Metra riders sound off in survey
BY ROSALIND ROSSI AND ART GOLAB Staff Reporters March 15, 2014 10:11AM
RIDERS SOUND OFF
Excerpts from responses to a Feb. 10-17 Metra survey:
» BNSF, Lisle-Union
Station: “GET IT
» NCS, Vernon Hills-Union Station: “Trains are always dirty. And I don’t mean just in the winter, it looks like the filters have not been cleaned since the Nixon administration, if at all.”
On the positive side
» UP-W, Berkeley-Ogilvie: “Generally I have been pleased with service and applaud Metra for how they cleared up problems after the first polar vortex.”
» UP-NW, Barrington-Northwestern Train Station: “If this was united airlines u would be before a senate committee for your inability to communicate effectively with your customers.”
» BNSF, Route 59-Union Station: “Tell the conductors to drop the attitude toward their customers and stop acting like the Gestapo!”
» SWS, Oak Lawn-Union Station: “Amazed at the lack of organization and crowd control at Union Station . . . . One of these days, something really bad is going to happen and you are going to have [an] E2 night club type of situation on your hands where people will be seriously injured or killed.”
» MD-W, Bartlett-Union Station: “Union Station is an accident waiting to happen. It’s too loud, and the water dripping from the ceiling is disgusting.”
Updated: April 17, 2014 6:23AM
More than 40 percent of Metra customers find platform announcements inaudible, their train conductors clueless and service alerts about delays worthless.
That’s how some multiple-choice answers shook out among riders who responded to an emailed survey focusing on how Metra communicates with its customers. However, given the chance in a final open-ended question to say whatever they wanted, many customers let Metra have it.
“It’s 2014 — we travel to outerspace, but Metra cannot run the trains on time in Chicago,” wrote one Milwaukee West commuter. “Winter happens every year, yet Metra is caught off guard.”
“Every day the same old story — frozen switches, freight train interference etc. etc. etc.,” wrote another Milwaukee West rider. “Just admit the honest truth. You are mis-managed, mis-guided & misinformed. Just leave the commuter in the dark & blame everyone else for your inability to get from point A to point B.”
Union Station was a huge target of written comments. Commuters repeatedly complained about a horrible sound system, “dangerous” crowds during delays and “disgusting” water that rains on riders from a leaky platform ceiling.
Some said they should be compensated when delays drag on too long. A few said service has become so bad, they’ve started driving.
“Getting in my car more and more because of such crappy service. Pretty soon I won’t be riding at all,” wrote one BNSF rider.
“No one knows what is going on. I started driving. I have had it,” wrote another BNSF rider who used to take Metra to Clarendon Hills from Aurora.
60 percent put it in writing
More than 7,600 Metra riders of 85,933 emailed answered the survey between Feb. 10-17, with 60 percent of them taking the time to write additional comments at the end, according to exclusive results obtained by the Chicago Sun-Times under a Freedom of Information Act request.
That’s about a 9 percent overall response rate — typical for professionally constructed email surveys with even longer response windows, one expert said.
But Metra’s survey, which was written in-house, “leaves something to be desired,” said Timothy Johnson, director of the Survey Research Laboratory at the University of Illinois at Chicago.
Some questions were poorly worded, strangely scored or inconsistently phrased. Only riders who get Metra emails were sent the survey. Answers were collected during eight days, with no deadline listed on the survey.
However, “salient” topics often draw more responses, and with some customers still fuming over bone-numbing January delays — and the communication snafus they engendered — the survey’s topic touched a nerve, Johnson said, and the range of results was reasonable.
“A lot of people were, frankly, angry, and that’s why they got such a response,” Johnson said. “There’s a lot of unhappiness with their performance. This data backs that up. . . . They need to improve their communications.”
A ‘business model . . .
in complete danger’?
Several survey respondents clearly were not familiar with all the forms of communication Metra offers, especially Twitter. However, some commonly used forms drew roughly 55 to 60 percent positive marks in multiple-choice responses. That included service alerts on the Metra website, platform announcements and on-board announcements.
But that means about 40 percent or more of surveyed customers were unhappy with those forms of communication. Another 43 percent said their conductors aren’t knowledgeable about the reasons for delays.
That’s not a good sign, Johnson said.
“Anytime that 40 percent of people who use your service express displeasure, that can’t possibly be a good thing,” Johnson said. “If they had to compete for customers and they had that kind of satisfaction rating, their business model would be in complete danger.”
The worst-rated form of communication was the system’s Rail-Time Train Tracker, with 56 percent of all respondents dubbing it “not useful” and 70 percent of Heritage Corridor riders finding it useless.
The tracker is supposed to list real-time departures, but one Metra Electric customer said, “it is rarely accurate.” Tracker predictions of delays and on-time arrivals have been as much as 15 minutes off, the writer said.
Service alerts posted on Metra’s website drew the second-largest set of negative responses, with 44 percent of riders calling them not helpful in reporting delays in inclement weather. Many of those who receive the alerts by email said the communication shows up too late to be of any use.
‘Wha, Wha, Wha’
Systemwide, more than 44 percent of riders said conductors were worthless sources of information during delays. Several respondents described them as “clueless.’’
Nearly 42 percent found platform announcements “inaudible;” with one writer likening them to the annoying “wha, wha, wha” of the teacher in the Peanuts comic strip.
Another 39 percent said on-board announcements aren’t helpful either. Explained one Bensenville Milwaukee-West rider into Union Station: “It is rare that there is an announcement made on-board a train and when there is we can never understand what is being said 90% of the time because it sounds like the person talking has the microphone in their mouth.”
One UP-NW rider from Edison Park to Ogilvie Transportation Center offered a solution:
“You can’t get information out to your customers effectively. Email alerts are incorrect. Station announcements are either inaudible or incorrect. Your crews are never informed but are trying to be helpful. Run a better railroad and your communication will improve.”
Certain lines saw at least half of respondents unhappy with some form of Metra communication. At UP-Northwest, at least 51 percent of riders said conductors and platform announcements were useless. At BNSF, more than 53 percent of customers found their conductors uninformed.
Some conductors were blasted as “surly” in written comments, while others were singled out for praise. Wrote a UP-West rider: “All in all, I feel your conductors are the best part of Metra. Polite and helpful.”
A few overall positive comments were sprinkled among written remarks. Wrote one North Central Service rider: “After 40 years of riding the CTA, I’m thoroughly pleased with Metra! The cars are warm, the seats are comfy, the conductors are pleasant. I have no complaints.”