How do I take the Metra from Union Station to Naperville?
May 17, 2014 7:56 PM   Subscribe

I'm taking the Amtrak to Chicago next month and am planning on taking the Metra out to Naperville after I arrive so my mom can pick me up, but I'm not quite sure how to do it. Can you help me?

So, I decided to be adventurous and give the Amtrak another whirl this summer break from college. After I arrive at Chicago's Union Station on a weekday afternoon, I want to take the Metra out to Naperville with my suitcase and such. I am so confused though. 1. Where exactly do I go in Union Station to buy my one-way ticket? 2. Is it a machine or a person? 3. Can I pay with a debit card or do I need cash? 4. If cash, how much do I need? (I heard there might be a $10 minimum for checks and cash or something?) 5. How long does the ticket last? 6. After I get my ticket, where do I go to catch the train? 7. And if this was all during rush hour, will I piss everybody off with my suitcase on a packed train, if so, what would you recommend instead? One note, I know it is the BNSF Railway that I need to catch. I thought I could figure out the rest through the Metra website, but apparently I can't. If I were more adventurous I'd wait until I got there to figure it out, but fortunately I'm not that sadistic. If you don't find this all as confusing as I do and can shed some light, I will cherish your wisdom forevermore. Hoping for some native insight here. Thanks.
posted by dargerpartridge to Travel & Transportation around Chicago, IL (25 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
1. I can't describe exactly but there will definitely be signs pointing to you to where the ticket booths are. I would ask someone if you're confused, there are several sides to the station but it's not that huge that you will have too much trouble, and it doesn't sound like you're particularly in a rush.

2. A person at the ticket booth

3. Not sure

4. $5.75

5. I've only purchased 10-ride tickets but they last for at least a few months (maybe three, possibly 6?) if you were planning on buying a return ticket

6. Ask the person at the ticket booth. There are a bunch of different tracks but they very clearly display which line they are servicing.

7. I haven't ridden on this line but have on others during rush hour and I wouldn't worry about it. Just be as polite/take up as little space as possible.

See here for more info about times/fares.
posted by kylej at 8:27 PM on May 17, 2014 [1 favorite]

Union Station isn't that hard to navigate, really. There are signs and whatnot to point you where you need to be.

That being said, to answer as many of your questions as I can (its been a couple of years since I commuted via Metra): 1 & 2 -- There is a ticket counter, with people working behind it. It's not too far from where the Amtrak drops off, if I'm remembering correctly. 3 - I'm not sure if they take credit cards for small amounts or at all, cash is definitely OK. 4 - There's a $10 min for paying with a check. No cash min. You can see online ( how much your fare will be. If you are running late or whatever, you can buy your ticket from the conductor on the train (cash only here), but there will be a $3 additional fee. 5 - A few months, a year, something like that. 6 - I think that ones on the south end of the station, ask the person who you buy the ticket from and they will point you in the right direction. 7- eh, maybe a little. Try to get on the train as early as possible to get a seat , and see if you can put your suitcase under the seat in front of you. (They are bench seats that sit two, so this should work).

Heres a map of the concourse level, which will be helpful.

Enjoy your trip!
posted by Fig at 8:34 PM on May 17, 2014 [1 favorite]

You can also pay cash on the train to the conductor.
posted by travis08 at 8:59 PM on May 17, 2014

Do you have to have exact change for the conductor?
posted by dargerpartridge at 9:02 PM on May 17, 2014

The metra fare card machines take credit/debit cards, even for just a one-way fare. Read the instructions because selecting the right zone can be confusing the first time you do it. There is no minimum purchase, either at the machine with cards or at the window with cash. If you have cash, you can purchase a ticket at the window or on the train (there's a surcharge for paying in cash on the train as noted above). The fare card machines and the ticket counters are in the same place. As Fig says, it's on the same level as the Amtrak drop off. It's not well-marked, but you won't miss it once you get near it, and almost anyone you ask should be able to point you to it, particularly the Amtrak staff. It's near the bathroom, close to the entrance to the Great Hall.

The Naperville train leaves from the south concourse (it's a stop on the train to my parent's house) on an even-numbered track. The display at the door to the track, below the track number, will list all the stops the train is making. So you can double-check you're getting on the right train as you're boarding. South concourse is a madhouse at commuter time, but you'll be fine with a suitcase. Board as early as possible and walk all the way up to the front of the train, which is usually less crowded. Depending on the size of your luggage, you can store it under the seat or on the overhead luggage rack.

Tickets used to be good for a whole year, but I'm not sure if that's the still the case. You needn't worry, however, because it's definitely not a same-day expiration nor a ticket for a train at a specific time. Please keep your ticket readily available--especially if you're on a crowded train--until the conductor comes through and collects them.

There will be an automated announcement of which train you are on and which stops it's going to make a few minutes before departure. If you're on the wrong train, you can hop off, if you move quickly.

The seats flip so you can face either direction. People traveling together will sometimes flip them to face each other, but it's a tight squeeze, so on crowded commuter time trains, it's pretty rude to flip your seat to make that little banquette if you are by yourself. *BUT* the upper levels have an end seat (near the stairwell) that can't be flipped, so if you're fast, you can get a little extra room by claiming the seat that faces the one that can't be flipped because people usually won't squeeze into it with a stranger.

There are bathrooms on the train, but I have never used one, so I don't know what they are like. It's a long ride to Naperville, and if your choice is catching your train or using the restroom, be aware there are bathrooms on the train.
posted by crush-onastick at 9:03 PM on May 17, 2014 [1 favorite]

No, you don't need exact change to purchase your ticket on the train, but you might have to wait for your change if the conductor doesn't have it. I'd stash 9 (6 for the fare, 3 for the onboard purchase surcharge) singles in my wallet specifically for the fare.
posted by crush-onastick at 9:05 PM on May 17, 2014

That's very helpful to know. I'm a little bit worried about my suitcase, it's rather large (I'm going to be there for about three months so I have a lot of crap I have to bring.) If I can't fit it under my seat or on the overhead luggage, can I hold it in front of me propped up? If not, is it kosher to stand up for the journey? I'm trying to visualize these trains, they sound really strange compared to the light rail here. Can I wait for the train on the track? Or do I have to wait in some sort of pre-boarding area? Is there a big sign that will say BNSF Line or something? Again thanks for your detailed answer. Sorry if I sound a little retarded about this, I'm sure I'm making this way more complicated than it actually is.
posted by dargerpartridge at 9:27 PM on May 17, 2014

Although, I could always bring two bags with me and cut down the size of the larger bag.
posted by dargerpartridge at 9:41 PM on May 17, 2014

You might find it easier to stand with your suitcase in the car's entry way if it's crowded as the aisles are kind of narrow. If it's not crowded I would try to get a seat by the door. It might be difficult to get the suitcase up the stairs to the upper level. But don't worry about looking out of place. There's always somebody with a suitcase and always someone who's never been on Metra before. The conductors wear very obvious uniforms so ask, ask, ask if you are unsure about anything. In fact, I would say to ask any nice looking person you see if you're unsure about where you are or where to go. It's better than getting lost or getting on the wrong train. I commuted via Metra for awhile and people would ask me questions like this all the time and I was happy to help - riding the train every day is pretty boring and it was a welcome distraction!
posted by bleep at 9:44 PM on May 17, 2014 [1 favorite]

So basically, let me sum up what I've learned. I should be able to buy my ticket with no problem at the Metra ticket lobby but cash is the easiest way, the track will be clearly marked in the South concourse, if I can go before rush hour that's the best, and I should be able to take my large suitcase with me? Does that sound about right?
posted by dargerpartridge at 9:55 PM on May 17, 2014 [1 favorite]

Also, I just looked at the suitcase. It's not THAT large, just your standard suitcase size.
posted by dargerpartridge at 9:58 PM on May 17, 2014

Where are you coming from, exactly? I'm asking because Amtrak has a stop in Naperville (Just off Washington near the DuPage Children's Museum). Although you probably already researched that, right? =)
posted by JoeZydeco at 10:18 PM on May 17, 2014

I'm coming from Portland, OR. I wasn't aware there was a stop in Naperville. It's still about $150 cheaper to just go to Union Station and take the Metra out though. Thanks for the tip anyway.
posted by dargerpartridge at 10:33 PM on May 17, 2014

the track will be clearly marked in the South concourse

So the track *number* will be clearly marked, but in order to find out which number track the BNSF train is departing from, you need to look at one of those screens like they have in airports that list all the departing trains.

Also, bear in mind that the odd-numbered tracks are on one side of the station, and the even-numbered tracks are all the way on the opposite side, so if you are looking for track 10, you won't find it between 9 and 11. There seems to be good consensus here that your train leaves from the south side.
posted by zadermatermorts at 10:34 PM on May 17, 2014 [1 favorite]

Here is a picture of the interior. The seat backs flip from one side to the other, so you could have 2 of the benches (4 seats) together with no back in between, like the 4 women on the right. This will make people mad. Taking a whole bench (one seat for you, one seat space for your luggage (not literally on the seat, on the floor but taking up potential leg room)) is somewhat common.

Here is a video that shows most of a car interior. The upstairs is a tight squeeze, and I wouldn't want to wrestle a suitcase up the very narrow stairs.

Hope this helps!
posted by Fig at 2:02 AM on May 18, 2014 [1 favorite]

Note that the luggage rack is probably not like you're imagining. You can see it near the center of Fig's picture. It's just an open platform made from metal bars, so it should be possible to fit most any reasonable suitcase on it. You have to go up to the second seating level to access it (unless you are really tall, I guess).
posted by enn at 6:57 AM on May 18, 2014

The cars with the bathrooms also have an area that is used for bike storage or for patrons using wheelchairs (You can see the bike wheel in Fig's picture). In my experience on that line, most trains during commute time the area is not being used for either people or bikes and you can keep a rather large suitcase there.

Even so, really, don't worry too much about bringing a suitcase onto Metra during commute time. The BNSF is sometimes standing room only (mostly the trains that express part of the way) and people don't tend to be nasty about it, unless you're doing the seat faux pas or putting a tiny handbag on the seat next to you. There's not a lot of footroom at the seats, so you may simply be unable to get your suitcase out of the aisle without taking up a seat (like Fig said about the footroom). It happens. If that's the case, try to stay near the doors, where there is more space in the aisles.

You'll also be fine seated a small distance from your suitcase, like cyclists do with their bikes. Just keep an eye on it.
posted by crush-onastick at 7:21 AM on May 18, 2014

I think others have answered pretty well, but just to reiterate...

Regarding ticketing, yes, they take credit cards. Or cash. The ticket counters with real people will probably be easiest. You just ask them for a one-way to Naperville, they don't care what time or date since the tickets are good for like a year. They do also have ticket machines in the same area as the ticket counters, in case the line is really long or something. Or last resort, buy it on the train (cash only, but they'll do change) and pay the extra surcharge.

To catch the train, you do indeed want the south concourse, but I don't recall that being a helpful distinction once you're actually in the station. Just follow the signs to track number [whatever]...things are pretty well-marked or self-explanatory once you get in there.* When in doubt, ask some friendly person.

*Except in the event Metra is having weird track problems, in which case boarding can become a clusterfuck. But then everybody is going to be confused, so you just have to ask around a bunch.

As for the suitcase, just do your best. Try not to leave it in the aisle...that will probably piss people off more than if you just take up an extra seat with it. As crush-onastick mentioned, the cars will be less full if you walk up towards the front of the train (and "the front" will be obvious when you get there).

Also, I assume you've taken a peek at the train schedules? Avoiding rush hour will be good for less crowding, but there are drastically fewer trains in not-rush-hour. Metra also runs a lot of express trains that can either get you to Naperville in half the time, or bypass your stop entirely, so watch out for that.
posted by gueneverey at 7:31 AM on May 18, 2014

Cash is best at the window and your only option on the train. You need a credit/debit card for the machines. The line at the machines is usually quicker/shorter than for the window. Also, if it's at the end of the month, lots of people will be in line at the windoes buying monthly passes.
posted by crush-onastick at 8:04 AM on May 18, 2014

Depending on your budget you may just want to pay your fare on the train, especially if you are cutting it close. $3 will save you the hassle of finding the ticket windows and possibly standing in line.

You can go to the platform even before boarding, and wait for the doors to open. This would give you the advantage of boarding and finding a spot for yourself and your suitcase without a bunch of people behind you or already on the train. Personally, I would not be annoyed by your suitcase. I'm much more annoyed by the daily commuters who take up two seats with their work bags/backpacks than I am by occasional travelers who genuinely can't do anything about the fact that they have a big suitcase. I would recommend finding a spot on the lower level. Both the stairs and the aisles on the upper level are very narrow, with the middle seats facing the aisle, and if you don't get the seat right next to the stairs you will be bumping people with your bag. Also, the luggage rail is smaller than it appears in the picture Fig linked above. I've seen people use it for briefcases and duffel bags, but a rollaboard suitcase would be pushing it.

On the lower level of each train are two groups of seats that fold up when not in use. You can usually fit a carry-on bag, not sure if your suitcase will fit, underneath one of these seats, then fold the seat down to sit. This keeps the bag out of the aisle, and you are only taking up one seat. I prefer the group of 2-3 seats across from the bank of 5ish. If you look at the picture Fig linked, on the right side (from the photographer's perspective) at the back of the lower level, there is a woman with curly hair seated in one of these. You can see the literature holder on the wall next to her. Between her and the wall there is a bit of empty space where a standard suitcase may fit upright (if not, you can put it flat on the floor there with some of it extending under your seat). If you can nab this spot, you don't have to worry about being in anyone's way or asking anyone to get up when you get to your stop.
posted by payoto at 8:24 AM on May 18, 2014

Cool, thanks for all the info everyone. I should be super prepared now. It's good to know that if I need to take up two seats with my suitcase I won't be the villain of the train or something. That video was super helpful, Fig. I see now what everybody means by "next to the doors." If I can sit down there, I think I'll be fine. I still am a little confused about how to get the right train at Union Station though. Do the screens indicate which trains will be stopping in Naperville? I know it's the BNSF line, but I understand there are express lines as well that I should avoid, any tips on getting the right one?
posted by dargerpartridge at 4:09 PM on May 18, 2014

Also, I just found this: BNSF Weekday Timetable. I'm assuming I can use this on any date to figure out which train to take. Am I right?
posted by dargerpartridge at 4:16 PM on May 18, 2014

Yep, that timetable tells you what trains you want to take/avoid. Just make sure you're looking at outbound weekday. So for example, if you get in at 3:00, you could get on the express leaving at 3:18, but you don't want to take the 3:21 that blows past Naperville.

So about the screens. What most people do, and what I would suggest, is you figure out what train(s) you want to take (based on when you get in) by looking at that timetable. Then when you've got your ticket and want to get on the train, you look at one of these screens that lists all the upcoming departures and tells you ok, the 3:18 BNSF leaves from track 10 (or whatever). Then you wander over to where the tracks are (which is like, right around the corner from ticketing), and each track also has an electronic display confirming what train it is, and a list of the stops. So you can double-check that the train you're about to get on is the 3:18 BNSF, and it stops at Downers Grove, Belmont, Lisle, Naperville, etc.

You could conceivably skip the screens (or even the timetable) and go straight to the tracks and use the displays there to find your train, but I think that would be more prone to failure. Also, I don't necessarily trust the track displays to be accurate...if you get to track 10 and it shows some other train, then you should ask around to see what's up with the 3:18.

Good luck!
posted by gueneverey at 6:39 PM on May 18, 2014

Yes, the displays underneath the track number will tell you what stops the train makes. There are also conductors on the platforms you can ask before you board or you can ask the person you sit down next to "hey, does this train stop in Naperville?" The conductor will definitely know; the other passengers may not (because even though the BNSF is always on the same route, some trains skip some stops).

There is an announcement before the doors close and the train departs stating which stops the train makes. I've seen people leap up and get off the train, but you've got to move quickly!
posted by crush-onastick at 7:26 PM on May 18, 2014

There are two train stations in Naperville: the "Naperville" station that JoeZydeco mentioned, and the "Route 59" station a bit further west. Talk to your mom about which one is easiest for her to pick you up at, and make sure the train you get on stops at that station.
posted by Joleta at 8:28 PM on May 18, 2014

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