Archive for August 2007

Business as usual on the CTA

14 August 2007

I started riding the CTA again a few weeks ago on a regular basis after a three-month hiatus, and service is worse than ever. I guess I shouldn’t be surprised. I just wasn’t prepared for how bad it can get—twelve-minute train intervals during rush hour, for example.

I rode a Loop train yesterday for the first time in weeks. Since my last visit to this part of the ‘L’, the CTA has made a seemingly minor, but in my opinion significant, change. The Purple Line (Evanston express) now runs counterclockwise around the Loop.

Why? My first guess was that it makes things harder to screw up for the controllers in Tower 18, at the northwest corner of the Loop, since no trains that enter the Loop have to turn now. However, according to Graham Garfield of it was done at the start of three-track operations due to the overhaul of the Belmont and Fullerton stations “to make it easier for customers to board either route and exit the Loop at the first opportunity.”[Operations – Purple Line,]

Actually, I believe that the exact opposite is true. Previously, a rider within the Loop could choose the line that exited the Loop more quickly. For example, a rider at Washington/Wells could hop on a Purple train and immediately leave the Loop. With both Brown and Purple trains moving in the same direction, that option is gone. They must ride all the way around. This adds nearly ten minutes to the trip, and I think it will increase the crowding on trains in the Loop, as passengers have to stay on board longer to get to their destinations.

The thing that irks me most about this change, though, is the wasted effort. The signs in all the Loop stations had to be changed, all the Purple signs moved to the outboard platforms. Schedule boards and pamphlets had to be reprinted. Worst, the system maps in every train and station throughout the entire CTA system had to be reprinted and replaced to reflect the new routing. We’re talking hundreds upon hundreds of signs, and untold man-hours to complete.

The CTA is continually screaming about funding, how they will have to eliminate runs and defer maintenance if they don’t get millions from the state and federal governments. Yet they have plenty of cash to create the new Pink Line and generate signage and schedules, and then—barely a year later—replace all those signs and schedules for a project whose benefits seem dubious at best. (And by the way, if this is a temporary change for the Belmont and Fullerton construction project, the signs might get moved back yet again in a couple of years.)

What no one at the CTA seems to understand is this: to threaten service cuts is to enter a self-fulfilling death spiral. A customer, standing on a train platform or at a bus stop, waiting for a ride that seems like it will never come, will remember that the CTA said they might cut service. They’ll think to themselves, “maybe I’m the one getting screwed by those cuts,” regardless of whether or not the cuts were ever enacted. They’ll start walking, or hop a cab, and the CTA will lose out on that fare. Worse, the next time they’re considering their transportation options, the CTA will fall just a little bit lower on the viability scale. And so it goes.

The CTA loses at least 25 cents a day from me because they don’t run enough buses during the evening rush hour, because I can look up the street and know that if I don’t see a bus on the horizon, I’ll be able to complete my 3/4-mile-long walk from the train before one catches up to me. A quarter doesn’t sound like much, until you consider that I’m not alone in doing this. There’s no way of knowing how much money the CTA loses by cutting service—or even merely threatening to—even as ridership potential increases. But it’s surely going to take a major overhaul of the system, and its public image, before the people of Chicago consider it to be anything more than a (barely) necessary evil.