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What's Cecil's plan to improve north side "L" service?
June 17, 2010

Dear Cecil:

OK, I'll bite. What is the Master's master plan to improve "L" service efficiency? Myself, I'd like to go back to the old A/B stops, even though it seems that the current run of Chicago breeding stock is too stupid to follow signs with letters. Some of them can barely deal with colors.

— Conductor, via the Straight Dope Message Board

Cecil replies:

Now, now, let's not be crotchety. Even with the schools in disarray, I'm sure the majority of Chicagoans have memorized the alphabet through "B." But there's no need to go back to old-fashioned methods. The Straight Dope's 21st century plan for transit improvement coming right up.

Some will say: but Cecil! How is that you, connoisseur of global knowledge, should concern yourself with train schedules? I concede this is a departure from my usual stock in trade. However, these are straitened times, and we all must pitch in.

Besides, the present state of affairs offends my sense of aesthetics. In a previous column, I showed that the "L" had the second lowest energy efficiency of major U.S. rapid transit systems. Partly this stemmed from technical matters, but it also had to do with the way the "L" was run. A target of opportunity, it seemed to me, was service on the north side. At one point I had a sentence here with terms such as "perverse" and "misbegotten," but decided that wasn't the way to win friends and influence people. So let's just say the trains are crowded and painfully slow.  

Consider the situations of two riders, Sally and Chumley. Sally is a member of the urban proletariat, living in Edgewater and boarding the Red Line at Granville. The bright part of her morning is grabbing a quality beverage at Metropolis Coffee. The grim part is riding the "L."

There are two reasons for this. The first is the sheer number of people Red Line trains carry — a quarter million riders on an average workday. Although there's still breathing room at Granville, rush-hour trains are often packed by the time they reach Belmont, and they stay that way till the Loop.

City dweller that she is, Sally recognizes that if you want individualized transportation you should live in Kenilworth and have Jeeves drive you in the Bentley. However, she must also contend with another problem, namely, the interminable length of the trip — the Red Line's many stations are as little as a quarter mile apart. In the old days of A/B service, rush-hour trains skipped some stops, speeding  things up modestly. But A/B service was dropped during the 1990s. Today the ride from Howard to Roosevelt takes 42 minutes according to the published schedule, and sometimes considerably more.

Contemplating the long, crowded ride ahead of her, Sally glumly watches a Purple Line Express smoke past at warp factor 10. Everybody has a seat, she notices; she imagines the attendants passing out chocolates. OK, on the injustice scale it's not up there with prerevolutionary France. Still, she thinks, there's got to be a better way.

We turn now to Chumley, Purple Line Express passenger and resident of Wilmette. Chumley indeed has a seat, which isn't surprising, since he boarded at Linden, the first stop. Crowding is never an issue at Linden. On the contrary, most mornings Chumley and the handful of other passengers could get up a game of shuffleboard in the aisles. At a time when ridership on the north side has risen sharply, the number of people boarding at Linden has fallen by almost two-thirds — 2,900 per average workday in 1982 versus about 1,000 now.

Why? Because the service blows. During rush hour, the trains depart infrequently, every 8 to 15 minutes. (On the Red Line, it's every 3 to 7.) True, there's some entertainment value in streaking past the huddled masses on the north side. But once the Purple Line Express gets to Belmont, the show's over — the trains make every stop from there to the Loop. The trip from Linden to Adams and Wabash officially takes 52 minutes. For comparison, Metra trains make it from Wilmette to the Loop in 34.

Stopped at Armitage, Chumley looks up to see the Red Line trundle past on its way into the subway. He knows that (a) it'll arrive in the Loop considerably sooner than he will, but (b) if he tried to transfer at Belmont, he'd ride four miles smashed against a door, and in fact (c) the only reason the Purple Line Express stops in the city at all is to pick up the overflow from the Red and Brown Lines. Some express service, he grouses. There's got to be a better way.

There is. Your columnist has heard the cries of his people. Behold the map above.

The Straight Dope plan for improved transit operation was arrived at after lengthy consultation with the CTA sachems — knowledgeable parties having long (though not current) association with the agency in various official and unofficial capacities. It's evolved considerably with their input. I don't claim they endorse it, but I'm satisfied they no longer think it's completely off the wall.

My original idea was to discontinue Evanston service north of Davis Street, on the argument that hardly anyone rides beyond there now, a fact that can be objectively shown. The freed-up resources would then be used to reduce crowding in the city. However, the sachems found this too radical.

Fine, I said, then we'll just close the least used stops — South Boulevard, Dempster, Foster, and Noyes. No significant number of persons boards at these stations, and what's more, no significant number has ever boarded there, at any rate since the mid-1970s, which is as far back as I have good numbers.

The sachems wouldn't hear of this either, arguing that while a mere 3,000 people would be affected, that was more than enough to pack a hearing room, not to mention the fact that, the North Shore being what it was, half of them would be lawyers.

Very well, I said. If we have to keep all the stops, let's adopt the bold step of improving service sufficiently to attract someone besides the desperate. Thus was born the plan.

Knowledgeable parties will recognize what's proposed: a New York-style mix of local and express service, with expresses making occasional intermediate stops to let local riders change to a faster train. Here's how it works: 

  • Rush-hour Purple Line trains, all with eight cars, depart Linden every five minutes at peak, making all Evanston stops.

  • Red Line trains also operate every five minutes. The schedule is arranged so that Red and Purple Line Express trains depart alternately from Howard, 2½ minutes apart.

  • Red Line trains operate as locals as they currently do, making all stops south of Howard. Purple Line Expresses stop at the busiest stations between Howard and Addison, namely Morse, Loyola, Bryn Mawr, and Wilson. From Granville to Sheridan the trains run on the outer tracks. (The Bryn Mawr and Wilson stations must be rebuilt with "island" platforms to permit both locals and expresses to stop.) Red Line riders boarding at the northernmost local stations — Jarvis, Granville, and Thorndale — can transfer to Purple Line trains at the next express stop, Morse or Bryn Mawr.

  • At Addison, Purple Line trains switch to the inner tracks and make all current Red Line stops from there south, entering the Loop via the subway.

  • The last Purple Line stop is Roosevelt. South of that point the trains exit the subway, stop on an unused stretch of the elevated, then head back north.

  • Red Line trains continue to the south side, but the line is extended to 130th Street rather than the current terminal at 95th.

This system will improve the citizenry's quality of life in the following manner:  

  • Evanston riders. Purple Line Express trains make more stops south of Howard, which slows things down, but enter the Loop via the subway rather than the circuitous elevated, which speeds them up. Net impact on running time: zero. However, the trains run twice as often, shortening the overall trip as much as 5 to 8 minutes. In addition, Purple Line Express trains will serve the Red Line stops between Addison and Roosevelt, which are by far the most heavily used in the system. More Purple Line Express riders will have a one-seat ride (no changing trains).

  • Most north side riders. At the busiest stations, served by both the Red Line and Purple Line Express, trains arrive every 2½ minutes at peak versus 3 minutes now.

  • North side riders between Howard and Bryn Mawr. Service is 5 minutes faster for those boarding at express stops and 2½ minutes faster for those boarding at local stops and transferring to an express. (The Purple Line Express overtakes one Red Line train en route.) 

  • North siders boarding at Berwyn, Argyle, Lawrence, and Sheridan. For these people, I admit, service is slower — trains every five minutes at peak rather than the current three. (You can transfer to an express at Wilson, but normally it won't pass a local and you won't save any time.) But come on, it's just two minutes, and all in the service of the greater good. Besides, if the CTA went back to A/B skip stops, the only other obvious way to speed up service, riders at local stations would have to wait six minutes between trains.

  • South side riders. Trains operate at the same frequency as before, but terminate at 130th Street rather than 95th, shortening the bus ride for many on the far south side.

The plan has its drawbacks. The first is that it requires more precision than the CTA is accustomed to providing. At present the Purple Line Express operates independently of the Red Line — if service gets balled up on one line, it doesn't matter to the other. Under the proposed system, Red and Purple Line trains must be coordinated — the idea is to have them evenly spaced and loaded once they arrive at Addison. In theory this shouldn't be difficult; in practice one can only hope for the best.

The second  drawback is that the Purple Line Express can save at most five minutes for city riders, perhaps a little more for suburbanites — that's because it shares the tracks with the Red Line from Addison south and can't overtake any additional local trains. However, let's not be defeatist. Five minutes is five minutes.

The third drawback is that the trains remain as crowded as before. I'll spare you the math, but in the interest of economy I devised the above scheme to have the same overall capacity and staffing requirements as the current one. That's the beauty of it, in my opinion: the service is materially improved at no additional operating expense.

Fourth, suburbanites on the Purple Line Express must share their personal space at an earlier stage with the raffish inhabitants of the north side. However, I figure closer acquaintance with the edgy urban lifestyle is bound to do them some good.

Some will now say: this is an ingenious exercise, Cecil, but daft. The CTA is going to do what it wants to do.

You never know.  The CTA is currently conducting a North Red and Purple Line Vision Study in preparation for the long-overdue reconstruction of these routes. If changes are going to be made, now's the time. I sent my plan over to the CTA for comment and received the following reply:

Several items in the proposal are similar to items in the Vision Study CTA currently is undertaking on the Red Line North and the Purple Line. There are differences; however, because CTA is analyzing recent feedback and analysis, we cannot at this time get into specifics.

You're thinking: this is the standard response they give to crazy people. Maybe so. You get used to such things when you're a visionary. My only goal is a better world.

— Cecil Adams

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