Checking that Metra fares are actually collected on all trains will be a top priority of new “proactive” undercover teams that doubled in size this week, officials said Wednesday.
The six undercover employees, up from three, also will be observing conductor and ticket agent performance and checking onboard, station and parking lot conditions.
Monitoring of fare collection practices should be especially helpful over summer months, when Metra often sees new or infrequent riders who are unfamiliar with its payment system, Metra spokesman Michael Gillis said.
Plus, this will be the first summer when riders can use their smartphones to show conductors tickets they purchased with the Ventra app.
Metra conductors are supposed to pass through every train to check for paper or mobile-app tickets, although packed trains during marquee Chicago summer events can make that task difficult to impossible.
Previously, Gillis said, Metra’s monitoring of fare collections was more “reactive” and “if we had a complaint, we’d investigate the complaint.”
But about six months ago, Metra turned “proactive” by using three employees to ride trains undercover to monitor fare collections and other operations, Gillis said. The undercover team will be doubled this week to six.
“We owe it to our customers to try to collect fares from everyone who uses our service,’’ Metra CEO Don Orseno said Wednesday.
Undercover team members, like “Secret Shoppers,” are supposed to “go out like John Q. Public” and “see what the customers see,’’ Orseno said. They also will be hunting for examples of superior Metra customer service, he said.
The six-member team will be deployed about 10 times a week and produce, in total, 40 train observation reports a month, Gillis said. By summer’s end, they should cover all 11 Metra lines.
During Metra’s monthly board meeting Wednesday, Gillis also announced that a new Metra home page and other updated Metra website features will debut next month. The home page will include a link to a “geographic train tracker” that will allow visitors to see an illustration of each line and where trains are located on that line in real time.
The meeting kicked off with the announcement from a visitor, Linda Thisted, that about a dozen South Side and south suburban organizations have formed a new coalition to push for the conversion of Metra’s Electric Line to a more CTA-like, rapid transit service, with trains running every 10 to 15 minutes throughout the day and evening.
Unlike other lines, Metra’s only electric-powered line does not share tracks with freight trains. It was originally built as a rapid transit line with level boarding, so it’s an ideal candidate for an expansion that could better connect Chicago’s South Side and south suburbs to jobs downtown and northward, Thisted said.
A low-cost transfer between the upgraded Electric Line, CTA and Pace also would be needed, Thisted said. Ultimately, the new Coalition for a Modern Metra Electric would like to see an expanded Electric Line take riders to McCormick Place and then O’Hare via Union Station, she said.
“We will work with elected officials to achieve these goals, but of course, we cannot go forward without Metra’s support,’’ Thisted told board members.
She asked Metra to produce a cost estimate of such a conversion, as well as the cost of switching to a distance-based, tap-on, tap-off card payment system on all three Electric Branches so the coalition can start lobbying for funding.
The idea of converting the Electric Line to more of a rapid transit system has been kicking around for decades. Former South Sider Michael Payne has been pushing it since 1996, when he submitted his idea for a “Gray Line” to a CTA contest. Payne, whose Gray Line would end at 115th Street, showed up at Wednesday’s board meeting to support the new coalition, which favors University Park as the southern end point.
Another version of the concept, called the “Gold Line,” was touted in 2009 by South Side activists who envisioned it as part of Chicago’s failed plans for the 2016 Summer Olympics.
Modern Metra Electric coalition member Walt Kindred of the Southeast Side said there’s an Electric Line station right in his community, at 79th Street, but it’s too costly for many minimum wage workers to use. They prefer a less expensive mix of CTA buses and trains instead to head to work, he said, so a low-cost transfer between the CTA and the Electric Line is greatly needed.
Orseno later told reporters that he wants to talk internally with staff and with board members about the idea, although he might work up a “rough” financial analysis.
Orseno also cautioned that other projects are “in the queue” and well ahead of any expanded Electric service, including a study of whether Metra’s BNSF Line should be extended past Aurora in Kendall County to possibly as far as Plano or Sandwich.
Metra is resuming an engineering and environmental study of that project after Kendall County officials signed off on an analysis that should determine the total costs and potential environmental impacts of the project. It could hit more than $200 million, and Kendall County would need to find a funding stream to support it, Metra officials said.