How Metra Lost a New Rider

I give my new friend, Overly Frank, a lot of credit for deciding this year to sell his suburban tract house on the outskirts of Tulsa, Oklahoma, and relocate to the corner of Clark and Fullerton. Along with the move to one of the densest urban neighborhoods in America, the lifelong suburbanite also sold his car.

Speaking as a lifelong transit rider with no desire to ever learn how to drive, rarely do I encounter mobility bravery like that. After all, I've lived in this town for years. I know the kind of shenanigans the CTA is capable of. (For example, this, this, this, this and this.) But ever since moving here three months ago, Frank has happily made his way around town on buses and 'L' trains with no regrets.

That's a help, since he's become a regular at my gang's Tuesday night coffee klatsches at Lido's Caffé in Oak Park, also known as the end of the line on the Green Line. Not once on our shared trips out and back have I heard him complain about not being able to drive the 12 miles from Clark Street on the North Side to Marion Street in the Near West 'burbs. In fact, it's usually me grousing about the Green Line's 14 stops between Harlem and my home station in the Loop at State/Lake. The trip may only take 22 minutes, but travel time is magnified when you're sharing your car with a drunken crowd of youth fresh from a nighttime basketball game in Garfield Park.

Last night, I suggested we take Metra back home, instead. A couple of weekends ago, Frank had his first taste of Chicago's double-decker commuter rail system when I dragged him to the Brookfield Zoo on Metra's Burlington Northern Santa Fe line. He liked it. (Really, who doesn't like comfy trains with bird's-eye views and bathrooms?) So even though the evening was cold and blustery, it was pretty easy to talk Frank into waiting 15 minutes for an inbound Union Pacific-West train at downtown Oak Park's Marion Street station.

I've taken the UP-West line home from there in the evening several times over the past two years and never had a problem, so I figured taking Frank on Metra was a pretty well-laid plan. Unfortunately, it went astray like one, too.

When we arrived at the breeze-swept, wind-chilled platform, a UP freight train was parked on the inbound track. That's an ordinary occurrence I've seen before, and I said so to Frank and the drug-addled addict who came up to us to ask whether we were all waiting on the wrong track. I assured them both we weren't. Either the freight will move in time for the commuter rail train to pull in, I told them, or Metra will make an announcement -- usually well in advance -- to await the train on the opposite platform. Unlike the CTA, Metra's usually very good about making system announcements, so not to worry, I said.

(Photo: Half of the Oak Park Metra ramp sprint that turned off a new rider on Tuesday night. Credit: Karla Kaulfuss.)

As we shivered the time away to the 9:28 p.m. inbound train, Frank suggested we wait in the platform waiting room to keep warm. It was a good idea. The waiting room was clean, and well illuminated, and heated. Oh yes, and for some inscrutable reason, locked. We could have headed down the long, narrow access ramp to wait in the main Green Line/Metra station area, but then we would have had to run back up the ramp to catch the train, with only the rumble of its sudden passage overhead to signal its arrival.

So we dealt with the cold and waited. As 9:28 p.m. drew closer, we expected the freight to begin moving away with every wheeze and whir of its stationary dual diesels. Frank was starting to get anxious about the freight's continued appearance, considering that if we missed our Metra train, the next one wouldn't arrive for another hour, forcing us back onto the Green Line that we were studiously avoiding. But I told him I'd never missed an evening train at Oak Park because of Metra not making a station announcement.

You can see where this is heading.

When 9:28 p.m. arrived with the freight train still standing on the inbound track, I told Frank to be on the lookout for a spinning white headlight down the track to the west -- Metra's trademark nighttime luminary signal. I suggested we wouldn't see said light for another few minutes since the UP-West line tends to run a few minutes late after rush hour.

I was wrong. No sooner did the words leave my mouth then Frank and I turned to see the spinning light on the nose of a Metra diesel that was quickly pulling an inbound train into the station on the outbound track, with no announcement warning whatsoever.

All I had time to say was, "Run!" And in the next moment, two overweight men with little athletic preparation for doing so were sprinting down a 100-foot entrance ramp, up another, and along half a Metra platform, only to watch the sliding doors slam shut in our reddened, gasping faces. The Southern-bred Frank just stood there, incredulous. This native New Yorker, however, was pissed. Before the train could move off I ran to the nearest window with a conductor behind it and pounded on it for all I was worth.

Probably more incredulous than Frank at the site of a crazy person beating the heck out of the side of his train, I watched the crewman radio for the train to remain, then head to the nearest door to let Frank and me on board. When the doors opened, I told the conductor what had happened -- Metra hadn't made an announcement that the train was arriving on the wrong track, so we had to run to catch it.

Now, Metra blowing off the announcement was unacceptable. But what happened next was appalling. Instead of apologizing, the conductor -- all 6-foot height and 3-foot dreadlocks of him -- gave us a withering, dirty look and walked away without saying a word. He would repeat the same silent sneer when we passed him on the platform at Ogilvie Transportation Center at the end of our trip.

Another conductor took our money, listened to our story, and shook his head in sympathy. He didn't apologize, either. But unlike the other conductor -- not to mention the Metra employee who didn't bother to do their job and make the station announcement -- he did recognize that we were, in fact, customers and treated us with respect.

Frank and I didn't say much during the 15-minute ride downtown. How could we? We didn't really get our breath back until the Merchandise Mart was coming into view. As we rode the escalator down to the ground floor at Ogilvie, I apologized to Frank for having suggested we take Metra instead of the CTA.

I didn't bother to say Metra usually doesn't sneer at its customers so thoroughly, that its service tends to be quite good and its employees polite and respectful. I was still too angry to offer the transit agency the benefit of the doubt and Frank was still too annoyed to hear it. I also didn't tell him I was going to file a complaint with Metra about our totally negative commuter rail experience. I thought that went without saying.

It didn't. Later in the evening, I called Frank to tell him I wasn't bothering to file a complaint. For all the recent crowing from Metra Chairwoman Carol Doris and Metra Executive Director Phil Pagano about the transit agency's nifty new homepage, the site's online contact form limits written complaints to 500 characters. Not words. Characters.

To me, that seemed a pretty severe restriction on the telling of a story involving a seasoned rider assuring a new customer that Metra never lets its passengers down, only for both riders to be given a one-two sucker punch by the transit agency. After all, arbitrary space limitations or not, some things don't go without saying. Most importantly, that flagrantly ignoring your responsibility to inform your own customers of service diversions that could lead to them shivering in a 45-degree wind chill for an extra hour and then treating them with open contempt for daring to complain about it is a really good way to turn off of a potential new rider.

Not that I'm trying to speak for Frank. As we exited Ogilvie Tuesday night, he said it all, himself.

"Next time," he told me, "I'm taking the Green Line."