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Proposed changes to Metra Electric schedule raises concerns with 59th Street stop, UChicago commuters

As Metra begins implementing new safety systems, it plans to condense the current three groups of stations served to two during rush hour, leading to more stops at some stations, fewer at others and longer rides for everyone.

Metra Electric train at University Park. | Bill Ruminski/Sun-Times
Metra Electric train at University Park. | Bill Ruminski/Sun-Times
Sun-Times Media

Metra Electric riders may soon have a longer commute.

As Metra begins implementing Positive Train Control (PTC) safety systems on those trains, it plans to condense the current three groups of stations served to two during rush hour, leading to more stops at some stations, fewer at others and longer rides for everyone.

For many residents off the line, the biggest concern is a systemwide reduction of stops at the 59th Street station, where the University of Chicago is located. The new schedule would cut the number of inbound stops there from 14 to three.

“Reducing so many trains inbound and outbound will cause a problem,” said Julie Clack, a graphic designer at UChicago. “I don’t want to take a train at 6 a.m. to get to work at 8 a.m.”

Some students who attend the university’s Laboratory Schools will be affected as well.

Vicki Stevenson’s two kids leave the house at 7:05 a.m. to make their train to Lab. They may have to leave nearly a half an hour earlier and transfer trains on the way.

“The train that would get them [to school] on time is being eliminated,” Stevenson said. “If they attempted a slightly later train or if the train at Kensington was even a minute late, they’d be late for school.”

For commuters with young children, the proposed cut and added stops during evening rush hour would complicate after-school pick-up.

Dave Sacks and his wife live in Flossmoor but work in Hyde Park, so their son attends after-school care. The proposed changes give them two options: always leave work early to catch a 4:45 p.m. train or take a 5:31 p.m. train, which will get them home past after-school care’s close.

“I hope that one of us can continue taking the train, but even that might mean getting home 30 minutes later every night, which truly eats into time with our son,” Sacks said. “I don’t really see how we could continue commuting via Metra with the current proposed changes.”

Metra must have PTC on all trains before the end of 2020, as required by the Positive Train Control Enforcement and Implementation Act of 2015.

PTC is a system designed to automatically stop trains before specific accidents occur, like train-to-train collisions or derailments caused by speed.

For it to work, train engineers must enter data about the train and its route before departing. That adds about five minutes to the time it already takes Metra to “flip” trains and send them out again, according to Metra spokesman Michael Gillis.

That’s time Metra can’t afford to waste.

“The trains come in and out so fast, and they do turn around and in less than 10 minutes, but that can no longer happen because of PTC,” Gillis said. “That change just snowballs throughout the system.”

PTC has been implemented on other lines, like Rock Island District and Southwest Service, and their schedules saw similar changes, Gillis said.

Metra will meet with residents in Flossmoor on March 5 to discuss the changes and possible solutions to their concerns.

“I don’t want to commit to anything because I’m not the guy designing the schedules, but I think in general, we’re open to making changes,” Gillis said.

But for some Metra Electric riders, compromise may not be good enough.

“It’s mostly not gonna work for me,” Clack said.