Metra’s brand would fly higher with tech upgrades

Blessed to be in a city with solid public transportation, not a week goes by that I don’t use a bus, El and Metra train to get me from Point A to Point B. And while you have to put up with the usual annoyances (Exhibit A: Man talking on cell phone at ridiculous decibels), I’ve found that the CTA is doing a good job of meeting expectations in forecasting the arrival/departure times on buses and El trains – in fact, technology has made it about as smooth an experience as you can expect in a city as big as ours. We can tap a Chicago Card to a designated payment area and we’re on our way. We can look down on our mobile devices and see thanks to apps like Buster, the 156 really will be here in 4 minutes. Things are indeed getting better. Not perfect, but better.

But when Metra asked for a 30% rate hike, I had to give pause. The mode of transportation that has billed itself as the “Way to Really Fly,” for as long as I can remember needs to justify the hike by making improvements that not only make the transportation experience more enjoyable but still enables Metra to live by that tagline. I’m getting a little tired in this economy of people saying that they need more money or else without clearly explaining what they intend to do with it. After all, Metra’s passengers aren’t made of money either. So just being able to continue service isn’t good enough.

First, unless you get a special express train with fewer stops, you’re not flying on Metra. It makes a stop every few minutes and many of them at that. The advantage of Metra is not dealing with sitting in traffic on the Eisenhower. But it’s not like we’re talking about a bullet train here. Only so much that can be done about that logistically speaking, which brings us to point #2, something that can be implemented.

Metra is losing money partially due to its own inefficiencies. In other words, if Metra is going to come to a Board saying, “we need to hike rates 30%,” they’d better have some upgrades too in order to make boarding and ticket processing “The Way to Really Fly.” For example, when 15,000 Millennials descended on Grant Park earlier this summer from the suburbs to see an outdoor concert, Metra had to take their tickets manually. This meant the old standby of asking each passenger where they were going, taking their money, giving them change and giving them their ticket. On to the next person. On a completely packed train of people that don’t have simple monthly/weekly passes, that means you’re going to miss getting the tickets of some people by the time it gets to the station in Chicago. That can be 5, 6, 7 dollars or more with each person missed. 

I have literally watched conductors try to remember whose ticket fare they collected and whose they didn’t. The system just doesn’t work well. Apparently Metra has taken to hiring “observers” to discreetly ride trains to ensure fares are being collected when conductors happen to miss them, but is this really the most cost-efficient way to monitor the situation? No.

On the other hand, if the conductors had an electronic swiping device that enabled people to not only pay by credit card but also pay by Chicago Card by tapping it to a conductor’s device, I’d say you cut the transaction time by 5-10 seconds per person. That may not sound like a lot until you calculate multiple train cars on a Saturday, when half of Chicagoland is heading to museums, sporting events, concerts and more.

I may not know all the details of I.T. needed to bring this into reality, but I have to believe that if it can be this easy on a bus or El train, Metra needs to bring itself in line with those modes of transportation too. Because the whole providing a paper ticket and punching it thing is more than a little dated, if not wasteful environmentally-speaking. With card processing technologies like Square, it becomes all the more easier. Or here’s a not-so-radical thought – take a page from airline boarding procedures and have an electronic processing terminal(s) at each station with one agent per terminal who takes a ticket, scans it and lets the person on board. No conductor has to rack his brains remembering whose ticket fare he collected and didn’t collect.

One more note to Metra CEO Alex Clifford, who said recently that details of the rate hike were still being ironed out – I’m sure the hike is a necessarily evil in these times and although people won’t like it (who does?), transparency of how you’re spending these new dollars is critical. So remember the places online where you can communicate that message clearly and often – i.e., your website, Facebook Page and Twitter account for starters.

Fewer missed fares, more in Metra’s pocket, easier experience for conductor and passenger alike. Now your brand has got a way to genuinely and really, fly.

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