Metra customers took to the new Ventra App in droves in 2016, and also enjoyed new service on the Rock Island and Heritage Corridor lines and a completely redesigned website aimed at getting them the information they need quickly and easily.
Safety and security also were enhanced this year. Metra launched a new police unit with a specific mission to ride trains, and entered into a partnership with Cook County that allowed us to put more police in the field. Metra also completed a major expansion of the agency’s Confidential Close Call Reporting System, a voluntary safety reporting system designed to proactively address safety issues and create a more positive safety culture. The agency was honored for the fourth consecutive year by the Association of American Railroads (AAR) for its safety initiatives.
“The safety of our customers has always been our highest priority,” said Metra Executive Director/CEO Don Orseno. “I'm very proud of our commitment to this priority in 2016, as well as our commitment to customer satisfaction and our ability to respond to feedback, both positive and negative.”
The Ventra App allows customers to buy and display tickets on their smartphones – putting a Metra ticket vending machine in the pocket of anyone who has a smartphone. Launched in late 2015, it became hugely popular with Metra customers in 2016. By the end of the year, about 30 percent of all tickets were being purchased via the app.
To top the year off, Metra experienced the busiest day in its history in November when Chicago celebrated the World Series victory of the Chicago Cubs. It provided more than 469,000 passenger trips that day.
Below is an overview of Metra's news in 2016.
- The Metra Board of Directors voted to permanently allow small pets in carriers on all weekend trains after a successful pilot program, which received overwhelming support from customers.
- Metra, Amtrak, the City of Chicago and the Regional Transportation Authority teamed up to procure a design study to help plan for improvements in Chicago Union Station. The improvements, outlined in the 2012 Chicago Union Station Master Plan, will address various issues within the station, which is the third busiest in the United States.
- Forty-four years after the debut of the original Highliner cars on the Metra Electric Line, the last six of them carried their final passengers from Chicago to University Park. Twenty-four of them were sent to museums for rail fans to view.
- Metra announced the creation of a new police unit whose primary mission is to patrol trains and stations, providing a visible law enforcement presence and deterring criminal activity on all 11 Metra lines. The new unit focuses its efforts strategically on areas where the need is greatest, and comes as part of a series of new initiatives aimed at making the Metra Police more efficient and responsive.
- Metra officials, CN Railway representatives and area leaders who campaigned for more service on the Heritage Corridor line celebrated the inaugural run of a new mid-afternoon departure from Chicago Union Station to Joliet.
- Metra announced a major expansion of the agency’s Confidential Close Call Reporting System (C3RS), giving it the most comprehensive safety reporting system of all commuter railroads in the nation.
- Metra and Operation Lifesaver began their season of safety blitzes, in which Metra safety employees distributed educational materials about train and grade crossing safety and addressed commuter concerns and questions. Forty-five train stations across the six-county region participated in the blitzes as part of Metra’s ongoing efforts to raise awareness of the importance of safe behavior around its trains and tracks.
- Eleven new cameras were installed on one car on the Metra Electric Line to test their functionality, location and range as part of a preliminary test to determine how camera technology can be used on Metra trains. Depending on the test results and potential grant funding, Metra could be in a position to recommend the purchase of additional cameras for the inside of its passenger railcars in 2017.
- Metra announced its 2016 capital program, which included about $200 million in infrastructure improvements to its stations, tracks, bridges and road crossings to ensure safe and reliable service and maintain a state of good repair systemwide.
- In accordance with Metra's series of initiatives to increase the efficiency and responsiveness of its Police Department, the Board approved two agreements with Cook County that allow the department to put more officers in the field and operate more effectively.
- Metra announced plans to launch a Small Business Enterprise (SBE) Program designed to increase the number of competitively awarded contracts to small businesses, maximize contract opportunities and minimize contract bundling. Metra’s Office of Diversity and Civil Rights works to certify businesses through its Disadvantaged Business Enterprise (DBE) Program and verify businesses through this new small business initiative.
- Metra announced that it doubled its team of employees who ride anonymously to observe and report on conductor and ticket agent performance, station amenities, customer interactions, conditions of the railcars and parking lots and the quality of platform announcements and ADA signage.
- For the fourth consecutive year, the Association of American Railroads (AAR) honored Metra for its safety initiatives. This year the organization singled out Metra’s Operation Lifesaver Safety Education and Outreach program, citing its efforts to educate many different audiences in northeast Illinois about the dangers of disregarding grade crossing warning devices and trespassing.
- Metra launched an upgraded website that includes a comprehensive schedule display, a new geographic train tracker and a new layout to help customers find the information they need quickly and easily. It also uses a new responsive design that scales web content to desktop, mobile and tablet formats. Aside from being more convenient for riders, the new website is also expected to save Metra 50 percent, or about $400,000 a year.
- The Board approved a one-year contract to evaluate the agency’s distance-based fare structure and fare products and recommend changes to Metra fare zones. Four Nines Technologies, a research firm contracted by Metra, conducted the required Federal Transit Administration (FTA) fare equity analysis and developed recommendations with a proposed action plan to ensure that Metra is best serving the region’s needs. The firm’s report is expected in 2017.
- After a successful six-month test using 12 railcars on all lines, Metra announced that it would add free cellular Wi-Fi hotspots to 50 more cars. A majority of customers in an online survey said they were satisfied with the quality of the connection during the test, and that the onboard Wi-Fi service met their expectations.
- Metra launched new express midday service on the Rock Island Line, speeding up the trip between suburban stations and downtown Chicago by 15 to 20 minutes. The changes were driven by the success of weekend express service launched in 2015.
- Metra received the final two cars of its 160-car order for the Metra Electric Line, completing a 2010 purchase to outfit the line with a completely new and modern fleet. Since 1984, Metra has invested $1.6 billion in the Metra Electric – the most of any of Metra’s lines in the agency’s six-county service area.
- Metra entered into a first-of-its-kind agreement with the City of Chicago’s Department of Transportation (CDOT), installing a Divvy station at its Grayland Station on the Milwaukee North Line. The Divvy station provides a convenient alternative to parking at the station, which offers 21 parking spaces. Metra’s Milwaukee North Line provides ready access to popular reverse-commute corridors in northern Cook and Lake Counties.
- Metra launched a Community Enhancement Program seeking partnership proposals from local community groups for enhancement projects, including art, landscaping and gardening projects, at its stations or other railroad property.
- Metra launched the 11th edition of its annual Safety Poster and Essay Contest, asking students to illustrate through posters and essays how and why they should “Keep Yourself(ies) Safe: Look, Listen Live” when near railroad tracks and crossings. Posters advertising the contest arrived at schools, libraries and local government centers across the region.
- Metra announced plans to test new real-time travel information digital screens at three of its downtown train stations and select suburban stations. The signs will provide customers with real-time train arrival and departure information, notice of train service disruptions, weather information, public service information such as Amber Alerts, and other emergency information. The signs will go up in 2017.
- Metra announced the completion of a $250,000 rehabilitation of the 111th Street/Pullman Station, including painting the new warming house in the colors of an historic Pullman train car to commemorate the neighborhood’s historic significance to the railroad industry.
- As part of the agency's commitment to working with small businesses, Metra hosted a networking event, intended for small businesses, including those that have received their Disadvantaged Business Enterprise (DBE) or Small Business Enterprise (SBE) certifications, where representatives from construction firms that hold or have held contracts with Metra answered questions during a panel discussion facilitated by Metra staff.
- Metra announced that it will use online auctions to sell used vehicles, heavy equipment and tools, railcar parts and other surplus items as they become available throughout the year. This is a new way for the agency to generate revenue as it attempts to achieve maximum cost efficiency.
- Metra experienced the busiest day in its history on Friday, Nov. 4 as Chicago Cubs fans celebrated the team’s first World Series win in more than a century, with more than 469,000 passenger trips.
- Metra and Union Pacific Railroad were contributing sponsors to Operation North Pole's annual train ride to see Santa for children with serious illnesses and their families. The charity has wrapped holiday-themed train cars and a locomotive for several years. The train will remain wrapped for the entire holiday season.
- Metra announced a rideshare partnership with Uber, identifying Uber as its preferred rideshare provider for connections to and from the agency’s downtown and outlying stations. It is the first time the commuter rail agency has entered into a marketing partnership that will not only generate non-fare revenue but will also help drive ridership by assisting customers who need a first-mile/last-mile connection.