January 14, 2009

Arrival times are meaningless

There's a tough lesson to be learned in commuting from a far west suburb to a north suburb. The idea that you can predict (or control!) when you'll arrive at your end point is pointless. You'll either arrive before you had hoped to get there or after you would have liked to have been there.

I've been taking the train every work day for roughly five and a half months. My daily commute presents me with essentially two options: I either take the commuter train from Aurora to Union Station, walk to the CTA station and take the Purple Line to Evanston, or I take the commuter train from Aurora to Union Station, walk to Oglivie Transportation Center and take a commuter train to Evanston. The first route takes longer on the train, but it's a shorter walk at the end. The second route is faster, and the longer walk doesn't bother me, but the trains are much less frequent and I end up more often than not taking the first route. Either way, I have to take the train from Aurora to Union Station. When I get to Union Station, I make a choice as to which way to go to get up to Evanston the soonest.

When I realize last Fall that I had two options, but that my second option was limited, I made a note of all the possible combinations of trains that would work to cut as much time off of the on-average two hour one-way trip. I realized that the best way to get on the second commuter train would be to catch the 6:47 a.m. train. In order to catch that train, I would have to leave the house at 6:27, to guarantee that I could drive to the station, park, pay for parking and walk all the way around the train in order board before the doors close at 6:47 a.m. Not being a morning person, and not having a morning class to teach last term, I often slept late and caught either a 7:07 a.m. or a 7:22 a.m. train. This term, I teach a 10:00 a.m. class every MWF, and in order to give myself an hour of buffer (in case the trains are delayed) I need to get on the 6:47 a.m. or the 7:07 a.m. train. And, if I have to get one of those trains, why not make it the early one, so I can cut the commute down as much as possible?

So, for the first eight work days of the year, I have tried to leave the house at 6:27. It's easy to time it, because the traffic reports on WGN are give "on the sevens" in the morning. More often than not, I end up leaving closer to 6:30. I know that 6:33 is the absolute latest I can leave and still have ANY hope of catching my early train.

But once I leave the house, I have little control over how quickly I get to campus. This morning, I actually left at 6:27, as the traffic was being read. (I could have left 2 minutes earlier, but I left my wallet upstairs and had to run back up to get it.) It had snowed overnight, which you might think would slow me down. True, I drive at a slower speed, and take turns more cautiously, but the streets I take are on a bus route, which is kept fairly well cleared of snow, so I'm not slowed too much by the snow.

What I couldn't anticipate this morning was that at 6:31, several garbage trucks would be turning onto the street I take make the weekly collection. I have driven on that street every Wednesday for 5 months at nearly the same time and have NEVER before seen a garbage truck making rounds. Usually, the trash is collected after I pass through. There was a car ahead of me which stopped between the garbage truck and the curb, in order to pick someone up. I'm sitting in my car, waiting for this mini traffic jam to clear, and there is nothing I can do.

The rest of the drive is uneventful, and I get to the parking lot with 5 minutes to spare. Because parking is a premium in Aurora and the waiting list for monthly parking passes is over a year long (last I knew) I park in the daily lot, which means I have to pay for parking at the machine off to the side of the lot before getting on the train. After depositing my $1.50, I start walking to the train. There is a tunnel that I walk through to go underneath the freight tracks running next to the Aurora station.

When I emerge from the end of the tunnel, the train is sitting right in front of me. It takes no more than 30 seconds at most to walk from the parking pay station to the side of the train. I could walk right up onto a brand new platform and touch the side of the train, if I chose. I could touch it, but I cannot board it. For some inexplicable reason the conductors will only open the doors on the opposite side of the train. Everyone who parks in the East lot is forced to walk around at least half of the train. Everyday, I trudge past five or six train doors that remain closed. I have yet to work up the courage to ask a conductor why they cannot open any of those doors, but I feel that day is coming.

Today, because it was so bitterly cold this morning, I decided to sort of walk/run around the train. Good thing I did, because as I went around the front car, the bell started to ding, meaning it was about to take off. I made it in ahead of three other people who were also running to make it.

I made the 6:47 train, which means I should have been getting off the train at 7:40, with enough time to get to Oglivie Transportation Center for the 7:52 train to Evanston. Except that the train did not get to Union Station until 7:51, meaning I might as well go straight to the Purple Line.

I walked down to the Quincy Station and swiped my Chicago Plus card. There were a lot of people standing in the station trying to stay warm. I took that as a good sign that there might be a Purple Line train coming soon. Ten minutes later, when I overheard someone who had been there longer than I had asking about whether the Purple Line was running at all (!) I understood that the train had been seriously delayed. It did pull in soon enough, but by the time I got to Evanston, my total train time had been going on 2 hours, 20 minutes. Certainly, I did not save any time on my commute this morning by catching the 6:47 train.

So that is the lesson that I've been slowly learning. However, none of that compares to the craziness of what I read on one of the local paper's website:Secret Service Agent caused Metra Scare

A Metra train headed to Chicago from Aurora was stopped in Lisle on Wednesday morning and everyone on board was searched by police after an armed Secret Service agent caused a scare by asking a ticket agent about security on board.

If you read the article, you'll see that not only was everyone searched, but some cars were emptied and people were forced to stand out in the cold and snow while the situation was being cleared up. The article does not say how late the train ended up being, but it was at least an hour past due when it started moving again, and was probable closer to two hours behind when it got to Union Station. Reading between the lines, it seems that this Secret Service agent, who may have never ridden the train before, was asking the at the ticket window about security procedures for the train regarding his gun. He did not identify himself as Secret Service (Why not? Is it a secret?) which was a huge mistake. The ticket agent got scared and called police, thinking that a random person had a gun on the train. I'm not going to say that the ticket agent overreacted, per se... But can you even IMAGINE what it would have been like to be on that train? And that train is an express that I rode several times last fall. It's just another example of how train riders lose most of their control over arrival time once they leave their house.

I wrote all of this after getting on the train tonight, for a train that was supposed to leave at 4:28 pm, but didn't leave until 5:20 p.m. because an Amtrak train derailed outside of Union Station and blocked all but one or two commuter tracks.

Ahhh....we're here.....

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