What is Metra?

You may think there’s an easy answer to that question, and in one sense, there is. Metra is the service mark used for the commuter rail service in northeast Illinois since 1985. Behind that simple name lies a convoluted history and a complex, multi-layered system. To understand how Metra operates, it really helps to know how Metra came about.

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

By the late 1960s and early 1970s the system was failing, with the CTA, private suburban bus companies, and commuter railroad companies experiencing big financial losses. To keep the system running, the General Assembly created the Regional Transportation Authority (RTA) in 1974.

At first the RTA was purely an oversight and funding agency. It did not directly operate commuter rail services, but instead paid private railroad companies through purchase-of-service agreements to do so. It also began to reverse decades of disinvestment in the overall commuter rail system.

In 1980, the Northeast Illinois Regional Commuter Rail Corporation (NIRCRC) was created as a separate operating unit to run commuter rail service on behalf of the RTA. In 1982, after the Rock Island and the Milwaukee Road railroads went bankrupt, NIRCRC was directly operating commuter service on those lines (Rock Island, Milwaukee District West and Milwaukee District North).

In 1983, the General Assembly reorganized the structure and funding of the RTA, and also placed the operating responsibilities on three separate service boards: the Chicago Transit Authority (CTA), the Suburban Bus Division (PACE), and the Commuter Rail Division (CRD). The CRD was now responsible for supervising all commuter rail transportation in northeast Illinois through purchase of service agreements with various railroad companies, including NIRCRC, which continued to operate as a separate public corporation.

Due to the complicated and patchwork nature of commuter rail at the time, the CRD in 1985 came up with the name “Metra” as a service mark for the system as a whole (short for “Metropolitan Rail”). The idea was to bring a unifying identity to all the various components, no matter who owned or operated them. Therefore, CRD and the entities it contracts with to operate the rail services in the northeast Illinois region, including NIRCRC, all use the “Metra” service mark.

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

Today, NIRCRC operates commuter service on the Metra Electric, Rock Island, Southwest Service, Heritage Corridor, North Central Service and the two Milwaukee lines. The three UP lines are operated by Union Pacific, and the BNSF line is run by  BNSF Railway.