Howard Station Evanston

Musing on the musings on the El

A nice little collection of comments concerning the state of the CTA featured in the Chciago Redeye has this author eager for some comments of his own.  The “improvements” that the CTA has undertaken in the last decade—Brown Line Capacity Expansion, procurement of new rail cars, etc—do not seem to have gone over well with some people.  They haven’t really gone over well with me either.

“No crown for Brown” is one rider’s take on the new Brown Line.  Apparently the promise of increased capacity has turned out to be rather hollow, with off-peak train frequency insufficient to meet demand.  

This comment brings attention to the concept of “tempting fate” that the non-Genry Savvy CTA planners failed to recognize, thus sending them into a potential death spiral.  The Brown Line Capacity Expansion Project increased the platform lengths at all Brown Line stations to accommodate 8 car trains, along with making all stations ADA-Compliant.  Unfortunately, the CTA has slashed “L” service since that project was completed.  The result: trains running less frequently resulting in crowding that the project was supposed to alleviate.  Such conditions will only amplify the existing disdain towards the CTA demonstrated by many riders.  Decreasing ridership would likely reduce crowding on trains, but also cause revenue to decrease leading to further service reductions and fare increases, CAUSING EVEN MORE RIDERS to abandon the system.  

The Douglas Branch rehab is yet another project that was a questionable endeavor.  In a Hail Mary attempt to retain riders the CTA decided to spend $482.6 million in order to restore a portion of the CTA carrying less than 10,000 passengers per day.  That’s right: the CTA spent nearly $50,000 per passenger in order to keep said passengers riding the “L”.  Considering that the Dan Ryan Branch had an average weekday station usage of 50,000 based on data from 2002-2010 renovating the track on that line would have been a wiser move.  The so called “Dan Ryan Rehabilitation Project”that ran in the middle of the decade was questionable at best.  Stations were rehabbed and new interlockings were built to improve operations, but work on the track itself was apparently minimal since there are now slow zones [2] covering almost 30% of that division.  Trains are forced to run express to make up for lost time with alarming frequency; I have had the pleasure of riding several of these trains, which can be nice if you are in a rush and are heading all the way downtown.  The CTA’s decision to spend almost half a billion dollars rehabbing a barely used line, to the detriment of the busiest line in the system, stinks to high heaven of political pandering and vote buying.  Politicians in the neighborhoods served by the Red Line would be perfectly justified in crying foul at a blatant attempt to influence Pink Line voters.  A complete Dan Ryan renovation would have been comparatively easy compared to the Douglas Branch since the line runs at-grade in the middle of the highway for pretty much its entire length; no expensive steel structure to replace for one.  Existing bus routes like the 24 and 29 could have easily accommodated the overnight ridership, allowing the entire branch to be shut down for construction in both directions.

“Aisle face-off”: the decision to switch to aisle facing seats has this author thinking of John Woo movie puns.  The decision to switch to longitudinal seats used by subways in Asia and New York is another miscalculation by the CTA.  Just like the Brown Line Capacity Expansion Project and the Douglas Branch Rehabilitation, the personnel in charge of capital projects tempted fate and got their asses handed to them by resentful riders.  Passengers have been complaining for months about how the new cars are not right for Chicago.  Complaints range from unwanted views of behinds to fears of impromptu beds for the homeless during the night.  

The wider aisles that are supposed to make it easier to move around the crowded cars seem unnecessary given the CTA’s inadvertent attempts to drive away their riders.  The fact that trains are slowing down all across the system, especially on the Dan Ryan Branch, means that riders are going to spending a lot more time on the trains.  Unfortunately the new 5000-series cars no longer have seat back grab bars within easy reach [3]; these have been replaced by an orgy of vertical bars [4] and suspended straps that do not seem to work for many riders who have to hold onto them for long periods.  The CTA has made it easier to stand when people would rather be sitting thanks to their lengthened commutes.  

No discussion of the new cars would be complete without mentioning the lost opportunities when it comes to technology.  The CTA has endeavored to do the opposite of New York in almost every aspect outside of longitudinal seating.  Forget three doors per side—the 5000 series still has two doors per side in the same old vestibule arrangement.  The New York R142s use a far subtler approach [5that allows for more space in this area.  Opening up an aisle by several inches may not seem like it would make a difference movement-wise, but simulations after several airliner disasters have shown that it can, especially when it comes to emergency evacuation.  The early 737 had a bulkhead opening only 22.5 inches wide that led to a bottleneck during an evacuation of a plane in England back in 1985 [6].  Increasing the width to 30 inches had dramatic results during tests.  The traditional 2×2 seats at one end of the new 5000 series cars negate the advantages of a wider aisle, creating a bottleneck near one vestibule and potentially threatening passengers lives in the event of an evacuation.  The CTA should have gone with an all-or-nothing seating arrangement instead of trying to cling onto 2×2 seating while introducing aisle seats.  

The hybrid seat layout of the new rail cars is another example of the CTA’s insistence of trying to please all of its passengers.  The Douglas Branch Rehabilitation was a blatant example of a local earmark designed to benefit a small percentage of CTA riders at tremendous cost.  There are stations like Kostner on the Pink Line that serve less than 500 riders per day; in addition to low ridership, Kostner appears to be an armed robbery magnet.  Closing such stations would not only reduce labor costs but potentially keep passengers safer by discharging them at busier stations.  The CTA has closed dozens of stations in its history; the Douglas Branch Rehabilitation now represents a missed opportunity to eliminate redundant stations.

“Blue Line blues”: the CTA’s desire to be avoid being portrayed as insensitive is exemplified by the fare policies being enforced at terminals.  I once rode the Blue Line at 4 AM and the few riders onboard were homeless sleeping.  I’m reasonably confident that the remarks of one CTA rider in the aforementioned Redeye article are 100% true: people will ride the CTA back and forth all night.  Homeless using the CTA “L” as a shelter degrades the cleanliness of the system, alienating customers during the day.  The chronic funding woes have undoubtably affected the CTA’s ability to clean their trains and stations which doesn’t bode well for the passenger experience, especially with the new aisle seats allowing for easier sleeping coming into service in the next few years.  Apparently the CTA has decided that their desire to cater to everybody extends to people who don’t even pay for most of their rides, and now they have unwittingly played into those people’s hands by designing cars that will make it easier to convert trains in roving shelters.  

Eventually the CTA will have to pick and choose.  Do they want to continue to keep services like the Pink and Green Line in operation, or do they want to consolidate and try to maintain or even improve service on their busier lines?  Do they want to cater to deadbeats or do they care about their paying customers?  

There is talk of extending the Red Line farther south to 130th St, which is somewhat justified considering that the Red Line is the busiest line and 95th is definitely crowded.  However, considering the problems that the Dan Ryan Branch faces today, the wisdom of this move is questionable.  Proponents point out that the new extension would connect to the South Shore interurban and Metra Electric, which begs the question: Why ride the slow Dan Ryan Branch which will only get slower without major rehabilitation when you could ride the Metra Electric which is arguably faster and more comfortable?  But that’s a discussion for another day…

Lake Shore Drive in winter

Racing to the rescue

Curious accident involving a Chicago Police vehicle:

SUV hits police cruiser

A report of an “assault in progress and a person on the tracks at the Fullerton Red Line stop” apparently required a police SUV to race from River North all the way to Lincoln Park.  All possible routes between these two locations involve at least two miles of driving.  This author would be very interested to hear the rationale for requiring officers to race across the city in order to respond to crime at one of the busiest stations in the CTA.  Averaging out daily ridership between 2002 and 2010, the Fullerton CTA stop was the fifth busiest in the system.  Surely a strong police presence in the vicinity of Fullerton and Belmont on the Red Line is justified, yet officers responding to a disturbance at Fullerton had to come from River North.

There are possible explanations for this.  One is the responding officers called for backup and said backup had to come from River North due to officers nearby being engaged in other duties.  Another is that perhaps the officer being summoned had special training that would be useful.  The article in question does not say why the officer had to travel so far.  This is just another example of the nonsensical approach to police deployment practiced by the CPD.  Some might recall the officer who was killed when his cruiser skidded off Lake Shore Drive while responding to a burglary at a cell phone store in the 3100 block of North Clark:

An officer or two stationed at Belmont for the upcoming rush hour could have literally drove a few blocks around the corner and responded to this burglary.  Instead an officer had to be summoned from over a mile and a half away to respond to a property crime and was killed.  Even the Town Hall District police station was closer to the scene of the crime.

This author looks forward to the Chicago Police setting a new record for distance traveled during a crime response at a transit station:

“This just in.  Chicago Police cruiser struck at Lake Shore Drive and 31st Street while responding to assault at Union Station, Chicago’s main commuter and long distance rail hub”

Lake Shore Drive at night

Red and Purple Line Express versus lakefront buses

The lake shore express buses are one of the few positives about the CTA.  If someone’s destination is the far north side they can use the 147 Outer Drive Express bus to reach their destination instead of the Red Line.  While the CTA has historically had express service on the L and continues to use express service in the form of the Purple Line rush hour service to Evanston, it isn’t tremendously useful in its current incarnation.

The Purple Line Express has several flaws that limit its effectiveness to commuters and reduce its attractiveness to city residents.  The primary problem with the Purple Line Express is the shear number of stations it serves in the Loop and River North neighborhoods.  Express services are most effective when they have a minimal number of stops; each additional stop increases the complexity of the service by introducing an increasing number of commuter types.  Short haul commuters find themselves fighting against long haul commuters when they need to exit the train as a result.

The Purple Line would be more effective if it traveled express all the way to Fullerton after leaving the Loop.  Unfortunately this is no longer possible due to the removal of the express tracks south of Armitage.  While these tracks were removed because of structural problems their absence has resulted in a lost opportunity to increase capacity.  The Brown and Purple lines are now interlined for a significant amount of the Brown Line’s length, which limits each line’s capacity.  Purple Line Express wait times are already longer than average, so missed trains means more commuters crowding platforms and competing with Brown Line riders.

Another weakness of the Purple Line Express is that it competes with the Metra Union Pacific North Line in that they both exist primarily to serve suburban riders.  The Purple Line Express is useful for commuters to Evanston and other suburbs but not for city residents along the densely populated north lakeshore.  The Union Pacific North Line scheduled travel time from Ogilvie to Evanston Main Street Station is twenty minutes on some runs.  Unlike the Purple Line Express there are only three stops between these stations so the Metra trains can make very good time consistently.  The Purple Line Express is scheduled to make this trip from Washington/Wells in 38 minutes.  While riding Metra requires riders to walk farther west Ogilvie has the advantage of being a terminus station with consistent time tables.  The Union Pacific North Line also has an advantage in that it does not have to share track with other services during its journey which reduces its susceptibility to delays caused by other trains.  A Purple Line Express train can be delayed by a problem on the Pink Line, Green Line, or Orange Line since they all share the Inner Loop track.

 The 147 Outer Drive Express does not suffer from any of the aforementioned problems.  After Michigan and Delaware just north of the Magnificent Mile the bus runs express for almost six miles to Foster and Marine in the Edgewater neighborhood in about 13 minutes.  All the times I’ve ridden this bus it has consistently made this run in the alloted time even during rush hour.  5.8 miles in 13 minutes equals an average speed of approximately 27 miles per hour which is an impressive speed for a bus in urban conditions.  During times I have ridden the bus from Wacker to Foster and back it has managed to make the trip in approximately 25 minutes.  This is consistent with the published schedule and a slightly faster than the Red Line.  The Red Line has a lot more stops between downtown and the north side than the 147 so the chance for delay is greatly increased; 27 minutes from State and Lake to Berwyn is optimistic on a good day.

The Outer Drive Express is an example of effective express bus service, dedicated to collecting passengers in the commercial core and then shuttling them as fast as possible to a residential area.  Suffice it to say, I will be using the 147 to travel to the north side from downtown from now on.

Harrison subway by Eric Pancer

Harrison and Pulaski

At the end of 2010 I conducted an analysis to support my thesis work concerning transit design that involved combing through public Chicago Police Department reports concerning crime occurring on the CTA EL.  I identified two stations in particular—Pulaski on the Blue Line and Harrison on the Red Line—as being the stations that were in my opinion crime hotspots.

Cut to six months later…

Pulaski Blue Line Robbery

For me this was no surprise since I had identified Pulaski as the most likely spot for a violent robbery on the Blue Line.  Statistics may mean nothing to the individual but clearly I identified something about this station and its surroundings that made it a prime candidate for a serious crime.

Less than three months later…

Harrison Red Line Robbery

Again!  The station I had identified as the most likely station on the Red Line for violent crime was the station that was in the news.  Once I saw the words CTA and ROBBERY I just knew it had to be Harrison.  Clearly the CTA and Chicago Police need to figure out what is going on at these two stations.

*Featured image by Eric Pancer, originally posted on Wikipedia

July 4th

Saturday Night Fever

Long story short: the performance of the Red Line Saturday night during Pride Weekend was yet another example of the CTA’s inability to function correctly during major events.

Jackson to Roosevelt

Jackson to Roosevelt

After riding the 151 Sheridan bus from Belmont to Adams in a relatively brisk 25 minutes, I arrived at the Jackson Red Line station around midnight to see a train seemingly stuck at Harrison a short distance down the tunnel.  After at least thirteen minutes (according to my watch, which I looked at after reaching the bottom of the stairs only to see no trains arriving or departing southbound), the train at Harrison began moving again.  Shortly thereafter Red Line run 940 I believe arrived at Jackson.  When we departed Harrison we found ourselves stuck again behind the cursed Red Line train.  After finally making it to the Roosevelt platform, the train I was on came to a halt for over five minutes.  Shortly after my departure to secure alternate transportation, the 940 continued on its way.  This was at approximately 12:30 AM, roughly a half hour after I arrived at Jackson; at least fifteen minutes passed between departure from Jackson and departure from Roosevelt.

This whole incident should seem oddly familiar to anyone that rode the Red Line southbound during New Year’s 2011.  The combination of crowds, many of whom were likely intoxicated considering the occasion, and the late hour caused the Red Line to bog down.  The Brown Line train I had taken to Lincoln Square when I was heading to my New Year’s festivities came to a halt at Sedgwick because someone in the last car had apparently passed out on the train.  Fortunately an army of taxicabs was waiting on North Avenue, and I was soon on my way with time to spare.  

When I rode the CTA after the July 4th Fireworks downtown in 2009 I managed to catch the first Brown Line train that arrived at Randolph and I made it to Belmont with practically no major delays except for crowds moving on and off the train.  Once the cutbacks in service took effect I noticed the L’s performance during major events start to decline.  New Year’s was the first sign of trouble but easy to shake off considering all the alcohol and party crowds.  Now with this second incredibly negative Red Line experience of the year, I think I’m probably going to avoid riding the CTA during July 4th.

All of these problems can be explained by a simple rule: when you cut service, quality declines.  The CTA is not going to save itself by continually cutting service and raising fares.  While ridership declines may be offset by higher fares, the hazard is that there are going to be fewer and fewer people invested in rapid transit.  This could lead to a negative feedback loop where people leave the system, fares go up and service goes down to compensate for reduced ridership, and then even more people leave the system.  As far as July 4th goes, I’d recommend keeping a 20 in your pocket for an emergency taxicab in case you get stuck downtown.  If you’re lucky to get a taxi cab…

The Red Line versus the Rock Island line

Anyone who’s ridden both the Red Line Dan Ryan Branch of the CTA and the Rock Island District Branch of Metra may have noticed that METRA IS FASTER. Every time I have timed the Rock Island from 35th Street to LaSalle it has taken at most 8 minutes, including time spent pulling into the station.  Sox-35th to Jackson on the Red Line takes over 10 minutes regularly because of the maintenance on the Red Line.  

What makes this so irritating is the fact that the CTA supposedly modernized the Dan Ryan branch over 5 years ago, yet failed to fix a long stretch of their trackage.  If they had used good judgement, they would have realized that stations are only as useful as the tracks that serve them.  If the train slows down to a dead crawl, people are going to start to get annoyed and look for faster methods of travel.  The same goes for the north branch of the Red Line, where the trackage is showing its age yet the CTA undertook a massive renovation of Howard.  Any significant disruption to the north side of the Red Line will undoubtably cause patronage at Howard to drop.  

Besides the time advantage the Rock Island has, it also has a price advantage as well.  Unlike the weekly and monthly passes on the CTA that are only valid for a continuous period of time, Metra 10-ride passes are valid for one year from their purchase date; so infrequent Metra riders who want a discount can get 10 rides for only $18.30 between 35th and LaSalle.  That’s only $1.83 a ride, 42¢ less than the CTA rail fare.

25¢ less, faster, and cleaner: I’m sticking with the Rock Island for the foreseeable future.