Often criticized for being technologically behind the times, Metra has taken another step into the 21st century. It has unveiled a new feature for its website and certain mobile devices that will give customers up-to-the-minute information on its trains.
The new feature, Rail-Time Tracker, is now available, Metra said Thursday.
"All this is about providing more information to the passengers to make it easier for them to manage their travel times," Metra communications chief Robert Carlton said. "If you're at a coffee shop, you can get accurate data about how close your train is right from your phone."
The system is similar to the CTA's bus and train trackers.
Although other commuter rail agencies in the U.S. have begun offering real-time train schedule information, Metra's system appears to be the first of its kind because of the detail it offers, transportation experts said.
"The public's coming to expect this type of service," DePaul University urban transportation authority Joseph Schwieterman said. "Metra's customers are slaves to a schedule ... so even knowing if the train is a minute late is a real lifestyle enhancement for people."
For the time being, however, the only mobile devices that will be able to access the train tracker will be Apple iPhones, iPads and Android phones.
People with those devices make up the vast majority of commuters who access Metra's website, Carlton said.
Metra said its train tracker is an improvement on the email alerts that the commuter rail agency uses to give riders current information on late trains because the tracker provides specific arrival times.
The feature will allow riders to check the status of trains at every station on the Metra system, Carlton said.
It will show the scheduled arrival times of particular trains and whether they are on time or running late -- and if so, how late. For instance, if a train is behind schedule, the tracker will give the new estimated arrival time at a station.
Metra will continue to send e-alerts to subscribers whenever a train is more than 15 minutes late on weekdays and 30 minutes on weekends. But the train tracker will let riders know when a train is going to be even a minute late, Carlton said.
Commuters on Thursday gave the train tracker a thumbs-up.
"The trains are more unreliable than they've been before, so it's helpful to know when they're coming and when they're going," said Marty Rosa, 57, of Naperville.
Jim Wilson's train from Chicago to his hometown of Naperville was delayed about 20 minutes Thursday afternoon.
"It would help if you're sitting, waiting in the parking lot or a close (drive) ... to figure out whether to wait for the next train or try to make this train," said Wilson, 58.
The new feature is linked to the Metra GPS tracking system, which uses satellites to plot the exact locations of all trains on the system and can record precisely when a train arrives at and leaves each station, Metra said.
A customer with a "My Metra" account will automatically see information for the station or stations he or she chooses. Those without accounts will see a drop-down menu allowing them to select any station on any line.
If a train is delayed 30 minutes or more, a "delayed" link will appear that will take riders to a service advisory that explains the delay. And if a train's regular schedule has been altered, it will say "modified" and also link to a service advisory with an explanation.
Metra is implementing the train tracker in response to a 2011 state law requiring that transit agencies make available Web-based, real-time vehicle arrival information to riders.
The system is costing Metra about $80,000 to develop and was funded by a grant from the Regional Transportation Authority.
Metra in March expanded its use of ticket vending machines that accept credit cards. Metra did not accept credit cards for ticket purchases at stations until early 2010 and on its website in September 2009. Meanwhile, Metra is also studying how it can provide Wi-Fi on its trains at no cost to commuters, Carlton said.
Tribune reporter Melissa Jenco contributed.
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