Successful Saturdays Keep Trains On Track
July 23, 2010
By Amy Lee
Fewer riders are hopping the train that runs from Manhattan to downtown Chicago beaches and festivals this summer, but Metra officials say enough demand - and funding - exists to continue the service this year.
More than a year ago Metra added Saturday service at every stop on the SouthWest Service Line. Three trains depart Manhattan on Saturdays, and three trains provide a return trip back times from Union Station in Chicago.
Mokena resident Patrick McLaughlin caught the train at the 153rd Street station in Orland Park for the first time recently for a trip to Union Station, where he planned to board another train to Holland, Mich., to join his family on vacation.
"For me this is pretty convenient. I'm glad this is here. Otherwise somebody would have had to drive me," McLaughlin said.
The Saturday service debuted as an experiment to gauge need and demand from suburban riders. Residents long bemoaned the lack of rail options provided on the weekends and pushed Metra to add the SouthWest Service on Saturdays.
"It's just a lot easier to get on a train and hand over a few bucks than deal with the traffic and parking," said Mary Helms, 49, of Oak Lawn, who took the SouthWest line up to the Taste of Chicago a few weeks ago.
When the Saturday service debuted March 21, 2009, Metra made no promises it would last. A Regional Transportation Authority grant and Metra evenly split the $680,000 annual cost, but officials were unsure if they would be able to continue funding the Saturday trips.
Both agencies chipped in the same amount again this year, said Metra spokeswoman Meg Reile. About 200 to 250 riders use the SouthWest Service on any given Saturday, she said.
"Right now we still have the money to finance this project and have no plans to change anything," she said. "Weekend service was mostly seen as giving people in the Southland another way to get to get to downtown events to enjoy the city, and it's doing that. Ridership is down all over, but people are using it."
U.S. Rep. Dan Lipinski (D-3rd) in early 2009 gathered officials from Metra, the RTA, the freight railroads and local officials to broker an agreement to begin weekend service on the SouthWest line in response to demand from suburban residents.
"After all the hard work I am very happy that Metra reports the service has been a success," Lipinski said in an e-mailed statement. "Particularly now during the summer, when there are so many events downtown and parking is difficult and expensive, weekend service is a great option."
Metra officials blame the poor economy for its overall 5.2 percent dip in ridership from 2008 to 2009. Metra logged more than 86 million passenger trips in 2008 - a record year for the agency - but only about 83 million trips in 2009.
"It's hard to point a finger at anything other than the economy," Reile said. "It's just a fact people aren't working and we have long-term unemployment. We're a work-trip driven service, so that impacts us."
The 3.5 percent dip in ridership on the SouthWest line, however, is down less than the systemwide drop. From April 2008 through April 2009, Metra's SouthWest line logged 2.54 million passenger trips, while just about 2.45 million riders used the line from April 2009 through April 2010, Reile said.
Officials at the Children's Museum in Oak Lawn say patrons mention they hopped the train to get to the nearly year-old museum that sits a few blocks from the station on 95th Street.
"I'm a stone's throw away," said Adam Woodworth, executive director of the museum, which celebrates its first anniversary Tuesday. "Sometimes I'll see kids that have been at the museum at the platform waiting for the train, so we know kids are using it."
The museum touts the train on its Web site as an easy way to reach it, and an Orland Park-based child day care center this summer loaded kids on the train for a field trip to the museum, Woodworth said.
"We'd love to see more of that," he said.
In the meantime, Manhattan Mayor William Borgo, who along with other mayors along the southwest corridor lobbied for Saturday service, said Manhattan's Metra station is a key piece of the tiny town's long-term planning. On any given day, about 40 cars can be spotted parked in the Metra lot, he said.
"When you get a Metra station, it means you've kind of arrived. You're not longer considered in the boonies," Borgo said. "No doubt as the years progress, this (line) will continue to thrive and to expand, and 30 years from now they'll say, 'Gosh, do you remember when only 40 cars parked here every day?' "
ENGLEWOOD FLYOVER WORK READYTO BEGIN
Construction is on track to begin this year on the Englewood Flyover, a bridge designed to alleviate bottlenecks that delay Amtrak and Metra service on Chicago's South Side, according to the office of U.S. Rep. Dan Lipinski (D-3rd), of Western Springs.
Federal funding is in place, a contractor has been chosen and construction will begin later this year, Lipinskispokesman Nathaniel Zimmer said.
The Englewood Flyover will carry the north-south Metra Rock Island commuter rail line over the east-west Norfolk Southern/Amtrak line. That will eliminate delays that arise between 68 Metra Rock Island trains and approximately 60 freight and Amtrak trains that presently cross at grade each day.
The flyover is expected to open for use in early 2013, Zimmer said.
The project's $133 million price tag is fully funded by a federal American Recovery and Reinvestment Act High Speed Rail grant. The project is expected to create about 1,500 jobs.
WHAT THE RIDERS SAY
'This is actually my first time. I actually did not know they had it until this morning. In high school I always wished they had.'
- David Raminski, a Boston College student home for the summer in Homer Glen, who took the train on a recent Saturday to Chicago to spend the night out with his sister, who lives in Chicago's River East neighborhood.
'I'd like it if they had trains running more often. I have to get on the 3-something train, and I'm a few hours early. My friends like to go out to dinner and drinks but not till like 8 or 9 p.m.'
- Mariam Elkwafi, of Orland Park, who uses the Saturday train regularly to meet up with her boyfriend and friends in Chicago. She wishes there were more inbound trains on Saturday evenings so she could meet friends out at night.
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