What is Metra?

You may think there’s an easy answer to that question, and in one sense, there is. Metra is the label we’ve been putting on commuter rail service in the Chicago area since 1984. Behind that simple name, however, lies a convoluted history and a complex, multi-layered system.

To understand how Metra operates, it really helps to know how Metra came about and how Metra is composed.

Chicago has always been the railroad center of the nation, and it has had commuter trains almost as long as it has had any trains. Rail service peaked in the 1930s, when Chicago had the largest public transportation system in the world.

But by the late 1960s and early 1970s, the system was failing across the region, with the CTA, suburban bus companies and freight railroads that also operating commuter trains experiencing big financial losses. To keep the system running, voters in the six-county Chicago area created the Regional Transportation Authority in 1974.

Its mission was to coordinate and assist public transportation and to serve as the conduit for state and federal subsidies needed to keep the system operational. The RTA did not at first directly operate commuter rail service but paid the railroads to do so under purchase-of-service agreements. It also began to reverse decades of disinvestment in the overall commuter rail system, primarily by buying new locomotives and cars.

However, the bankruptcies of the Rock Island and the Milwaukee Road railroads changed the rules of the game. The RTA took over the commuter operations and eventually bought the tracks of those railroads. It created the Northeast Illinois Commuter Rail Corporation to operate those lines in 1982.

The RTA was reorganized by Springfield in 1983, and a commuter rail division was created to oversee commuter rail operations. At the same time, a suburban bus division (Pace) was created. RTA remained as the parent organization for the CTA, Metra and Pace, which are known as the three service boards.

The Commuter Rail Division, which held its first meeting in June 1984, operated the Rock Island line and the two Milwaukee lines directly. It operated the remaining seven lines indirectly, through purchase-of service agreements with Illinois Central Gulf, the Burlington Northern, the Chicago & North Western and the Norfolk Southern.

Due to the complicated and patchwork nature of commuter rail at the time, the division in 1985 came up with the “Metra” name as a service mark for the entire system (short for “Metropolitan Rail”). The idea was to bring a unifying identity to all the various components, no matter who owned or operated them.

That system still is in place, although the ownership and/or operators of several lines have changed.

Metra bought the Illinois Central Gulf’s electrified commuter line in 1987 and started operating it directly as the Metra Electric Line. Metra also took over operation of what is now the Heritage Corridor line, which ran on tracks then owned by ICG and now owned by Canadian National.

That same year it also assumed ownership of the Milwaukee lines. It took over operations on the Norfolk Southern line in 1993 and renamed it the SouthWest Service. 

Metra still has purchase-of-service agreement with two railroads. The Chicago & North Western was merged with Union Pacific Railroad in 1995, and UP still owns and operates the three UP lines. Burlington Northern, now known as BNSF Railway, continues to own and operate that line.

Under those contracts, the carriers use their employees and own or control the rights-of-way and most of the other facilities required for operations. Metra owns the rolling stock and in conjunction with local municipalities is responsible for most stations. Metra retains overall authority over fares, service and staffing levels.