The Metra GPS Center occupies a wing of our headquarters building, kitty-corner from Union Station. It’s on a high floor but the view’s not great – unless you count the parking garage across the street. From this room, however, we can see every train on the Metra system across the six-county Chicago area.
We’re seeing them, of course, through the wonders of GPS technology. There in the center, workers monitor the trains on computer screens that not only show a train’s exact real-time location but also whether it is keeping to its posted schedule – and if not, how many minutes it’s behind. They can view the trains as a list, or see them superimposed over a route map, with each train represented as a triangle pointing in their direction of travel. To help monitor the train’s status, the triangle is green if the train is on time, yellow if it is experiencing minor delays and red if the delay is more than 10 minutes.
In rush hour there are generally seven front-line workers on duty, and between them they cover all 11 of Metra’s lines. Five of them sit in a row of cubicles indistinguishable from any other office, except they each have three or four computer monitors on their desks. The other two sit in a separate area and only cover the Metra Electric Line, because it is a busy line with two branches and because those workers also monitor a phone and video system unique to that line. If things get busy on one line, another worker or supervisor can step in to help.
The Metra Electric desk in our GPS Center also monitors a phone and video system unique to that line.
When a train is operating behind schedule, the train’s conductor and the GPS center worker will communicate by phone to determine the reason. As soon as the trains fall six minutes or more behind, the GPS operator will start making announcements onboard the delayed train and on the platforms where passengers are waiting.
He or she can do this in two ways. Usually they type a message, which is then turned into an automated audio announcement and posted on the Visual Voice of Metra – the scrolling signs in most stations and on many ADA-accessible cars. But they can also speak directly into a microphone at their desks and make a live announcement. In either case, they check boxes on a computer screen to select the stations where the announcements will be heard. It could be the whole line or just the scheduled stops that the delayed train hasn’t reached yet. Using a separate system, the announcement can also be sent to the train.
If the delayed train falls 15 minutes behind schedule, then we send an alert that warns riders the train is delayed, giving the length of the delay and the reason. They indicate the train number, but add the train’s scheduled departure from or arrival at the downtown terminus, since we know many riders do not know train numbers. With a few quick clicks, the alert is emailed to riders who have signed up for them, sent out on Twitter and posted on the Metra website, www.metrarail.com.
If we know about something that is going to delay more than one train – such as a grade crossing incident or a switch failure at a critical location – we will issue a “blanket” alert as soon as we know about it. We call it that because it covers the whole line, warning that all trains may be delayed. Our intent is to let you know about the potential disruption, even if we do not specifically know how it will affect individual trains.
We can try to estimate the length of the delay, but usually we cannot give you an exact time. That’s especially true with grade crossing incidents, when local investigating authorities take over the scene and dictate when train traffic can resume. Our police work with authorities at the scene to speed the process, but the decision is ultimately theirs.
We strive to make sure our alerts are timely and as accurate as possible. Unfortunately, an alert that is accurate the moment it’s sent can quickly become outdated as the situation changes. For instance, we may send an alert about a train that is 15 minutes late, but at that moment the train may encounter a switch that was clogged by ice and snow that fell from a train ahead of it. That will add to the delay and require us to send an updated alert.
Reasons for delays
Some reasons for delays – mechanical problems, medical emergencies, grade crossing incidents – are obvious, but others may require some explanation. What do we mean when we say a delay is due to...
This refers to anytime it takes longer than usual for loading of passengers. It could be an unusual number of passengers, a lot of passengers with luggage, strollers or bicycles, or the need to deploy the ADA lift an unusual number of times. It could be that passengers in winter are waiting in their cars or in the depots until the last possible moment, rather than waiting on the platforms as they usually do.
Late arrival of equipment?
Metra operates 709 trains a day, but that doesn’t mean we have 709 separate sets of equipment. Trains will typically run downtown as one trip (inbound trains are even-numbered) and then “flip” to go outbound (as an odd number), and vice versa. If the inbound train is late for any reason, the equipment will not be in place for the start of the outbound trip, so we say the outbound train was delayed due to late arrival of equipment. The equipment could also be delayed coming out of the yards.
Waiting on other trains?
This could mean that a train had to wait for another train to clear a single-track section, or it could simply mean there is congestion on the tracks ahead.
Freight train interference?
The level of freight traffic varies by line but most of them can see freight delays. About 500-600 freight trains operate through Chicago each day and maybe 65 percent of those trains touch us in some way, either by crossing tracks used by Metra trains or sharing tracks used by Metra trains. No other commuter railroad in the U.S. or Canada has such a complex interface with freight railroads. For a three-hour period twice each weekday, the general freight system in Chicago significantly curtails its operations in order to allow Metra to protect its peak period schedules, but some do attempt to move some of their traffic in the small windows between our trains. Even with these arrangements, we still must do a great deal of planning and coordination to keep things running smoothly at all times.