Tails on the Rails

In London awhile ago, I smiled when I saw four-legged riders on the underground rail system, or the "Tube," nearly every time I rode. I loved seeing dogs on public transportation.

Rena Church noticed the same thing while stepping over a large black Lab on a train in Scotland. Other passengers were unconcerned that the dog was sprawled out on the floor.  

We each wondered separately why dogs aren’t allowed on our trains locally. But Church did something about it. 

"Maybe because of lawsuits in this country — people seem so angry here, always suing," says Church. "I don’t understand what the difference is! In France, they even have dogs in the grocery stores." 

The Aurora resident’s frustration has paved the way for dog owners to begin bringing their best friends along on Metra.

Church, who enjoys visiting the city but hates to drive, loves to bring along her Chihuahua mix, Rula. She could bring Rula on CTA buses, but not on Metra to get to Chicago. So Church, Aurora’s public art director for the past 20 years, sat down on an August day in 2013 and created a change.org petition asking Metra to allow dogs. 

"I started getting one signature per second immediately," recalls Church. 

Before she knew it, Church had more than 4,600 signatures and an offer of help from Brian Demski, a La Grange native who had just moved to Ravenswood from New York. Demski originally figured the Metra stop near his new place would make it easy to visit family in the suburbs. 

He was very surprised to discover that unlike New York, Metra trains prohibited his 10-year-old Pug, Sid.

"I was trying to figure out what to do and I came across Rena’s petition," said Demski, who doesn’t own a car. He contacted news publications, created a "Pets on Metra" Facebook page and attended public meetings with Church. 

"The process took a lot longer than I expected," says Demski. "It wasn’t like we had to change things completely — PACE and CTA already allowed dogs in carriers."

Church knew better. "I’m in local government and it can take a long time to get anything done — I knew it wouldn’t be quick. But I was impressed with the way Metra listened to their riders."

At public meetings, people worried that dogs would bite and/or use the train as a bathroom. They also worried about allergies — though it was pointed out that service dogs don’t cause allergic reactions.

Metra planners researched commuter rail policies in other large cities — 12 allow riders to travel with small pets in carriers and rarely received complaints. Metra agreed last June to allow pets in carriers on a trial basis, on the Rock Island line, weekends only. After an online survey showed 81 percent in favor, the trial program expanded to the entire system in October. In January, the change became permanent. 

Now that the pair has succeeded in getting Metra to allow dogs in carriers on weekends, they are hoping it will be expanded to weekdays, and some day, larger dogs.

"With bikes on trains, they started with just weekends, and they expanded that, so maybe," says Church, pointing out that there are many more universally irritating things allowed on Metra including, "kids who yell and parents who don’t quiet them down,  adults talking loudly or talking on a cell phone — all more distracting than a dog."

I appreciate people like Church and Demski, who fight the battles many of us just think about. 

They have reaped some intangible but meaningful rewards, such as this one, from Demski: "I was on the ‘L’ and an older woman was sitting nearby with her dog in a carrier. A couple came to talk with her and I overheard their conversation. She told them how only recently pets were allowed on Metra and how grateful she was to now be able to visit her daughter in the suburbs because she could bring her dog with her on the Metra trains."

Demski listened silently as the woman accurately described the new program. He realized how something that started out about fixing his own inconvenience had become much more. "To hear first-hand how it has helped out someone I do not know at all was really amazing."