It's more than just a monthly pass. It's a taste of romance, of adventure and nostalgia.
The miniature works of art that make every Metra monthly pass pop come courtesy of graphic designer Ron Wojkovich and a team of ad hoc photographers and administrators with trains on the brain and in the heart.
The assignment sounds like an artist's dream -- create an eye-catching, evocative image 12 times a year that will be viewed by a captive audience of thousands.
The trick is doing it on a 2¼-by-4-inch canvas with a bar code at the bottom and a big black letter showing the zone smack-dab in the middle.
"It has to be compelling, it needs to fit vertically ... and you need an open space at the top, so you don't bump into the letter," Wojkovich explained.
The constraints haven't hampered the product, as shown by an eerie picture of a train under a full moon and a lightning bolt (October 2016), a bucolic scene of a locomotive chugging past a farm, or a muscular image of a worker welding railway tracks (both coming in 2018).
The monthly pass renaissance started in 2015. "I got the idea from the old 1920s and 1930s railway posters ... back in the day when everyone was traveling by rail," said Ken Ruminski, Metra's head of ticket services.
"I liked the Art Deco style that features those big, power iconic engines. I thought, let's give (riders) something to look at."
The move also marked a change from using consultants to bringing the project in-house. "I went to Ron and asked what he could do, and Ron ran with it," Ruminski said.
The revamped passes debuted in 2016. They've been a hit, but the audience doesn't miss a trick.
Social media lit up over the October moon and lightning bolt illustration as critics argued the combination defied reality.
Verisimilitude is nice, but "these are called photo illustrations for a reason," said Metra public relations manager Meg Thomas-Reile. "We put the moon in the thunderstorm shot because we needed a place to put the letter."
All the illustrations originate from actual photos, the collective effort of an eclectic team including coach cleaner Mark Llanuza and roadway engineer Tim Pitzen, who bring their cameras to the job, plus Ruminski, Thomas-Reile and others.
"I've started to make a collection of my own photographs of skies," Wojkovich said. "If I'm coming home on the train and see a cool sky, I take a picture, or if I'm going to the beach, or a football game or driving down the highway."
In one case, a photo of a train "was nice but had a boring background ... it was just flat," Wojkovich explained, adding that he popped in an image of towering, layered clouds.
The series has been a learning experience that's gotten a lot of attention from front-line workers to executives.
The team has learned to create pictures that differ significantly from month to month on the advice of conductors who need to scan passes quickly and ensure they're bona fide.
In the welder illustration, Wojkovich painstakingly tinkered with the image to ensure it was apparent the worker was following federal safety guidelines.
And in an odd coincidence, the July pass featuring the historic 115th Street station on the Rock Island Line became a keepsake after the facility burned down in May.
Wojkovich came from a family where "everybody ... could draw." He studied graphic arts in college, received a master's degree in medical illustrations and counts among his body of work pictures of pharmaceuticals reacting in the human body.
Now he's evoking a golden age of rail travel, but "these are real pictures and these people actually work for Metra ... it's a workforce we're really proud of."
You should know
Ventra cards that debuted in 2013 are expiring, and the CTA is offering a new version available now. To find out if your card is expiring and where to get a new one, go to www.ventrachicago.com. Cards are sold at Jewel-Osco stores as well as at CTA stations.
One more thing
I'm getting lots of questions about I-PASS transponders and motorcycles.
You've got to have one, the tollway says, and it "can be mounted on the inside of the windshield, on the handle bars, over the gauges, or on the gas tank."
Got a transportation comment or question? Send emails to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Metra holiday trains
Trying to get home from downtown this Thursday or Friday? Metra will adjust some schedules to allow for early afternoon getaways.
Taking Metra into the city for New Year's Eve? The last trains will depart between 1:10 a.m. and 1:25 a.m. Alcohol on board is prohibited after 7 p.m. on New Year's Eve. For info, go to metrarail.com.