Sunday, February 04, 2007

Milwaukee to Chicago and back

I travel regularly between Milwaukee and Chicago, and have taken to using the train and bus options.

The newly-instituted Megabus has made non-car transit a great deal easier. Their every-few-hours schedule synchs up nicely with Amtrak's, giving travellers a wide array of departure choices.

Price-wise, Megabus stands to give Amtrak a beating. Buy your tickets the day of travel, and it's $9.50 one way; buy a month ahead, and the price drops as low as $3 to $1. Amtrak charges $21 one way, regardless of the time of purchase. $40 for a Chicago day trip has long seemed very steep to me, though perhaps because my basis for comparison is the $24 I used to pay to travel round trip from Philadelphia to New York on regional rail. The Milwaukee area's lack of a regional rail system puts it at a big disadvantage here, and Megabus is stepping in to fill the gap. Even paying for a couple of days' worth of parking at the Milwaukee train station, I still come out way ahead with the bus.

Service-wise... I've had problems with both. Megabus is of course subject to the unpredictable fluctuations of Chicago traffic, which can leave passengers standing at the curbside at length. A bus today was unable to make a return trip, causing a half-hour delay while a replacement arrived; the replacement smelt of exhaust fumes the whole trip back.

Megabus also has an annoying inconsistency with labelling their buses; sometimes a flashing marquee announces the destination, sometimes a printed board, and sometimes... nothing. Today I boarded a bus for Milwaukee whose marquee announced it was bound for Minneapolis. We had to stop and let one guy off who was on the wrong bus.

Amtrak seems just as prone to mechanical difficulties as the bus; one of my last few trips was on a train with a malfunctioning locomotive, causing it to pull in an hour late; another arrived late enough to cause me to miss a Metra connection. Conflicts with freight trains can also cause delays.

Amtrak has the clear leg up when it comes to dignity of service, with full-service stations at each end -- even though both are unfortunate products of the 1960s. The Milwaukee station was long a rather depressing iteration of Modernism:

Milwaukee Amtrak station

But it is currently undergoing a complete reconstruction:

Milwaukee's Amtrak Station, under reconstruction

The rebuilding will provde it with a spacious, light-filled waiting area, replacing a dim, low-ceilinged, dingy space.

Chicago still retains half of its original Union Station:
Chicago Union Station

That's the western half, containing its spectular Grand Hall, one of the finest public spaces in the city:

Chicago Union Station - The Great Hall

But the concourse to the east, the more heavily-used place where one actually boarded the trains, was replaced by a one-story warren in the 1960s.

Boarding area

The train shed beyond is singularly unremarkable, a space with absolutely no concessions to nicety, comfort or beauty:

The train shed

But, at least it keeps the rain off. And the waiting areas are comfortable, if not particularly beautiful.
Waiting for the train

Megabus, by contrast, provides absolutely nothing, picking up passengers at curbside -- up the street from the Amtrak station in Milwaukee, and in the taxi drop-off area in Chicago:

Megabus loading

The situation, already chaotic with the comings and goings of taxis, cars, and city buses, is made worst still by the enormous Coach USA buses trying to load and unload crowds of people. Megabus service to Minneapolis, Madison, St. Louis, and elsewhere also departs from here.

Amtrak in Chicago has fired a shot in response to this hijacking of their own facilities by their competition:
Amtrak to Megabus: Piss off!

On a February day with a high just barely above zero, Megabus customers don't seem inclined to listen:

Waiting for the bus

Time-wise... my destination is usually in northern Chicago, which means I have to catch a Metra train and backtrack a ways. All told it tends to add up to about 2.5 - 3 hours, whereas driving it can be as little as 90 minutes.

But whether I'm taking the bus or the train, I find it infinately more enjoyable than driving. When I drive I tend to arrive frazzled, tired, and stressed. When I'm riding, I can read, nap, listen to music, and arrive feeling refreshed. It's also better for the environment.

At any rate, it's good to see Megabus doing a healthy business. I figure that a lot of people would simply drive if Amtrak was their only alternative; this way, they get introduced to the convenience of mass transit, at a price that's affordable. Anything that gets cars off the highway, and promotes the usefulness of mass transit in the eyes of Milwaukee's population, can only be a good thing.


Anonymous said...

Any idea where to find car parking for Megabus leaving from Milwaukee Park St. pickup?

Anonymous said...

Thank you SO much for this post. Going to help my life immensely.