No Time for Metra

I was taking a later train than normal today, and arrived at Millennium Station scanning the electronic schedules for my train. I don’t know how most people do it, but I rarely look a specific train number. Instead, I know my destination/stop and the time of departure.

After doing a full pass and not seeing the train I wanted, I did another. I saw a few folks standing around in the main waiting area.

Of the trains I could find, the departure times seemed really off. The next train I could see leaving the station departed in 20 minutes. After that, 30 minutes. And then… one by one, the electronic schedules starting to reset.

Eventually, all the boards had this message on them. No times, no list of stops. Just a note.

I thought briefly about going back outside and asking the two desk attendants for more information… but assumed they were already getting mobbed. So I decided to just wait around for the schedules to update, as I didn’t even know which track to go down to.

Slowly, more and more people came in. And started milling around. And got out their phones. And waited.

In one instance, I saw a few folks head down the stairs to one platform… prompting a large group to follow. I think they were down there briefly, standing outside a train car, and then all gradually came back up.

During this time, there were some announcements over the intercom alerting passengers that certain trains were boarding. But the bulletin boards still remained blank. After waiting around for a little bit to see if they would update, I eventually had to just go down to the platform and ask a conductor if the train stopped where I was going.

All in all, it wasn’t terrible. There was definitely a delay and a lot of confusion, but I eventually found myself on a train within about 10-15 minutes.

Having those bulletin boards update though, would have removed a lot of confusion. As I was standing in the waiting area, I was looking for some help, some kind of info to figure out what to do next. No conductors came by, no time or schedule updates. Just an announcement that a “Flossmoor zone train on track 6” was boarding.

It was interesting to watch the crowds gather, as folks all tried to figure out what to do. The problem just slowly got bigger, as more people entered. People looked around, trying to find information. And then finding none, they stopped in place, pulled out their phones, and started searching or texting.

The bottleneck happened right near the swinging doors to the waiting area, where the bulletin boards are. Most people, like me, gathered around them waiting for info so they could decide what to do next.

I don’t envy Metra these types of switch problems, that end up causing a backup or delay at Millennium. I saw how easily and quickly things can “grow” as more and more people arrive.

But it strikes me as odd that conductors at the track level could know the train number, and all the stops… but that information was not available 50 feet away on the electronic schedule boards, where so many folks were milling about, waiting.

In thinking more on it – I guess there’s an urgency to getting trains out the door, too. Do you want to focus all your efforts in getting people at Millennium Station on a train? Or do you want to ensure trains are moving along the track, servicing all those other people waiting at all those other stations/platforms down the line?

I’m biased, of course, since I was someone waiting at Millennium Station. But I saw several folks in front of me asking a conductor if the train went to X station. Then I asked. And I’m sure there were folks behind me, about to ask as well.

As a developer, seeing that kind of inefficiency just hurts. Being forced to participate in that kind of inefficiency hurts even more.

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