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Guest blogger Jim Derwinski, Metra CEO, shares new vision for regional rail

March 21, 2023

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This guest blog was written by Metra CEO/Executive Director Jim Derwinski.

Metra has a new roadmap for the next five years, one that will take the agency in a new direction to meet the changing needs of riders.

That roadmap is our new strategic plan, named My Metra, Our Future, which will guide our decision-making for the next five years. It calls for a significant transformation in the way Metra runs its trains, a change that will be difficult and expensive but is critical if we want to stay relevant in a post-pandemic world.

For nearly 40 years, ever since Metra’s creation in 1984, we have been known for offering fast, reliable, comfortable service for downtown office workers commuting to and from the suburbs. Of course, we had some midday, evening and weekend service, but meeting the needs of 9-to-5 workers was primarily what we were known for.

That’s reflected in our Mission Statement, which is meant to reflect where we are now, and what we are good at: Metra provides safe, reliable, efficient, and affordable commuter rail service that enhances the economic and environmental health of Northeast Illinois.

We are, of course, still working our way out of the pandemic, something that disrupted the business community and the transit industry. Adjusting to the new reality will remain a major focus of our efforts. But we have already learned some lessons, and that knowledge has been incorporated in our new plan.

How? The most obvious answer is in our new vision statement – which describes where we aspire to be. We know from our pandemic response that riders are looking for more options and more flexibility from our service. The old way of simply prioritizing rush hour service does not meet the needs of our riders and our region.

So, we’ve adopted a vision statement that challenges us to provide more frequent service throughout the day wherever we can – what’s known as a regional rail service model. Having trains arrive at stations throughout the day at regular, frequent intervals – on both weekdays and weekends – will ensure Metra is a competitive option and residents will choose our service for all types of trips.

Our new vision statement is: To proactively address evolving transportation needs, Metra will provide regional rail service that supports sustainable connected communities.

It won’t be easy, or cheap. Metra is constrained by its operating costs and operating environment. We will do everything we can to pursue more operating funding and the cooperation of the freight railroads that own and/or use some of our 11 lines in order to explore new service options. As a result of these constraints, our move toward regional rail may look different on each of our rail lines.

To fulfill our mission and move towards our vision, the strategic plan is built around five equally important and related goals. They reflect the evolving priorities of Metra, regional transit needs, environmental awareness, and the voices of our customers. They are:

  • Enhance service to grow ridership and provide mobility choices. A component of this goal is to simplify our fare zone structure to make our fares easy to understand and intuitive for new and old riders. We’ve already taken steps towards this goal with new schedules on some lines and fare products that include the flat-rate “Super Saver” Monthly Pass and two Day Passes.
  • Ensure that the Metra experience is safe, easy, and enjoyable for all customers. This includes maintaining a high level of safety, but also improving customer communications, creating welcoming stations, and improving the onboard experience.
  • Attract a diverse workforce and invest in our employees. The future of Metra relies on our ability to attract a diverse, skilled workforce, and on the investment in our employees as they continually develop their skills.
  • Innovate to become more efficient and effective. We must deploy innovative tools and adopt new, data-driven practices to leverage funding sources and improve our system efficiently and effectively. One important component of this goal is to continue our efforts to integrate fares with CTA and Pace, something that will be aided by the installation of new ticket vending machines at all stations.
  • Be a socially responsible organization committed to equity and sustainability. We will seek to implement policies and projects that better meet the transit needs of historically disadvantaged populations, which include communities of color, low-income households, and the disabled. We must also consider the sustainability of our services to support the region’s mobility needs in a manner that has the least environmental impact.

Metra is committed to doing everything we can to make our vision a reality, and we are proud of everything we have accomplished. But if Metra is to truly succeed, we must not be satisfied with our achievements and must strive to evolve, understand our funding constraints, and continue to contribute to economic growth and mobility in the region.

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