to keep rail travel times auto-competitive for suburban commuters (the only semi-regular Metra trip I now take—from Clybourn to Evanston Main Street—takes fifteen minutes by train but about half an hour by car).

    The main barriers to restoring urban service on Metra are organizational. RTA sales taxes raised in Chicago don’t go to Metra, so the agency has little incentive to political increase service to the city. Furthermore, Metra has incredible institutional inertia—it’s supremely old-timey, and the fact that it’s a fast, on-time old-time railroad actually hurts transit in the region, I think. Metra does its narrow task of transporting suburban commuters to the Loop and West Loop very well, giving them little incentive to change (the fact that the UP lines are owned by Union Pacific doesn’t help either).

    A universal fare card is in the works (it was only passed by going over Metra’s head to the state legislature and governor), I’m near-100% sure we’ll end up with a proprietary deal involving smartcards, rather than a simple fare union with paper tickets (even though Chicago’s transit ridership is closer to that of a midsize German city than to the likes of Tokyo, Hong Kong or London).

    • Alon Levy

      Although in Japan the railroads were competitive with the subways, in Central Europe there was a sharp decline in passenger rail traffic. Lines closed stations to improve trip times, cut off-peak trains, and eventually shuttered. The modern fare union with integrated scheduling is a transit revival issue. In the US, it still boils to old-time railroad power – not just UP, but also the LIRR and similar agencies, in which the institutional culture transmits the practices of the 1930s.

      I don’t think Metra’s institutional inertia is just about its usefulness as a narrow commuter rail system. You see the same resistance to modernization not only in narrowly good systems (Metra, the New York agencies) but also in poor ones, which have low trip-to-CBD mode shares (the MBTA, Caltrain). SEPTA’s attempt at modernization came from an organizational structure that put urban transit people in charge, with some assistance from Vukan Vuchic, who had enough experience with German practices that he could help design the R# regional rail system.

      • Adirondacker12800

        the practices of the 1930s.

        Oh to have 30s back on commuter lines. The Morris and Essex ran over a 100 trains a day in each direction….

        • Alon Levy

          Do you have a schedule for this? I’m asking because the schedule you sent us on Clem’s blog for Caltrain in the early postwar era was a peak commute to San Francisco operation. It had twice the peak frequency of today, but off-peak service sucked.

          • Adirondacker12800

            Nope. Just a Public Service Bus map of the “Oranges and Millburn” with all the routes that connect to M&E stations. There’s a blurb that there are 107 trains each way weekdays. Weekdays back then was Monday-Saturday. It’s not handy, 1948 if I remember correctly. That doesn’t mean each station had 100 trains. There used to be a coach yard in South Orange which implies that the locals ran from Hoboken to South Orange at some point and the expresses ran Hoboken to Maplewood or Hoboken to Summit. Three car sets from what I can dig up on Railroad.net, The express to Summit would split in Summit to become the local to Gladstone and the local to Dover. Somebody somewhere has an Official Guide with schedules. The 1956 Guide I have has 52 between Montclair and Hoboken, 38 between Dover and Hoboken, 12 extending all the way to Phillipsburg. 25 to Gladstone which apparently only stopped in Summit and Newark. 7 a day to Branchville which also stop in Netcong. Numbers may be somewhat lower if any of those trains are Sunday only.

            OGR CDs and DVDs on Ebay are cheap if you are really interested. You’d get all of the commuter lines… Apparently Illinois Central had so many trains they needed ten tracks leading out of the station…

          • Anon256

            http://www.davesrailpix.com/guides/htm/dlwog.htm is the timetable of local M&E trains in 1950; midday service a bit worse than half-hourly. The timetable in the 1921 Official Rail Guide looks similar, though I don’t know if it was better in between. The Newark/Bloomfield branch to Montclair was separate in those days and ran a comparable amount of service.

          • Adirondacker12800

            It’s still separate these days but it’s added all those stops that used to be Erie Greenwood Lake branch stops and all the DL&W stops on the Boonton Bypass.

      • Nathanael

        “In the US, it still boils to old-time railroad power – not just UP, but also the LIRR and similar agencies, in which the institutional culture transmits the practices of the 1930s.”

        Oh, I think you’re right about institutional culture. It’s a huge thing. LIRR’s institutional culture is arguably from before the 1930s, maybe the 1900s, actually….

        “I don’t think Metra’s institutional inertia is just about its usefulness as a narrow commuter rail system.”
        The weird thing is that Metra is old-timey at all. It’s not like the LIRR, which has a long and continuous history; it’s one of the relatively “modern” systems. It didn’t inherit masses of managers from Penn Central like Metro-North or SEPTA; on the lines it operates itself, it was actually doing new hiring, not just transitioning a large system.

        “You see the same resistance to modernization not only in narrowly good systems (Metra, the New York agencies) but also in poor ones, which have low trip-to-CBD mode shares (the MBTA, Caltrain).”

        I have no idea what’s up with Caltrain either.

        • Alon Levy

          Well, Metra hired people from traditional railroading, most likely, unlike the situation at SEPTA.

          Caltrain’s issue is that it doesn’t get to the San Francisco CBD, and also competes with too many freeways, on top of shitty operating practices. The three-stations-then-express mode kind of works in New York and Chicago because the preexisting markets are large enough for this to give stations 4-5 tph each. In Boston and San Francisco, it doesn’t. It’s the same vicious circle I talked about in my reply to Rob about station closures – American commuter rail has used its ability to skip stops too much, which means that, for lack of better terminology, a shock to ridership has a large multiplier leading to further ridership losses.

          • Nathanael

            Ah, you’re probably right about Metra. Watch who you hire in the startup phase, is the moral.

            BTW, I say that the LIRR’s culture probably predates the 1930s for a reason. Despite being bought lock stock and barrel by the Pennsy, it was *never merged* with the Pennsy; despite the Pennsy standardizing on overhead catenary, the LIRR retained third rail; the Pennsy never ran passenger trains through to Long Island, and the LIRR never ran trains through to New Jersey; et cetera.

            So the institutional culture of “will not cooperate” seems to have been firmly in place already when the PRR bought the LIRR, which is well before the 1930s.

    • ardecila

      As Alon mentioned, even if Metra added infill stations in the city, those areas usually don’t have the dense development to drive ridership. The city has exacerbated the problem by zoning Planned Manufacturing Districts around several of the rail lines where industrial usage is frozen in place for perpetuity. The one place where industrial zoning has been allowed to expire (Ravenswood), gentrification has set in and now the adjacent Metra station is the busiest station on the line, besides the Ogilvie terminal.

      I don’t think it’s an excuse to give up though. We can’t afford to build whole new subway lines. The city needs to bring the pressure on Metra, to open a couple of new stations but mainly to add service at the existing ones. To give an example I’m familiar with, every train on the UP-NW line should be stopping at Jefferson Park. It’s a huge transfer point where one can transfer to the Blue Line or virtually any bus on the Northwest Side. But Metra continues to skip this station for reasons unknown.

      • Ryan Richter

        I think this is right. Certain stations should be identified as key stations and have all trains stopping there. For a station like Jefferson Park where it connects with 10 CTA bus lines, the CTA Blue Line and 3 Pace bus routes, this station should be a key. And yet, I think commuter railroads in general are more interested in the suburb-to-city traditional commute and don’t really care about connections unless forced to.

        • Andre Lot

          Adding many intermediate stops has a downside of making longer distance commute less attractive.

          This is a general issue that affects regional rail planning in both sides of the Atlantic. In areas on the periphery of the inner core of cities like Milano, Rotterdam, Lyon and some others, there is pressure to “slow down” trips from the outer core through express rail by increasing stops there, whilst people commuting from the outer areas want faster connections to the city center.

          We could frame the problem in a general manner: different rail-based systems have overlapping zones of maximized efficiency. A subway stopping every 2km is not efficient on its purposes, but a commuter rail stopping every 600m isn’t either. However, for people living (or working) on the extremes of a long subway line, having a commuter rail train station would/could vastly improve service for them. At the same time, introducing more stops for commuter rail makes it less competitive for people coming from other cities in the area. It is a delicate trade-off.

          The issue also exists if you consider Intercity X regional rail, tramways x subways.

          I disagree, here, with the prevalent Alon’s argument that commuter rail aimed to serve people in suburbs is a bad approach for rail. Even in areas where car usage is lower than in North America, and densities higher, many people still commute to central areas every day over long distances for a variety of reasons. They might not drive to a park-and-ride station, but they still need fast access to the core of the central city. Here in Europe, the factors pushing this lifestyle are usually housing and demographics.

          • Alon Levy

            The issue here is not that American cities have too widely placed stops or anything like that. It’s that they have very tight stop spacing in the suburbs (sometimes less than that of a subway) but then barely stop within the city – 10-12 stops out, the RER A already catches up with Metra and has longer average interstation on local trains. The suburb-only service isn’t done in places that think in terms of regionwide transportation networks, rather than crummy trains for city people and commuter trains on which every person feels entitled to get a seat even at rush hour for the suburbs. I don’t mind if there are good local/express transfers, as with the various express commuter lines in Tokyo (Chuo, Tokaido, etc.) or even the Purple Line in Chicago, because then people get both kinds of service. But here, the implicit assumption is that nobody outside the city will ever take transit anywhere outside the CBD, and that urban transit and regional rail must be kept absolutely separate.

          • Andre Lot

            Alon,

            Keeping the networks separate is usually a matter of purely agency feud. Mind you, though, integration is not always complete even here in Europe. London has bus-only subscriptions, Rome has heavy rail + bus + trams subscription that don’t include regional commuter rail. In Amsterdam, inter-agency conflicts reduced the ability of commuters to use trains that are part of the national networks with their metropolitan subscriptions. I’m talking of subscriptions because this is the prevalent way for any commuter that uses service more than 3 days a week to save a lot of money.

            When you have less dense suburbs which themselves don’t have extended transit networks such as buses, let alone light rail, closely spaced stops might be a way to get around that.

            In most medium and large metropolitan areas in Western developed countries, commuting in radial patterns is usually what guides the development of networks outside an “inner city” perimeter, however loosely we can compare across cities. Going from well-served (one line with frequent-ish service all day at least) outer areas to other outer areas in a circle pattern is rarely faster (or even marginally slower) with public transportation than using cars, be it in London, Madrid, Frankfurt, Paris, Sydney or even Berlin. I agree, though, that more integrated services might at least allow use of trains to reach places along a corridor, something that is difficult when you don’t have options of trains going on different patterns or parallel services to transfer to/from.

            Finally, the seated ride issue: it depends on how the service is tilted, from the vehicle design to how influential on the operations are each constituency. As train seat design is more or less permanent (it would be woefully inefficient to have 2 sets of cars for peak and off-peak time and keep trains shuffling train cars between 2 configurations), making trains more roomy for standing passengers automatically mean more standing passengers first place. Solutions like folded seats are only a partial remedy to that as they are rater uncomfortable for 45min, 1h-long trips. One can refer to the 1st class x no 1st class discussion on heavily used lines in UK: some argue 1st class is an undue privilege for those who can pay more to be seated (it rarely gets busy let alone full), others argue 1st class passengers pay more-than-proportional higher fares and help indirectly subsidization of cheaper 2nd class tickets.

          • Nathanael

            Metra Electric, with its shoddily-treated city stops (even at the U of C!) and well-treated suburban stops, is an extreme example. But so is the LIRR; the ugliest, most decrepit, worst stations on the whole LIRR are west of Jamaica and east of the terminals. Why? Because the LIRR railroaders hate the city dwellers, and there appears to be no other reason.

          • ant6n

            In many places electrification would allow infill stations without slowdon. In some places where systems are already electrified, faster rolling stock can help.
            Oh also, level boarding helps.

          • Adirondacker12800

            The busy parts of the LIRR and Metro North are electrified and and have had level boarding since the M1/M2s arrived back in the 70s. there was a lot of level boarding installed at the time and some of the busier diesel stations were electrified. technically possible to have one seat rides on at all of the stations if they so choose. They don’t because there isn’t much traffic to the east end of Long Island off season. Or on obscure branches of Metro North anytime.

  3. Joseph Alacchi

    I find that the AMT commuter trains in Montreal are somewhat of an exception to all this, compared to the situation on NJ Rail (one stop only between Newark and NYC).

    But I surmise that this may be because of better fare integration in Montreal between train and local bus and metro (one monthly pass good for all).

    • Gauephat

      I would argue that only the Deux-Montagnes line really represents a well-designed commuter train line. It’s got the stop spacing, electrification, clockface scheduling (off-peak), and EMUs of an effective line, and its ridership represents that.

      The rest of AMT’s system? It has none of that going for it. Hell, look at the stop spacing for the Vaudreuil-Hudson line. 4-5 kilometres in downtown, but ~2 outside of it. Run competently, it should have by far the highest ridership of any line. Hopefully the boondoggle of the Mascouche line doesn’t prevent the Train de l’Ouest from being built.

      • Joseph Alacchi

        Yes, you are quite right. But, at least the Vaudreuil-Hudson line has some inner-city stops unlike many American lines.

        Yes, I forgot to consider frequency when making my statements. I think the Vaudreuil-Hudson line does have potential but when you consider that it runs parallel to Autoroute 20, buses can and do serve the corridor relatively efficiently outside of rush hour. If the 411 would run all-day, it would be perfect, in my opinion.

        This blog should definitely do a post criticizing the Train de l’Est😛

  4. Steve

    Beta is accurate in pointing out that commuter lines frequently had urban stops that have since been eliminated. Perhaps you could do a historical vs. current stop frequency graph as well?

    I’d also suggest looking at commuter rail lines that have not been beholden to (often excessive) urban stop curtailment–a good example is SEPTA’s Media/Elwyn line, which still has two stops in West Philadelphia spaced about an express subway trip apart–or similar lines which have attracted infill stops over the years.

    • Beta Magellan

      I looked up the schedule and it was surprisingly not bad—fairly close to hourly clockface during the day. My old train—the South Chicago Branch of Metra Electric (an all-stops local) also runs at essentially hourly clockface schedules off-peak (though the No. 6 bus runs the same route six times more frequently, so it gets the lion’s share of travelers); the other branches of Metra Electric are much more erratic. They’re also coordinated to largely obsolete commuting patterns. The following story pretty much includes everything wrong with American commuter rail (it could only have been worse if Metra were dieselized, which I’ve heard was occasionally considered before Millennium Park was built):

      I once accidentally boarded a southbound zoned express (!) that bypassed dense, full-of-people without cars Hyde Park (!!), and ended up having to board a northbound train at Kensington, the first stop the train made. The train was a flag-stop (!!!) local, so I assumed it would stop at 53rd. The conductor said it wouldn’t—it was only local until 55th, at which point it would turn into an express (!!!!). He told me to transfer to the local at 55th, though. I thought that was ridiculous to wait for another train to go two blocks (!!!!!), and just decided to walk from 55th. Yet as I walked down the stairs of the 55th Street station, I noticed a local train stop—the trains were timed almost for a cross-platform transfer (but one minute off, so !!!!!!). I have no idea when this sort of stopping pattern would have been useful, but it certainly isn’t anymore.

      In any event, this sort of stopping pattern—locals and expresses arriving within a few minutes of one another at 55th Street—happens throughout the day in Hyde Park. Metra could easily provide half-hourly service at least to 55th, if not all the stations there, with minimal fiddling of schedules (and they don’t even have to worry about freight), but so far this seemingly simple step hasn’t been taken.

    • Alon Levy

      I don’t know off-hand what’s going on at Metra, but the MBTA and LIRR closed a lot of urban stations mid-century, because of competition from urban transit (and unwillingness to adopt urban transit’s operating practices). The Port Washington Line and the Main Line both had stop spacing comparable to an express subway within city limits (a stop spacing that’s partially preserved east of the subway’s extent), and the inner segments of the MBTA lines had even tighter spacing. The 5-km nonstop segment between Forest Hills and Hyde Park used to have 3 intermediate stations, and the 9-km North Station-West Medford stretch used to have 7.

      • Beta Magellan

        My understanding is that if a Metra line lacks urban stations it’s because the predecessor railroad closed them—looking through here, the only evidence I can see of the RTA or Metra closing stations is in a handful of cases on the southwest side, plus the consolidation of two close stations into a single one at Grand/Cicero. The fact that there are still urban stations every half-mile on Metra Electric but only every 2-4 miles on the UP-North and -Northwest lines is more reflective of choices made by the Illinois Central and Chicago & Northwestern Railroads than anything policy choices Metra’s made (besides deciding not to modernize schedules and stopping patterns, of course).

      • Anon256

        The off-peak frequency on those lines was always abysmal. In 1921, midday local service on the Port Washington Branch was hourly; the other three lines you mention were worse, and the Boston lines had poor service to the local stops even in rush hours. Who would bother with such a service when you could walk a few blocks to the Corona or Washington St el? Even a trolley to Sullivan Square or the Queensboro Bridge might be preferable. Really, it’s surprising stations in places like Corona and Winter Hill lasted as long as they did, given their operating practices.

        On the other hand, when IC ran what is now the Metra Electric it had frequent off-peak service (every 20 minutes or better). It seems in that case poor operating practices came after the Metra takeover, rather than being inherited from the predecessor railroad.

        • Beta Magellan

          Chicago historical schedules galore:

          http://web.me.com/willvdv/chirailfan/schedule.html

          The latest IC schedule is from 1971—I’m under the impression that the big decline in urban service came in the early seventies (in large part thanks to white flight—new residents didn’t have as downtown-oriented commuting patterns) and Metra’s current schedules reflect the state of affairs in 1975/76, when the RTA started subsidizing the IC (the line only came under public control in 1987)—I could be wrong on this, though.

          • John

            I have IC schedules spanning 1981-1982, and they show a loss of approximately half the off-peak trains during that time. When I started at U of C in 1981, there was no reason to look at an IC schedule; you could just show up, wait a couple of minutes, and be on your way. It took me years of long waits to shake that habit. This was after the start of RTA subsidies, but before the line was sold to Metra.

      • Nathanael

        Metra has been *painfully* unwilling to modernize the in-city intermediate stations on any of its lines, or to increase service to them, except perhaps on the BNSF line. But it’s been *especially* bad about treatment of the South Side….

        Honestly, if you were to ask me for the simplest explanation? I’d have to go with racism. Which I don’t usually, but the correlation of “underserved” and “black” is just too strong to ignore in the case of Metra.

        • Alon Levy

          Could be, but Metra Electric serves the nicer neighborhoods. Hyde Park is middle-class, and has a ton of students, who are for the most part not black. The ghettos are served by the L.

          • Beta Magellan

            People with lower incomes also tend to have less downtown-centric commutes—the CTA’s ridership reports (pdf) imply that there are a fair number of inter-south side commutes on the Red Line, for instance (and even more inter-north side, although there’s much stronger subcentering there so that shouldn’t be surprising).

          • Adirondacker12800

            Low wage jobs tend to be spread all over. What makes vibrant walkable transit oriented neighborhoods vibrant walkable transit oriented neighborhoods is people walking from store to store to store that employ low wage retail clerks… Dollar stores, bodegas, fast food joints, they all employ people. Who don’t commute far.

        • Ryan Richter

          Metra did recently rehabilitate all the stations along the South Chicago Branch of the Electric District Line and has done some station work on the Beverly Branch of the Rock Island Line. But the perception (and certain reality) is that more work needs to be done in the city. Another interesting difference between city and suburban stations is that in the city, all of the stations are owned and maintained by Metra and in the suburbs, the vast majority are owned and maintained by the individual suburb. It may be a case of civic pride that most suburbs maintain their stations better than Metra can.

          • Nathanael

            The ownership probably has something to do with it, now that you mention it.

            The S. Chicago and Beverly rehabs are much welcomed. And in the Beverly Branch case, I think it’s correlated with improved ridership?

            The rot on the many *four-track* stations on the main line of Metra Electric is unconscionable, though; just fixing the concrete would be a great improvement. If Metra and CTA would actually coordinate, it would allow for reduction of some seriously redundant bus services, too.

            Sigh. Chicago.

  5. Ryan Richter

    You could not emphasize enough that Metra’s UP North and Milwaukee North lines travel through some very dense residential sections of Chicago where people live close to the railroad and could presumably benefit from its transit services, particularly on the UP-N where the Ravenswood Station is the highest ridership station on the line and Rogers Park is close behind. And yet, Metra plans on alleviating this with an infill station at Peterson/Ridge, an area surrounded by a cemetery where drive access would be encouraged.

    And yet, no planning has been done for a station south of Ravenswood. I think it would make sense for an additional station at on Addison, 1.5 miles south of Ravenswood and near the densely populated Wrigelyville neighborhood, which could also act as a seasonal anchor for Cubs game ridership. One of the reasons I think Metra avoids urban stations are because high density areas without a possibility for parking is seen as a real detriment.

    On the flip side, to Metra’s credit, the agency did open a station at 35th St. on its Rock Island Line, adjacent to the Illinois Institute of Technology campus, the CTA Red Line and U.S. Cellular Field. There is no parking available at the station, appropriately. So hope is not all lost.

    • Andre Lot

      Having or not parking at a station shouldn’t be used to judge a stoop as a good or bad one. 70% of the whining on park-and-rides could be eliminated with underground paid parking.

  6. Jacob

    How does the Metra Electric fit into this picture? It runs EMUs, unlike the rest of the system, and has closely-spaced stations. Does Metra operate the line in a similar manner to its other lines?

    • Alon Levy

      Well, Metra Electric is usable, though I wonder how many people are using it purely out of fear of walking to the Green Line. However, the frequency is really bad by any modernized standards. A European agency would’ve interlined local trains to create high frequency on the trunk line; Metra runs trains nonstop to ensure local stations only get hourly off-peak trains.

      • Beta Magellan

        In Hyde Park, the Green Line and Metra Electric are far enough apart (~1.6 mi between the 51st and 55th stations) to not have overlapping walksheds—for Hyde Parkers, Metra Electric was overwhelmingly a peak-period commute service for people who lived in the area (as well as those who lived close enough that waiting for an off-peak train was worth it). Its main competition comes from the Lake Shore Drive buses, which tend to cater more to students and downtown workers with lower average incomes (or in the case of the No. 2 peak-period commuters who wanted a one-seat ride and lived further west of the tracks). Most who’d take the 55th or 51st Street buses to transfer to rapid transit would go all the way to the Red Line, which is more frequent and faster than the Green Line. (When I lived in Hyde Park I was a No. 2 plus transfer commuter, although I’ve done some combination of all these options).

      • Nathanael

        The real problem with Metra Electric on the South Side is the hideously decrepit state of the stations. Really hideously decrepit.

        There’s also not enough frequency to act as local transit, and the tickets are too expensive — but it used to act as local transit back in the glory days of the IC, so we know it’s possible. Even without good frequency or lower ticket prices, it would probably be a lot more attractive if the stations weren’t hellholes of crumbling concrete. (The few stations which have been renovated showed massive jumps in ridership.)

  7. Jeffrey Jakucyk

    That many city stations have been eliminated on commuter lines like Metra’s is not all that surprising considering how long some of the hauls are. Even in the current situation, express trains on the UP-North line still take 40 minutes to get from Ogilvie to Ravinia, which is 25 miles (I know that’s kind of an obscure example but that’s where I grew up so those are the times and distances I know). That’s competitive with rush hour driving unless there happens to be no traffic on the Edens or Kennedy (hah!). Midday however, the hourly milk run takes 50 minutes, and that’s kind of sad. Still, Highland Park is only half way out the line. While the train can cruise through the longer distances between say Waukegan and Zion, or Winthrop Harbor to Kenosha, it’s still a long way to go. Having more inner city stations would not only add time and make the trip less competitive with driving, but the trains already become standing room only south of Evanston.

    Were it up to me, I’d restore the third track from Clybourne up to Davis Street in Evanston, and implement more express type runs in combination with more urban stations. Maybe use lighter equipment for the city runs that turn back either at Evanston or maybe a little farther north like Hubbard Woods in Winnetka.

    All that said, the North Shore suburbs are great examples of railroad commuter suburbs to learn from. Most don’t have a lot of parking at their train stations, and even if most of their development is single family and relatively low density, the areas around the train stations themselves can be quite dense. The rest of the lower density areas are still fairly walkable and connected to the stations too. Evanston and downtown Highland Park are the best examples, as they’ve both densified quite a bit over the past 15-20 years. Wilmette, Highwood/Ft. Sheridan, Lake Forest, and Winnetka are decent but could have more development around their stations. It’s funny how some stations have almost no change in the pattern of development around them at all, like Braeside, Zion, and Winthrop Harbor.

    • Alon Levy

      The rhetorical counter-question is why have subway trains stop in inner neighborhoods when they’re already standing-room only. If SRO trains are good enough for the Bronx, they’re good enough for Westchester. In fact it’s possible to make SRO trains reasonably comfortable at American crowding levels, by sacrificing a few seats to make room for large vestibules. At much higher crowding levels, subway-style seating becomes a good option, but there isn’t any American commuter line that comes close to needing that yet.

      What the Germans have learned from the failure of stop elimination is that they have to invest in higher-performance rolling stock. This means electrification, or high-performance diesel trains on lower-traffic branch lines. A train hauled by an FRA-compliant diesel loco loses 70 seconds from accelerating from 0 to 60 mph – in other words, acceleration time minus the time it would take to cover the same distance at 60 mph is 70 seconds. A good DMU loses 30, and a good EMU loses about 12. Good DMUs are illegal on US tracks, but decent EMUs are not, and Metra is big enough to get a variance from the FRA if it asks for one. Electrification costs money, but much less than agencies think, and on top of it the funding practices in the US encourage local agencies to engage in capital spending to save on operating costs. The problem then is purely local-organizational, i.e. dealing with flak from UP and maybe BNSF, but at least something can be done with the Milwaukee lines.

      On a related note, does the recent densification in Evanston follow Metra, or the Purple Line?

      • Jeffrey Jakucyk

        Indeed, the purple line acts similarly to Metra, only at a smaller scale (scale as in distance, not as in ridership). It used to run express all the way to downtown, with I think a stop just at Belmont and Fullerton, but they added more stops to alleviate the overcrowding of the brown line trains in Lakeview and Lincoln Park. Even with that, the lack of stops between Armitage and Chicago (avenue) on the purple/brown lines is another example of wider than normal stop spacing as there were many old stations that were removed as the neighborhood deteriorated and as the red line subway made some redundant.

        Along with today’s purple line, the shore line of the former Chicago, North Shore & Milwaukee interurban filled in yet another interstice of service between rapid transit (the ‘L’) and commuter rail (Metra/C&NW). Chicago’s historic streetcar system and today’s CTA bus lines formed the bottom (most local) level of that hierarchy. I guess it’s not surprising that as each mode was pushed beyond its reasonable service limits (the red and purple lines are both very long considering how tight the typical stop spacing is), they try to implement more express type service to better serve the outer areas, especially as that’s where growth was happening.

        You could say that each mode of transit is ultimately extended or contracted such that it is optimized for the niche in which it functions best, its “core competency” as it were. Commuter rail isn’t a good choice for local or even intra-city transit, but it is good for longer distance suburban-to-center transit. Likewise, city buses aren’t appropriate for long haul suburban service either. So maybe the question shouldn’t be, “why doesn’t Metra serve city neighborhoods better?” but, “why doesn’t the CTA operate rapid transit on already established commuter rail corridors with room for both?” Of course part of the answer is the animosity between the two organizations, but CTA/’L’ type operations along those lines is what city residents would want so that they can not only use universal fare media and get transfers and such, but also to get the kind of frequency and service that Metra can’t and won’t provide.

        • Alon Levy

          The main reason to not do parallel construction next to commuter lines is that it’s expensive. It’s not as expensive as building a brand new L, let alone a subway, but it still requires a lot of trackwork, sometimes new stations, and sometimes ROW treatments. It also feeds into, well, the L, which means it would crawl in the city. The RER hybrid concept – trains that make enough stops to serve major destinations in the city, but still have wide enough separation to maintain reasonable average speed – has a lot going for it. Paris was mimicking Tokyo, which does mostly connect commuter lines to the subway, but needed to adapt to the lack of preexisting through lines and the Métro’s glacial speeds and incompatibility with mainline rail; Tokyo instead built most of the subway with commuter rail through-service in mind, so there’s no technological difference. The L has essentially the same problem as Paris here – very tight curves, narrow loading gauge, slow speeds. Fortunately for it, it can serve the CBD much better on existing infrastructure, without need for extensive greenfield tunneling.

      • Beta Magellan

        In Evanston it’s both—most of the redevelopment in Evanston has been centered at Davis (and to a lesser extent Washington), where the two lines are adjacent.

        The big challenge of Metra waivers is that so many of its lines are mixed-traffic—there’s too much freight for full temporal separation on the BNSF and UP-West lines (and probably the Milwaukee District lines as well), so we’d be in need of an FRA Revolution, not just an FRA Waiver.

        • Beta Magellan

          Though the parking structures are big enough to make you think there’s no transit at all in the area, though in practice proximity to transit’s a big selling point for Evanston (and likely will be soon in Oak Park, which seems to be the next to get denser and where the Green Line and UP-West share an embankment).

  8. Rob Durchola

    Most commuter rail lines closed little used stations under both private and public ownership. The reason a station was closed was generally low ridership. Ones I am familiar with (I helped close stations in the mid-80s) had ridership under 100, generally under 50. The cost of maintaining the stations – even if only open platforms and stairways – and stopping trains for very few passengers simply did not justify keeping the station open.

    Obviously, this was very hard on loyal users, many of whom did not have great bus service to where they needed to go.

    Stations closed were both urban and suburban. Should some reopen now? Possibly, if there has been new development to support the station.

    • Nathanael

      Sometimes stations had low ridership *because* they were allowed to be extremely run-down, however. Which means you’d better be careful before concluding that the stations were really closed due to low ridership.

    • Alon Levy

      Part of the issue here is that commuter rail didn’t serve urban stations well (low frequency, no free transfers to buses, often poor service except to the CBD), so ridership declined in favor of urban rail, so service got worse, etc. The urban rail operating philosophy partially mitigates this vicious circle because trains have consistent stopping patterns, so if an individual station declines it still gets service because of other stations on the line. Commuter rail’s trigger-happiness about closing stations and its penchant for running many trains express worsens it instead.

  9. Pingback: Commuter Rail Stop Distribution: Some thoughts… | Transport Nexus
  10. anonymouse

    One difference that I think is significant between the US cases and other countries is that “Downtown” is very much a US concept. Paris has nothing analogous to the Chicago Loop or Boston’s Financial District or Manhattan’s Midtown, and employment is much more evenly spread throughout the city, which is why a RER system with several stops throughout the city makes sense. In the typical US city, the historical assumption has been that everyone is going to the CBD, so urban commuter rail stations would only compete with rapid transit, and not very successfully (due to low frequency and low speed on the approach to the terminal), at the expense of slowing down the trip for everyone from the suburbs. On the other hand, if you assume a more regional travel pattern, it makes sense to at least connect the rapid transit system to the commuter rail at the outer ends of the former, and it makes sense to have one or two urban stops at major transfer nodes where those exist. There’s also the optino of providing a whole new more local service on the existing commuter rail lines, on top of the existing “commuter”/”regional” service.

    • Alon Levy

      Downtown is not a US concept at all. It’s Paris that’s weird, not American cities. Tokyo, whose commuter rail network Paris cribbed aspects of the RER from, is much closer to the Platonic ideal of a spiky transit city than anywhere in the US. And from what little I know of German-speaking cities, they too have a strong downtown – the job density just isn’t the same as that of Manhattan or the Loop. Paris is actually fairly weird, in that it has very high but uniform density.

      • anonymouse

        The key point here is whether there’s a single point in the city where you can put down a station where it can be within walking distance of the entirety of the main employment center. In Paris, the answer is obviously no, and in Chicago, the answer is obviously yes. My assertion is that the US generally tends toward the Chicago model, while European cities tend more toward the Paris model, especially as they get bigger. The European model lends itself better to RER-style operation, because there actually are many important destination stations in the city center, whereas in the US model, if all trains ran through, they’d be empty once they passed whatever the main Downtown station is.

        • Adirondacker12800

          Paris doesn’t have towering skyscrapers in it’s center because they banned them.

          • Zmapper

            If I recall correctly from a History Channel program, the reason there are no skyscrapers in Paris except that one in the SW is because in order to build the city, they excavated the land underneath for the materials.

          • Adirondacker12800

            from the wikipedia article on Paris: The “alignement” law is still in place, which regulates building façades of new constructions according to a pre-defined street width. A building’s height is limited according to the width of the streets it borders, and under the regulation, it is difficult to get an approval to build a taller building.

            So there’s short stubby buildings, just like there are short stubby buildings in Washington DC. due to regulations. So just like Washington DC’s skyscrapers are outside of downtown, Paris’ are outside of downtown.

        • Alon Levy

          The point I’m making is that in Tokyo the answer is also yes, even more so than in Chicago. Until the government started promoting decentralization in the 1980s, it was completely monocentric around the area roughly between Tokyo Station and Shimbashi. And yet, Paris modeled the RER after the Tokyo network of through-routing commuter lines.

          I don’t know what all the Chicago employment areas are, but in New York, there are enough secondary employment areas to make Tokyo-style running worthwhile. Of course Midtown Manhattan is dominant, but there are also secondary destinations both within Manhattan (Harlem, Union Square) and outside it (Downtown Brooklyn, Jamaica, Flushing, Long Island City, Jersey City, Newark). Even now they draw commuters from all over, even from areas on the other side of Manhattan, and a policy that made them transit-oriented nodes could get even more such commutes, at the expense of car commutes from the South Shore to Garden City.

          • Adirondacker12800

            there are also secondary destinations both within Manhattan (Harlem, Union Square)

            They moved Wall Street out of Manhattan?

          • Alon Levy

            No, of course not. But Wall Street is not a secondary destination.

            The argument for through-running with Lower Manhattan is different from that with Midtown, because Lower Manhattan can’t be served directly except by a through-station, since a terminal would need too many tracks to be viable. With Midtown, terminal running is feasible (it’s done now), just suboptimal.

          • Adirondacker12800

            because Lower Manhattan can’t be served directly except by a through-station

            Quick! Tell those silly people at the Port Authority and the MTA that they can’t be running terminal services into Wall Street, like they and their predecessors have been doing for over a century…. though the E train has only been doing it for 80 years give or take.

  11. ant6n

    One thing that wasn’t mentioned is that in S-Bahn systems, it seems that many close downtown stations also mean that passengers are spread across multiple stations. So it’s not only more convenient for people who can get closer to wherever they work, but the stations can be designed to be fairly minimal (i.e. two-track downtown segment, with one island platform at every station).

    The RER in paris tends to have two island plattforms at downtown stops, and the stations seem to be spacious as well, so this may be less of an issue.

    • Alon Levy

      Most urban stops have two tracks, with side platforms. Most of the ones that have four tracks and island platforms are the ones that host multiple lines, are on lines that don’t run through, or used to be terminals (e.g. on the RER C and E). What is true is that the RER stations are enormous – the platforms are long and wide, and the construction is a single vault, making the stations spacious and expensive.

      • ant6n

        Well, multiple lines converging is a feature of all S-Bahn systems, but they still only use two track stations. I believe one reason is the close station distances downtown, spreading the passengers across multiple stations. On the complete other end are North American commuter rail systems, that use only one station (usually a terminal station on top of that), and have to have huge complexes and still can’t deal with the passenger flows. The RER system is sort of in-between, but it seems generally the longer the interstation distance, the bigger the station (…ish).

        • Alon Levy

          The RER has multiple lines converging, too, but still, lines with different letters do not share platforms, and do not share tracks except for the B/D between Chatelet-Les Halles and Gare du Nord. Paris’s larger size requires more capacity, so more trunk lines are needed. Each trunk line usually gets just standard two-track stations, though.

  12. Zmapper

    For comparison, I have compiled the distances of two Western regional rail systems, Denver and Salt Lake.

    Denver EAST: Union Station 38th Colorado Stapleton Peoria 40th DIA

    It appears that stop spacing averages about 2 miles in the urbanized area. The 10 mile gap between 40th Street and DIA is because there isn’t a whole lot there but cornfields, but if it is developed two stations will be added.

    Denver GOLD: Union Station 43rd Pecos Federal Sheridan Arvada Old Town Arvada Ridge Ward

    The Gold line stop spacing is about 1.5 miles apart on average, which is rather short for regional rail and more characteristic of rapid transit.

    Salt Lake: Salt Lake North Temple (future) Woods Cross Farmington Layton Clearfield Roy Ogden

    Salt Lake city uses much wider stop spacing, closer to 5 miles average. If anything, the diesel engines make acceleration harder, which forces them to move the stations further apart to maintain acceptable speed.

    (Off topic) On a side note and because I suspect the readers here are interested in it, SimCity 5 has just been announced. It will be developed by Maxis and is expected to be released in 2013.
    http://www.simcity.com/en_US?intcmp=EACom_simcityannounce_latest_0312

    • Zmapper

      WordPress deleted my formatting, so that is why it looks like I just named off stations. It looks like I will have to make a table.

  13. ardecila

    Metra’s actually considered electrification in a very non-committal way. Last year they hosted a workshop where they invited people from Caltrain, Denver RTD, GO, and MTA to come and discuss the issues. Various speculation has concluded that the Rock Island is the natural guinea pig because of its lack of freight, Metra ownership, and close station spacing on the South Side.

    http://rtachicago.com/index.php?Itemid=327

    • Nathanael

      Extremely non-committal. Metra can’t be talked into operating their existing electric line with good frequencies within the city, so….

      …anyway, I’m guessing this gets back to the tax structure where Metra is funded entirely from outside the City, so it feels it shouldn’t provide service within the City.

  14. Nathanael

    Oh God. I totally agree with this.

    The “express out of town” behavior of many commuter rail lines in the US is bad enough. But it gets worse when you look at how they TREAT the in-city stops. Here, the LIRR is the worst offender, with the stops inside NYC (apart from the termini) being hideously rundown, but Metra’s attitude towards Metra Electric stops is almost as bad.

  15. Pingback: What’s a Subway/El? | Pedestrian Observations
  16. Pingback: Put Chicago on the path to an electrified Metra | Grid Chicago
  17. Purple City

    Why are the needs of urban riders more important than the needs of suburban riders? Every stop you add in the core/inner ring degrades performance for outer-suburban riders, unless you’re adding more tracks – at which point you’ve lost the cost benefit over rapid transit expansion.

    The entirety of UP-W east of Oak Park is within the walkshed of the Lake L. UP-N south of Lawrence is duplicated by the Ravenswood, and the long gap between there and Rogers Park happens because any station would lose half its walkshed to Rosehill Cemetery. UP-NW duplicates the Kennedy L, BNSF duplicates the Douglas L, and the Milwaukee District lines drop to 1-mile spacing as soon as they cross North Avenue.

    Adding stations, then, couples a marginal increase in utility for urban riders with a substantial disutility for suburban riders. There’s also potential knock-on effects; the harder it is to get from Palatine to the Loop, the more likely it is that the Palatine riders will just move the office to Schaumburg. That kills transit entirely, since you’ve just traded a bunch of radial rail for a 30-minute PACE bus route.

    • Alan Robinson

      While many of Metra’s tracks do parallel the El network, they don’t connect with it either physically or in the fare structure. Adding Metra stations at important transfer points (and fare integration) is not of only marginal utility to either suburban, urban, or reverse-commuting customers. As long as Metra acts as an express for local services, reduced stop density in the city make sense, but right now, it doesn’t.

      • Purple City

        The transfer at Oak Park/Harlem between Metra UP-W and the Lake L is about as good as it gets. Likewise at Jefferson Park between Metra UP-NW and the Kennedy L, and between UP-N and Evanston L at Evanston-Davis. There’s probably a case for a spur off the Douglas L south to BNSF-Cicero, but that’s not a Metra problem, it’s a CTA problem.

        Heritage Corridor doesn’t count since the frequency is nonexistent, so that leaves you with (i) a Southwest Service stop in Englewood (not happening) and (ii) a three-way tie-up between Kennedy L, Milwaukee-N and UP-NW in the vicinity of the Kennedy/Edens split. That’s not a system that “doesn’t connect well to local transit” because it’s “treated as too special” (Alon’s words), that’s a well-designed system that nonetheless could see some improvements.

    • Alon Levy

      Because the urban and inner-suburban riders actually use the system all day. Commuter rail in the style of Metra, the LIRR, etc., is extremely peaky, which means there’s a lot of infrastructure and rolling stock being maintained for a couple of hours per day. This peakiness exists in urban services as well, but usually urban transit agencies can get away with a 1:2 service ratio between the base and the peak, whereas the BNSF Line’s ratio is 1:26, with one train every 2 hours in the midday off-peak compared with 13 inbound trains between 8 and 9 am.

      The problem is that if transit only tries to serve the trips that can’t possibly be made by car because of congestion or parking costs, it’s going to remain this peaky, and people will keep wanting their Stamford offices to avoid dealing with park-and-ride waitlists and such. To serve more trips, it needs to serve a greater variety of origins and destinations than just suburb-to-CBD. Once that happens, the frequency can be buffed all day, and ridership will grow, as people start taking transit to secondary job centers. As an example, the West Coast Express, the peak-only commuter train to Vancouver from Coquitlam and points east, gets 11,000 riders per weekday, but the Evergreen Line, which is about to serve Coquitlam more slowly, making local stops on what is now the Millennium Line, is projected to get 70,000. We also see this in outer-urban New York neighborhoods with both commuter rail service and subway service, like Wakefield and Far Rockaway: the commuter trains offer much faster trips to Midtown, but the subway gets 1-1.5 orders of magnitude more ridership.

      So adding stops and making Metra more like the RER would provide disutility to a narrow segment of potential suburban transit riders, but positive utility to the rest. The problem is that the rest of these riders aren’t riding commuter rail at all nowadays, because it’s so focused on peak commutes.

      • Purple City

        The major difference between the LIRR and Metra is that the LIRR has next to no freight traffic to speak of. The Chicago freight roads are bursting at the seams with coal and containers, which is why you have that 2-hour headway on BNSF. This may be less efficient from a railcar-utilization perspective, but Chicago solved that already; a single double-deck Metra coach can carry more riders than a six-car Mark I Skytrain.

        70,000 riders is a good reason to build the Evergreen Line; it’s not an argument against WCX. Consider, for example, what would happen if WCX were diverted onto the Evergreen Line (ignore technology). Maple Ridge, which was a pleasant, 50 minute single-seat ride ride, becomes an hour and five minute trek. With a transfer, natch.

        Characterizing Metra’s current peak-hour ridership as a “narrow segment of potential suburban transit riders” is such a ridiculous reframe that it borders on bad faith. The entirety of Chicago’s suburban sprawl has been built around the Metra network, for over 150 years. Chicago’s 300,000 peak-direction riders equal the all-day ridership of the entire Los Angeles Metrorail network. Metra makes Downtown Chicago possible.

        • Alon Levy

          I’m going to respond more fully in a new post, but,

          1. You’re right about freight on the BNSF Line, but many Metra lines have little to no freight, for examples UP-N and UP-NW. On UP-N, peak traffic is 7-8 tph, while off-peak (midday and weekend) traffic is every hour or two. So it’s not 26:1, but either 7:1 or 14:1. The LIRR does the same, with its next to no freight traffic: the Ronkonkoma Branch has 7 inbound tph peak (not all 7 go to Penn) and 1 off-peak, the Port Jefferson Branch has 15-16 at the peak and 3 off-peak, the Babylon Branch has 14 at the peak and 3 off-peak. Compare this with the RER A, which has 30 tph at the peak and 18 off-peak.

          2. Port Moody gets 25-minute service to Waterfront, and Coquitlam gets 30-minute service. The Evergreen Line is going to take one minute less just to get to Commercial; if the transfer time is zero, this means replacing the 25-minute trip with a 33-minute one and the 30-minute trip with a 38-minute one. It’s a bigger difference than going from 50 minutes to 58 (let’s assume travel times are the same either way east of Coquitlam). And yet, despite the transfer, ridership projection is much higher than actual WCE ridership.

          3. Okay, so Chicago gets more rail ridership than Los Angeles, by far the most auto-oriented first-world megacity. It gets far less rail ridership than non-US first-world cities of the same size. Don’t compare it to LA – compare it to Paris and London. Chicago has peer cities with multiple millions of daily commuter rail riders, which is why I refer to 300,000 as a narrow segment. As for Metra making Downtown Chicago possible: most of Metra doesn’t even enter the Loop; in Chicago, as in many other cities, the CBD often stubbornly stays where it is, or orients itself around local rapid transit (as it did in Midtown Manhattan), and refuses to move to where the mainline train stations are.

          • Purple City

            I look forward to the new post.

            Metro Chicago is only 75% of Metro Paris, and that’s using the CSA definition which includes everything from Kenosha to Valpo. London is right out.

            But there’s another issue here in that most of the decent American transit cities are heavily-constrained by topography, which creates natural chokepoints that favor rail. See: Seattle, San Francisco, Boston, NYC. But Metra exists in the context of flat, cheap land and radial freeways that characterize sunbelt cities like Houston, Dallas, OKC, ATL, PHX – in other words, the places where Americans are actually relocating to.

            I brought up Maple Ridge intentionally. We are not arguing about whether or not better transit should be provided to inner-ring suburbs like Coquitlam; on this we agree fully. Rather, the entirety of the disagreement stems from whether it’s acceptable to add travel time/complexity to outer-suburban trips in exchange for increased patronage further in.

            I maintain that it is not; “peaky” suburb-to-city transit is integral to creating the sort of dense, central cities in which we both enjoy living, by allowing the suburbanites to locate their offices downtown.

  18. Pingback: Who Rides Commuter Rail? | Pedestrian Observations

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