With COVID-19, taking shelter gets complicated for chilly Metra riders

  • Passengers wait for Metra trains Friday in Arlington Heights. One added concern amid the pandemic is keeping riders not only protected from the elements, but also socially distanced.

    Passengers wait for Metra trains Friday in Arlington Heights. One added concern amid the pandemic is keeping riders not only protected from the elements, but also socially distanced. Brian Hill | Staff Photographer

  • A rider waits on the Metra platform Friday in Arlington Heights. Metra, which has seen a big drop in passengers during the COVID-19 pandemic, encourages all riders to wear masks.

    A rider waits on the Metra platform Friday in Arlington Heights. Metra, which has seen a big drop in passengers during the COVID-19 pandemic, encourages all riders to wear masks. Brian Hill | Staff Photographer

  • Passengers board a Metra train Friday in Arlington Heights. With winter weather coming, the urge is to stand close to strangers for warmth. But health experts say that's not safe in the COVID-19 eara..

    Passengers board a Metra train Friday in Arlington Heights. With winter weather coming, the urge is to stand close to strangers for warmth. But health experts say that's not safe in the COVID-19 eara.. Brian Hill | Staff Photographer

 
 
Posted11/16/2020 5:30 AM

Here's another COVID-19 mind bender for public health officials with winter on the doorstep: How do you keep public transit riders safe from the elements -- and socially distanced amid a pandemic?

That dichotomy hit Travis Weidman in late October.

 

"As I stood at the Metra station in Crystal Lake waiting to get on the train, myself and several others were packed nearly shoulder to shoulder under the shelter because of the cold temperatures and high winds," the Union Pacific Northwest Line regular said.

Metra commuter Travis Weidman is concerned about how passengers can stay warm and socially distance this winter. He took this photo on a cold day in late October at the Crystal Lake station, where he said about 14 people were sheltering close together.
Metra commuter Travis Weidman is concerned about how passengers can stay warm and socially distance this winter. He took this photo on a cold day in late October at the Crystal Lake station, where he said about 14 people were sheltering close together. - Courtesy of Travis Weidman

"This is seemingly a significant risk to not just my own health but the health of other commuters."

As COVID-19 cases and positivity rates break records in Illinois, huddling with strangers for warmth definitely is not what health experts advise.

"During this pandemic, we recommend people avoid public transportation as much as possible," Illinois Department of Public Health officials said. "If that is not possible, we would like to remind people that the closer they are in contact with other people and for a longer duration of time, the greater the risk of virus transmission."

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And "we would not recommend that people rely on others, who could be infected with COVID-19, for warmth this winter," Lake County Health Department spokeswoman Hannah Goering said.

"Dress in layers for warmth and find a place shielded from the wind when waiting at a bus stop or platform. Maintain 6 feet of distance and wear a mask any time you're around people who don't live in your household."

Many municipalities operate Metra stations, including Buffalo Grove, where "our station is open as a warming shelter," Village Manager Dane C. Bragg said.

"We ask everyone to observe social distancing and mask guidelines when they are inside of the facility. Since Metra ridership has been very low since the COVID-19 pandemic began, we don't anticipate the need to add additional warming shelters at the present time," he said. "If we see ridership start to increase again during the winter months, we would evaluate some outdoor 'patio heating' systems for use."

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

In Naperville, "we do not have any plans to provide additional shelters at the station," Mayor Steve Chirico said. "Commuter ridership on the BNSF line remains low, and, based on our recent commuter survey, we expect this trend to continue through the winter months."

Metra planners reported last week that ridership has tanked by about 90% compared to a year ago. In Hanover Park, there have been just four to seven cars in the station parking lot -- a problem because parking revenues help with the upkeep of the facility.

"This has us revisiting our snowplowing contract, and we have cut back significantly," Mayor Rod Craig, a Metra director, told the Daily Herald.

He raised the issue at a Friday Metra board meeting.

"All I'm asking is that we give some thought to keeping people spread out with this cold weather coming forward," Craig said.

But Metra Executive Director Jim Derwinski said that "with low ridership, physical distancing isn't much of a concern,"

"We encourage all passengers to wear their masks. We will keep the stations sanitized. We will keep doing everything in our power to keep the trains on time," he said. "We'll make sure our heaters are working where we have heaters; not all stations have that."

Even at 10% of ridership, that's still more than 25,000 people on the system daily. And if this winter holds true to norms, passengers can expect weather-related delays. For example, just one ice chunk falling into a track switch can turn a brief wait outside into a long, cold ordeal. How's your commute on Metra? Drop an email to mpyke@dailyherald.com

Gridlock alert

Watch out for slowdowns on Route 59 in Naperville and Plainfield now through November 2021. IDOT crews are installing new traffic signals and sidewalks at Route 59 and Champion Road.

You should know

After requests from cyclists asking Metra to expand its capacity for bikes on trains, the agency started a pilot project this month with a designated Bike Car on the Milwaukee North Line. Instead of the usual five bikes allowed, up to 16 will be permitted through early spring. The railroad also is easing rules allowing bicycles on all 11 lines, not just diesel, although cyclists should be aware Metra does not guarantee bikes will be accommodated, particularly during rush hours.

One more thing

Planning a trip on Amtrak? The railroad now offers a capacity indicator that lets riders see which trains are less crowded when they book.

Millions fewer will travel over the Thanskgiving holiday this year.
Millions fewer will travel over the Thanskgiving holiday this year. - Daily Herald file photo
Fewer pilgrimages

AAA anticipates a nearly 10% drop in Thanksgiving excursions this year, with 50.6 million Americans taking a trip compared to 56 million in 2019. In Illinois, that boils down to 430,000 fewer travelers. Nationwide, air travel dropped by 47.5%, or 2.4 million people flying now instead of 4.58 million a year ago.

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