Transportation

The South Side’s Strange Train

Sandy Johnston on the past and future of the Metra Electric

This interview is republished from The Chicago Dispatch, an online magazine of interviews, essays, and creative work about Chicago, edited by Daniel Kay Hertz.

Sandy Johnston recently graduated from the University at Albany–SUNY, earning a Master’s in Regional Planning with a concentration in Transportation and a certificate in Urban Policy. Over the past year, he completed a master’s paper on commuter and regional rail in the United States and abroad, using the Illinois Central/Metra Electric as a case study. Sandy spent his high school years in Chicago (West Rogers Park, to be exact), and his family still lives there. He blogs at Itinerant Urbanist and can be found on Twitter.

So maybe we should start with this: What’s wrong with the Metra Electric today?

Not enough trains! I mean, that’s the really easy answer. The more complicated, broader one is that starting in the 1970s, and coincidental with greater public sector involvement in running the line, it was re-envisioned and transformed from a real rapid transit line to a “commuter” rail line.

And where there was once frequent operation all day, it became very specialized and focused on transporting suburban commuters on a nine-to-five schedule.

People in Chicago are sort of conditioned to think of the L and Metra as two completely different beasts, but in fact there is—or at least was—more overlap than you might think. What was Metra Electric service like, say, before World War Two?

Yeah. And to be fair, the commuter services today mostly look like they always have—except Metra Electric. The South Chicago branch had service every ten minutes (and every twenty on weekends and evenings) in 1946. There was a Rand McNally map in 1947 that included the Illinois Central (now Metra Electric) along with the ‘L’ lines as rapid transit.

And what about the differences in fares with the ‘L’?

The fares were pretty comparable right up until 1969. When the Dan Ryan line (the South Side Red Line) opened, IC lost a lot of ridership and started to raise fares.

So, just to summarize: Trains every ten minutes, which is roughly the same service as the Green Line today, and the same price as the L. That’s on the South Chicago branch, which runs close to the lake down to 93rd Street. What about the main branch?

Ah, that’s where you see the priorities flipping. In 1946, the main line had service every 40 minutes all day, plus additional peak service. In the ‘70s that increased to every 30 minutes all day, but since 1982 it’s been cut back to once an hour.

So you alluded to the fact that the Metra Electric lines were owned and operated by a private, for-profit company until relatively recently. Of course, the L lines were too, originally, but they switched over to public ownership earlier. How important is that fact?

That’s a good question. I think there was a lot more populist attention to the “surface” lines (streetcars, then buses), which were a huge source of political tension and even violence in Chicago, and the ‘L’, than there was to the “mainline” railroads that are today’s Metra lines. And a lot of that had to do with class dynamics that go back way further than we might think. The Illinois Central trains were seen as being for the rich as far back as the 1880s.

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How did the Metra Electric come to be the public transit of the rich, and why did that matter? Especially when the difference in fares was pretty small.

I know the IC made a major push in the 1920s when they modernized and electrified the line to present it as high-class and luxurious, but the reputation goes back farther than that. I think some of the South Side neighborhoods the IC served were, at one point, among Chicago’s elite, though it’s hard to think of them that way now.

And one of the advantages of the IC was that it extended well past the end of the South Side ‘L’ (today’s Green Line), reaching into areas that were perhaps colonized by wealthier folks more tolerant of a long commute in return for more rural living.

So if Metra Electric was the train for the elite, why has its service declined so precipitously?

Well, I think the “eliteness” declined a lot starting around the time it was electrified and modernized, actually. Those neighborhoods began to change.

Right. It was the 1960s when white flight really began in earnest in South Shore. Was IC’s ridership ever mixed-race?

Unfortunately, I don’t have data on that. Some of the 1970s planning documents imply that by the late 1960s it was largely black, which makes sense given that even some of the suburbs the IC served (Harvey, etc.) were and are heavily black.

And especially after the war, as in other places in Chicago, the racial transitions were incredibly rapid. So there was less incentive to preserve good service, because the people living in those neighborhoods didn’t have the same kind of voice. At the same time, the southern suburbs were exploding—everything from Homewood south. And those people did have a voice, and were vocal about re-orienting service to fit their needs.

So ironically, the transition from private to public allowed the railroad’s governance to become captured by a smaller, whiter, richer group. Could you talk a little about the sort of institutions of governance that allowed that to happen?

Yes, I would argue that’s accurate. “Commuter rail” has always been white and wealthy, but you’d think public ownership would mitigate that, and if anything it’s intensified the dynamic.

As for governance, I think you have to look at the Regional Transportation Authority as a really sadly dysfunctional institution. There really was a tension between the RTA and CTA from the very beginning, where they were competing for riders and funds rather than trying to create a system that worked together.

This isn’t a Chicago thing—it’s pretty common in American transit. But I think by the point the RTA was created, there was already a sense of there being “city” and “suburban” interests, and each needing to protect their own. The idea that some assets crossed that line didn’t really penetrate anyone’s heads.

You say the death blows to Metra Electric as rapid transit were dealt from 1979 to 1981.

Yeah. I mean, it wasn’t just Metra Electric—the RTA had this huge fiscal crisis in 1981, and they hiked fares across the board. I think they doubled within 1981 alone. And the schedules were cut to essentially what they are today, which is the really damaging thing. They did recognize the special nature of Metra Electric and bring the fares way back down soon thereafter, but the damage was done.

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There are several different organizing campaigns to get the South Chicago branch reconverted to rapid transit. What would people on the South Side gain from that, and what are the barriers to doing it?

I think that’s a really hopeful development, that people are really interested in that today. The South Chicago branch is essentially a light rail line—it runs in the median of a city street! Service every two hours mid-day is absurd.

Let’s start with the barriers, then we can talk about the benefits. I think one of the biggest barriers is this dynamic of competition between Metra and the CTA. The beginning of the tailspin for the line was the opening of the Dan Ryan back in 1969, both because it took away a lot of traffic directly, and because a lot of South Side bus routes were restructured to exclusively serve the ‘L’.

But in the meantime, the CTA has, to their credit, developed some alternatives to the IC line that are pretty competitive. The express buses that use Lake Shore Drive are pretty time-competitive if traffic is decent, and the Jeffrey Jump bus runs frequently all day and has similar competitiveness.

CTA has zero incentive to help rehabilitate the Metra Electric line or feed passengers to it if it’s competing with one of their proudest achievements. You see this very clearly in the South Lakeshore transit study they did in 2012—they totally sandbagged the option of restoring frequent service on the Metra Electric.

They claimed it wouldn’t be cost efficient. You think they were wrong?

In a word, yes. There are a lot of problems with the study. You could start running more off-peak service tomorrow, with existing rolling stock, for zero capital cost. It wouldn’t be ideal, but you could do it. They said it would cost $350 million. And it uses CTA’s loading standards—which measure current ridership—to determine that there’s no need for more service, while not dealing with the fact that the line had four or five times more ridership historically [when it ran more frequently] than it does today.

So what about the benefits of actually doing the conversion?

The most obvious benefit is that bringing back rapid transit-style service could save a lot of people a lot of time. Right now, if you don’t have access to the J14 or one of the Lake Shore Drive buses, you have to slog over to the Red Line or the Green Line on a local bus. And we know how slow those can be. It would also be an immense benefit to the University of Chicago, which currently doesn’t have a rapid transit link.

And thinking beyond the South Chicago branch—restoring rapid transit on the Metra Electric main line would likely mean there’s no need to build the Red Line extension to 130th, which would save a billion dollars or two in capital costs. In other words, whatever investment you make in Metra Electric, if it avoids building the Red Line extension, it’s already paid for itself.

I also wouldn’t be surprised to see a building boom in South Shore if frequent service comes back. It probably wouldn’t be as aggressive as it has been in some places—black Chicago neighborhoods don’t really gentrify along the same lines as others—but that’s something to be considered, and won’t be popular with some people.

So given everything, do you see the Metra Electric reclaiming its old glory as a true rapid transit service?

I think it could. There’s a lot of momentum in that direction, and the logic is kind of self-evident. One thing that I find encouraging, but that will take work, is that the various activist attempts at making this happen have come from different perspectives. Some have come from the black community, some from advocates like the Center for Neighborhood Technology, and some from business and university interests. And it’s kind of disjointed, and interests might not fully align. So I think there’s a lot of work left to do there in terms of getting everybody on the same page.

But there’s one thing to remember, which is that Metra Electric is the only example in the country of a mainline rail line that was once run as rapid transit, and has since been reduced to commuter rail. Bringing back frequent service is restoring past glory, not doing something new—and that’s what I think the political messaging should be. Metra Electric is special, and it doesn’t fit into the paradigm that RTA and Metra have tried to fit it into for the last thirty-five years.

Thoughts on “The South Side’s Strange Train”

  1. Metra Electric mainline commuters were overwhelmingly white well into the 80’s. From the Riverdale stop south only the two stations in Harvey served largely black towns. Racial change really took off in the suburbs east of I-57 by the mid 80’s. Prior to that it was centered around Harvey with smaller long term black populations in Blue Island and Chicago Heights.

    I mostly took the express trains that skipped the majority of the city stops between Kensington and downtown and I have no experience with the South Chicago branch.

  2. While there may be enough equipment to increase the frequency of service on the Metra Electric, it is not a free ride by any stretch of the imagination. There is the added cost of paying the crews to operate those trains, and would require hiring additional personal to achieve that level of service.

    All of Metra’s commuter operating fall under the jurisdiction of the Federal Railroad Administration, which prescribes everything from the maximum number of hours operating personnel can work to the daily mandatory inspection of rail cars and locomotives. The majority of the Electric fleet (all powered and considered locomotives) undergoes rigorous daily inspections as well as servicing and cleaning. The equipment available for increased service is restricted by these factors.

    The reduction of trains from the historic peak of the late 1800’s into the post World War II period was due to a number of factors. The onset of the Depression following the electrification of the line impacted employment and ridership. Ridership rose during the war, but again plummeted as private automobile use put more people on the highways than on the trains. The construction of the Interstate highway system, that included Chicago’s expressways, further drained the customer base from the commuter rail system. The construction of the Dan Ryan median rapid transit system affected both the Illinois Central and the Rock Island commuter services. The loss of the industrial base, especially the South Chicago steel mills and other manufacturing operations in Pullman, West Pullman, Riverdale and Harvey, also impacted passenger volume.

    The IC continued to operate the Electric service at a marginal profit by instituting cost cutting measures. The much loathed electronic ticketing with the automatic gates was one of those. Perceived as racist (because the other commuter lines did not have it), it was merely an attempt to hold down fares. The purchase of new Highliner cars in the 1960’s was in fact underwritten via the creation of the South Suburban Mass Transit District. The SSMTD received federal funds which were matched by the Illinois Central. They replaced the original cars from 1929 that had long outlasted their predicted service life. The newest cars now on the line replaced those Highliners that had also long exceeded their estimated operating lifespan.

    Chicago’s commuter service also declined with the fortunes of the railroads that operated them. The legislation creating the RTA essentially saved commuter rail in the region, and set a path for modernizing and improving service. Metra would eventually become the entity responsible for commuter rail service. Metra’s budget is available to the public, and while it is a dry read, it shows how the money is allocated for everything from the cost of service to improvements. Improvements on the Electric Line included new stations in Hyde Park and the South Chicago Branch. Station improvements are currently underway within Chicago and the suburbs.

    The biggest problem for mass transit operations anywhere in the United States is the lack of public funding and the political will to provide it. Metra operates on a budget that consists of tax dollars collected by the RTA and fare box recovery. When fare or tax revenue drops the cost of operations is affected. Money meted out by the federal government is restricted to capital projects and cannot be used to subsidize actual operation of the trains. The carrot and stick approach, adding trains and possibly increasing ridership or spurring new developments in disadvantaged communities, is a tall order for a transit system with finite funds. Developers go where the profits are. Hyde Park with the U of C and a high income demographic is booming. Other South side neighborhoods do not offer those enticements, no matter how many trains you run to them every day.

    Academics and community groups have the luxury of looking at a problem and proclaiming a solution without looking at the cost of bringing it to fruition. In a world of unlimited funding it would all be doable. We do not live in that world.

  3. Seems like one of the biggest barriers is the grand bargain struck between Jane Byrne and Gov. Thompson in the 1982 RTA funding crisis, which split up the unified RTA and gave city sales tax revenue to CTA and suburban revenue to Pace and Metra. From a monetary point of view, city residents simply aren’t Metra’s constituents.

  4. I grew up in Chicago, on the South side, in the 1950’s near the corner of E. 47th Street and Lake Park Avenue. This put the backyard of our apartment building right next to an embankment, atop which sit the 6 tracks of the Illinois Central Railroad.
    The outermost, or East tracks were for freight and passenger trains (City of New Orleans).
    But the remaining 3, Westernmost tracks are for commuter rail, powered by overhead electrical wires. The one closest to my backyard was used for “express” rail service. It began it’s journey from downtown Chicago and didn’t stop until it reached 53rd. Street, as I recall, about 7 miles distant. This was a fast moving train and was probably travelling around 50 or 60 mph by the time it blew past the 47th Street station.
    As kids, we were always admonished not to play on the tracks, so of course, that’s exactly what we did every chance we got. Having railroad tracks with kids playing on and around them inevitably leads to somebody putting something on the tracks to see what would happen when the train ran over it.
    One day, I even decided to lay down between the tracks and let the train roll over me. I was sure I would be unharmed and have a fantastic tale to tell. Thankfully for me, I chickened out as I saw the train rapidly approaching. That very well may have been the birthday of my “common sense”, although I was still not using it.
    Leaving the idea of self sacrifice behind, we nevertheless would put small stones on the tracks and watch in fascination as the trains pulverized them into powder. Once in awhile, we’d put a penny on the tracks, but being 9 and 10 year old kids from working class families in the mid 1950’s, pennies were not to be sacrificed lightly.
    Gradually, the stones became larger as our experiments in destruction became more inquisitive. No problem, it seemed the trains were more than able to handle the situation.
    Little did we know, the engineers and conductors of those trains were taking notice.
    Eventually, we put a brick on the tracks. To our amazement, it too wound up as mere dust. One brick led to two, then three, then four. By the time we had witnessed four bricks being destroyed, I honestly think the train was close to derailment. I saw the wheels jump up off the track, but because it was not along a curve, they came down again without incident.
    I mentioned the engineers and conductors were taking notice.
    The locations of these destructive and as I later realized, possibly deadly pranks was about a half a block south of the 47th Street station. The express trains which were the focus of our lunacy did not stop there, but other trains did. So we were used to seeing trains stop at the station and then move on, apparently paying no attention to us playing illegally on railroad right-of-way. We were wrong.
    The tracks are built atop an embankment that drops off at about a 45% slope on the West side, ending at a low stone retaining wall. For most of it’s length, the wall is about 4 feet high on the side opposite the embankment. But in some areas, due to the elevations of the backyards it bordered, it would be as much as 10 ft. high. The buildings and houses that used to be there with Lake Park Avenue addresses have all been torn down now, but when I was a child, it was one backyard after another along that wall, many of them behind apartment buildings with gangways that afforded passage to the street.
    This, of course, was our escape route, should the police ever show up to chase us off the tracks, as they did occasionally. Because of this, we always watched along the wall to see if a blue uniform with a “star” showed up. We didn’t know the threat would come from the opposite direction.
    One day, while scheming our next potential felony, a “local” train approached the 47th Street station, screeching to a stop. Nothing unusual. After a brief pause, the train began to roll again, still, quite normal.
    But while still accelerating and when the train was opposite us and 2 tracks away, we heard the screeching of brakes. Looking up, we saw the engineer’s door fly open and a guy wearing a jacket, tie and pork pie hat jump out of the train an onto the track bed, hitting the ground running straight at us. A Railroad Dick.
    My father had been a hobo at one time during his youth and had ridden the “rails” on trains back and forth across the country. He told me stories of the “snow sheds” that shielded the tracks from drifts in the Rocky Mountains, the long stretches of track in New Mexico, the Union Pacific tracks at Raton Pass, the yards at San Francisco and the huge locomotive turn tables in Baltimore, but most of all, he told me about the Railroad Dicks.
    “God help you if you ever get caught on railroad property by a Railroad Dick”, he told me. “They have their own brand of justice and the police and courts are not part of it.” Long story short, getting caught by them was usually a fast ticket to the hospital emergency room.
    Bearing this in mind, we immediately took off down the embankment toward one of our favorite escape routes. This put us atop the aforementioned stone wall at a place where it was about 10 feet high from the yard below. The way we got down was to grab the limb of a tree that grew next to that wall on the private side. Swinging forward, we knew from experience, the limb would bend just enough to put the weight of a kid within a foot of the ground. You let go, it sprang back up and the next kid did the same.
    One by one, we swung down off the wall to the ground and took off toward the street. This was our neighborhood. We knew every vacant lot, garbage can, gangway and alley in it. Once there, we could vanish without a trace.
    The Railroad Dick was not so fortunate. He arrived at the top of the stone wall and apparently thinking it was only about 4 feet high, as most of it was, he didn’t break stride and casually jumped.
    I was the last kid to hit the ground, so when the Dick reached the wall, I was only about 20 feet ahead of him. As I ran through the gangway toward the street, the last thing I heard from behind me was “Oh, God***n, then a loud, painful sounding thud.
    I kept on going and never looked back.
    That was the end of our railroad “experiments”. We abandoned the friendly confines of the Illinois Central Railroad right-of-way for other haunts and to this day, I wonder what happened to that guy.

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