Metra Trains in Chicago: The Commuter Rail
If your Chicago experience involves calling a surrounding suburb home, the Metra rail system is the best way to get downtown. Without having to worry about parking, traffic, or even appointing a designated driver, the Metra is a suburbanite’s best friend. The commuter train system serves the towns surrounding Chicago with over 239 stations. That may sound like a lot to keep track of, but Metra’s Web site includes a Google Maps application to find the right rail line for you.
After locating the correct line you can either buy tickets online, at your station (when available), or from the conductor on the train. Metra offers a slew of various ticket options, including a monthly unlimited pass or a 10-ride ticket. For professionals in the working world, these options provide nice discounts. However, if you’re only venturing into the city for fun, the $5 weekend pass allows unlimited rides on Saturday and Sunday (for one weekend only).
Ticket prices are based on how far your station is from downtown. Metra uses a “zone system,” so all stations on every line are grouped similarly into fare zones based on distance. The farther you travel, the more expensive the ticket. But a one-way fare from the outmost zone M is $8.05, so I use the term “expensive” loosely.
Most Metra trains come in and out of Downtown at Union Station (on Adams Street by the Chicago River), or Ogilvie Transportation Center (at Madison and Canal). Pay attention to the track you arrive on and its concourse. Different concourses service different lines, but they are always the same; you will leave from the same area of the train station you came into.
Any train heading into the city is considered “in-bound,” while “out-bound” trains head away from the city. On the BNSF line, all in-bound trains pick up and drop off passengers on the south side of the tracks, while out-bound trains run on the north side; make sure you wait on the correct side at your station. Usually a group of people will be waiting to board, so follow the crowd. And when in doubt just ask your friendly Chicago neighbor.
“Express” trains do not stop at every outlying station on the line — which really shortens your travel time — but make sure it does stop at your station, otherwise you will be left behind at the station or stuck on the train.
Weekday rush hour on the Metra can seem a little overwhelming at first. Commuters tend to act like robots, and you will quickly end up lodged in a sea of professionals making their way to and from work. Most seats end up filled during peak hours, so do not be alarmed if a stranger plops down next to you. If you prefer your own space, sit on the upper level of the train in one of the one-person seats.
For weekend excursions, trains are a lot less crowded unless there is a major event happening in the city, such as the Taste of Chicago or Chicago Blues Fest. Those are also two of the limited events during which Metra does not allow alcohol on trains. Also worth noting, conductors do not tolerate offensive inebriated people, and I have seen passengers forced off trains earlier than their intended stop because of obnoxious behavior. Finally, if heading to the city for some fun, keep in mind the trains do not run late at night; the BNSF line’s last train leaves Union Station at 12:40am, and some lines stop earlier than that. Check out the Metra website for more details.
Coordinating outings and commute times according to the Metra schedule can seem chancy, but the trains are generally on time and almost never more than a few minutes late. Since city parking is always at a premium, the Metra offers a cheaper, hassle-free (and greener) mass-transit alternative.