Charlie on the CTA (Chicago) – UPDATED 2/28

As I have noted earlier I have been visiting Chicago the past few days ( I used to live here as well ) and have been using the Chicago Transit Authority to get around. The system to be kind is a mess.

Wednesday Update:

Wednesday morning I had a dreadful commute into the Loop as a trip that should have taken close to 30 minutes wound up being over an hour. I waited at the Granville Station for nearly 20 minutes and then a Purple Line train stopped to pick up passengers which is unusual as the Purple Line is supposed to run express from Howard Street to Belmont Avenue. The Purple Line train ran local along the Red Line until Belmont where passengers were then told to wait for a Red Line train headed south on the other track. It was another 20 minutes before a train appeared and it was packed.

Just in the past few days the local media has had numerous stories about transit problems in the area. A sample

Audit: Overhaul the RTA

Oversight of mass transit in the Chicago region is deeply flawed, hobbled by weak leadership, competition instead of cooperation between the transit agencies, wasteful duplication of services and skewed priorities, according to a state audit report.

Slow zones lead to Blue Line blues

Nearly 2 miles of slow zones have been eliminated on the CTA Blue Line in the last six months, yet riders complain their travel times are growing longer.

That’s because track conditions on the O’Hare and Dearborn Street subway sections of the Blue Line are deteriorating faster than the Chicago Transit Authority can fix them, officials say.

The reason? There’s no money.

On the northside of the city there is major track work being done that is causing long delays on the Red, Brown and Purple lines. Riders are of course upset and you can sense the frustration of the blog CTATattler.com which was the inspiration of our Charlie blog. I had a nice meeting with Kevin O’Neil who is the author of the CTA Tattler on Saturday as we solved the transit problems in both cities.

Chicago has major infrastructure problems that Boston doesn’t have yet but it is something to keep an eye on. Boston at least never allowed the subway system to deteriorate the way it has in Chicago. The subway stations on the Blue Line which opened in 1951 look like they haven’t been cleaned in 30 years. The subway stations on the Red Line which opened 10 years earlier are now being rehabbed and the completed stations look good. However the Red Line ‘L on the northside is crumbling and needs to be addressed ASAP before a disaster happens. The northside elevated does not run over streets but as a separate concrete viaduct and it is obvious that much repair work needs to be done.

Chicago went to “automatic fare collection” about 10 years ago and has also in the past few years started a “smartcard” system similar to CharlieCard called Chicago Card. It does offer discounted fares like Charlie ($1.75 for rail instead of $2) and it costs $5 to purchase ( similar to Washington ) and offers a reloading bonus similar to New York where if you put $20 on the card you get credit for $22 in fares. However my biggest gripe with the Chicago FVM’s is they do not accept credit or debit cards for payment as is done in Boston, New York, Washington and other major cities. Chicago installed their equipment from Cubic at the same time New York was upgrading their system for MetroCard so it appears the CTA didn’t want to pay the fees associated with bank cards. The faregates themselves are the same as those used in New York City.

The Chicago “rail cars” are the same size (about 48 feet long) as those you will find on the Blue Line in Boston or PATH between New Jersey and Manhattan. An eight car train in Chicago is equal to a six car train on the Red or Orange Lines where cars are about 20 feet longer. The cars are much older than Boston but new vehicles have been ordered and they will feature “New York” style bench seating ( which we have on our subway lines ) which has some riders in Chicago upset. Overall I have found the service to be “ok” with the exception of Saturday night after waiting 40 minutes for a train at the Morse station I went looking for a cab. Chicago was having a minor snow-ice storm at the time and it was causing problems on the Red Line. The CTA kept announcing delays for “defective equipment and weather problems” but never said when a train might arrive. I have also experienced slow moving trains but this is a problem the CTA admits will continue into 2009 as major track work must be done.

Concerning the buses in Chicago the CTA needs new buses fast. They haven’t upgraded the fleet in quite a few years and many routes still have the workhorse RTS buses now being retired in Boston. However I have found the bus service more than adequate and it generally runs on schedule. The CTA does have inspectors stationed along major routes to make changes as needed.

I also have found the drivers to be MUCH FRIENDLIER overall from Boston. Check out this clip I made Sunday on the #36 Broadway bus. Notice how the driver says “Good Evening” to everyone that boards.

One thing Chicago is light years ahead of Boston are with the computer announcements on buses and trains. The CTA decided to use an actor known for “voice over work” instead of a computer voice the T currently uses on buses and the Green Line. In Chicago he is known as “Happy CTA Guy” and he gave an interview to the Chicago Tribune a few years back.

“Belmont is next! Standing passengers — please do not lean against the doors!”

It just sounds so much better than the T’s computer voice that on some trains and buses still can not pronounce Lechmere correctly. The CTA has also started real time bus tracking on select routes which is something the T has failed miserably on.

Chicago is a world class city that needs a world class public transportation system. Hopefully they can solve their problems. Sadly they have a mayor who is more interested in the 2016 Olympics than people getting to and from work.

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17 Comments

Filed under Cubic, transit other cities

17 responses to “Charlie on the CTA (Chicago) – UPDATED 2/28

  1. Z

    Charlie, you are so right. A world class city should be list in this list, don’t you think?http://www.virgin-vacations.com/site_vv/11-top-underground-transit-systems-in-the-world.asp

  2. I’m shocked at your opinion, I would think anyone from boston would find the L so much better. When moving from chicago to boston, it felt like I took a huge leap back in public transportation. Simple things like AFC, discounts for lading up cards and for return trips in less than two hours, and of course running major lines 24 hours…or at least after bars close to reduce drunk driving. I never had a customer service complain with the CTA, yet it seems the norm here in boston with almost every trip. And little things like a quick stop at a station and immediately closing the doors and leaving when everyone has boarded really speeds up your trip. Usefulness is much more important than cleanliness. The T has been slowly and steadily been improving in the past few years but they have a long way to go before they can be compared to the L.

  3. <>jwardell said… I’m shocked at your opinion, I would think anyone from boston would find the L so much better. When moving from chicago to boston, it felt like I took a huge leap back in public transportation.<>Chicago USED to be so much better than Boston but things have fallen apart here in the last 12 months. There is some talk now that perhaps it would be better to shut the L down overnight so the major trackwork can be done. What is happening here in Chicago is a wake up call to Boston.

  4. I would kill for a real time bus tracking system in Boston. I sometimes take the 101 bus from Malden Station into Medford. Leaving from Malden Station is great — because it’s at the end of the line, it almost always leaves on time. Coming back is a crapshoot. The buses are nowhere near on schedule, and you can wait 30 minutes for a bus that is scheduled to come every 12 minutes. If I could just check to see where the bus is along its route before leaving work and standing in the cold, I’d be a happy camper.

  5. Anonymous

    I can’t believe you would praise the automated announcements on trains in Chicago. They pester you with a nag message after every single stop, and there aren’t enough things to nag about so after a few stops it starts to repeat. How are people supposed to relax on their commute when the voice whon’t shut up? Why would anyone think this is a good thing?

  6. <>Anonymous said… I can’t believe you would praise the automated announcements on trains in Chicago. They pester you with a nag message after every single stop, and there aren’t enough things to nag about so after a few stops it starts to repeat. How are people supposed to relax on their commute when the voice whon’t shut up? Why would anyone think this is a good thing? <> I dunno the namessages don’t seem to bother me.I was more making the point that you can hear the messages.

  7. Anonymous

    CTA is a mess indeed. And I agree, the CTA announcements are amusing at first but they get annoying. Why does he have to say the name of the stop 5 times before the doors open? “Adams and Wabash is next. Doors open on the right at Adams and Wabash. Transfer for Green, Brown and Purple lines at Adams and Wabash. (5 seconds pass) This is Adams and Wabash. Transfer for Green, Brown and Purple lines at Adams and Wabash.” And then there is that incredibly loud incredibly electronic sounding church bell that plays the second the doors open (a long time before the doors even close)… “BING! BANG! Doors closing. BING! BANG! Doors CLOSing.” I did chuckle every time he reminded passengers not to gamble on board trains… is this seriously a big problem in Chicago?

  8. <>Anonymous said… I did chuckle every time he reminded passengers not to gamble on board trains… is this seriously a big problem in Chicago? <>Actually it is a problem……..< HREF="http://www.ctatattler.com/2007/02/shell_game_thri.html" REL="nofollow">Shell game thrives on Orange Line<>I do agree the door chimes on the CTA trains are a bit loud. In the Loop you can be 2 blocks from a station and still hear them on the street.

  9. Scott

    The automated announcements are one of the best improvements the CTA has ever made. Despite what’s been said in the comments here, the “nag” messages very quickly become background noise, and I don’t even notice them most of the time. The repetition of the station name is helpful when the train is full and people are being noisy…gives you a second chance to hear the information, important for visitors. The only annoying thing is when the motorman fires the announcements a lot of extra times just to play around or for some weird reason: “This is Argyle. This is Argyle. This is Argyle.” Or plays the wrong announcement and then corrects it: “This is Argyle.” “Argyle is next.” “This is Berwyn.” Anyway, they really hired the right guy to do the voice, as it’s clear, friendly, and non-annoying.

  10. dbt

    I live in Chicago off the Morse stop. You’re right about the problems during cold and wet weather. The problem is that the north end of that line, the Howard yard, has ancient signals that frequently fail in that kind of weather, and it can be real bad.This is, of course, not being addressed (there are two other major junctions with similar problems, one just north of Belmont and one at the northwest corner of the Loop around downtown) in the current overhaul.

  11. joanna

    You can use your debit or credit card to load money onto your Chicago Card Plus. The Chicago Card can’t be loaded online, but the Chicago Card Plus can. I set the level I want my card reloaded at and I get an email when it is deducted from my bank account. About the guy who tells you what stop you are at, he does have a pleasing voice. It always throws me off though when he gives the wrong stop. My favorite thing is when you are on the bus it shows you which stop is next. And I don’t mean the major streets. The screen in the front of the bus shows the smaller side streets. It’s also a good way to learn your streets!

  12. Stevestr

    I believe his point was that you cannot use a Debit Card/Credit Card at the TVMs in the El stations. Even LA accepts Credit/DEbit at their stations. Come on Chicago. Catch up!

  13. Anonymous

    boston is stupid and never should be compared to a world class city like chicago, quit huffing paint and just keep eating your clam chaowda

  14. Daily CTA victim

    1. If the CTA’s drivers are friendly, I can’t possibly comprehend what kind of jerks you have in Boston.2. Only a portion of the L [north of Lawrence] runs on an embankment, the rest is on a steel trestle. The north end used to be the right of way of the Milwaukee Road.Several other lines have sections on gravel roadbeds.3. The recorded station announcements on the L are not automated. The motorman has buttons to press, next, previous, repeat. The stopped train announcements are automatic & a total annoyance.4. The entire system’s signal system is a disaster that has to be replaced. 30 years ago, the geniuses that run the decided to go with an automatic train control [ATC] system to replace mostly nothing as most of the L ran on sight, no signals except in the subway tunnels & at interlocking plants. The subway had automatic block signals, but they went with ATC because they don’t trust the motormen! After a stoned on pot motorman caused one of the worst collisions in history, they went to a system that is difficult to override. The stoned motorman actually under rode the system by going at a slower speed than the ATC would kick in at [15 MPH]. So the bosses at the CTA made system idiot proof. Now the trains stop constantly for all sorts of anomalous signals due to the aging of the ATC system.

  15. Quondam El Rat

    Like the signal system, Happy CTA Guy has roots in the CTA’s history of dismally failed manual operations. He can be annoying, but some of us remember when it was up to the conductor (yes, CTA trains once had conductors) or bus driver to announce stops and such. Of those who even bothered, most made random announcements every third or fourth or eighteenth stop, which didn’t really matter since they invariably either mumbldeverthinginanincomprhensblemush or spoke in weird dialects native to no country in the known world. A daily commuter might get one or two rides a week where every stop was clearly and audibly announced. If you happened to catch a ride with one of the few conductors/drivers who actually greeted riders and made cheerful and helpful comments, well, that was a daymaker and a memory to be cherished.

  16. Maybe the CTA reads this blog LOL< HREF="http://www.yourcta.com/news/ctaandpress.wu?action=displayarticledetail&articleid=107624" REL="nofollow">CTA to Purchase Additional Farecard Vending Machines with Credit/Debit Feature<><>Today the Chicago Transit Board approved the purchase of 15 additional state-of-the-art farecard vending machines to provide customers with easier access to Chicago Transit Authority fare media. One of the key features of the new vending machines is that they accept credit and debit cards as well as cash. In addition, the new machines provide audio and visual instructions in English and Spanish, and have instructions in Braille and raised lettering for people with disabilities. CTA plans to install the 15 machines at select CTA rail stations and non-CTA sales outlets by the end of 2007. <>

  17. I’m writing from Chicago. I lived one block from the red/purple lines for 10 years (near Jarvis). The beeping delay announcements were like an unwelcome alarm clock in the middle of the night. Having 24 hour service on many trains and buses is a big plus, making it much easier to live without a car. After spending years in NH and visiting Boston often, I appreciated having 24 hour service again.Happy CTA guy is a big improvement over the previous announcements by motormen, which were usually mumbled and incomprehensible. The announcements and delay messages are <>way<> too loud, something I’ve complained about ever since they added the recorded announcements. On the plus side, if you are standing on a packed train and cannot see out, having the “next stop” announcement can make the difference between being able to move towards the doors and actually get out at your stop vs. missing it.The Chicago Card Plus, which is linked to your credit/debit card and automatically reloaded when the account runs low, works great. I’ve used it for a few years and had no problems with it. Preferences (single fare vs. monthly) are set online and account history can be viewed there.Some aspects of the system, such as buses with GPS and location display screens at the front of the bus, are a big improvement. Overall quality of service on the trains has recently sunk to the worst level since the 1970s, when it was truly abysmal.

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