metra

Commuters crowd the 51st-53rd Hyde Park Metra station during evening rush hour on Feb. 14. 

With ridership levels dropping to a fraction of normal because of COVID-19, Metra on Tuesday launched a multi-media campaign to educate the public about the agency’s efforts to sanitize rail cars and stations, keep customers at a safe social distance, and bring customers back aboard trains.

Weekday ridership on the Metra Electric line has dropped to about 3,585 passenger trips, or about 13 percent of pre-COVID levels, the agency said. However, the line is faring better than Metra’s overall ridership, which is hovering about 10 percent of normal levels.

Still, Metra officials say they hope the “Commute With Confidence” campaign will allay the public’s fears about riding trains during the pandemic, and may even lure new customers.

“We will do everything we can to provide the safe, healthy, comfortable and reliable service you have come to expect.” Metra CEO/Executive Director Jim Derwinski said at a press conference to announce the campaign.

The pandemic is costing Metra millions of dollars a month in lost fare revenue, but the agency’s finances have been bolstered by an infusion of about $480 million in federal funds from the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act passed by Congress in March. The funds should carry the agency through the middle of 2021, Derwinski said.

Derwinski said the campaign is designed to answer customers’ questions about what the agency is doing to keep riders safe.

According to the agency, those steps include:

— Metra has spent the last few months deep cleaning its more than 1,000 rail cars. It also has been studying best practices and experimenting with new cleaning methods, new cleaning solutions and new cleaning machines to identify the most efficient and effective ways to ensure cars are as safe as possible.

— Metra is cleaning and disinfecting all high-touch areas, such as seats, seat handles, armrests, door handles, handrails, vestibule posts and handholds, including the use of disinfecting electrostatic foggers, as frequently as possible, at least once a day. It also will continue to thoroughly clean and disinfect toilets and toilet areas at least once a day.

— Metra recently began installing two additional touchless hand sanitizer dispensers on each rail car, with a goal of 2,000 dispensers.

— Metra is using hospital-grade filters to capture airborne particles and clean the air in rail cars. Cars also have fresh air dampers that circulate the air and ventilate the cars to improve air quality and safety.

— The agency is cleaning Metra-maintained stations multiple times a week, paying special attention to disinfecting high-touch surfaces. Extra crews have been brought in to increase the cleaning and disinfecting of downtown stations.

— Riders have been asked to wear masks or face coverings for the entirety of the ride. Unless traveling with family or friends, riders are urged to physically distance as much as possible, to stay in seats and not crowd the aisles or vestibules.

— Metra says there is currently plenty of room for riders to spread out on trains and keep their distance from other customers. Metra will aim for trains that are no more than about half full: one passenger per two-seater on the lower level and one passenger per every other seat on the upper level. (There will be exceptions for families or others traveling together.)

— Metra has created a “ridership dashboard” to help customers determine how crowded trains are. The dashboard is at metrarail.com/dashboard.

Metra has resumed accepting cash as payment for fares at ticket windows and on trains, but the agency said it strongly encourages passengers to buy their tickets with the Ventra app to limit interactions between crews and passengers. Checks are no longer accepted onboard trains. Metra is also offering a $10 All-Day Pass.

Metra said the campaign aims to reach as many riders and potential riders as possible, with advertising across a wide range of media, including television, radio, streaming radio, outdoor billboards, social media, website, direct mail and others. The ad campaign will cost the agency about $967,000, officials said.

Derwinski said Metra hopes the campaign will help lessen the public’s concerns about commuting during the pandemic. “We stand here with open doors to welcome riders back and invite new riders in,” he said.

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