Thursday, March 5, 2009

Freaking Metra

Yesterday (Wednesday) I had a horrendous commute. I left the house about 5:50 AM. AM! I arrived back home at 8:50 PM. PM! I was gone from the house for 15 hours. The sad part, well there are several sad parts, was I only worked about 9 of those hours. So I didn’t get to see my family AND I didn’t get as much done at work as one would hope being gone all day.

The story of my commuting woes began when I got a new job. Yay! The main downside with my new job is where it is located. It is about 40 miles from my house and there is no one direct path. So before I began my job I started searching for the best path. I spent a great deal of time searching the various web-sites and figuring out what my different options were. The question became should I take the train or drive.

My first consideration was time. What was the fastest route that started with me taking the train. This is where I ran into the first huh; about the Metra. Trains often do not stop at all stops. It turned out that on my way home the train NEVER stops at both the station I need and the one where my car is parked. So to come home I have to ride a bus, then ride the Green line, then ride the Metra. All said it should take about 2 hours.

The week before I started I did a take-the-train test run; I drove to the train station, rode the train, CTA bus to WMS, then the same bus back to the green line (CTA train), the green line to Oak Park where I learn they have a manned Metra station. I will have to make a note of that. Then I rode the train (Metra) to West Chicago and then drove home. It went pretty well. It takes more time but its more relaxing.

I decided I would drive the first couple weeks so that while I was brand new I would have the most flexibility. Then I would spend a couple weeks taking the train. With the plan being that I would decide which is better once I have done both.

The next big HUH moment was a two parter. ONE - You can’t buy Metra tickets anywhere expect manned train stations. You can buy CTA tickets lots of places. TWO – You can buy them “online”. To buy tickets “online” you have to down and printout a form that you then have to fill out and snail-mail it back to them, then wait for them to mail you an ID in. THEN you can go online and buy tickets that you then have to wait for them to mail you!

Now lets fast forward to this week; my first week riding the train:

The plan was to pay the full fare inbound and then on my way home I would buy a 10-ride ticket at the Oak Park station where they have a person on duty. The day goes well until, on my way home at 7pm, I get to Oak Park and see a sign at the ticket office: “OFFICE CLOSED; BUY YOUR TICKETS ON THE TRAIN”. A stupid hand drawn sign; a sharpie on a torn piece of corrugated cardboard. Something that one might do in an emergency if they had to leave in a hurry. I will learn later that the train stations are only manned from 5am until 1pm each day. So I get on the train expecting to pay the full fair and no one comes buy to collect my money. I don’t see a single conductor all the way home. BONUS.

I am resigned to, for these 3 days pay full fair on the train and I lament about this to my morning conductor while he takes my money. I tell him that I can’t buy any form of discount tickets and why. After a couple minutes he returns to me with a plan. He shows me a train schedule and suggested that if I show up a few minutes early Wednesday morning and ride the previous train I can then get off in Wheaton, where there is a manned station, buy my 10-ride ticket, and then get back on the next train, meaning my normal train, a few minutes later. This was a great suggestion by the conductor, Nick.

I get up and hurry through my morning; I skip shaving and other things to get out the door early to catch the earlier train. I get on that train and the conductor comes by to collect my money. I tell him I am getting off in Wheaton, buying a ticket and then getting back on the next train. He charges me anyway for my trip to Wheaton which is about half my normal fare. I don’t care cause I am a man on a mission.

I get off in Wheaton and I am debating weather or not I should get two 10-ride tickets. One for my morning commute which is longer and cost more and one for my evening commute. (SIDE NOTE – I find it really petty that the Metra is all worried about how far someone is traveling. OH you are going 3 more miles than him 50 cents more please. They have a huge complicated chart to describe the different fares like you were going across country or something. The CTA is very clean and efficient. You pay to get on and then ride all you want till you get off.) The total for both will be about $80 so I pull out my debit card and the man at the manned station says “Sorry we don’t take plastic. We never have” WHAT! Isn’t this 2009? I don’t have $80 cash and there were no ATMs. AND what the hell do I care weather or not you ever have? What does that mean? “Well we never needed any of them new-fangled contraptions so I reckon we still don’t.” They do take personal checks though!

I am so livid. I don’t buy any tickets and then my train comes. I get on it and there is Nick. I tell him his plan was great except YOU DON’T TAKE PLASTIC. I actually didn’t yell at Nick. “I have worked here 35 years and we have never taken plastic” WHAT THE HELL DOES THAT MEAN?! (Should an emotional sentence end with a “?!” or “!?” ? I think the first one.) How is not moving into the 21st century a good thing?! Ugh. Then he reminds me that since I didn’t buy a ticket at station where there was a manned man he normally should charge me the $2 surcharge on top of my normal fare but he decided to let me off this time. He also said “You should have bought a full the first time and told the guy you were just hopping off to get back on the next train. Then I would not have had to buy two tickets. Ugh.

I made it to work without anymore incident.

I decided to leave 30 minutes early to get home in time for dinner with the family for a change. On my way home the wait for the green line was longer than their scheduled 7 to 10 minutes. When it does arrive I get on and I look at my watch. I had just enough time to get to the Metra station to catch my train. There is nothing I can do about it either way since I am committed. Just before we get to where I get off the CTA train comes to a stop and we sit there. An announcer tells us that we will be going again shortly. I then see my Metra train pull up along side us, stop, and then pull away. I now have 30 more minutes, yay!

(This next part is not the Metra’s fault. I take the blame.)
So I grab a Danish, a Pepsi, and a bench near the bottom of the platform. About 6 minutes before the train is due I hear what I think is the train but while I was waiting I heard many trains come and go so I am not sure. I start heading up the ramp to the platform when someone at the top opens the flood gate and dozens of people are now headed my way. The ramp is very narrow and its difficult to get through. Right as I get to the top the train closes their doors and pulls away. I now have 60 more minutes to wait for the next train. I cant believe I just missed the train twice.

Before I started this process my expectations were that the Metra would be excellent in all things and the CTA would not be. I also expected the train would be cheaper than driving and its not for me once you figure in everything.

On one side they have a really haphazard way to collect the money. If the conductor walks past you before you get off you have to pay them. If he doesn’t then it’s free. On the other hand these people are so worried about you tricking them with internet shenanigans.

Carpe Diam