Metra: The Way to Really Not Work

In the Chicago metro area, our public rail transportation to and from the outer suburbs is provided by Metra. Overall the service provided by Metra is pretty good. Traffic in Chicago can get pretty congested during the construction season (approx. January through December). Metra provides a nice alternative to sitting in traffic. In general the trains run on time and are as comfortable as can be reasonably expected.

That does not mean, however, that Metra is perfect. Far from it, in fact. In many ways they are mired in the past. As an example, in September 2009, Metra took the forward thinking step of deciding to accept credit cards. It would be nice to say that Metra finally bowed to the public pressure and gave their customers what they wanted. However, it turns out that is not exactly the case. Instead, Metra now accepts credit cards because the Illinois General Assembly passed a law requiring Metra to accept credit cards.

The Chicago Tribune reports today that Metra has decided to continue down its self-selected road of remaining mired in the past. According to the Tribune, Metra won’t be providing wi-fi service anytime in the foreseeable future:

But WiFi doesn’t fly on Metra. The commuter rail agency, which still punches tickets by hand and only recently started taking credit cards, says providing wireless Internet is too expensive and technologically challenging.

A Metra spokesperson stated:

“We barely have enough money to operate let alone add such a luxury,” Metra spokeswoman Judy Pardonnet said.

That doesn’t seem to have stopped many other rail providers, who I presume are existing in the same tight economy that Metra is is. The Tribune reports that wi-fi is or soon be available on trains in Albuquerque, Santa Fe, New York City, Northern California, Boston, and Amtrak’s northeast commuter lines.

Metra seems to be quite short sighted by focusing on the costs here. Surely there is some provider who will be willing to front the cost for this. The Tribune reports:

New York’s MTA, with an $800 million budget shortfall, doesn’t plan to pay anything for WiFi installation, spokesman Aaron Donovan said.

MTA asked potential providers to pay for the equipment and service themselves. In return, MTA plans to offer incentives, such as advertising considerations. MTA’s Internet might not be free because companies may be allowed to charge customers, Donovan said.

It seems to me that the real problem here is not the cost, but rather Metra’s commitment to not providing convenient services for its riders.