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Has Metra's 'Way to Really Fly' slogan reached the end of the line?

Metra's long-time slogan will be under review as the commuter rail agency undertakes a $4 million re-branding effort. | Sun-Times file photo

Metra’s “Way to Really Fly” slogan could take a nose dive under a $4 million marketing deal announced Wednesday after a bigger-than-expected drop in ridership.

Officials hope the three-year contract with Pulsar Advertising will help the commuter rail agency gain 10,000 weekday riders, a feat that could generate $15 million a year.

The scope of work with Pulsar is so different from past efforts that Metra Chairman Martin Oberman hailed the deal as the start of “a new and exciting era.”

“We’ve never really done this — or at least not in modern history,” Oberman said during a Metra board meeting Wednesday.

Pulsar is expected to conduct a “customer segmentation study,” organize focus groups and administer surveys to identify and target groups of potential new riders.

The aim is to “re-energize” the commuter rail agency “to reflect a new Metra that is innovative, technologically savvy, and in touch with the next generation of commuter rail riders,” according to a contract summary released Wednesday.

Some upgrades have been an uphill battle. Metra only recently launched a long-awaited free Wi-Fi pilot in one car of each of its 11 lines. It introduced charging stations last year at its downtown stations. And it finally began offering mobile ticketing late last year. In the meantime, uniformed conductors still punch paper tickets.

Pulsar’s work will include an assessment of Metra’s current brand, so even Metra’s slogan of “The Way to Really Fly” — which dates back to 1986 — could be on the chopping block.

“Part of the research will include a review of Metra’s current brand and our tagline is one component of that. So yes, it’s a possibility that the slogan could change,’’ Metra spokeswoman Wendy Abrams said.

Pulsar, a full-service marketing agency, has represented the New York Metropolitan Transportation Authority, the Virginia Railway Express and MARC service in the greater Washington/Baltimore region.

It was among nine firms to respond to last fall’s request for proposals for a marketing agency to partner with Metra on “re-imagining its brand” and helping it boost ridership.

At the time, Metra had anticipated a 1.1 percent 2015 ridership drop due to a nearly 11 percent fare increase in February 2015. That hike was the first of 10 planned to upgrade Metra’s fleet, bankroll a new safety mandate and cover typical annual increases in operating expenses.

However, figures released Wednesday indicated last year’s ridership took an even bigger hit than projected. It dropped 2.1 percent, sending passenger revenue tumbling $1.4 million more than expected.

Metra ridership over time.

Officials pointed the finger at the lowest gas prices since 2008.

Ridership on each of Metra’s lines fell last year, with Metra Electric dipping the most — down 3.8 percent.

Metra’s $4 million, three-year marketing deal follows the Regional Transportation Authority’s $5 million, three-year advertising campaign sealed in 2014 with Downtown Partners.

The RTA deal produced “Ride On” commercials aimed at conveying the benefits of using Metra, the CTA or Pace, all of which the RTA oversees.

Abrams called the RTA’s “Ride On” commercials part of an “umbrella campaign” rather than a Metra-specific effort.

One RTA board member last year pointed to dropping ridership across the region in questioning whether the “Ride On” effort was working. RTA officials responded that peer transit agencies were experiencing even bigger ridership tumbles.

On the good news front, data released Wednesday indicated Metra last year experienced the best on-time rate since at least 2010; 96.2 percent of its trains were on time in 2015.

Also Wednesday, Metra announced that its Heritage Corridor Line will add a long-awaited mid-afternoon departure from Chicago.

Beginning March 14, a Heritage train will leave Union Station at 2:45 p.m. each weekday and stop in Summit, Willow Springs, Lemont and Lockport before arriving in Joliet at 3:50 p.m.

The new run is the result of years of attempts to add service to the Heritage Corridor. It required agreements from Canadian National, which owns the tracks and uses them for freight service, and Amtrak, the owner of Union Station.