Transportation grad students offer advice to Metra for its strategic plan


A Rock Island Metra train travels near 16th Street, alongside Clark Street. Photo by Mickey Brown.

Ed. note: Ted Rosenbaum is originally from Evanston and Brian Derstine from Darien. Both obtained a master’s in transportation engineering from the University of California, Berkeley. They currently work on public transportation and ITS-related projects in the San Francisco Bay area. Follw them @RedTosenbaum and @baderstine. Their opinions are their own, and are independent of their employers. -Steven

August 10, 2012

To whom it may concern:

We, the undersigned, are excited to see Metra undertake serious long-range strategic planning. For too long, Metra’s actions have been inefficient, opaque, and focused on short-term tactics rather than long-term strategy. The strength of the Chicagoland area is inextricably tied to the ability of its transportation network to move people and goods throughout the region. As Chicago’s commuter rail agency, Metra plays a vital role in this transportation network and in the region’s continued good health, and we long to see it—and the region—succeed. We therefore present the letter below as formal comments to the strategic planning and visioning process. It is divided into three sections: (1) a response to the “Draft Mission Statement” included in the public survey recently posted on Metra’s website; (2) a response to the “Draft Vision Statement” included in the same survey; and (3) various other strategies—and some tactics—we feel it is in Metra’s best interests to prioritize.


As part of Metra’s effort to build a new strategic plan, the online survey included a draft mission statement. It is intended to explain five elements about Metra: “who we are [1] and what we do [2], who do we do it for [3], and how [4] and why we do it [5].” While there are elements of this draft statement which are admirable, it misses the mark in several key ways. It reads:

Metra, a premier commuter rail agency, provides safe, reliable, efficient, high quality commuter rail service with a diverse team of skilled employees who are committed to our customers’ needs, which enhances the quality of life and the economic health of Northeast Illinois.

This certainly touches on all five elements of an acceptable mission statement. However, we feel that it does not ideally capture Metra’s true mission as a transportation agency, and suggest a few tweaks.

First, platitudes have no place in a mission statement. “A premier commuter rail agency” is neither a statement of fact (at the present time) nor a mission to fulfill. Status as a premier agency may come as a result of fulfilling Metra’s mission, but in and of itself is not part of Metra’s vision. To address the first element [1], it is sufficient to say “Metra, Northeast Illinois’ commuter rail agency…”

Second, we agree that safety, reliability and efficiency are the most important elements of Metra’s service mission to provide high quality commuter rail service [2].

Regarding the third element [3], Metra’s mission is not only to serve its current customers. Since Metra’s budget is derived from both property taxes and farebox revenue, it must serve both residents and visitors to the area. It should strive to grow its customer base, and so making the agency “committed to our customers’ needs” is overly strict.

Also, Metra is not a jobs program for Northeast Illinois. As a government-funded agency, it is ruled by the various laws (equal-opportunity and the like) regarding the diverse makeup of its employees. Therefore, it is not Metra’s mission to provide service “with a diverse team of skilled employees.” Metra cannot fulfill its service mission without skilled employees (rendering this phrase an unnecessary tautology), and so long as it abides by fair-hiring policies Metra will have a diverse team.

Finally, enhancing “the quality of life and economic health of Northeast Illinois” belongs in the Vision Statement (where it is already included in the draft version). Metra is a transportation agency, and its mission statement should reflect that. Any other outcomes–while predictably flowing from high-quality commuter rail service–are ancillary to Metra’s core mission. The “how” of Metra’s work [4] involves modern infrastructure, courteous employees, transparent operations, and myriad other little things, all of which fall under the rubric of a “high quality commuter rail service” which is already in the statement. Finally, the “why” of Metra’s work [5], while regional in span, must be limited in scope to that which Metra can actually control: namely transportation, not regional economic health.
So, were we to re-write Metra’s mission statement, it would read as follows:

Metra safely and reliably provides efficient, high-quality commuter rail service to residents and visitors throughout Northeast Illinois as part of a complete regional transportation network.


In addition to the draft Mission Statement above, Metra staff have also developed a draft Vision Statement for the agency. The staff’s work here is exemplary, and we find only one issue worthy of comment. The Vision Statement calls for “improvement, innovation, and transparency.” While these are three very admirable goals, we would suggest a fourth: coordination with local governments and other transportation agencies. As a commuter rail system, Metra cannot (and should not) be responsible for all of the Chicagoland area’s transportation needs. Those needs can only be met if Metra works in concert with local governments and the various transportation departments and agencies in the area.

Metra’s online survey also asked for feedback on various other strategic statements from previous documents. We believe that with well-written Mission & Vision Statements as outlined above, these other statements are unnecessary. While some of these are innocuous enough to ignore, we believe that adopting any version of “continue aggressive pursuit of an equitable share of federal, state, and local funding” would be extremely misguided if done without considering the full range of the region’s transportation needs. While Metra can and should apply for grants, these should be done along the formal channels set up to encourage a complete regional transportation network—namely, through either the RTA or CMAP. Especially when applying for federal grants, the region should present a unified, coordinated front: Metra should not apply for a grant that the CTA is applying for, if the CTA’s project would help the region more, and vice versa.

By the same token, we recognize Metra’s pursuit of funding is not restricted to grant applications. We believe that both the 80%/20% road/transit federal funding split and the amount of transportation funding the region gets from the State of Illinois are both inequitable. Actions by Metra (or in concert with the RTA) to raise awareness of this political issue are welcome, so long as they do not detract from Metra’s core mission as a transportation agency.

Further Strategy Suggestions

Finally, while mission and vision statements are important as foundational documents around which the entire agency can rally, more concrete strategies and tactics must be developed in order for Metra to reach a level of service suitable for Chicagoland. Perhaps the best way to explain our ideas follows from the German idea of Organisation vor Elektronik vor Beton, or “Organization before Electronics before Concrete”. As mentioned earlier, Metra cannot claim to be an “industry leader” if it only leads among similar American rail agencies. Just as the city of Chicago seeks to be a “global city,” Metra must take cues from its international peers if it wishes to be a rail agency of any renown. Among the many strategies Metra could take, we suggest the following five:

1. Inter-Agency Cooperation

Metra must cooperate with the RTA, Amtrak, CTA, Pace, freight rail companies, O’hare and Midway Airports, and regional taxi services to be effective. Operationally, this means small things like better wayfinding when CTA, Pace, and Metra stations are co-located, improvements such as the new ticket vending machines at downtown stations. It also means bigger things like universal fare media that can be used throughout the entire regional transportation network, or coordinating with Pace or CTA bus services to provide express bus service from the rehabilitated Cicero BNSF station to Midway Airport.


Oak Lawn Metra station. It’s typical that suburban stations are owned by the municipality, and not Metra or the freight railroad whose tracks pass the station. Photo by Katherine Hodges.

This means not just operationally, but organizationally as well. Metra should yield to the CTA and Pace if, when the RTA goes to apply to federal or state funds, Metra’s projects are not the most effective for the region. Similarly when seeking regional funds from CMAP. It must follow CMAP’s long-range plans, but also be an effective partner in shaping those plans by working with local governments to promote land uses conducive to boosting Metra ridership. Metra shares trackage with Amtrak and freight lines, as well as station space with Amtrak.

2. FRA Deregulation

Current Federal Rail Administration regulations hamstring agencies like Metra into using too-slow, too-heavy rolling stock. Ostensibly for safety—since Metra runs on freight right-of-ways with much heavier trains—these rules cost Metra (and by extension, Chicagoland residents) millions of dollars in operational inefficiencies and track wear. However, technological advances like positive train control (PTC) and automatic train protection (ATP), as well as capital improvements like Chicago’s CREATE program are making FRA regulations obsolete. By applying for waivers, applying for pilot program grants, and (in conjunction with the freight railroads) lobbying the federal department of transportation for greater local control, Metra is uniquely placed to be a world leader in shared corridor safety.

3. Modern Performance Measurement

Continuous process improvement based on accurate, complete and granular data is key to modern data-driven performance measurement and management. Metra’s recent release of the “Rail-Time Tracker” tool shows much promise as both a customer service tool as well as a management tool to track and report on reliability, and we are very encouraged by Metra’s recent efforts to improve transparency and accessibility. However, many other modern tools exist which can help Metra achieve it’s service mission and catch up with leading agencies in the area of performance measurement and reporting. We all want our local transportation agencies to be the best, and we want to know that they are trying their hardest to provide us with the best service possible. Ideally this includes defining clear performance targets, accurately measuring and reporting performance against those targets on a regular basis, demonstrating improvement over time, and being honest and open with the public when performance falls short of targets. To earn the right to call Metra a “premier commuter rail agency”, you need to define a “premier” level of performance and achieve it. Only by comparing your performance honestly with other agencies and exceeding their performance can you honestly make this claim.

4. Fix-it-First

We are encouraged by Metra’s recent purchase of alternating current, stainless steel Highliner EMUs from Nippon Sharyo, and the recent rehab work performed on diesel units. Ultimately, Metra’s core constituency is those who commute into and out of Chicago. Expansion plans must take a back seat to maintaining the current infrastructure. This does not mean shortchanging future growth at the expense of today’s construction costs—it is unacceptable to abandon right-of-ways along growing corridors, as Metra has threatened to do with the third set of tracks along the UP-North route.

5. Electrification

There is, however, a difference between simple maintenance and fix-it-first repairs which expand capacity without wholly new construction. Perhaps the most efficient way to achieve this would be to electrify more of the system than just the Metra Electric District. This would allow for greater flexibility in deploying Metra’s rolling stock, as well as save on maintenance costs in the long run by standardizing the fleet. It would also allow higher frequency service as Metra’s ridership grows, since EMUs (like those mentioned above) have more efficient acceleration/braking profiles. Finally, it would pave the way for seamless integration with a future Midwest High Speed Rail network, which would surely be powered by constant-tension catenary.


Metra Electric has been electrified since 1926. Photo by Mark Vogel. 

[Read an earlier article on Grid Chicago about electrifying Metra.]

Again, we are thrilled to see Metra begin to think seriously about these issues. We hope that these suggestions are helpful in the process, and we welcome the chance to discuss these and any other issues with Metra leadership in the future.

Brian Derstine
UC Berkeley ‘12
MS Transportation Engineering
University of Chicago ‘04
Hinsdale South HS ‘00

Ted Rosenbaum
UC Berkeley ‘12
MS Transportation Engineering
University of Pennsylvania ‘08
Evanston Township HS ‘04

Published by

Guest Contributor

Posts under this name were made by guest contributors.

14 thoughts on “Transportation grad students offer advice to Metra for its strategic plan”

  1. I agree (especially about the electrification part). Being from Philly, there’s no such thing as a diesel commuter line. Plus with electrification, NJ Transit would be able to sell off their ALP-44 locomotives.

  2. Nicely put, guys. I’d prefer a statement that takes a stronger stand in favor of a regional-rail model on a higher frequency, but perhaps the best thing is to simply remove all roadblocks and let Metra service evolve according to the region’s needs instead of importing concepts from foreign cities.

    1. Which roadblocks would you remove first?

      I’d also like a statement that prefers high-frequency regional rail, but that doesn’t explicitly say that Metra would be the sole agency to carry it out. In other words, there’s a regional plan that defines what kind of regional rail service is good and desirable. Metra could be just one of the enactors of that plan. Perhaps there is room for competition from other providers. Essentially, sell access to the rails.

      1. Human roadblocks. Essentially, Metra administration needs to have their minds as open as humanly possible. This requires a cultural change, which is harder than simply replacing the head honcho. The RER in Paris was devised after French planners visited Tokyo and, rather than duplicating the Japanese system, figured out how to adapt their existing system to deliver similar mobility benefits to Parisians. Similarly, Metra staff needs to be aware of the awesome benefits of frequent regional service to tie city and suburb together, but also think critically about how to integrate that service around Class I railroads and fragmented land-use patterns. Loosening FRA regulations can only help, however.

      2. I’m still a believer in electrification, for example, but we should be maxing out the capacity of the diesel-hauled system by increasing frequency and adding urban stops. After that, the need for electrification will become self-evident with increasing ridership and fuel costs.

      3. Perhaps you are aware that the Illinois General Assembly just passed a law giving authority to the tollway to operate high speed rail. In terms of bonding power they appear to be the only game in town.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *