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Amusing comparisons: CTA beats Metra by miles

I am greatly amused that the Tribune's Page 1 story on Monday took Metra to task for being stuck in the 20th century -- and in many cases used the CTA as an example of how a transit agency should be run. Some of that amusement comes from the fact that many Metra riders look at the CTA with such great disdain.

Here were some areas of comparisons:

  • Use of paper tickets.

Metra conductors still sell and check paper tickets, though regulars can buy monthly and weekly ride passes and 10-ride tickets. The CTA employs smart cards and makes rail customers buy transit cards. It stopped selling paper transfers years ago, and riders can only pay cash directly on buses. There are no train conductors, other than the motorman.

  • Credit cards.

Metra only allows riders to pay with cash or check. The CTA accepts credit and debit cards, and recently added special vending machines accepting both cards. It also allows the smart cards to be tied to debit and credit cards.

  • GPS tracking.

Metra uses GPS systems to track trains, and puts service alerts on its Web site. It's slated to put a train tracker on its Web site later this year. The CTA has Bus Tracker on more than half its buses, and is rolling out ad-sponsored big screen technology at rail stations this year.

  • Web site.

"The Metra Web site looks like an old paper [railroad] schedule posted on the Web," one transit expert told the Trib. The CTA debuted a much-improved Web site in December. It includes RSS feeds for status alerts continues to add new services, such as Bus Tracker route service alerts.

Finally, the story mentions Metra seat hogs, lack free wireless access, the demise of the bar cars and fewer on-board bathrooms.

Well, no one ever said the CTA was perfect!

Comments

These comparisons are apt. Metra's website has long been especially annoying with all the train schedules having to be in PDFs. I wasn't even aware that there were "bar cars" on Metra. They should have advertised this feature. One throwback, though is the fact that they do have conductors that roam the trains. Perhaps this is why we never hear of stabbings, shell games, "homeless" beggars, etc. on Metra trains.

ebob, I think you're confusing the Pace site with Metra. Metra's schedules are in plain html, which I find pretty convenient when I want to use it (if you assume the trains will be on time). CTA doesn't publish run schedules for trains. Metra's web site may not be snazzy, but it provides basic information quickly. Not sure if it's mobile compatible though.

The schedules, while annoying, are not moot like those of the cta and are certainly not PDFs

The Metra website is BRUTAL, like a Geocities site from 1994, but the system itself is remarkably well-run. The trains adhere to the schedules and I don't worry about any weirdos roaming around. I took it for a year when I lived in Ravenswood and was very rarely late to work. Brown line on the other hand...

Sorry, I guess it has been awhile since I've been on Metra's website. Still, it looks like something from the mid-90s.

Absolutely, the metra website is awful and is even worse on a "web-enabled phone". Still, I am confident in taking the train at 1am and feeling a hell of a lot safer than on a cta bus or train. What Metra lacks in frequency and coverage it makes up with safety and punctuality.

What's wrong with "looking like the '90s"? Web sites worked back then, without Javascript and CSS and layers of junk that slow down users and bandwidth while providing questionable benefits. The dropdown menus on the CTA's current site are annoying -- fortunately there's no content on the home page to speak of, so those menus don't cover anything up as similar menus elsewhere do.

And yes, I'd love to be able to commute via Metra again. When I lived in Ravenswood and worked in the South Loop, that was the best commute I've ever had.

I agree that Metra is safe, but part of that is a function of the destinations served, as well as the long distance between stops. If you jack someone on the Metra, you have to wait much longer to hop off the train. It isn't that Metra is better run. It is that Metra has a different coverage etc.

I think the conductors also serve an important function in keeping the train safe

Metra and the CTA are completely different systems that serve different purposes, so doing direct a direct comparison of the two is misleading at best.

Metra trains run at a much lower frequency than CTA trains so scheduling is more important (and easier). Expectations for the CTA are much higher as well. If a once every 40 minute Metra train is 3 or 4 minutes late most people won't even notice, but 3 or 4 minutes waiting for the CTA will seem like an eternity for some people. This also really reduces the usefulness of having something like CTA Bustracker for Metra - in general they are pretty good about posting service updates to their website.

The CTA is also controlled access with a much simpler rate structure, which makes ticketing completely different than Metra.

That said, Metra should do a better job of integrating credit card and Chicago Card payment options, as well as updating their website so you can at least view the schedules with a mobile device. It would also be nice if the CTA could have at least one conductor on each train.

If the Metra stopped at Peterson and Ridge, I'd kiss the Red Line goodbye.

I just read all the comments on that article. Those Trib commenters really are something else...yes the system generally works on schedule and yes it is a much better option than driving but wishing for the system to catch up to the 21st century does not make the person a whiner.

Currently Metra only publishes major service interruptions to their site. As someone who has busted my butt all too many times to get to the train station on time only to find that the train is running 10 minutes late, I for one would love something like Bustracker for Metra. It would be nice to know I have time to get a cup of coffee on the way, among other things.

In their defense on the paper ticketing, the open boarding that they are stuck with due to not being grade separated from street level is a major challenge. Collecting fares upon boarding would slow down crowded rush hour boarding to a crawl. The only viable alternatives seem to be the honor system with aggressive spot checks for enforcement, which is a fairly radical change, or an electronic fair system to be carried by conductors, fraught with potential glitches. I don't envy the committee whose task it is to make that decision.

"The trains adhere to the schedules and I don't worry about any weirdos roaming around."

Obviously you've never taken Metra on the weekends, Matt. It's a whole different system off-peak. Delays and weirdos are prevalent on the weekends.

"I think the conductors also serve an important function in keeping the train safe."

The assumption that someone in a uniform equals safety doesn't always live up to the reality. I've seen Metra conductors be too aggressive with passengers and escalate situations and I've also seen conductors ignore situations that might merit their attention because they're too busy chatting with fellow conductors in the vestibule.

Attrill is right. CTA and Metra are two completely different systems serving different areas with different equipment and different clientele. Comparing the two is unrealistic. I've had more than a few experiences where I took CTA one way and returned by Metra, or vice versa, and more than a few times the CTA experience was better. Riders' perception that Metra is always inherently better is not based on reality.

I'm glad they spotlighted the lack of machines to purchase tickets with a credit card. Their excuse of being too expensive does not make any sense since they could replace someone that they have to pay a salary, benefits, pension, etc. Plus, they might get more fare collection completed if they have to sell to less people on the train.

Adding GPS Train Tracker, updating their website to be mobile device compatible, taking out some toilets, will benefit riders and they should see increased ridership for it. I bet they could even charge for the Wi-Fi to pay for it, if it worked well enough. These are all rather easy updates that are no-brainers.

The tough nut to crack is the ticketing system and I don't see that improving any time soon. Fix the other stuff first.

I take Metra about half the time and the Blue line the other half. One of the issues Metra's system creates is free riders. I switched from a monthly ticket to a ten ride because between 1/3 and 1/2 of my trips were completed without a conductor ever coming around. Granted, I do not have a monster ride, but the fare is the same (basically) as the comparable CTA fare and collecting it is good for Metra.

As someone who regulary rides Metra, I have to occasionally take a break from it. I have also reguarly taken the red line. Right now I'm taking a break from Metra, I am regularly riding the 24 Wentworth bus. The worst thing about Metra is the riders. Yup. The riders. They are rude, more than rude, they are hostile. Metra riders try to do everything they can to discourage you from sitting next to them. They put their feet in the seats, they put their bags in the seat, and pretend not see you or hear you, when you say excuse me to sit down. And who wants to sit where someone had their dirty feet. No will ever offer a seat to an elderly person or a pregnant woman. They even have to be told, by the conductor, to move for a disabled person. I know CTA has the crazies and homeless, but when you get on a train, and someone sees you coming, they move their stuff. I have always seen someone who'll give up a seat for somone who needs it. I've had guys get up and offer me their seat, more than once. When a disabled person gets on the Wentworth bus, people just move, without having to be asked. I encounter much less hostility on CTA than Metra. On the Wentworth, the regulars all speak, and the driver is friendly and always asks how your day went. I'll probably eventually go back to Metra, because it's more convenient and faster, but sometimes I need a break from the hostiles.

"I just read all the comments on that article. Those Trib commenters really are something else..."

My god. You got that right. It is really wierd. The comments on almost every newspaper article are normally overwhelmingly negative about the subject being discussed, no matter how benign it is. Yet in this article it is the exact opposite. I made it through the first four pages and it seems that more than three-quarters of the comments are saying that Metra is the greatest thing since sliced bread and that it should just continue to make no changes at all to the way they operate the things being discussed.

It is especially bizarre considering that I don't see how anyone can say that they have an efficiant tickiting system. Yes, they cannot change it to make it exactly the way it is done at the CTA. They have an open boarding system and they would not to have at least one conductor per train anyway. But there are easy ways to make the system more efficiant. I've suggested before that they use smart cards that can be read by electronic readers on the seats. You would place your ticket on the seat in front of you, just like now. And then an electronic reader significes that you have paid with a green light. All the conductor has to do is walk through the train and make sure everyone's light is green. This means that there would only need to be one conductor instead of around 3 to 7 as there is now. In addition, they could get rid of all the ticket agents since everything would now be paid at vending machines (keep in mind that, in addition to downtown, there are around 100 ticket agents on duty at outlying stations across the system). It is much cheaper to stock and service vending machines than it is to employ ticket agents and conductors all over the place. Yes, it would cost money to install the electronic readers. But there is no doubt that the system would save much more in the long run. It will, of course, never happen because the labor unions have a huge amount of control over public leaders.

The argument that it would be more expensive for passengers if Metra accepts credit cards is ludicrous. Yes, there is a small transaction fee. But there are many people who choose not to use a service or purchase a good because they only except cash. The loss of business from these people dwarfs the transaction fee by far. Every other business of at least one-fiftieth Metra's size has asked itself whether it would lose or gain more by accepting credit cards. And all of them (seriously, can anyone think of a single exception) came to the opposite conclusion as Metra and accepts credit cards. You don't have to pass on an inreased price to customers since there will be more revenue. Unfortunetely, nobody even mentioned this in the first four pages of the comment thread. Maybe somebody did later.

Mike, the C&NW used to have a station at Ridge & Ravenswood. It was called Kenmore & was closed in the late 50s.
There was also a magnificent limestone station at Rosehill Dr. that was torn down in the late 60s or early 70s. All that's left is the old stairway to the northbound platform.

What the hell? Was it me or were the purple and red lines slow today? I take the purple from howard to belmont, then red line from belmont to garfield in the morning. Had to wait at least 10 minutes for the red line around 10 am at belmont. I could've gotten on the red line at howard and arrived at my final dest. at about the same time. Then for the ride on the round trip home. Slow again on the red and purple, though I didn't have a wait at Belmont (around 7:20 pm). I don't think it was the weather (but I don't know with certainty that this wasn't the case). Just slow.

re: thewestwring's comment: personally, when I see someone plainly trying to take up an extra seat by placing their purse on it or whatever, I go directly to that seat to sit down, even if other seats are clear, figuring I'm doing my part, however small, to disincentivize this sort of antisocial behavior. I would encourage others to do the same!

MK: credit cards, per se, do not increase customer volume so much. Rather, accepting credit cards prevents a loss of customers to competitors who do accept credit cards. For most riders, Metra does not really have competitors other than driving. And typically the differences between Metra and driving are large enough that whether or not Metra takes credit cards is not going to be enough to tip the balance for more than a tiny number of riders.

That said, I'm all for Metra accepting credit cards. The idea that it wouldn't cost anything, however, is wishful thinking. Metra fares are already low, however, so if they have to go up by a few cents to compensate for credit card fees, then so be it.

"And typically the differences between Metra and driving are large enough that whether or not Metra takes credit cards is not going to be enough to tip the balance for more than a tiny number of riders."

That's just not true. It is important to keep in mind that there is a huge range of purposes for which people use Metra. Yes, the majority of people use it to travel to work downtown where parking is enormously expensive. So Metra has a huge advantage in these circumstances. But these are far from its only customers. Tens of thousands of people use the service on the weekends or to come into the city on an evening when parking downtown is generally much more convenient and not all that more expensive than a taking the train (especially when you are travelling in groups as people normally do at these times). Also, a fairly large number of people reverse commute or travel to areas of the city (such as the north side) where parking is not expensive or free. In fact, riders of Metra have a very small market share of all travelers in these cases. So the question of whether to use the service or whether to drive is a very open one. It is even a close call for some people who work downtown. People may live very far from a rail station and perhaps therefore be tempted to drive, even when they are spending significantelly more.

So in all these cases, the question over whether Metra accepts credit cards undoubtadly is a factor in people's decisions. It certainly is only a factor for a small minority of people. But that is all that is needed for Metra to lose more revenue than it gains from only accepting cash. The transaction fee is around 2%. So if one person doesn't purchase $50 worth of tickets (two ten rides or one monthly, whatever) it would have to take hundreds of ticket sales to make up for that. You can do the math. Metra also saves money in processing costs. So the spin coming from their PR person doesn't make any sense.

Metra reminds me of the way the Blackhawks were run with Bill Wirtz at the helm. Their leadership is stubbern and do not change with the times. They operate the same way they always have just because that is the way it has always been done. The ticketing system is far from the only example. They still schedule their trains as if it was still 1970 and there were almost no reverse commuters. I think the RTA or the legislature needs to force new leadership in there.

You know, sometimes there's a greater good, and I'm happy that Metra employs people instead of machines. I'm happy that Metra keeps commuting costs down in one of the most expensive cities in the world by avoiding unnecessary credit card processing fees.

Metra's web site is really embarrassingly hideous and outdated. Do they have any plans to update that??

>You know, sometimes there's a greater good, and I'm happy that Metra employs people instead of machines.

Point taken, but it would still be nice to be able to purchase a 10-ride ticket when the ticket booth is closed, every afternoon in the outlying stations, or at stations already unmanned. Ticket machines could easily make sales more convenient without replacing people.

[So if one person doesn't purchase $50 worth of tickets (two ten rides or one monthly, whatever) it would have to take hundreds of ticket sales to make up for that.]

Don't they do "hundreds of ticket sales?" Millions, in fact?

Maybe I'm misunderstanding what you're saying. But in order to make the extra fifty bucks you're talking about, they'd also have to pay fees on potentially millions of tickets that would be bought with credit cards that they sell for cash now.

Having switched from taking the CTA to taking Metra I have to say there's no comparison. All the AJAX website, credit card accepting, and bus tracking in the world doesn't make up for the fact that it takes me 7 minutes (regardless of the weather) to get from downtown to Western and Grand as opposed 35 minutes+ for a Grand Ave bus. Oh I have to use a schedule...how terribly difficult. I don't want Metra using money on new websites and technology like credit card payment processing if it takes funds away from core transit functions, which these projects would do. I remember that Metra implemented turnstyles and pre-boarding tickets on the Southshore electric, but was forced to pull all that out since it targeted non-paying customers.

Having switched from taking the CTA to taking Metra I have to say there's no comparison. All the AJAX website, credit card accepting, and bus tracking in the world doesn't make up for the fact that it takes me 7 minutes (regardless of the weather) to get from downtown to Western and Grand as opposed 35 minutes+ for a Grand Ave bus. Oh I have to use a schedule...how terribly difficult. I don't want Metra using money on new websites and technology like credit card payment processing if it takes funds away from core transit functions, which these projects would do. I remember that Metra implemented turnstyles and pre-boarding tickets on the Southshore electric, but was forced to pull all that out since it targeted non-paying customers.

"You know, sometimes there's a greater good, and I'm happy that Metra employs people instead of machines."

That kind of thinking is what causes our area to have the highest sales tax in the nation and is what is causing Pat Quinn to propose a measly 2% spending cut (as opposed to numerous corporations, even reletively healthy ones, that our cutting by around 10% or more in these times) and a 50% income tax increase. You may like to feel good that these people are employed but the reality is they cost far more money than machines. So therefore, there will be higher ticket prices. As a result of that, people have less money to spend and will make fewer purchases at area business. And guess what? These places employ people too. So you can make yourself feel like you are a wonderful caring person by opposing technological change but the reality is doing so doesn't even accomplish your goals. The more efficiant everything is run, even if jobs are lost in the way, the more total people who are employed in the long run.

Ray,

One of the worst things that can ever be done is to give people jobs that are clearly not neccessary. To have ticket agents work in stations next to machines that do the same work as them does nothing except needlessly raise cost and make it clear to these employees that their jobs are only there as a courtesy. I wouldn't want a job like that. Would you?

"Maybe I'm misunderstanding what you're saying. But in order to make the extra fifty bucks you're talking about, they'd also have to pay fees on potentially millions of tickets that would be bought with credit cards that they sell for cash now."

What I'm saying is that it would take hundreds of tickets with 2% transaction fees for the transaction fee to equal the loss of one customer who decides not to purchase a $50 ticket as a result of their no credit card policy. So the argument that the transaction fee would cause the need for an increased cost passed on to the passenger is not correct. It is worth mentioning again that I am not aware of a single legal business of at least one-fiftieth Metra's size that does not accept credit cards. If they believed that they lose more money than the gain via the cards than they wouldn't accept them. Yet they all came to the opposite conclusion as Metra. Does anybody really believe that Metra is right and they are wrong?

Metra is a good service for what they have to do. For me, in Ravenswood, it's *extremely* convenient -- how about two stops to downtown, instead of 14 for the Brown Line from Damen? No wonder Metra is faster!

As far as the ticketing -- sure, it's pretty frustrating to buy a monthly pass, and see people ride free to and/or from downtown 25% of the time. But, the seats are way better, the trains actually run on a schedule (though nowhere *near* as frequently or as conveniently as CTA trains/buses), and you can eat and drink if you want. There are even trash cans!

A lot of Metra people will passively/aggressively try to discourage you from either sitting next to them, or trying to squeeze by them in the upper aisles. Fortunately, the herd mentality of the rush-hour CTA gives you all the necessary tools -- though all you really need is the, "Hi, I'm sitting here" attitude. They move their sh*t pretty quick..

There almost certainly are people who will decide to use another form of transportation, or even skip a trip if the method of payment is too difficult. The question is how big of a number do we want to speculate that is.

How many people in their rush from the house one morning suddenly realize that they they forgot to buy more tickets, and they've barely got enough cash for a coffee in their pocket? Stopping at an ATM might make them so late they'll miss the train, so they decide to drive to work.

And what happens if they discover that the drive in was nicer than they remembered, and they start driving more often... or even give up the train entirely?

There goes another regular rider!

Now how many times does this happen each month? How many times has it happened already? How many times will it happen in the future?

I really don't think my scenerio is very contrived. And I'm sure there are numerous other reasons why METRA lost riders because they don't take credit or debit cards.

It's 2009. Even Burger King takes plastic. They need to get with the program.

Either that, or they should start putting disco balls in the cars, and dress the conductors in leisure suits. If they're going to pretend it's still the '70s, they should go all the way.

The people running out of the house, late for work, that don't have enough money on them for the fare are probably the people on the Metra that duck away and pretend like they've already paid their fare to avoid it. Even the ones that would only pay about $2.35 -- trust me, it's pretty prevalent. I guess if you regularly carry less than $10 in cash, you may decide to drive -- though, depending on where you're going, you may pay more than that just for parking. Otherwise, you know what the price is for a train ride..

Never fear, the gentleman from Grayslake is on it. From today's Sun-Times:

"A suburban legislator will introduce a bill today requiring Metra to accept credit cards for ticket sales. 'It's amazing how the system seems to operate like it's the 1930s,' said state Sen. Michael Bond (D-Grayslake), who rides Metra about five times a month."

Introduce legislation? Right, because there aren't any really burning issues facing our state these days. He rides five times a month? I ride Metra at least five times a month and I seem to deal with getting myself down to OTC regularly enough to buy a ten ride with cash. Of course my ten ride lasts an extra long time because it doesn't get punched half the time, but I won't start beating that dead horse again.

[The more efficiant everything is run, even if jobs are lost in the way, the more total people who are employed in the long run.]

Here's an argument I don't think I've ever encountered: layoffs as stimulus.

[Either that, or they should start putting disco balls in the cars, and dress the conductors in leisure suits. If they're going to pretend it's still the '70s, they should go all the way.]

I'm actually not opposed to credit cards, but this sounds like a much better idea. I'd let Metra take me to Funkytown.

[What I'm saying is that it would take hundreds of tickets with 2% transaction fees for the transaction fee to equal the loss of one customer who decides not to purchase a $50 ticket as a result of their no credit card policy.]

This isn't the right way to think about it. The 2% transaction fee lowers Metra's profit margin on those riders by two percentage points. Whatever dollar amount that *lost profit* adds up to in total, you cannot compare that directly to the *incremental revenue* from additional tickets that might be sold as a result of accepting credit cards. You would have to compare the total loss of profit from current sales that switch to credit cards with the profit margin on the increased sales that might be triggered by Metra's acceptance of credit cards.

That said, it might be the case that Metra can add a lot of incremental riders without much of an increase in cost. After all, it's a capital-intensive service, and spreading those capital costs over a greater number of riders should be profitable (or reduces operating losses, as the case may be). Eliminating ticket agents almost certainly saves more in labor costs than ticket machines cost to install and operate, at least over the medium term. So those new riders might have a higher profit margin compared with the existing sales.

How many riders do you think are avoiding Metra just because they don't accept credit cards? I imagine that number is pretty small..

Time to take action! The Transit Rider's Alliance is asking those who want Metra to accept credit cards to fill out an email form to send to your state legislators in favor of Bond's bill.

http://salsa.democracyinaction.org/o/2228/t/7419/campaign.jsp?campaign_KEY=26935

While Metra's old-fashionedness can drive me nuts, I find it rather quaintly reassuring in a way. It's like a throwback to British Rail in the 1970s when a CEO named Peter Parker was running the company exceptionally well and BR managers were the prize recruits of other British corporations -- punctual, very efficient for what it does, accident- and drama-free but with a deeply old-fashioned public image.

But here's the problem -- they don't play nice with other transit agencies. In this day and age you need to be able to make multi-modal journeys. You need better enforcement against fare dodgers. You need a service that is more versatile than just getting you into town in the morning and back out in the evening.

There are some things Metra can do themselves, with a little help from the fare-paying passenger and the state and federal governments. More frequent service. More consideration to station stops that connect with other forms of transport (e.g. on the UP-N line in Chicago where that Peterson-and-Ravenswood idea mentioned above sounds like a great plan to me, right on the #84 bus and with a diagonal street to make it that much more accessble to pedestrians). More consideration of reverse commuting and discretionary travel when setting schedules. More ambition with regard to frequency of service. Some of these things Metra is already doing with proposals for capacity improvements on select routes and finally a serious interest in suburb-to-suburb routes.

But some of the other improvements would require CTA cooperation. This is particularly true of ticketing, and it seems somewhat pointless for Metra to invest heavily in an electronic system until they can get agreement with the CTA about a single system that works throughout Northeastern Illinois for all transit.

After weekend ridership exploded on the UP North last year due to high gas prices, regular users were really happy when Metra woke up and smelled the coffee and realized maybe they should attach a few more coaches to the locomotives so that people weren't standing on top of each other before the train finally left the city.

Customer responsiveness doesn't seem like one of their greater interests. Ever tried to reach customer service at Metra? You have to write them snail mail or call between the hours of 8am to 5pm on weekdays. Once you make contact, you will realize Metra's customer service department could actually use some training from the CTA customer service people who actually do their job.

Right, that's another thing. Metra doesn't even have a way you can contect them via e-mail. It is truly unbelievable. Another thing worth mentioning is that every summer they advertise with THE EXACT SAME TELEVISION COMMERCIAL they have used for probably around a dozen years at least (it wouldn't surprise me if it was actually several decades). Who else has used the same advertisements for even two or three years, let alone a dozen? Nobody. And it is a pretty awful commercial to top it off.

"Here's an argument I don't think I've ever encountered: layoffs as stimulus."

Well, you apperently haven't been looking far if you've never encountered the argument that efficiancies in government agencies help the economy for the taxpayers supporting those agencies. Just one year ago, the argument that we should keep inefficiant government jobs in order to prevent layoffs would have been considered radical by most people.

"You would have to compare the total loss of profit from current sales that switch to credit cards with the profit margin on the increased sales that might be triggered by Metra's acceptance of credit cards."

That's what I am comparing. If you are quibbling over whether I am comparing the marginal profit or the revenue it really is almost meaningless. Metra's marginal cost for a person using the service is close to nothing. It's costs are already payed for. It's basically just the cost to print the ticket and for the employee who is selling it (the latter, at least, would be reduced if they modernize their system). So the marginal profit and the marginal revenue are almost the same.

Joe Blow,

Yes it is a small number. I already conceeding as much. But like I said, the amount of people who are dettered from using the service because of credit cards not being accepted doesn't have to be large for it to offset the 2% transaction fee.

The CTA doesn't accept credit/debit cards at a lot of stations, either. Not to mention trying to buy a daily/monthly pass. I think the amount of people that would be deterred from taking the CTA due to debit/credit card issues would be *way* higher than the number that wouldn't take the Metra due to the same. It's a completely different service & clientele..

>>>
How many riders do you think are avoiding Metra just because they don't accept credit cards? I imagine that number is pretty small..
<<<

Avoiding? I don't think anyone is "avoiding" them. I do think that people are making choices that involve more convinience when they don't have cash in hand but have plastic ready, and that some of those people never return.

They're not "avoiding" METRA. METRA is avoiding providing them service.

Frankly, I rarely carry more than $20 (if that much) in cash unless I'm planning ahead because I know I'll need more. And my checkbook doesn't leave my desk. I know a lot of people who do the same. It's very possible to live without carrying around a lot of cash.

So either I need to plan ahead to ride METRA. Not just because I have to check the schedule, but because I have to factor in time to stop at an ATM, too. I'm not "avoiding" METRA. But if I'm pressed for time, they've lost a customer.

Next time I might plan ahead better, and come back, but not everyone will come back.

I totally agree with MK that the increase in sales will off-set the cost of processing credit card transactions.

I know some people might find that hard to swallow, but a few years ago who would have thought that so many fast food restaurants would accept credit cards? The increase in sales off-sets those processing costs, even when you're just talking burgers and fries. And I'm positive it would be the same for commuter rail fares.

I don't think accepting credit cards will increase their revenues by attracting new riders, or by making it easier for people who don't carry cash. The nature of Metra schedules means you plan ahead at least a bit to take it, it's not like just walking to a CTA platform and waiting for the next train, you need to know the schedule.

What can increase revenues is streamlining the fare collection process. If conductors can just enter the boarding and departing stations on a digital device and sweep a card (credit, Chicago, etc.) it will allow them to check more riders between stops. I don't see many people actively trying to avoid paying fares, but there is no way conductors can check everyone on a crowded train in the 4 minutes it takes to go from Clybourn to Ravenswood. Having ticketing kiosks at the stations will help as well.

Having a website that can be read by a mobile device would probably help some as well. There have been plenty of times I've been at a bar and tried to decipher the schedule to see if I can use Metra or have to take a cab or CTA. I always end up taking a cab.

I have to agree that it makes all kinds of sense for Metra to accept credit cards, even though I'm a dinosaur who pays with cash whenever possible, by check when necessary, and with a credit card only when it can't be practically avoided.

But disco balls in the cars and leisure suits for the conductors, hey, that's a pretty hard prospect to resist. No reason Metra couldn't do both, of course. :-)

On the card front, I understand that processing fees are lower for debit-with-pin transactions. Therefore, my modest proposal for increasing convenience without impacting revenue would be to at least accept these, if not credit cards.

MK, ticket agents already work beside ticket vending machines at Millenium Station on the Metra Electric, to no ill effect that I am aware of (at least they used to...I haven't been down there for a while). Commuters can go right to the machines, but if you want to write a check or have a question answered, you can talk to a human being. They serve a purpose, and are not just redundant.

[the amount of people who are dettered from using the service because of credit cards not being accepted doesn't have to be large for it to offset the 2% transaction fee.]

Yes it does, though, because it also has to offset all of the tickets that people pay for now with cash but would pay with credit/debit cards if they had the chance.

Again, this is a very important part of the consideration. We're not just talking about new riders here - we're talking about people, potentially a very significant percentage of riders, who are current customers who wouldn't pay with cash if they didn't have to.

"Yes it does, though, because it also has to offset all of the tickets that people pay for now with cash but would pay with credit/debit cards if they had the chance."

No, it has to offset 2% of the revenue from these tickets. That's not very much. Like Rusty said, there are A LOT of people who routinely carry a very small amount of money. So as a result, many people are going to drive or take cabs (or take the CTA) if they realize they don't have enough money with them to take the train. If there is an ATM at the train station that happens to be from their bank then maybe that will save Metra from losing a customer. But most people avoid the fees that result from using other bank's ATMs. I know the few times I end up doing that and pay around $6.50 in fees I always consider it a personal failure of mine to plan ahead. So even if a cab ride or parking still ends up being more expensive than a train ticket + ATM fees many people will still decide it is worth it if it would be more convenient anyways. And it has been more than five years since the last time I even carried any checks out of my house (and I'm not sure I even have any, if so I have no idea where I put them). So that doesn't solve anything for many people. It really seems abundently clear that Metra's argument of "oh, we would have to pass along the fee to the customers" is ludicrous. And this is before we even analyze that decreased cost for Metra to process credit cards as opposed to cash.

It's worth mentioning again, no other legal business that I know of that is least one-fiftieth Metra's size does not accept credit cards. Everybody else looked at whether they would gain or lose more by taking plastic and ALL of them concluded that it made sense to do so. Does anybody really believe that all of them are wrong and Metra is right? And please don't use the argument that Metra is a monopoly. The often repeated myth that there are not many people who have good alternatives to transit is not something you would think that people here would believe.

I'm amused by the people who think there aren't that many people who don't plan ahead before a METRA trip because they always plan ahead.

Well, that's so nice for you. But that's not the real world. People routinely don't plan for major purchases. Do you really think everyone is as organized as you are, and plan ahead for a METRA trip? Ha!

The "they shouldn't bother because *I* would never benefit" argument is myopic.

Many people live near cashless lives. It's reached the point that one big concern of vending machine opperators is how to deal with the loss of revenue because so many people don't carry enough cash to make an impulse purchase from a vending machine!

The danger in METRA not accepting credit cards isn't just the lost riders who make different choices for that one time they didn't plan ahead. The danger is the regular riders they lose after they find out they prefer the alternative to METRA after that one time.

Anyone who thinks that METRA is so darn unique that they can survive just fine without accepting plastic just isn't looking at the whole picture. Burger King realized how much business they were loosing by not accepting credit cards for Whopper Jr. purchases ages ago, and as soon as credit card processing fees dropped low enough years ago, they jumped.

METRA just isn't paying attention to the real world, and/or they're being run by stubborn myopic luddites who have no idea how many people have lead near-cashless lives and for how long they've been doing so.

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