Recently, I made the jump from a job in the suburbs of Chicago, to something a little more suited to my long-term career goals, in the city. As most job changes go, they aren’t always going to happen in conjunction with other important dates in your life, such as your lease end date for your suburban apartment. What this meant for me is - learning how to take the train downtown from the suburbs. Where I had become very comfortable driving 10 minutes to my old job, I would be undertaking a massive commuter effort to get from my suburban apartment to the city on a daily basis.
This was going to be the easy part, I thought. A few things to know:
- Metra does offer monthly, unlimited ride tickets, and you can have these be ordered for you on a recurring monthly basis without you having to do anything. They will just show up in your mailbox each month. Here is the fare schedule for Metra tickets.
- The monthly tickets can only be ordered for a certain amount of time during each month. So, if you need to order these tickets, make sure you order within that window. It starts on the 1st of the month and goes for a few days after that.
- The monthly tickets you're ordering will be for the next month. I purchased my monthly ticket on August 1st, thinking I would get the monthly ticket for August, but it actually came for September. Because of this, you may need to get a few of the 10-ride tickets to accommodate the weeks prior to being able to use your monthly pass for the next month.
- Lastly, and this is a random one, but the billing address for your credit card must match the address where you want your ticket to be mailed to each month.
Parking really depends on which station you are going to be coming from. I am purely talking about the BNSF line right now, as that’s the one I am taking. The Metra website has station listings for all of the lines and stations with information on parking for that station. This information can be found under the “Maps & Schedules” page.
- Choose your train line from the list on the left.
- Choose "Stations" from the middle of the page
- Find your station in the list, click on it, and then look for the parking link.
All of the stations which I wanted to park at offer both monthly permit parking, as well as daily fee parking spaces. The monthly permit spaces at all of the stations around my apartment have waiting lists of at least 12 months with one of them being over 2 years. You can put your name on a waitlist and then get a spot once you are chosen, but it could take up to 2 years at some stations.
In the meantime, you will need to use the daily fee parking, or find other way to get there. The daily fee parking is fairly simple, at least where I park. You just pull into a spot and each spot has a number. You open the parking app on your phone, put in the space number, and then it automatically charges to your credit card for the day. You can also use the pay stations to pay your parking fee. The parking app charges a $.50 convenience fee to use it instead of using a pay station.
Schedules & Delays
The schedules are fairly straightforward and can all be found on the Metra website. This information can be found under the “Maps & Schedules” page.
- Choose your train line from the list on the left.
- Choose "Schedules" from the middle of the page
- I find the PDF schedule to be the most helpful, as it gives a holistic view of all of the train times
It’s also nice to get one of the small, wallet-sized, paper schedules during your first time at the Metra station. It’s just handy to keep in your bag.
Obviously, you’re going to want to try and get on an express train, if possible. Express trains only run around the time of morning rush hour and evening rush hour. Familiarize yourself with the express routes that go to and from your home station and try and get into a routine.
Metra experiences a lot of delays, I’ve noticed. From freight train interference, to issues with crossings, or even just random delays that no one really understands; you will need to just be aware that having the convenience of taking the train does put your commute in the hands of the public and Metra, so you must plan to have delays sometimes. Have your work’s contact information in your phone if you need to contact someone to tell them you’ll be late due to any of these delays.
Just a few quick things on this point:
- I always heard that people always sit in the same seats everyday and if you steal their usual seat, they will be upset with you. I haven't found that to be true yet. I think it would be difficult to ensure you had the exact same seat everyday. Sit wherever you want. Just be aware, that if you sit in a bench seat on the first level of the train, there will be someone sitting next to you, so keep your bag on your lap and be nice to the people who sit next to you.
- Don't make noise in the quiet car. No cell phone calls, no talking to your neighbor, no loud music. Just don't make noise and you'll be fine. To see what happens when you talk on the quiet car, give this a watch.
Best Metra Apps
As I only have an iPhone, I can only recommend the apps I use for the iPhone.
- Embark Metra - this is the best holistic app for Metra travel. It has system maps, trip planning, station listing, service advisories, as well as contact information for many different aspects of the Metra system.
- Is Metra Late - a simple app that allows you to put in your normal "home" station and "work" station. It then provides a large display of whether your normal Metra train is delayed or not. Very simple concept.
- Passport Parking - this is the app that some of the Metra stations on the BNSF line use for their daily parking. You can always pay at the pay stations, but this is much easier. This will only be helpful to you if your station has Passport Parking managed spaces. As I mentioned earlier, using this app will add a $.50 convenience fee to the parking fee.
- "Chicago Travel" Twitter list - while this isn't really an app, it's a Twitter list I made of the different transit agencies around Chicago, where they post live service advisories. There are also some parody accounts for each agency, to add a little brevity to those tough travel days.