Riders wincing as Metra service cuts, fare hikes loom
Metra's raised fares three years in a row and might approve a fourth hike Friday, but leaders are combining the hit with service cuts, a move that cuts some riders to the quick.
The railroad's popular Union Pacific and BNSF routes are spared, but the North Central Service, Milwaukee North, SouthWest Service and Rock Island lines will see some consolidations or cancellations.
Metra leaders think the railroad has no choice given a $45 million shortfall it attributed to funding cuts and growing expenses.
But plans to consolidate trains are causing consternation among some passengers.
"Are they increasing the number of train cars? How much time will this add to (commuting time)?" asked Sheldon Spector, who takes the North Central Service weekdays from Buffalo Grove to downtown Chicago.
He's not the only one steamed as the railroad anticipates raising fares as high as 12.6 percent with costs of a monthly pass from Arlington Heights or Lisle, for example, spiking by $10.50 to $195.75.
"We are in the worst financial crisis for transit in Chicago since horse cars started operating" in the 1800s, Chairman Norman Carlson said during an October budget hearing.
But rider Maureen Alberts of Arlington Heights was fed up. "I'm very upset," she said. "It's going up $10 and we have to beg to get a seat or I'm sitting on the stairs? Get better service, get more trains so we don't have to beg for a seat."
Meanwhile, service reductions on the North Central Line are a disappointing regression for Buffalo Grove residents like village Trustee Jeffrey Berman. He complained to Metra the railroad had broken its promises by cutting back on trains.
On the North Central Service between Antioch and Chicago, two rush-hour trains would be eliminated and rolled into two other semi-express trains in the morning and afternoon. That would increase travel times by seven minutes on one morning run from Lake Villa to Union Station.
"I've been riding Metra for 12½ years. I haven't seen anything change," Spector said. "The only thing that's changing are the rates. When I started a monthly pass was around $120, now it's over $200. It's still better than driving ... but delays are constant. If we're paying for something, let's see something."
Metra spokesman Michael Gillis said "we certainly do not relish the idea of cutting service, but our funding issues leave us few options."
The change "would allow us to eliminate one train crew along with additional savings related to fuel consumption and equipment utilization. ... We understand the popularity of the current "skip stop" service, but we must also weigh the substantial savings from eliminating a train and its crew versus a short lengthening of a customer's total commuting time."
Gillis explained Metra would offer eight cars on a consolidated North Central Service morning train instead of 11 cars on the two current trains, and eight cars on a consolidated evening train instead of nine on two trains, and Metra would adjust that if needed.
Metra's operating budget that includes salaries and equipment is $797 million in 2018 compared to $781 million in 2017.
About $30 million of Metra's shortfall is caused by higher costs, including about $23 million in employee-related expenses such as salaries.
Another $15 million is a result of cuts in state aid, government fees and lackluster sales tax receipts.
Here's a look at other changes to go into effect Feb. 1, 2018, if board directors vote in favor on Friday.
• On the Milwaukee North Line, which runs between Fox Lake and Chicago, service would scale back to 20 trips instead of 24 on Saturdays and 18 trains instead of 20 on Sunday.
• On the Rock Island Line serving the South suburbs, three trains would be eliminated.
• Ten-ride passes' rates would go up from 8 percent to 12.6 percent; a rider charged $58.50 now would pay $64.25 to travel between Chicago and Arlington Heights or Lisle (Zone E).
• A one-way ticket would cost 25 cents more in all zones.
• Weekend passes would grow to $10 from $8 but would be valid starting on Fridays after 7 p.m. in addition to Saturday and Sunday.
In February this year, Metra raised fares by 5.8 percent. Fares have shot up by about 18.6 percent cumulatively since early 2015.
• Daily Herald photographer Joe Lewnard contributed to this report.