1: The Problem:The Metra Electric does a good job at bringing people in from the south side, and it does double duty for the South Shore Line.
However, the line also does service for a couple of branches which could use greater service, but which are stuck with once-an-hour travel (if that much) because of the fact that they're branches of Metra and not the CTA. Not only that, but the mainline itself has a bunch of stations within Chicago itself that are desperately underserved.
Not only that, but Metra has no reason to increase service for locals along the Electric. It's main service is commuter and longer-distance travel between city and suburb (and maybe suburb to suburb if the "STAR Line" gets some legs); indeed with the turf wars going on between the CTA and Metra, such service wouldn't make sense. Hence the multitude of Express bus lines along where the Metra Electric runs.
Not only that, but there's now an active prospect of increased service in Indiana. Where that is going to be able to fit in is anyone's guess; right now NICTD is only allowed three trains per hour during Rush Hour and there's no more room for more. There's studies on how to overcome the bottleneck south of Kesington, but docking and storage of the trains is another question.
2: One Man's Solution:Mike Payne has come up with an intriguing idea (and probably the one that would be accepted in today's tight-wad world) called the Gray Line. His idea boils down to this:
- Retrofit some of the Electric cars with CTA decals, put CTA turnstiles in many of the underused stations
- Lease usage of the lines to CTA
- Run the Local Mainline tracks, the South Chicago branch and the Blue Island branch as the CTA Gray Line
A good idea. He claims it would be the cheapest line the CTA would get (as we're talking about a retooling of what's already there), plus service would be increased in places where it's most needed.
I do see a couple problems with this service, however:
- No integration with the rest of the CTA rail lines. The Gray Line would stay in its own area, with no real way (outside of buses or walking) to connect with the rest of the CTA network.
- No space for the South Shore trains to fit in. With the Electric trains now doing more runs, the Kensington bottleneck becomes more of a bottleneck, plus docking space becomes more of a premium (storage may be better, as now there'd be a few fewer cars at the Metra yard).
In short, the Gray Line blocks out Indiana for growth; indeed even for access. And while I'm sure there's plenty in NW Indiana who would like to see the South Shore Line disappear ("Just think what we could do with that extra $9.33 a year! A weekend's worth of cheap beer by the 24-pack!"), many others would like the convenience, ease and comfort a train into downtown Chicago or South Bend (or Valpo or Lowell) would give them.
- Why would we need the equivalent of six CTA cars running over an area that would actually be better served by a two-car train during certain times of the day or night? Think of it: Five hundred seats running four-six times over the period of an hour when a smaller train would give better, more comfortable service over that
time --while at the same time giving a more flexible connection that the present service could provide.
I think we can do better. I think we can integrate the Electric (even if just by a transfer point) into the CTA rail system. I think we can give better service without getting in the way of Metra's goal of Commuter/Travel service. And I think we can improve service without overusing trains meant for heavy loads and long hauls over short periods.