Sunday, December 15, 2019

Riding the SWS line

     Business took me to Oak Lawn on Friday. While the natural thing probably would have been to drive, driving across Chicago on a Friday afternoon did not seem a wise practice. So I took the Metra Milwaukee District North line from Northbrook to Union Station, reading the newspaper and eating green tea mints along the way. Then strolled from the North Concourse to the South, musing on the historic fact that Union Station is misnamed: it is not a station, in that no trains pass through. Rather, it is a terminal, in that all lines terminate here—11 Metra routes, plus Amtrak.
     Which is more than a matter of nomenclature: Chicago, since its earliest days, grew to greatness because it is transfer point, a place where routes end. First as a portage, where Native-Americans carried their canoes from the muddy trickle of the Chicago River to the slightly more substantial Des Plaines River. Then as a gateway West, to the rest of America. Then, for 100 years or so, trains stopped here. They had to; it was important to have the trains stop—24 tracks dead end at Union Station (a single "thru-track" allows out-of-service equipment to creep from North to Side sides and back; otherwise a train cannot physically pass on a route through Union Station)—so the locals could get their meathooks into whatever was aboard. If we could force airplanes to land here, we would—I suppose a dynamic O'Hare International Airport is our attempt, a hub that encourages changing planes.
    As a testimony to the power of habit, I've constantly used Union Station for 20 years, and thought I knew it: The Great Hall, the various wings, the Gold Coast Hot Dogs tucked way off in the netherlands, But I had never stepped onto the South Concourse. Never taken a Metra South (not from Union Station; I've taken the Metra Electric to Hyde Park out of the station in the basement of the Cultural Center. A fun jaunt to the University of Chicago). 
     I was surprised to find the South Concourse, not a mirror image of the North, but different. While North Siders plunged through a Stygian netherworld, where the station ceiling is a black void, literally falling down on their heads, South Siders have these way-cool peaked skylights. They have Burlington Northern rail cars, with the line's art deco lettering on the side. Their cars have WiFi.
     South Siders are always so aggrieved, I thought, recalling my colleagues from Beverly, Mount Greenwood, and points south. ALways griping about perceived slights, and the general Northern orientation of the city, despite the South Side being physically bigger. Protesting the way the country embraces the Cubs and ignores the Sox.
    And here, Metra-wise, they've got a far sweeter set-up. Natural light and WiFi. 
    The train left the station. I tried to read, but ended up plastered to the window, like a child, gazing at the unfamiliar territory rolling by between Union Station and 95th Street. A lot more above ground pools, which seemed a hint, to me, that South Side neighborhoods are perhaps a little more cohesive than North Side ones, a pool being a little wet social center you stick in your backyard to lure the neighborhood kids to your own.
     The Oak Lawn station looks very much like the Glenview Station: Metra of course wouldn't go to the expense of designing different train stations, but would use a pattern, and most travelers would only be familiar with their home station anyway. The Glenview and Oak Lawn stations have something in common besides design: both are the busiest stations on their routes outside of downtown, according to Metra, which keeps track of these things.
    Speaking of which (and yes, pun intended, keeping track) ridership was down last year 76.1 million trips, a fall of 3.2 percent from the year before, the lowest volume since 2005. A deeper dive into Metra data hints why: 56 percent of poll respondents report sometimes telecommuting, aka, working from home, and those that do work an average of 9 days, almost half the work month. 
    Couple that with the fact that 90 percent of Metra trips are workers on their way to jobs, and the wonder is that the numbers aren't lower. Of course technology helps as well: the Ventra app, launched in November, 2015, amounts for nearly 50 percent of ticket sales, which saves Metra printing and punching costs.
    What else? About 50,000 of those trips were police and fire fighters in uniform riding for free. A shame the working press isn't given the same perk, the way journalists are waved into museums in Europe. The average trip is 22.4 miles—nobody takes short hops on Metra—and peak month is August, at 6.7 million, a full million riders more than in December. Which strikes me as something of a mystery, maybe something for you to discuss on a Sunday. Both August and December are traditional vacation months, so you'd think ridership would be low in both August and December. Yet one is high, the other low. I wonder why.


  1. Enjoyed the column, as I always do.

    Union Station can't take the credit for Chicago's history as a "hub," though. It only dates to 1925. But the various passenger facilities it superseded were all terminals too: Dearborn Station, Central Station, Grand Central Station and La Salle Street Station. (And yup, they all called themselves "stations" too -- good point!)

    Our aggrieved commuters from Beverly and Mount Greenwood aren't using the south concourse though. Their Rock Island Metra line uses (what's left of) La Salle Street Station.

  2. The first theory that comes to mind to explain December’s lower ridership is the actual holiday of Christmas, which most workers have off. Many also have or take off at least one additional day. There is no holiday in August.

  3. Working at the Merc upstairs in the Eighties I never ventured beyond The Iron Horse, much less onto any platform. August is the last chance to hit downtown attractions before school resumes for those who have put off the trip all summer.

  4. August has the Air and Water show, December has Xmas.

  5. I used to fly to Indianapolis to teach a class and, returning my rental car, passed under a sign that always seemed a bit ominous: "Terminal Parking."


  6. Festivals. There are a gazillion in August. Lollopalooza for one. 400,000 attended this year. Less people working during December.


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