Committee on Environment, Geography and Urbanization

Division of Social Sciences, The University of Chicago

Issue 7 | Spring 2024

Return to Rapid Transit: Mobilizing Chicago’s South Side with the Metra Electric

Chicago has a transit access problem. If you go to the North Side, you’ll find that there are 55 CTA train stations for the 25 official community areas that make up the region. That’s not including the 10 additional stations in the northern suburbs. The Red Line even merges with the Purple Line at Howard to extend well past the city into the suburb of Wilmette. A few miles down in the South Side, you’ll find that there are only 29 CTA train stations for its 42 community areas; 25 of those areas have no stations at all. The Red Line only goes as far south as 95th Street, nearly 10 miles and 40 blocks before the city’s actual southern boundary.

It’s not just about the reach of the CTA, either. To continue with the Red Line, let’s take a look at two stations: the South Side’s 95th/Dan Ryan Station in Roseland and the North Side’s Fullerton Station in Lincoln Park. Both are the busiest stations on their respective sides, serving more than a million riders annually. But the similarities end there. Leaving the 95th station, you exit onto a 9-lane viaduct over a 10-lane highway. There are dangerous crossings, narrow sidewalks, and a lack of any business district nearby, with more parking lots than shops or housing surrounding the station. Chicago State University is 0.8 miles away, a 17-minute walk or ride on a bus that may or may not choose to arrive on time. Fullerton is an entirely different story. You exit the station onto a busy sidewalk protected by an overhead station, right in between an art museum and Whole Foods. DePaul University is literally on the same block, along with multiple stores, restaurants, and apartments.

Though they may seem small, these differences are indicative of the extremely disparate transit experiences for riders in their respective communities. They leave thousands of South Side residents without the easy, safe, and mostly reliable rail service North Siders have—forcing them into longer commute times and restricted access to various parts of the city.

A major reason as to why the South Side does not have a robust CTA system like the North Side is because of the Metra Electric (ME), one of 11 commuter rail lines in the Chicago region. From the mid-19th-to-20th century, the ME—then called the Illinois Central Railroad (IC)—was the only commuter railroad in the Chicago region to run rapid transit service on its line. In its heyday, the Illinois Central was one of the Midwest’s longest railroads, connecting Chicago with destinations as far south as Mississippi and as far west as Nebraska. Starting in 1856, the IC began to operate local passenger service from downtown at what is now Millennium Station to Hyde Park, expanding in the following decades to eventually reach today’s final stop at University Park. The line was very similar to the “L” trains simultaneously Fullerton CTA station in Lincoln Park developing in other parts of the city, with comparable frequent service, low fare rates, and quick boarding. This was in large part made possible by the IC’s unique infrastructure: the line was completely electrified, contained separate tracks with no interference from freight trains, featured an automatic ticket collection system, and boasted stations half a mile to a mile apart. These features allowed the IC to run as frequently as CTA trains today, and they made the IC instrumental in providing transit access to South Side residents.

By the 1940s, the IC was more popular than all other Chicago commuter railroads, and most of its riders traveled within the city itself. Downtown Chicago, Hyde Park, South Shore, and South Chicago were the most common destinations for passengers. Train schedules show that in 1946 the IC’s South Chicago branch ran trains every 10 minutes during the day and 20 minutes in the evening; ridership peaked that year at 47 million trips. The “L” had little reason to expand to the south because the IC largely already covered the rapid transit market in the region—thousands of South Siders were relying on the IC as a steady form of daily transportation.

Unfortunately, the post-war growth of cars and suburbs, and subsequent decline of rail across the country, hurt IC ridership. Starting in the 1960s, ridership levels began to fall and operating costs began to rise. To counteract this shift, the IC increased fare rates, which only perpetuated a vicious cycle of declining ridership, forcing the line to reduce service frequency. The Red Line’s opening in 1969—which served some of the same South Side areas as the IC, though not as far south—dealt a further blow to the IC, who struggled to compete with the now-government-owned CTA that could afford to keep ticket prices down. This new line offered greater off-peak service, lower fare rates, and full integration with CTA buses—all things the private, non-subsidized IC could not afford. The IC slowly began losing riders to the Red Line, a trend that demonstrated a clear desire from South Siders for rapid transit.

In 1987, the newly-created Metra system bought the IC and renamed the line to the Metra Electric we know today. By then, trains were only running hourly with priorities during peak-hour 9-to-5 commute times, like it does now: the line’s rapid transit days were officially over.

Since then, there has been a substantial push to get the ME to restore frequent service to its line. Movements to do so have been mostly led by rail activists and South Side community organizers, and they began nearly 30 years ago with a South Side resident named Mike Payne.

Mike launched his “Gray Line” proposal in 1996, outlining a plan to convert the ME from a commuter rail line to a CTA-style “L” rapid transit system, name and all. The initiative was fairly simple: use the existing Metra line and infrastructure to create rapid rail service in the South Side by running the trains more frequently—every 10 to 15 minutes, as they once did—like an “L” train. Mike proposed other modifications too. He called for an integration of the CTA and ME’s fares and schedules, installation of turnstiles and fareboxes at ME stations to mirror CTA infrastructure, and smaller changes to the train cars themselves, all with the goal of easier boarding and cheaper transfers from other CTA lines or buses.

The CTA toyed with the idea of the Gray Line for a few years in the early 2000s. The proposal was featured in multiple studies by organizations like the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning (CMAP) and Chicagoland Transportation and Air Quality Commission as a potential initiative for improving public transit in the city. But the CTA ultimately rejected Mike’s idea in a 2012 report, claiming it would be too expensive to implement.

Mike’s proposal, despite its short lifespan, inspired a series of similar initiatives from other Chicago activists. In 2009, the local group Southsiders Organized for Unity and Liberation (SOUL) launched its own campaign envisioning a restored ME line, titled the “Gold Line.” The main difference with this plan from the Gray Line was that it didn’t call for a complete transfer of the ME to CTA management, but rather a contract service system. But as with the Gray Line, response to the Gold Line was less than positive from the transit agencies. The CTA rejected the project in the South Lakefront Corridor Transit Study, the same 2012 study as the Gray Line, once again citing “budgetary concerns” as the reason for not moving forward with the proposal. The study, however, disregards the cost savings associated with the replacement of conductors with an alternative fare collection system, and also presents a low-ball estimate of potential new Metra Electric riders.

Four years later, the movement was revitalized again, this time by a much larger partnership: the Coalition for a Modern Metra Electric (CMME), consisting of 14 different transit advocates, community groups, and other Chicago organizations pushing for greater transit mobility in the South Side. It includes big names like the Active Transportation Alliance and Center for Neighborhood Technology. The petitions of the CMME echo the requests of previous movements: either unify the ME with the CTA and fully run it as an “L” line, or partially restructure it to increase service frequency and integrate fares. Beyond that, they have actually received backing from some local elected officials. With this support, the coalition still remains active today in its push for policy supporting ME restoration.


The benefits of ME restoration could be profound. For starters, the Metra infrastructure is already in place; the IC has literally already laid the groundwork for a return to rapid transit, making the restoration process a timely and cost-effective way to provide more frequent train service. Faster service means shorter commute times and improved access to employment, education, or healthcare service within the city, which can lead to greater social integration and mobility.

But beyond practical considerations, a restoration project to bring back rapid transit to communities that no longer have it can address the rail disparities prominent in Chicago, particularly the transit desert that exists in the city’s South Side. As we’ve already seen, access and quality of transit vary wildly in Chicago from neighborhood to neighborhood between the two regions—a discrepancy that leaves entire communities underserved and thousands of residents facing substantial hurdles to adequate transportation. When comparing the two, both sides feature similar populations, though the South Side encompasses a far larger geographic area. Instead of having a more robust and interconnected transit system to compensate for its relative sprawl, it contains far fewer CTA stations and lines than the North, leaving many areas without trains.

The Red Line’s terminus at 95th Street, for example, isolates the over 200,000 people who live south of the street. Moreso, virtually all regions east and south of S. Martin Luther King Drive and the I-94 Expressway—where the Green and Red Lines end— have no rapid transit service at all. These limitations are especially harmful to lower-income neighborhoods like Englewood and Far South Side, where residents are less likely to own cars and have a higher makeup of older or disabled residents who cannot drive. South Siders are consequently more dependent on buses, but CTA bus service is notoriously slower and less reliable than rail, sometimes doubling the commute time of a comparable train ride.

A restructured Metra line therefore presents a promising solution, at least partially. The ME not only covers the unserviced region in the city’s South Side, but extends well beyond it into the southern suburbs. An improved line could reconnect entire neighborhoods to the rest of Chicago and bridge the transit gap between South Siders and their northern counterparts. Investments in the ME could also stimulate neighborhood revitalization and community development; an enhanced transportation system can provide opportunities
for transit-oriented development around stations, increasing population densities and attracting businesses that create walkable communities such as those in the North Side—investments that can create a cycle of growth and development in southern neighborhoods.

As iterated by proponents of the project, ME restoration would be much cheaper and faster than the city’s current plan to improve rail transit: the Red Line Extension Project, which plans to extend the Red Line by 5 miles with 4 new stations to reach 130th Street. But the project’s timeline has been long and arduous—such an extension has been promised for decades, since the Red Line’s opening over 50 years ago, and the plan is still only expected to reach completion by 2029. It also comes with a price tag of over $3.7 billion, a hefty amount for a city supposedly so concerned with keeping transportation project costs low.

In contrast, the ME already goes past the proposed 130th Street terminus and covers many of the same areas as the Red Line Extension. There is a pretty significant overlap in rail service: the extension would have stops at 107th, 111th, and 115th Street, all within around a mile of where the ME already has stations. And because Metra restoration wouldn’t need any additional infrastructure with laying down tracks or building new stations, the comparative lack of significant construction and associated costs put it at a much lower expense. The restoration movements have proposed projects with budgets that range from $160 million to $500 million, significantly lower than the multi-billion dollar Red Line Extension.

What has really hindered progress towards ME restoration, beyond budgetary constraints, are the interagency tensions between Metra and CTA. Coordination between the two agencies is crucial for any efforts to bring rapid rail service to the ME, but unfortunately transit in Chicago has been plagued by competition, not cooperation, for decades. Years of pitting the two agencies as competitors fighting for money from the same purse has left rail service in the city fragmented and disjointed. Part of the problem is that the Metra and the CTA are controlled by different political entities. While the majority of the CTA’s board is directly appointed by the mayor of Chicago, Metra’s board consists of non-mayoral-appointed representatives from counties across Chicago’s metropolitan area.

While the Regional Transit Authority (RTA) is officially the parent company of both agencies, the RTA lacks real oversight power over either CTA or Metra. Moving forward with an ME project would require giving the RTA more authority and taking power away from the CTA and Metra to coordinate a restructuring—something neither agency is particularly keen on doing. Taking power away from the CTA to increase the RTA’s authority, for example, means taking power away from the mayor—an action that would likely face strong bureaucratic opposition and lead to funding gridlocks. The positioning of the CTA and Metra as against one another—coupled with the divergent political interests that control them and lack of a strong-enough RTA to override tensions—means that there is little incentive to cooperate with investing in transit projects, even if such projects would benefit the people of Illinois as a whole.

City officials have directly perpetuated this interagency turf war. At a 2022 meeting of the Cook County Board of Commissioners Transportation Committee, multiple county leaders gathered to propose an integration of fares between the Metra and CTA systems to facilitate transfers for transit riders, particularly those on the South Side. Then-mayor Lori Lightfoot responded to the proposal: “Taking ridership from the CTA and giving it to Metra doesn’t make any sense to me.”

Concerns like these are examples of the shortsighted perspectives that hinder the development of meaningful transit improvements and keep projects like ME restoration in gridlock. Public transit exists to serve local residents and communities, not the other way around, and the primary goal of transit leaders and politicians should be to serve the
public, rather than prioritize the preservation of the status quo. When a project promises to enhance the lives of underserved communities, as ME rehabilitation does with the South Side, transportation networks should be open to at least considering adapting to the evolving needs of their constituents. In this case, prioritizing people means recognizing the urgent need for improved transit in areas that lack it and setting aside bureaucratic disagreements that stand in the way. Lightfoot’s—or any leader’s—concerns about the “loss” of CTA ridership to the ME should be viewed through the lens of people-centric transit policy, not one of system-by-system profit.

But the ME is not a lost cause; importantly, momentum for line restoration is growing.

In the past 10 years support has come from multiple stakeholders, creating a base not just of community activists, but of university and business interests and even politicians—a promising sign that momentum is coming from various sides of the transit spectrum. County leaders, local elected officials, and state representatives have advocated for integrated ME-CTA fares with price-matching and other improvements to the rail line in the hopes of increasing transit access in the South Side.

In the aftermath of COVID-19, the agencies have also revealed post-pandemic recovery plans with goals of increasing ridership that align with the proposals put forth by spearheaders of the ME restoration movement. The Fair Transit South Cook pilot program, for example, was a partnership with Cook County and Metra to decrease fare costs for the ME and Rock Island lines in the South Side and southern county routes. Though the program ended in January 2024, evidence showed positive results: the ME was found to be the fastest growing line in the entire Metra system regarding post-pandemic ridership recovery—with increased ridership rates and consistent usage of trains most prominent among the lowest-income fare zones.

These promising results indicate that a Metra restoration project expanding on this could be more than worthwhile.

The new Access Pilot Program—a joint effort from the RTA, Metra, and Cook County set to run from early 2024 through July 2025—builds on the Fair Transit pilot by extending reduced Metra fares to low-income riders. While still far from the full demands of organizers seeking better fair rates and transit integration, the program reflects a response to public demand for improvements in Chicago’s transportation system, showing that coordination to assist underserved communities is in fact possible. Partnerships between all these involved groups highlight the potential for collaboration while bringing the much-needed political leverage that can elevate the ability to actually enact policy changes. A Metra restoration has shown to clearly be a better use of both money and infrastructure. What the agencies, city, and state governments need to do now is set aside their bureaucratic differences and recognize the ME’s potential for transforming public transportation in Chicago—in turn creating a more equitable, interconnected city with transit for all.