Discussion related to commuter rail and rapid transit operations in the Chicago area including the South Shore Line, Metra Rail, and Chicago Transit Authority.

Moderators: metraRI, JamesT4

  by doepack
CTA riders are in for a rail mess
North Side work may double travel times

By Jon Hilkevitch
Tribune transportation reporter
Published January 11, 2007

Commuters who thought the Dan Ryan Expressway reconstruction failed to live up to all the hype about traffic gridlock should try riding the most heavily traveled CTA rail corridor starting in the spring.

That is, if they can somehow squeeze aboard a train.

Capacity on many parts of the rail system now is full at the height of the morning and evening rush. And things will get even worse as the CTA starts the next and most disruptive phase of its $530 million Brown Line expansion project.

Travel times are expected to as much as double when one out of the four tracks used by the Red, Brown and Purple/Evanston Express Lines between the Armitage and Addison stations will be taken out of service from about April 2 through the end of 2009, transit officials said Wednesday.

The elevated tracks traverse the Lincoln Park and Lakeview neighborhoods and are among the CTA's busiest. The corridor carries 185,000 passengers on about 1,000 trains each day.

The almost three-year, 25 percent reduction in the corridor's track capacity is the painful price for expanding service enough to meet future ridership growth, CTA officials warned in providing the first details of the plan.

The phased-in changes will allow the CTA to keep the rail lines open while expanding platforms at the Belmont and Fullerton stations and building new tracks. Trains will continue to make all station stops.

But waiting and boarding times will rise, and trains will fill up earlier on their routes while the work is being done.

So start making alternative plans to ride the bus or Metra trains. Carpool. Go buy a good pair of walking shoes. Pump up the tires in your bicycle or motor scooter. Switch your travel times to earlier or later in the day. Or maybe ask your boss for a three-year sabbatical.

Starting in April, northbound Red, Brown and Purple Line trains will share one track for part of the way from south of Fullerton to north of Belmont, then be switched back to the regular two-track configuration.

Southbound trains will operate on two tracks as normal--the outside track for the Brown and Purple Lines and the inside track for the Red Line.

Train schedules will be pared to accommodate the reduction in tracks. Running the same number of trains would create horrendous bottlenecks at crossover points where trains merge onto a single track near the stations, officials said.

The Purple Line schedule will be cut back the most, officials said. Purple Line riders will be encouraged to ride the all-stop Red Line instead.

To alleviate crowding downtown, Purple Line trains, which normally run clockwise around the Loop, will switch to the counterclockwise direction on the outer track, as the Brown Line does, officials said.

The crunch will be worst during the evening rush for northbound commuters on the three lines sharing one track for a portion of the routes.

But transit officials say the impact will be felt on other rail routes too.

"Depending on where you live, in an extreme case you should budget up to double the amount of time to get home and 50 percent additional time to get to work in the morning," said Michael Shiffer, CTA vice president of planning and development.

"Trains will be more crowded. It will be difficult to board during rush hours," Shiffer told the CTA board, adding that commuting times should improve over time as people adapt to new travel patterns and as the CTA hopes to add back some trains.

The service changes are still nearly three months away, but as word spread Wednesday, CTA customers started to worry.

"Does the CTA want to get rid of all of its riders? That's one way to alleviate overcrowding on trains," said a commuter named Katharine who did not want her full name used.

It currently takes 45-plus minutes to get from the Loop to the Kimball station" on the Brown Line, she said. "It is now going to be 1 1/2 hours to travel 9 miles as the crow flies?"

Capacity will be reduced by 16 trains, or about 8,640 passengers, on southbound runs between 6 a.m. and 9:30 a.m., the CTA said.

The cuts will be twice as deep later in the day.

Northbound between 3 p.m. and 6:30 p.m., there will be 31 fewer trains--reducing passenger capacity by 17,460 passengers--because the Red, Brown and Purple Line trains will temporarily share one track at the Fullerton and Belmont stations. The two stations are being relocated and replaced with larger facilities.

CTA officials say the impact of three-track operations will stretch as far as the Addison station to the north and the Armitage stop to the south.

And that's if everything goes according to plan, which would be almost unprecedented for the CTA.

The rail system has been plagued in recent months by a series of fires, derailments and track-switching problems that have snarled operations and delayed commuters, who are becoming increasingly impatient with the transit agency.

Referring to the possibility of balky track switches and other disruptions during the three-track operations, CTA president Frank Kruesi acknowledged, "If we have one hiccup, it will multiply the problems we would have had with four tracks."

CTA officials say they are getting the word out now in the hope that transit riders will find alternative travel choices.

Higher ridership is expected on the Blue Line and some bus routes due to riders switching commuting patterns, officials said. Some equipment may be shifted to the Blue Line to help operations there, Kruesi said.

Some North Side rail commuters are expected to try the express bus routes on North Lake Shore Drive or regular bus routes on major arterial roads, including Clark and Halsted Streets, Lincoln Avenue and Broadway. Shuttle buses will also operate at least initially to take passengers beyond the Fullerton-Belmont area and link them with trains at other stations or regular bus routes, officials said.


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  by MetraBNSF
With all the slow zones in place along the north side lines, it took me about 40 minutes once to go from North/Clyborn to Berwyn along the Red Line. I thought a majority of the slow zones were south of Clark Junction, but there's a handful of them north of there.

Overhype of a traffic nightmare worked on the Dan Ryan, but it looks like it won't work on the CTA.

  by doepack
MetraBNSF wrote:Overhype of a traffic nightmare worked on the Dan Ryan, but it looks like it won't work on the CTA.
Especially when there's going to be extra buses and cabs trying to accomodate regular Red line riders looking for alternates. Might not be too bad north of Wrigleyville, but south of there, especially Lincoln Park, is going to be an even greater mess with rush hour traffic than it already is...

  by JamesT4
Just think of this, pretty soon the stations on the north branch of the red line (North of Fullerton) will have to be reconstructed or rebuilt to be ADA Acessiable.

I use to live about 4 blocks from the morse station on the red line, and I kept me a Metra 10-ride, because if I had to go downtown during rush hour I would rather use Metra form the Rogers Park Station.

It's already a nightmare on the north side, and because of the brown line reconstruction, it is going to get even worse.

The purple line express trains are going to be cut too. Get ready for all stop standing room only red line trains for those who regulary take the purple line express to and from evanston.

  by doepack
For those who may not have heard, there is now a 6mph slow zone on the Blue line, located in the subway between Division and Grand, due to the old, rotten ties in the area that were suspected to have caused last year's derailment. CTA says it's until "further notice", which really means that no timetable has been set for the necessary track repairs. I'm telling you, watching this system fall apart is like watching a bad horror movie...

As if 15mph slow zones scattered across the system weren't bad enough, now you've got a 6mph slow zone that stretches over a mile. And don't forget the pending capacity reduction on the north side, where a four-track ROW will be reduced to three, due to the reconstruction of the Belmont and Fullerton stations, and resulting in service cuts on the Red, Brown, and Purple lines; in fact, Purple line express trains may not operate at all until the construction is finished. The cuts will start in April, and is scheduled to last until 2009 at the earliest. Riders in the affected areas may as well just take the bus, because the 'L' definitely won't be "rapid transit" for quite sometime...

Short term, CTA is expecting these construction related service cuts to result in significant ridership losses over the next couple of years, and that prediction seems to be dead on. But I wonder if the riders will bother coming back, despite the potential improvements that could/should result from of all the construction; will it really be worth it?

  by JamesT4
doepack wrote:For those who may not have heard, there is now a 6mph slow zone on the Blue line, located in the subway between Division and Grand, due to the old, rotten ties in the area that were suspected to have caused last year's derailment.
Already know that justs by looking at the sings while i am on the blue line. I work At O'Hare, and I have to deal with the blue line every day, so this not new to me.

I already takes an hour instead of the 45 min. to get from downtown, to O'Hare, and this is just going to increase the travel time on this part of the blue line.

  by MetraBNSF
There is a great article in the Jan 22, 2007, edition of Crain's Chicago Business that outlines what's wrong with the CTA. The entire article focuses on the rapid transit system.

Crain's Investigates: What's wrong with the CTA
A $6-billion shortfall. Suspect decisions. Soaring ridership. Can our train system be fixed?


Business travelers on Blue Line trains crawl downtown from O'Hare International Airport at speeds as low as 15 miles an hour — half the speed of a fast horse. Loop office workers from the North Side jam Red Line cars for a trip that can take an hour thanks to aging rails, agonizing slow zones and balky switches. Brown Line riders face more than two years of construction delays that could double their travel time, but won't upgrade the line's structure or signals.

Commuting on the el is bad and getting worse, with no likely solution in sight.

A decrepit elevated train system is sliding deeper into decay that eventually will threaten service on almost every line. The Chicago Transit Authority says repairing the system will cost $6 billion, money it doesn't have. Even if the state and federal governments cough up the money, repairs will take years — meaning years of additional delays and other inconveniences for Chicago commuters.

The question commuters are asking: What's wrong with the CTA?

The answer: a crippling combination of aging infrastructure, funding shortfalls, questionable choices by CTA management, a string of bad luck and a historic rise in ridership — up 25% since 1999 — that has overwhelmed a rail system once considered nearly as reliable as cold in January.

Photo: Stephen J. Serio
The CTA clearly is struggling to deal with that troublesome mix. Just last week, it fired five workers in connection with a Blue Line derailment in July, one of four such accidents last year. Recently, trains at times have been moving at reduced speeds on as much as 18% of tracks, mostly due to safety engineers' fears that aging tracks and ties could lead to more accidents.

It adds up to unending heartburn for CTA passengers, who are expected to ride the rails a total of 170 million times this year, and a huge hit to the city's economy.

"The short-term costs are staggering," as workers and their employers lose time "easily" worth tens of millions of dollars a year, says Joseph Schwieterman, director of the Chaddick Institute for Metropolitan Development at DePaul University. In the long run, CTA woes are one more reason for middle-class workers — and developers — to head to the suburbs, he adds.

Agency officials, led by CTA President Frank Kruesi, blame funding shortfalls that have forced them to defer routine and critical maintenance year after year.

There's truth in that. But it's also true that the CTA under Mr. Kruesi often has spent its limited capital dollars on ostentatious expansion projects rather than the smaller, cheaper, more mundane maintenance that keeps trains running on time.

"You can't be so enamored of glamorous capital projects that you are neglecting the million people you serve a day," says Robert Paaswell, the CTA's top manager from 1986 to 1989 and now director of the Urban Transportation Research Center at City University of New York (CUNY).

At the Hollywood Avenue viaduct — blocks from where North Lake Shore Drive ends — steel braces reinforce a decaying overpass, and holes in concrete expose steel supports dating to the early 1900s. Photo: Stephen J. Serio

Most of what's wrong at the CTA can be linked to delayed capital investment. The agency pegs its unfunded capital needs by 2011 at $5.8 billion — an amount called "immensely high" by Mr. Paaswell, who hasn't studied the CTA's predicament lately but is an authority on transit systems.

The amount "tells me they got behind," he says. "They're having to play catch-up."


Remarkably, the CTA is coming off a relatively flush period, having funded major work on four lines (Brown, Red, Blue and Green) in recent years with federal cash and the proceeds of Illinois First bond issues. But the Illinois First money has about run out. If the General Assembly doesn't come up with a new funding source this spring, the CTA may not have the local dollars needed to qualify for matching federal funds.

Even when it was flowing, Illinois First money wasn't enough to tackle many of the CTA's thorniest problems, especially along North Side routes, where some of the oldest transit lines run through many of the city's fastest-growing neighborhoods. For instance, among the CTA's $5.8 billion in unfunded capital needs are large, crumbling sections of concrete walls supporting the 1920s-era Red Line from Wilson Avenue to Howard Street that are held together by steel braces and plates. Estimated cost of replacement: $406 million. At least five seedy, forbidding subway stations on that same line need to be rebuilt at $50 million-plus each.

Even if the CTA gets the money, such projects will likely slow or take whole sections of train lines out of commission for years.

One developing trouble spot: railcars. The CTA hasn't bought any since Orange Line service began in 1993, and while some new cars are on order, they won't start arriving until 2010. By then, the average age of the 1,190-car fleet will be 27 years, above the 25-year maximum recommended by the Federal Transit Authority. At the same time, the agency doesn't have the $623 million it needs for quarter- and half-life overhauls that would extend the useful age of its existing cars, says Paul Fish, CTA vice-president of capital planning. Instead, it makes spot repairs, costing an extra $50 million a year, according to the agency.

That could lead to big problems eventually, because rising passenger traffic means cars run more often, with total annual fleet mileage up 25% since 1999. And the cars are more crowded, with rush-hour trains, designed to carry no more than 600 to 800 passengers, jammed with as many as 1,000 at a time, according to Rick Harris, president of Local 308 of the Amalgamated Transit Union, which represents rail workers. "They need more equipment," he says.


For frustrated commuters, the CTA's most pressing need might be the $727 million it would take to finish replacing mechanical signals, built as far back as the 1950s, with electronic gear. Modern devices are more reliable and can handle more trains, Mr. Fish says. Mr. Paaswell calls such spending "probably the best investment you can make" on a train system. "It's better than expansion."

And yet expansion is what the CTA often has opted for under Mr. Kruesi.

The CTA is spending $130 million building a super-station under the Block 37 development on State Street that would anchor express service to O'Hare. The idea behind the station, which is also getting $42 million in city subsidies, is to let air travelers check their luggage downtown before being whisked to the airport. To help pay for it, the CTA shifted money from equipment purchases and viaduct work in Evanston, transit sources say. But that service will never begin unless a private operator can be found to bring up to $1.5 billion of its own capital to the project.

CTA Chairman Carole Brown replies that the Block 37 project provides a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to build a spur connecting the Red Line, under State Street, with the Blue Line, which uses the Dearborn subway, thereby providing operational flexibility. "For us, Block 37 is a tunnel project that happens to have a station on top of it," says Ms. Brown, who herself has questioned the wisdom of the current proposal.

But Jacqueline Leavy of the Neighborhood Capital Budget Group, a coalition of community and economic development organizations, considers the episode an example of the CTA's focus on glitz over grit — "gilding the lily instead of taking care of immediate needs."

She points to the Brown Line expansion, which has grown in cost from the $298 million estimated by the CTA in 1998 to $530 million today — not including $250 million needed to upgrade signals, structural steel and electrical substations. "There's no one looking over their shoulder on cost containment," Ms. Leavy says, arguing that too much is spent on things like station design and not enough on the signals, switches and trains that are keys to reliability. (One Brown Line station was to include a clock tower before the item was cut, CTA sources say.)

The CTA asserts that the Brown Line project always was about expanding platforms to accommodate more cars, not structural renovation, and that the costs rose as federal officials agreed to more substantial station work.

Another example cited by CTA critics: the recent, $37-million reconstruction of the "Paulina connector" on the Near West Side. It's being used for the CTA's new Pink Line but, more significantly, would anchor the proposed $3-billion Circle Line that has been a top priority of Mr. Kruesi's. Federal funding for the Circle Line is nowhere in sight. Meanwhile, the rail union's Mr. Harris says the Pink Line has overstretched crews and equipment that are needed elsewhere, causing delays.

Mr. Kruesi was not available for comment. Other CTA officials say the Pink Line has attracted new riders and has not caused operational woes.

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CUNY's Mr. Paaswell says he learned a critical lesson while running the CTA: "You can't expand a bad system."

Beyond the glamour projects, the CTA also has been spending precious capital dollars on non-capital items.

For instance, the agency recently began borrowing in anticipation of receiving federal grants — a practice that puts the cash in hand faster but also adds costs. In the next four years, the agency will spend $143 million on interest, according to CTA documents.

And in the past two years, political pressure forced the CTA to shift $56 million from capital accounts to operating costs.


Some transit insiders also say the CTA's current difficulties are related to a long-standing tendency to move slowly in deploying available funds. Mr. Kruesi tried to address such difficulties several years ago when he announced that the CTA would begin outsourcing management of capital spending on projects.

But as of August, the CTA had $1.5 billion in available but unspent grant money — $495 million of that not even under contract. The CTA blames overly restrictive rules by the Illinois Department of Transportation (IDOT), which provides a share of most CTA capital projects. IDOT officials dispute that.

Ms. Brown notes that many of the CTA's current and imminent train delays stem from renovation plans, efforts that eventually will improve service. Indeed, slow zones virtually have disappeared on the Dan Ryan leg of the Red Line since the agency spent $282 million renovating the line last year.

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The CTA hopes its successes will persuade state lawmakers this spring to provide the funds to match federal capital grants. The agency must also hit up legislators to pay unmet operating costs, like $200 million in unfunded pension obligations. The CTA is likely to get something, but how much depends on whether Gov. Rod Blagojevich agrees to new taxes or fees. Fares have been raised a total of 33% in two hikes over the past three years, making another increase unlikely.

Meanwhile, back on the O'Hare leg of the Blue Line, Ms. Brown says she's still trying to figure out why ties that were supposed to last half a century are falling apart after 24 years, creating slow zones. Asked if a little Chicago-style procurement magic took place, she says all that's certain is that the unidentified supplier "used a different (preservative) compound" than is used elsewhere in the CTA system. Replacing the ties will cost more than $54 million. Unless the state ponies up, Blue Line riders will face "permanent" slow zones, according to Ms. Brown, who says, "We're trying to do what we can with very, very limited resources."