The Metra Vs. The EL--Suburban Paradise Versus An Urban Hell
By Lesley Yvonne Hunter
Hello Chicagoans and maybe even some non-Chicago readers (I will refrain from commenting on what category Chicago ‘burbanites fit in)! I assume that many of you know, but for those of you who don’t, I’ll quickly explain what the Metra and the El are. The El and the Metra are both transit systems, with the El being the rapid transit system serving the city of Chicago and some of its surrounding suburbs and being the third busiest transit in the United States after the New York City Subway and the Washington Metro. In comparison, the Metra is the commuter rail, taking passengers from the city (Union Station) to the surrounding suburbs. So, you could say that the Metra is considered the ‘Suburban train’ while the El, the ‘Urban train’. And by the headline, I’m sure it’s not difficult to figure out my overarching views of both, but as I don’t like to make blanket statements, I’ll further explain the pros and cons of each.
Environment: You know how you feel when there’s no other bathroom to use for miles other than the restrooms at the gas station (and no, not the ones inside that have a decent cleaning attendant. I’m talking about the ones outside and around the back you have to ask the station attendant for a key. Yea, those). That’s the El.
The seats are stiff; the air is pungent. If you are claustrophobic, or simply fancy your ‘personal space,’ I regret to inform you that the El is not your place. On the Metra, passengers generally sit down during the duration of the ride and relax (this may be due in part to the fact that the seats are actually comfortable), while on the El the isles are frequently blocked by a plethora of passengers, hoarding space just for the sake of hoarding and hovering anxiously near the door. What’s worse—and is reminiscent of the gas station restroom scenario—is the cleanliness, or rather, the lack there-of of the El. Can you say germs?
The Metra creates jobs and promotes cleanliness, consistently hiring additional coach cleaners to provide for nothing less than pristine train cars--even though, out of the gate, the Metra had more than acceptable satisfaction rates on cleanliness. On the El, you’ll be lucky if you get a train car that doesn’t have a random plastic bag of who-knows-what near the door (I expect there’s nothing in there that’s sanitary), and if someone bothers to prevent their sneeze from sprawling all over the hand pole (aka about 1 inch from your hand), you truly are having a good day. In fact, you’re having a great day. It could be worse: like the time that a woman on the Blue line had a male passenger throw a sock full of feces at her. Yes, I said feces. And if you don’t believe me, you can read this Huffington Post article: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/12/19/cta-sock-filled-feces-att_n_2333165.html (See, I don’t just make things up for dramatic effect). Not the way you’d envision spending your ride home from work, right? So, yea, the El train gets a thumbs-down for overall environment and cleanliness.
Convenience: Despite the bad rap of the sanitation level of the El, I will give credit to the El on its convenient schedule and departure times. The El has trains departing from almost all of its stops nearly every 10-12 minutes on average, which makes it very convenient for individuals to grab the next train if they miss the previous. This is quite different from the Metra—in that if you miss your train you will be waiting anywhere from 30 minutes to 2 hours to catch the next (maybe this is why the typical Metra passenger appears to be running around like a chicken with his head cut off while in queue for his train opposed to the El passenger that has a more laissez-faire, ‘it is what it is’ attitude). So, hats off to the El for having frequent trains to accommodate its riders.
Some El stops—unlike those of the Metra—even run 24/7, like the Blue Line and Red Line stops. Convenient right? Well, depends on who you ask. If you’re a guy or with a group of friends, sure! If you’re a woman trekking it home at 2:00 am by yourself, not so much…unless you consider getting hassled by the homeless man in the corner of the El as convenient. So,
The awkwardness of the late-night El train rides
The infrequent Metra train arrivals
A tie between the Metra and the El on convenience (I was always good at math in school).
And last but certainly not least…
The People: Well, this one is a doozy. To be direct: the people on the Metra are, overall, what you would consider ‘normal’. Metra passengers typically include both young and mature professionals, dressed business-casual or nice-casual, riding home or out to the suburbs to do whatever suburban people do. They are generally pretty polite, not obnoxious, and at least somewhat sophisticated. There is even a conductor who will acknowledge you. How nice!
Quite different from the general population that rides the El. First off, no conductor (sorry, folks, those privileges are only for the esteemed Metra bourgeoisie), and the people are…hmmm not so normal. Not to say that there aren’t sane people who ride the El. I mean I ride the El, for goodness sake. What I probably should have said is that the collective group or mix of people is rather eclectic.
You have everything from your drunken Cub fans (namely when you hit the Belmont and Sheridan stops near Wrigley Field on the Red Line) who have no understanding of what a decibel is and how it can rupture your eardrum, to your studious Loyola and DePaul students, to your melange of tourists who might as well tattoo ‘tourist’ on their forehead because they’re
a) highly confused on where to go and
b) say things like ‘OMG Chicago is so much better than <insert any other city name here>’ and ‘We totally have to go to Navy Pier!’ (Really?! Not knocking tourists as I used to be one before I realized that Chicago was so much better than St. Louis, but just sayin’).
Oh, and you can’t forget the reoccurring homeless guy on the El that you’ve encountered at least twice in one week, who gives the entire train car the familiar speech on how he’s unemployed and will work hard, bla bla bla. All he needs is a business card and/or interview. Now whether you want to give him your business card is up to you (no judgment here. Well, maybe a little), but I’m thinking that the guy should really consider speech writing as a career, because he’s pretty darn good at it.
The kicker is ‘that guy.’ You know, the guy with the headphones, that is listening to music SO LOUD that he might as well have brought a boom box and put it on blast. At least then he would have been honest with himself and with everyone around him. Dude, we can hear what you’re listening to. And if I hear one more ‘f*** the police,’ I seriously am going to rip your headphones off.
So to wrap this up (because I’m sure you’ve pretty much gotten the point by now), the Metra--although not having as many rides available as the El--is cleaner, more relaxed, significantly comfortable with more room, and contains pretty ‘normal,’ peaceful passengers, while the El is plagued with germs, crowded (typically), has seats about as comfortable as rocks, and whose assortment of passengers is about as disconcerting as a Miley Cyrus ‘twerk’ session.
However, although the Metra may appear to be the desired transit option for many, I do have to say that there is something uniquely riveting about this unconventional train: something that keeps me coming back—like a car crash or a bad TV show you just can’t look away from no matter how hard you try. So, for now at least, I say ride the El! It’ll bring some excitement to your life. Just make sure to dodge the guy with the socks.