Observations from Europe: Why doesn’t the Metra train run as smoothly?

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An example of a Regio Express train, stationed in Augsburg, Germany. Notice how it has only a single level. It has considerably more room for prams, bicycles, and people using wheelchairs. It also has near-level boarding at platforms (there’s a step down). The train’s name, Fugger-Express, refers to the Fugger family in Augsburg that founded the oldest social settlement still in operation.

I took a Deutsche Bahn (DB) Regio Express (RE) train on Wednesday from Munich*, Bavaria, Germany, to Augsburg, Bavaria, Germany, today in order to see the historical buildings, the world’s oldest social settlement, and, unbeknownst to me, a lot of trams running down pedestrian-only streets. I traveled with a friend who is studying in Munich and his parents. The round-trip price for four adults was 34 euros, or about $42.73. That’s $5.34 per person per direction, for a 40 mile trip.

The same distance on a Metra train in Chicagoland, say, to La Fox, Illinois (41 miles), would cost $7.25. I won’t compare travel times because the train to Augsburg only makes 6 intermediate stops while the Union Pacific-West train makes 15 intermediate stops; one could compare a per-mile travel time and I presume the German train would be faster. The train to Augsburg leaves every 25 to 30 minutes while the train to La Fox leaves several times during rush hour, but once an hour at all other times.

Anyway, the lower trip cost and higher frequencies is not the purpose of my describing the trip: My experience riding the train was shaped by its pleasantries and not the undesirable peculiarities of my hometown’s regional rail. The DB Regio Express train was much quieter (it had no bells to ring and electric trains are nearly silent, except for the whine of AC motors) and smoother (I can’t explain this one as the tracks in Chicago are probably just as straight as the ones in Germany). The cars, with clean, seemingly polished interiors, lacked the distinct smell of diesel fumes as well.

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An interior view of the DB Regio Express train. An LED message board is viewable from any seat and gives the current time. It will then show the next station with an arrow pointing at which side the doors will open. Treuchtlingen is the final destination of this train.

The Metra trains are decidedly rumbling and rocky. They lumber forward with a belch and a whistle. What are the differences between the two systems? The most apparent distinction is that the DB Regio Express train is electric, making acceleration smoother, and, without a diesel locomotive, much quieter. Diesel can’t take all the blame, though, because on the same platform as my electric Regio Express train was a “diesel multiple unit”, a kind of train that uses the same fuel as Metra trains but puts a small engine in each passenger car, instead of in a locomotive at the head of a train (one that is used to pull 5 passenger cars or 10 passenger cars).

Bombardier, the Canadian manufacturer of the Chicago Transit Authority’s 5000-series cars, makes an unpowered passenger car called the BiLevel – it’s not as tall as Metra’s passenger cars, has a floor that’s level with the platform, and doesn’t sway or feel as if the train just needs a little more power to actually get moving.

Read our past posts about improving Metra:

* Oktoberfest starts in a few weeks, so I will miss it.

23 thoughts on “Observations from Europe: Why doesn’t the Metra train run as smoothly?”

  1. To answer your question in the headline: money. The US government doesn’t care about transit. They put the vast majority of transportation funds into building and improving highways for automobile travel. Most of the politicians running our country simply don’t care about public transport because they are chauferred everywhere by auto, and can’t see the benefit. So cities are forced to make do with the little funding they are given, and the result is a sub-standard public transport system.

    And don’t even get me started on Amtrak… Aside from some lines in the Northeast, and the Amtrak Cascades line connecting Vancouver, BC to Eugene, OR, our national rail system is a joke. Most long-distance lines only have one departure per day, and prices end up being more expensive than air travel. Why would I take a train that would take me 10 hours, when I can fly there in a tenth of the time at the same price or cheaper?

    1. So we spend our “money” on roads… The sad thing is if he were to rent a car and go for drive in Germany he’d find that not only are their trains better than our’s, their roads are better than our’s as well?!?!

        1. Our speed limits are lower and our cars are built like tanks compared to their’s.
          I remember driving in France on my way to Paris once. This was about 25 years ago. I had the pedal floored for about an hour. I was going about 120mph. On slight inclines I would slow down to about 112 and on descents I would speed up to about 130. I can’t remember what the speed limits were at the time and I’m sure I was speeding. But the thing that I really remember about that was, as impossible as it sounds I was just going with the flow of traffic for about 80-90% of the other drivers! There were cars and motorcyclist passing me like I was standing still. I mean blowing by me. They looked like race cars/motorcycles going by and I’m going 120mph! They would be gone from view on straightaways in like 45 seconds.
          Plus, I remember the thing about the highways in Europe was if you wanted to just go the speed limit or slower stay out of the passing lanes. They come flying up behind you on those passing lanes flashing their lights and they mean get out of the way.
          We have nothing like the autobahn in the US.
          Most of the time I took the trains when I traveled in Europe. I would never drive like that now. I wasn’t trying to boast or anything it was just something I experienced. In fact, it seems pretty insane to me now. I don’t even own a car now and never want one again.
          The last time I was in Chicago about a year and a half ago I remember the roads being in pretty bad shape. So bad in fact, that people were starting to sue or at least trying to get the city of Chicago to pay for the damage Chicago’s roads had done to their vehicles. I remember this one huge pot hole over on Ashland about 5400N. It was at an intersection I crossed a few times a day. For about 5 days I watched cars bottom out as they passed over it. Then one day it had cones around it reducing the street to one lane there. A couple of days later the wind blew away the cones and people were bottoming out again. I left a few days later and as I passed that way the last time the hole was still there. Have you noticed a preponderance of potholes in Europe like I did in Chicago (even though I spent no time in a car there)? 🙂
          Keep on enjoying your trip! I enjoy reading about it!

          1. 120 mph in France? That is definitely considered speeding.;) The highway speed limit in France was 130 kmph the last time I was there.

          2. I knew it was speeding. I couldn’t really remember how much though. I was coming from Belgium. It was just driving down a highway through the country side. I remember thinking how much it reminded me of Indiana actually. So you had long stretches where you could just drive fast. I knew I was speeding at the time but pretty much everyone else was too. And like I said, I got passed by at least 10 cars and motorcycles. This was all in like an hour. They had to be going 200-220mph not kmph. I mean I was going 120mph and they just flew past me and they were gone. It seemed normal over there though, on the highway. The hardest thing was keeping my foot consistently mashed to the floor to maintain that speed. I remember my leg was a little sore when I finally slowed down.

  2. Well, it’s a lot of things:
    – Yes, money is important. Track noise isn’t really about straightness, per se, but Germany spends a lot more on things like welded rail (no clunking over joints between individual sections), track ballast (which deadens the noise and vibration), wheel truing (which prevents the clack-clack of flat wheels formed when the wheels lock or slip during braking), and signal systems (which are often the source of delays). The trains are also a lot newer (more responsive suspension systems) and run on electricity (smoother acceleration, no fumes, more reliable).
    – Why do they spend more money? Well, more people use the train—people in the US are reluctant to give up their cars, largely because of last-mile problems, particularly in the suburbs. Whereas a lot of small towns in Germany have light rail systems within their compact urban cores, US suburbs are sprawling and usually have limited to no transit, meaning you’ll need a car to get to your destination one way or another. Limited ridership base = less frequent scheduling, although that sadly perpetuates a cycle of low ridership, because people don’t take quick trips on lines with poor frequency.

    – Germany has more track/grade separation of passenger and freight rail. The US lags way behind Europe and Asia for passenger rail, but what people don’t know is that we’re actually way ahead for freight. But that means freight reins supreme—many rail passenger routes in the US are leased from freight companies that own the rights of way. Freight is a whole different game logistically, though, and it severely affects the reliability and scheduling frequency/flexibility of passenger trains.
    – Network layout. US systems are generally designed as hub-and-spoke, oriented around urban cores, whereas Germany has a web-like blanket of rail service that means you can often find a more direct route between places. This goes towards ridership, investment, etc. The US had more routes in the past but they’ve mostly been pared down to urban commuting corridors.
    – FRA regulations. Trains in the US are extremely heavy because of stringent crashworthiness laws. (I think it’s debatable whether that’s really necessary with a proper signal & control system.) Heavy trains have more sway, take longer to accelerate, can’t corner as tightly (see: Acela’s tilting train fiasco), and make more noise. It also means it’s much harder to procure modern trainsets, because the world’s train manufacturers don’t have standard designs that meet US regulations.
    Probably the only metro area in the US that can compare is NYC, and even there the commuter rail systems are world’s away from Germany’s S-Bahn and Regio systems.

    1. The track separation is a huge factor. Freight trains are heavy and quickly wear rails to the point that the ride becomes rough. I’ve ridden on Regios that shared track with freight trains, and the ride was noticeably rougher than most Regios. The Germans have put a lot of money into track construction and maintenance to get the ride quality they have. German standards for ties and ballast are much stricter than in the US. Also not all Regios are the same. The one in the picture is a fairly new and very nice train. I’ve ridden on some of the Diesel Multiple Units and the ride was comparable to the El.

      1. I was just going to say, isn’t most of Metra’s equipment just pretty darned old? I’m sure that if the DB Regio Express had to rock our totally vintage Metra Electric cars, their ride wouldn’t be so smooth and quiet, either.

        1. They are very old. Metra is in the process of refurbishing over 100 gallery cars in the next few years, but I don’t know if any of the changes will improve ride comfort.

        2. Age isn’t all of it. Some of Regio’s rolling stock dates back to the 1970’s. It’s a combination of car and track quality. A Metra car on a Regio track would feel better than it does at home and a modern Regio on a Metra track would feel better than a Metra car, but not as good as it does at home. While electric multiple units like the one pictured are taking over, a lot of Regio service is still provided by 70-80’s vintage coaches pulled by either diesel or electric locomotives.While electric multiple units like the one pictured are taking over, a lot of Regio service is still provided by 70-80’s vintage coaches pulled by either diesel or electric locomotives.

  3. Steven, Do you have any info as to howmuch of the cost is recovered by fares in Europe? I believe in Chicagoland that is 56% as per state law? Or does that percentage only apply to the CTA?

    1. The CTA is required to recover 50% from passenger fares. The last budget document I read (I don’t recall the years right now; they do them in two-year portions) indicated it was over 50%.
      I don’t know if the transit agencies in Germany are required to have a farebox recovery like the CTA. I also don’t know what Metra’s farebox recovery ratio is supposed to be.
      Transit in Germany (and in other countries in Europe) is very peculiar. In Germany, the DB operates most of the intercity services, but then there are regionally-based intercity services. For example, there is Eurobahn, Breisgau S-Bahn, and Bayerische Oberlandbahn.

      1. The Regional Transportation Authority as a whole must achieve a farebox recovery ratio of 55%. Each agency has different ratios that are somewhat flexible as long as the 3 agencies meet the 55% goal.

  4. Since you mentioned room for prams, can I ask you to weigh in on improving public transportation for all ages? It strikes me that it is just another area where underfunding of public transportation has created an unnecessary conflict: strollers versus suitcases versus wheelchairs. I recall when travelling in Japan that the priority seating including pregnant women and those travelling with small children. Not just disabled and elderly. And there was plenty of room for everyone, especially during non-rush hour periods. And I also recall a neighbor returning from a trip to Sweden, being excited about the buses having a designated area for strollers. Is anything like that possible here?

    1. I think it’s possible in Chicago, but we are a very combative city with everyone feeling deserved of space.
      I think that to accommodate prams (strollers) comfortably, we would need to increase frequency or use a different interior bus configuration, to hold all of the people who are using the bus with and without large “accessories”.

  5. Germany spends a much larger share of GDP on the quality of life of its citizens than does the US government. Working people in Germany enjoy universal health care, free higher education, and, as the post makes clear, modern, well-maintained public transportation networks. Why is that? Because Germany has a stronger labor movement as well as stronger left-wing labor parties. Without pressure from organized workers and left-wing parties, the tendency is for social spending as a share of GDP to shrink.

      1. Who’s “we”? As is well known, the rich certainly pay lower taxes in the US–and, yes, you’re right that they have plenty of spending money to pamper themselves. GE, for example, paid zero income taxes last year, even though profits are soaring to record levels. But for the vast majority of working people in the US, we pay taxes at much higher rates and–because of the relative weakness of the labor movement–our income is constantly being cut back by employers who are making record profits right now. If we had stronger labor organizations and parties, we would be in a position to demand that a greater share of the profits that working people create gets spent on education, health care and transit. It’s that simple. The rich won’t ever like these ideas–and we shouldn’t expect them to. Nothing progressive in this country was won without a fight.

        1. I never used the word “we” in my comment. Please provide a citation that an anverage German worker pays less taxes than an average American worker. Furthermore rich Americans are Americans, and becuase of lower taxes they (who are Americans) can spend more of the GDP on themselves instead of the government taking it.

  6. Do these tracks share duty with freight rail? I know that many Metra lines share the tracks with freight trains. I don’t know for certain but I am pretty sure I read that the freight trains degrade the tracks much faster than the commuter trains due to the weight. So that might be most of your explanation. Perhaps you could ride one of the Metra electric lines and see if it compares to your German experience. I found the noise on the slow bits of the Electric to be terrible but your mileage may vary.

    1. The Metra Electric trains are old and loud. They squeal A LOT when leaving Millenium Station, and some also lack any form of electronic display showing the next stop. Otherwise, the acceleration is much better than the diesel-powered Metra trains, and the ride is a lot smoother.

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