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How is it L.A. is building miles of new transit routes while Chicago can't get the Circle Line started?
February 17, 2011 — Part 2 of 2 parts

To the Teeming Millions:

I concluded last week's exegesis with a gripe about the CTA's Red-Purple Modernization Project, but hinted that a glimmer of how to proceed could now be detected. What I meant was that I and the Chicago transit sachems — some of them, anyway — were starting to see eye-to-eye.

As I've mentioned before, the sachems are knowledgeable parties having long (though not current) association with the CTA in various official and unofficial capacities. Whereas your columnist makes no claim to being more than a kibitzer, the sachems have in-depth knowledge of Chicago transit. Some of them were skeptical, to say the least, about my master plan to revise north side rail service, which is what the Red-Purple Modernization Project is all about. On further discussion, however, it turns out some of them have been thinking along similar lines. I'm pleased to present their analysis below.


This is north side service as it exists today. As the sachems point out, it's a little odd:

  • For the first half of the trip south of Howard Street, the Red Line is a local, making all stops. The Purple Line Express, on the other hand, makes no stops to Belmont. As a result, the Purple Line Express is 10 minutes faster than Red Line.

  • On the second half of the trip, from Belmont to the Loop, the situation is reversed. The Purple Line "Express" operates as a local, making all stops to downtown. The Red Line, however, operates as an express, or more precisely a limited, making fewer stops. Consequently it makes this part of the trip 8 minutes faster than the Purple Line.

  • Result: most of the time the Purple Line Express gains on the first half of the trip it loses on the second, meaning it gets downtown just two minutes faster than the local. Obvious question: what's the point?

The CTA's current plans for revamping service as part of the Red-Purple Modernization Project won't improve matters, the sachems point out. In fact, they'll make things worse:

You see the problem. The CTA proposes, or anyway proposed, to close several stops on the Red Line (Jarvis, Thorndale, and Lawrence), which would speed up service on that line. At the same time, it proposes to add a couple transfer stops to the Purple Line Express (at Loyola and Wilson), although trains would continue to enter the Loop via the elevated. That'll slow things down for that line. Upshot: the Purple Line "Express" would take longer to get downtown than the Red Line — in fact, for many suburbanites, service would be worse than it is now.

The sachems have a better plan, which is similar (though not identical) to mine:

Points of interest:

  • The Purple Line Express enters the Loop via the State Street subway, as all sensible people agree that it should.

  • The sachems objected to my idea that the Purple Line Express should simply exit the subway south of Roosevelt and stop on the elevated tracks before heading back north. They offered technical arguments (the tracks are on an incline), but basically I think it offended their sense of aesthetics. Instead, they felt the trains should terminate at a station. After some negotiation we agreed this should be a new station at Cermak on the Green Line, where the CTA has been mulling construction of a stop for some time.

  • The sachems disagreed with my view that a transfer stop was needed at Bryn Mawr. More on this below.

  • The main thing is, the Purple Line Express gets downtown six minutes faster than now.

Some will doubtless ask: why are you people obsessing over this? What difference does six minutes make?

A lot, in my opinion. Rehabilitation of the Red and Purple lines is expected to cost as much as $4.2 billion. How much of that will be invested specifically in the Evanston branch I don't know, but surely it will be in the hundreds of millions of dollars. If service on the rebuilt Purple Line duplicates what exists today (or is worse), that money will be largely wasted. Consider:

The chart tells a pretty simple story. City ridership is up; suburban ridership is down. In fact, traffic on the north side — the Howard branch of the Red Line, the O'Hare branch of the Blue Line, and the Brown Line — is at or near historical highs. Rail geeks may be interested to know that in 2010 the Howard branch surpassed the pre-World War II peak 0f 38.5 million riders recorded in 1927.

On the other hand, suburban ridership (Purple and Yellow lines) has fallen by a third — since 1987 these two lines between them have lost 2 million annual riders. Why? It's not as though the north suburbs have gone to the dogs; downtown Evanston in particular has boomed. But service in the suburbs and everywhere else was sharply cut back during the crisis of the 1990s, when "L" ridership fell to the lowest level since the 1930s. City traffic eventually recovered due to the revival of the north side, and service there was mostly restored (although many complain that A/B skip-stop service was never brought back).

In the suburbs, in contrast, the service for the most part remains pathetically bad. Today during much of the day Purple and Yellow line trains run every 10 to 15 minutes, with a few Purple Line Express trains operating every 7 to 8 minutes during rush hour. As I mentioned last time, the "express" is anything but, requiring 52 minutes to get downtown from Linden.

In the context of geological time, I suppose, that's not so much. But it's enough to convince people to find alternative ways of commuting. Today fewer than 10,000 people board in Evanston on an average weekday, fewer than 2,7oo in Skokie — the lowest ridership of any "L" branch. If that's all the traffic these lines are ever going to draw, we'd save ourselves a lot of trouble by replacing the trains with buses. For political reasons that's not going to happen, of course; my point is that if we're going to spend a huge amount of money, we might as well make sure it does us some good. The way to do that is to improve the service. If Purple Line Express trains are faster and more frequent, more people will ride.

The other reason to raise this issue now is that it has implications for the Red-Purple Modernization Project. The sachems agree that transfer stops should be added at Loyola and Wilson, but disagree with me that another is needed at Bryn Mawr. I remain serenely confident that close analysis will show a transfer stop at Bryn Mawr is essential to make the whole scheme work. No need to get into technical minutia; the point is that if reconfigured stations are needed at Bryn Mawr or anywhere else, that needs to be determined before construction starts — and the only way to do that is to figure out now how north side service will operate.

So we've gone from one crazy person in favor of this plan to one crazy person plus a smattering of sane ones. Hardly qualifies as a bandwagon, you may say. Just the same I think the idea is worth looking into. I bet it'll work.

— Cecil Adams

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