You're raising my fares! What do I get back? Metra riders ask

  • Rush-hour Metra trains are packed with passengers, and many would prefer their fare increases be used for additional cars.

      Rush-hour Metra trains are packed with passengers, and many would prefer their fare increases be used for additional cars. Daniel White | Staff Photographer

  • Metra Conductor Dean Cerny, left, prepares to leave a stop with Elgin Road Foreman Rob Tellin, right, on train No. 2226 heading to Union Station in Chicago.

      Metra Conductor Dean Cerny, left, prepares to leave a stop with Elgin Road Foreman Rob Tellin, right, on train No. 2226 heading to Union Station in Chicago. Daniel White | Staff Photographer

  • New Metra fare increases go into effect this Sunday.

      New Metra fare increases go into effect this Sunday. Daniel White | Staff Photographer

  • After working the morning rush hour, Metra conductor Tom Cross waits to board an outbound Milwaukee West line.

      After working the morning rush hour, Metra conductor Tom Cross waits to board an outbound Milwaukee West line. Daniel White | Staff Photographer

  • Anne Hedleston

    Anne Hedleston

  • Stacey Horcher

    Stacey Horcher

  • Scott Jacobson

    Scott Jacobson

  • Paralegal Jason Manola rides Metra train No. 2226 to Union Station, preferring the solitude of standing between cars.

      Paralegal Jason Manola rides Metra train No. 2226 to Union Station, preferring the solitude of standing between cars. Daniel White | Staff Photographer

 
 
Updated 1/30/2015 10:03 AM

If I'm paying $21 more a month for Metra, could I at least count on a heated train car? And could it be on time?

Those are the points Metra riders made to the Daily Herald with a fare hike looming Sunday. Passengers knew they can't dodge the hit to their wallets, but many wanted something tangible in return, such as more trains, Wi-Fi and seat-hog interventions.

 

The fare increase averages 10.8 percent and is needed to provide more reliable and comfortable service, Metra directors said. For a monthly pass holder traveling between Chicago and Arlington Heights or Lisle, as an example, it means paying an additional 14 percent or $21.50 per month.

The higher rates are the beginning of a decade of proposed fare hikes to pay for an ambitious $2.4 billion capital program and 3 percent annual cost-of-living increases for workers.

Wheeling commuter Stacy Horcher characterized the change as an "unfair fare increase." But since it's inevitable, she wishes conductors could be more proactive with rude passengers.

"I would like to see conductors manage people who spread beyond the single seat they have paid for a bit more proactively so that commuters don't have to brave those conversations unassisted," Horcher said.

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"Seat-hogging is a problem that we have addressed many times over the years," Metra spokesman Michael Gillis said. "We periodically remind our crews to be vigilant about this issue and we will do so again. We encourage riders to alert their train crew if they need assistance with passengers who refuse to move their things."

Here's a look at other things riders want -- and the responses from Metra:

Trash-free trains

Union Pacific Northwest Line rider Anne Hedleston finds when she boards in Mount Prospect her train "often has trash all over the floor upstairs. I would certainly hope for clean, quality service for the additional 16 percent I'm paying for my Zone D ticket," Hedleston said.

"When a train comes into a station and quickly 'flips' in the other direction, we try to pass through the train to at least pick up garbage left behind by the earlier passengers before letting new passengers board, but this is not always possible due to the time allowed between flips," Gillis said.

Trains get a thorough cleaning twice a week, Gillis noted, plus limited overnight cleaning, including picking up trash, wiping up spills and some additional work.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

Warm cars

Commuter Robert Stoll wants "a better ride experience. Currently, the passenger experience is average to poor. Incredibly, there have been a handful of occasions over the last two winters of cars not having any heat whatsoever, which is inexcusable," he said.

"Heat is turned on and checked when trains are parked in the yard, but there are times when the heat fails en route," Gillis explained. "The crew can attempt to reset the heat, but if they cannot get it working, then they report the failure so the car can be inspected and repaired as soon as possible in the maintenance yard."

Room to sit

Justin Jarczyk, who boards the Milwaukee West Line in Wood Dale, wants more cars during rush hour, noting his 8:23 a.m. train is packed. "It's hard for the conductors to collect tickets and for riders to commute while standing in the vestibule," he said.

"Eventually, when we increase our fleet, we will be able to add cars to many trains where necessary," Gillis said. "Right now, however, we use virtually every car we own during the rush periods. In some cases, trains are already at their maximum length, and on some lines we will need to increase our yard capacity to add cars."

Wi-Fi when?

Several riders asked when Metra will deliver on its promise of Wi-Fi.

Metra asked Wi-Fi providers in 2014 to submit proposals to install the service at no cost and is now reviewing those, Gillis said.

Announcements

SouthWest Service Line commuter Debra Studzinski hates being kept in the dark about mysterious delays. "It does not cost Metra a penny to have conductors make announcements about delays," she said.

"We completely agree and we are constantly reminding our crews that it is their job to keep our customers informed during service disruptions, even if they have to announce that they have no new information to convey," Gillis said.

More service

North Central Service rider Scott Jacobson wants Metra to offer more trains on his line, noting, "I don't think we have enough service."

"Metra does not own the tracks over which the North Central Service operates," Gillis said. "They are owned by CN, and our agreement with them allows us only to operate our current schedule."

But overall, service expansions are unaffordable now, Metra leaders have said.

About 54 percent or $1.3 billion of Metra's $2.4 billion improvement is unaccounted for.

Metra does intend to borrow $100 million this year that will pay for a portion of the $1.2 billion total for 367 new train cars. The agency will also rehab older cars.

"Passengers will see rehabbed cars immediately -- we have had that program underway for several years and we do about two to three cars a month. New cars take longer to order and have built, so we would not expect to see them for two to three years," Gillis said.

On-time performance

Milwaukee West Line passenger Jason Manola just wanted trains to be on time.

"We want trains to be on time, too," Gillis said, adding that improved or new cars and locomotives will reduce delays caused by mechanical problems.

"But much of the increase is due to rising costs, new costs, such as the federally mandated positive train control safety system, and our capital needs. We remain committed to achieving the best on-time performance each and every day."

Meanwhile, Brian Buchanan of Mount Prospect, a former daily rider who now uses Metra occasionally, thinks the increases make sense.

"To be safe and on time, you need to occasionally rebuild or replace locomotives, cars, track, bridges, signals, etc., which takes money," Buchanan said.

• Staff photographer Daniel White contributed to this report.

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