Attention, Metra passengers: More trains coming this spring as agency tweaks schedules

There's a lot in motion at Metra this spring as the agency adds more trains and tweaks schedules, all in aid of recapturing riders amid a waning but volatile pandemic.

The commuter railroad on Monday debuts a revised Union Pacific Northwest timetable, and there's more change to come, Executive Director Jim Derwinski promised.

On “the Milwaukee North and the Milwaukee West lines, we're looking at enhancing those along with the North Central Service and the Southwest Service within a month or two, depending on how we sit with personnel and contractual obligations with our freight partners,” Derwinski said at a board meeting last week.

But growing pains over the new UP Northwest schedule are surfacing from Arlington Heights commuters.

“For decades (since 1978 for me), there was an early train out of Arlington Heights at 6:36 a.m. or so,” as well as at 7:16 a.m. and 8 a.m. “Back home, it was the 5:20 (p.m.) express,” plus three others, Metra regular James Costello said.

“Now, there's not a single express,” Costello said.

Arlington Heights resident Todd Arkenberg called it “a major service downgrade with grave implications for village commuters.” That revisions “occurred without advance notice to the affected community including public statements, announcements and hearings is especially troubling,” he wrote Metra directors.

Derwinski explained it's the second time the railroad has bumped up service since drastic reductions when COVID-19 hit in 2020. “This is another intermediate step.”

Currently planners are balancing depleted staffing due to retirements and resignations, freight traffic, passenger feedback and quirky metrics, including trains that are full midweek but not on Mondays and Fridays.

“This is the schedule we can provide now,” Derwinski said. “Probably within a month, we're going to make adjustments to this schedule on the UP Northwest with an intent (around September) to do further enhancements.”

Arlington Heights isn't the only town missing some train stops, Metra Directors Rod Craig and Ken Koehler of Crystal Lake said.

“I've been getting phone calls like crazy,” noted Craig, Hanover Park's mayor.

The X Factor roiling logistics is when the bulk of remote workers will leave their home offices and return downtown.

A recent Building Owners and Managers Association of Chicago survey shows head count occupancy sits at 35%, the highest since COVID-19 began, and it's climbing.

As the weather gets warmer, downtown “is waking up,” association Executive Director Farzin Parang said. “With this pandemic, it's hard to predict. But now it feels, again, like we're in a good spot. We're pretty bullish about it.”

Chicago's own United Airlines, headquartered in 14 floors of the Willis Tower, celebrated a re-imagined fourth floor Wednesday featuring a coffee bar, lounge areas, state-of-the-art work spaces and terraces. It's the first stage of a massive renovation project.

“We decided to take a day to recognize and celebrate the return-to-work environment we find ourselves in at the moment,” spokesman Charles Hobart said.

United still offers a hybrid option, but “generally speaking, more and more corporate employees will be returning to the Willis Tower more frequently,” Hobart said, noting that working downtown, face-to-face, is energizing. “Personally, I'm more productive.”

One more thing

Metra spokesman Michael Gillis interprets the revised UP Northwest roster as “a three-zone pattern that repeats every 30 to 35 minutes. The primary three zones in the peak are the outer express zone (Harvard to Palatine), the middle express zone (Barrington to Des Plaines), and then the inner zone (Dee Road to Chicago).”

Express zones were based on previous ridership counts with a goal of serving equal numbers of passengers. While trains don't express from Arlington Heights, they do after three stops, Gillis said.

You should know

Speaking of United, the carrier on Saturday debuted service to Zurich from O'Hare International Airport. Flights will leave for Switzerland daily at 3:40 p.m. and arrive the next day at 7:45 a.m., lasting about nine hours.

Gridlock alert

Crystal Lake drivers can expect some angst and lane closures on Route 14 between Pingree Road and Crystal Lake Avenue as a resurfacing project starts Monday. Work wraps up in November.

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