Overnight on the Chicago El

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NorthShore

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Another thread started to wander in the direction of conditions on some systems, especially CTA, since the pandemic. This is a fairly representative picture of the situation, especially late/over night. Though I do think that riding further north on these lines around or after midnight would have effaced more mischief and the sense of discomfort that a lot of riders have felt of late.

 

Everydaymatters

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Another thread started to wander in the direction of conditions on some systems, especially CTA, since the pandemic. This is a fairly representative picture of the situation, especially late/over night. Though I do think that riding further north on these lines around or after midnight would have effaced more mischief and the sense of discomfort that a lot of riders have felt of late.

Thanks, Tim. Reminded me of my granddaughter riding all night when she suddenly found herself without student housing at Loyola!
 

rs9

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As a Chicago resident, I've found myself transitioning to more bus usage than train usage. While it might not actually be true, the buses feel safer, especially at night.

While the situation and its causes are complex, it's hard to justify using the Red Line if I can avoid it. In my life situation, I can as of now.
 

joelkfla

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As a Chicago resident, I've found myself transitioning to more bus usage than train usage. While it might not actually be true, the buses feel safer, especially at night.
Probably is. You have a driver who can radio for help, if nothing else. At least some buses have a panic button that silently signals an emergency to the dispatcher, and displays "CALL 911" on the destination signs.
 
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One of my friends used to live on Austin in Oak Park back in our younger days. She said that there were (this would have been back in the era when Princess Di was killed - cue shocked scream for those of you who get that obscure reference...) times when the blue line was unpalatable after clubbing, but then after a certain hour the shift workers were commuting (as in overnight and weird hour shifts) and the, well, timbre, of the ride improved. Don't know if that's still the case out that way.
 

NorthShore

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Probably is. You have a driver who can radio for help, if nothing else. At least some buses have a panic button that silently signals an emergency to the dispatcher, and displays "CALL 911" on the destination signs.

It used to be the case, on CTA Ls (especially overnight in the days when they only ran 2 car trains) that passengers would intentionally ride in the conductor's car, due to a sense of safety with a CTA employee present and watchful. And since that was, typically, the more populated car, there was an additional sense of safety in numbers. Even if one rode in the motorman's car, at least there was a CTA employee nearby.

I can see how this same sensibility might apply on a bus, a sort of compact vehicle with limited passengers and an employee readily present. Whereas, on the L there are no conductors and several cars, so no one is as clearly nearby and protective.
 

NorthShore

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One of my friends used to live on Austin in Oak Park back in our younger days. She said that there were (this would have been back in the era when Princess Di was killed - cue shocked scream for those of you who get that obscure reference...) times when the blue line was unpalatable after clubbing, but then after a certain hour the shift workers were commuting (as in overnight and weird hour shifts) and the, well, timbre, of the ride improved. Don't know if that's still the case out that way.

The pandemic affected a lot. As did gentrification in Logan Square before that. There's much more ridership than 20 to 30 years ago. Weekends, you'll have tourists staying at the outlying hotels near the airport, along with young suburbanites finding their way to a parking lot or pickup. But, generally, I'd agree with this sentiment, at least Thur-Sat. Other nights, lots of restaurant/bar workers and office cleaning ladies late, along with people out for the night, especially post entertainment be it sports, music, theater.

CTA often was not running enough service and short trains of 4 cars, causing cramming and crowding. I, once, was on a totally packed train which I didn't think could hold anyone else. It stopped at a subway station beyond downtown and had not yet been clearing riders. A family of four or five was standing on the platform where we stopped and made a shoving run for the doors, as might be experienced in Asia. Somehow, we all fit in.

It's interesting to see the overnight buses on the 24 hour route along my street. It's busy both directions until after 1, but especially crowded with riders transferring from the blue line. After that, buses from that terminal are relatively empty as buses in the other direction start to get fairly full by the 3 A.M. blue line arrivals for O'Hare transfers.
 
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The pandemic affected a lot. As did gentrification in Logan Square before that. There's much more ridership than 20 to 30 years ago. Weekends, you'll have tourists staying at the outlying hotels near the airport, along with young suburbanites finding their way to a parking lot or pickup. But, generally, I'd agree with this sentiment, at least Thur-Sat. Other nights, lots of restaurant/bar workers and office cleaning ladies late, along with people out for the night, especially post entertainment be it sports, music, theater.

CTA often was not running enough service and short trains of 4 cars, causing cramming and crowding. I, once, was on a totally packed train which I didn't think could hold anyone else. It stopped at a subway station beyond downtown and had not yet been clearing riders. A family of four or five was standing on the platform where we stopped and made a shoving run for the doors, as might be experienced in Asia. Somehow, we all fit in.

It's interesting to see the overnight buses on the 24 hour route along my street. It's busy both directions until after 1, but especially crowded with riders transferring from the blue line. After that, buses from that terminal are relatively empty as buses in the other direction start to get fairly full by the 3 A.M. blue line arrivals for O'Hare transfers.
Yeah, the NW branch has changed, but I wonder about the Forest Park branch - that hasn't seen the gentrification.
 

NorthShore

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Yeah, the NW branch has changed, but I wonder about the Forest Park branch - that hasn't seen the gentrification.

Every time I ride that branch, especially outside rush hour, it seems almost abandoned, not just in slow zones but generally little ridership. I almost think running express buses would be more efficient, if it weren't for the need to get railcars from the yard in Forest Park.
 

Deni

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As a Chicago resident, I've found myself transitioning to more bus usage than train usage. While it might not actually be true, the buses feel safer, especially at night.

While the situation and its causes are complex, it's hard to justify using the Red Line if I can avoid it. In my life situation, I can as of now.
I've been choosing the bus over the L a lot more lately myself (when I'm not biking, which is my main mode), especially in off (any non-rush) hours. The Blue Line especially has been such a s**t-show lately that my family likely won't take it to the airport in July when we fly out for our vacation to Germany, and opt for a taxi instead. And we NEVER do that, we always take transit to the airport.
 

Michigan Mom

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Can I ask why the CTA Blue Line has been a ... show lately? I'm looking at an upcoming Chicago excursion for the holiday weekend and the downtown hotels are crazy expensive, so a hotel along the CTA line might work better. Either ORD or Midway, although, I guess the latter would actually involve the Orange Line.
 
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Can I ask why the CTA Blue Line has been a ... show lately? I'm looking at an upcoming Chicago excursion for the holiday weekend and the downtown hotels are crazy expensive, so a hotel along the CTA line might work better. Either ORD or Midway, although, I guess the latter would actually involve the Orange Line.
It's the el in general... There are a couple hotels that are Metra accessible in Hyde Park and there are a few up in Lincoln Park on bus lines if you're looking for a Chicago experience.
 

SarahZ

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Probably is. You have a driver who can radio for help, if nothing else. At least some buses have a panic button that silently signals an emergency to the dispatcher, and displays "CALL 911" on the destination signs.
It’s also much easier to escape a bus. It’s simply a matter of pulling over quickly and opening all of the doors.
 

joelkfla

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A few years ago I stayed at the Carleton in Oak Park for a reasonable price. Of course I don't know how reasonable it is now. An older, but nice property just a couple of blocks from the CTA (I forget which line, think Harlem)
Me, too, in 2019. It was nice, and the bar & grill off the lobby had a good breakfast (looks like that's been discontinued.)

There are both a Green Line "L" station & a Metra station side by side 2 blocks away.
 

caravanman

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It was often my preferred money saving option to get a hotel near to O'Hare airport, and travel into Chicago on the blue line. Never had any worries or problems, but it has been several years...
Are things measurably more "dangerous" these days?
I am getting a little more cautious in general as I age, but I often wonder if my "concerns" are just a product of me getting older, or are an honest reaction to genuine issues?
It seems easy to pick up on other folks fears, generating a snowball of unfounded worry... What do the statistics actually say?

I am a great fan of architect Frank Lloyd Wright's buildings in Oak Park, the Unity Temple and several houses are well worth a visit if you stay there. The childhood home of Hemmingway is also located in Oak Park.
 
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Trogdor

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Can I ask why the CTA Blue Line has been a ... show lately? I'm looking at an upcoming Chicago excursion for the holiday weekend and the downtown hotels are crazy expensive, so a hotel along the CTA line might work better. Either ORD or Midway, although, I guess the latter would actually involve the Orange Line.

There are a few key issues, some of which are general societal issues, some specific to CTA, and some which are specific to the Blue Line.

I’m not going to go into the societal problems, except to say that things have been headed this way for a long time (even when things appeared to be improving), with crime rates accelerating in the past few years, and then things really falling apart during COVID and in the aftermath of the unrest/fallout of the George Floyd murder. A lot of the fallout of these issues are persisting, with no real end in site.

On the CTA side, their biggest problem has been the dishonesty that the agency has adopted as official policy with respect to operating conditions during COVID. CTA has continually claimed that they are the only large agency not to cut service during COVID (they even won an award from APTA for it, and their president, Dorval Carter was recognized by APTA as outstanding manager of the year or something for this work, all of which led to the CTA board giving Dorval and his executive team a 33% pay raise last fall for all of his “outstanding” work and blah blah blah…). This is just one big lie (or any other strong derogatory term you want to use).

The reality is that only “on paper” has full service been maintained. On the street (or on the rails), a good 25-30% of the service has not operated. On the rail system, they absolutely adjusted the schedule behind the scenes. They just never published the new schedule to the public. They also adjusted the rail schedule in such a way that it actually made it more difficult to fill the (reduced) schedule than if they’d just gone ahead and published said schedule officially.

To understand how/why this is a problem, you have to understand how work gets assigned to operators at virtually any public transit agency in North America. At CTA (and pretty much anywhere else), every few months they will publish a new set of schedules to be operated for an upcoming period. The schedules aren’t just the times a bus or train will be somewhere. They are also (and, from the standpoint of the schedulers, more significantly) where and when each operator run will have to report, what they will be driving while on their shift, where/when to take breaks, where/when they will finish, and which operator run will take over for them at the end of their work day (or if they are bringing the vehicle back to the yard to park). This is an overly simplified view, but basically there is a very delicate set of interconnected pieces that all have to work together in order for the schedule to function properly.

Once these schedules are published, operators will, in seniority order (i.e. starting with whoever has been working there the longest, finishing with whoever just got hired most recently), choose which of those operator runs they want to work, and on which days of the week. Basically, the most senior folks get to pick from the entire slate (subject to certain rules; at CTA the restrictions are that you must only pick from what is posted to your bus garage or your rail terminal; there is a separate process for giving operators the opportunity to change which garage/terminal they work out of). The next-most-senior operators can pick from anything except what the seniormost guys picked. And so on…down to the least senior folks (or “juniorest”?) that basically get the leftover scraps. These leftover scraps are generally the least desirable, often working either long split shifts with barely-minimum overnight rest, and/or night shifts on routes that have rougher operating conditions (historically, the “early straight,” or something that reports around 5-6 am and works until early afternoon, is typically the category that goes first, as it only deals with folks going to work, and then a lighter midday load; this gives operators the opportunity to work overtime in the afternoon rush, or just take the rest of the day off; weekend and night work tends to be leftover more often).

Now, take the above and introduce something like COVID. COVID has given us (among other things), a staffing shortage. The shortage comes in two parts. First is the higher absenteeism related to more people being sick, and their time off being longer (e.g., the 14-day quarantines, when previously an illness might have you out for a day or two at most). Second is the fact that staffing levels themselves are lower, as hiring and retention are more difficult.

Since the success of the entire operation is dependent on all of those carefully scheduled pieces falling into place, if you have a higher level of absenteeism, your extra board (drivers without regular schedules, but who are available for day-to-day assignments) gets depleted quite quickly. Once it’s used up, the next person that calls in sick; well, their scheduled run doesn’t operate. Anybody waiting for the bus or train that they were supposed to run will have to wait an extra headway for the next one.

Then, consider that actual staffing is reduced from where you planned it to be. This makes things even worse, still. Consider the above practice of operators picking their work in advance. When fully staffed, the last few drivers on the seniority list get the leftovers. Now, consider what happens when your staffing is 5% or 10% less than you scheduled around. Instead of those leftovers going to the last person hired, those leftovers go to…nobody. Because you went through your seniority list of operators and then ran out of drivers before you ran out of work. This disproportionately affects certain routes, certain times of the day, and certain days of the week (i.e. anything that is less desirable to work). So while the morning rush hour can seem like everything is running fine, the weekends and evenings are just a nightmare.

Now we get to some Blue Line specific issues, again, related to CTA’s general lack of honesty. The reality is that, even without the operator shortage, the Blue Line cannot run to schedule. The schedule is built based on the assumed conditions of several years ago. Meanwhile, they have been doing some signal and power upgrades on the north end, resulting in single-tracking and other disruptions. These are not accounted for in the schedule.

Even worse, however, is that the south end (Congress branch) is significantly slow-ordered because of a deterioration in the track and roadbed. (As a side note, this is because highway medians are a terrible place to build rail transit, and more specifically, the highway medians CTA uses do not have proper drainage, so whenever it rains, it all just goes into the ballast and loosens it up over time, degrades the ties, etc.).

In reality, the Congress branch takes 10-20 minutes longer than scheduled. It is just a pathetic stretch of railroad. The seemingly obvious solution would be to extend the schedule in the short-term (and do repairs for longer-term improvements). However, by extending the schedule by that amount, the Blue Line would take so long that operators could not legally do three round-trips in a day, which is what they are scheduled to do currently. This would mean either increasing the staffing levels (not possible right now), or reducing (on paper) the amount of scheduled service to reflect their ability to operate. Since CTA’s executives have this mindset that they’d rather look good on paper rather than run properly in reality, the option of modifying the schedules was rejected in favor of sticking their heads in the sand.

A friend of mine built a tracker that measures the CTA Blue Line’s operational performance vs. schedule, and on weekdays, they are running, at best, 50-60% of their service. On weekends, its even worse. Gaps of 30-45 minutes during the daytime are sadly normal because of this mess. And as long as CTA as an agency refuses to do anything but put a footnote on a service alert about “COVID-19 related staffing shortages” rather than scheduling around the number they expect to have in the foreseeable future, the service will continue to struggle.
 

Deni

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Can I ask why the CTA Blue Line has been a ... show lately? I'm looking at an upcoming Chicago excursion for the holiday weekend and the downtown hotels are crazy expensive, so a hotel along the CTA line might work better. Either ORD or Midway, although, I guess the latter would actually involve the Orange Line.
Trogdor pretty much summed it up in a pretty detailed way. All of the issues he mentioned are why the Blue Line in particular has been so bad. In short, first thing is it is undependable. He mentioned that you cans sometimes wait 30-45 minutes for a train and he is not exaggerating. Even more frustrating is that the train tracker display board will say a train is coming in xx minutes and then when it gets down to one minute or so it just disappears from the display and no train shows up. We've started calling them ghost trains.

When a train does show it is packed, there are unhoused people sleeping across the seats, there may be people openly smoking and playing loud music, the trains are extremely dirty with trash and cigarette butts. It is just a wholly unpleasant experience. And it feels unsafe. The smoking and music thing is more than just an annoyance, the people who do it seem to be just wanting people to ask them to stop so they can start a fight. There are issues on the other lines as well but nothing is as bad as the Blue Line, as far as I've seen.

Of all the on-and-off years I've lived in Chicago the Blue Line has always seemed to be the worst line (longest waits, always have the oldest cars, more slow zones, etc.) which doesn't make any sense to me as it is the gateway line to Chicago from the airport. It should be the best line.
 
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On the CTA side, their biggest problem has been the dishonesty that the agency has adopted as official policy with respect to operating conditions during COVID. CTA has continually claimed that they are the only large agency not to cut service during COVID (they even won an award from APTA for it, and their president, Dorval Carter was recognized by APTA as outstanding manager of the year or something for this work, all of which led to the CTA board giving Dorval and his executive team a 33% pay raise last fall for all of his “outstanding” work and blah blah blah…). This is just one big lie (or any other strong derogatory term you want to use).
s are published, operators will, in seniority order (i.e. starting with whoever has been working there the longest, finishing with whoever just

Now we get to some Blue Line specific issues, again, related to CTA’s general lack of honesty. The reality is that, even without the operator shortage, the Blue Line cannot run to schedule. The schedule is built based on the assumed conditions of several years ago. Meanwhile, they have been doing some signal and power upgrades on the north end, resulting in single-tracking and other disruptions. These are not accounted for in the schedule.

Great summary! I argued about this before with people - I always felt that the cta reduced service on the red line in the first half of the century (so far) but people pooh poohed it, including somebody who claimed to work for the cta. It was noticeable that trains were further apart at the morning rush period.

They've also gotten really bad about construction announcements - one of my friends was heading out to O'Hare recently and she checked the various media and there was no scheduled construction so she took the bus to the el and then the el to O'Hare. Lo and behold, at Rosement (or possibly Cumberland, bit I think it was Rosemont) there was a switch to a shuttle bus that had not been announced.
 

NorthShore

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Great summary! I argued about this before with people - I always felt that the cta reduced service on the r
They've also gotten really bad about construction announcements - one of my friends was heading out to O'Hare recently and she checked the various media and there was no scheduled construction so she took the bus to the el and then the el to O'Hare. Lo and behold, at Rosement (or possibly Cumberland, bit I think it was Rosemont) there was a switch to a shuttle bus that had not been announced.

Actually, that seems odd to me. The every weekend shuttle from Rosemont to O'Hare has been well known and publicized, generally. In fact, it's the one thing CTA has actually made clear.

Generally speaking, a combination of lower ridership during covid leaving riders to feel unsafe (as it's largely been a combination of homeless and riff raff riding) and the aforementioned unreliability and crowding when a bus or train finally arrives accounts for this current state of affairs.

Ridership is returning. There are lots of tourists downtown weekends. It's not quite as bad as it was a few months or a year ago. Schedules still suck. I feel like you can't count on getting anywhere weekends on CTA. If you make solid connections, consider yourself lucky. I've argued that CTA should change schedules entirely to place the more frequent service weekends (when it is currently needed) rather than weekday rush (when it isn't with so many workers still not consistently in downtown offices.) Look at ridership patterns (including blue collar essential workers reliant on transit and entertainment travel along with tourism) and reapportion resources there.

I'd also argue that part of the challenge with the Blue and Red Lines (which is every bit as bad, just a little different..especially considering that it's the line which connects several universities...I call Chicago a "college town", as especially evidenced any Thur-Sun night on the Red Line....and a lot of popular bar areas) is that they operate 24/7. This is rare in the U.S. It is needed and necessary. However, it adds up to a combination of drunk young people, homeless, and riff raff along with whoever else is using the system to get to/from work or visiting friends or out for entertainment or communting to a hotel, which creates a fascinating view of society and an interesting spark of unexpected occurrences.
 
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NorthShore

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No rainbow cone for me Saturday, since the 95th Street bus never showed up. And I had to wait a half hour on the Blue Line after missing a train just past 1 A.M. (since the next scheduled was a ghost) last night. But, everything else seemed almost like an, otherwise, normal Saturday on CTA riding all over the vast city. If anything, the Red Line wasn't as jam packed as it could be north out of downtown. Only the usual oddness. Hopefully, that guy who asked at least a dozen times about the Blue Line going south at Grand finally got on the right train. And, maybe the drunk girls who quickly alighted at Damen, realizing they weren't on the Red Line got home safe. Sox had a full ballpark. Glad I passed 35th in the 8th, missing the crowds. The guys selling squares who decided to reorganize their inventory in the seats across from me offered some interesting information about an arrest at Roosevelt, while chatting with another passenger. The one dude pulled the cherry twice, cuz he wasn't having none of that train operator trying to operate a train business when he had important business of his own, and wanted to alight. And there was some sort of police check at 95th, while I waited on that bus.

City life!!!

Probably, tomorrow, I'll make up for the generally good connections. They're still working on the flyover connection for Brown Line at Belmont. Track out of revenue service.
 

joelkfla

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The guys selling squares who decided to reorganize their inventory in the seats across from me offered some interesting information about an arrest at Roosevelt, while chatting with another passenger. The one dude pulled the cherry twice, cuz he wasn't having none of that train operator trying to operate a train business when he had important business of his own, and wanted to alight.
Please translate into English.
 
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Really appreciate all the thoughtful and detailed replies in this thread. Helpful and interesting stuff too.
I am arriving on a flight to O'Hare about 5AM on Thursday 5/26/22. I was hoping to ride the El (first time) from O'Hare to the Clinton stop and walk from there to Chicago Union station. What are my chances of making it to Union Station by 8AM without being assaulted, robbed or killed?
 
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