Thursday, 25 September 2014


I have just left Chicago after exploring its 'L' system for five days. I'm sitting on the Empire Builder on my way to Minneapolis/St. Paul, but find it hard to use my netbook as the train wobbles and trembles too much to use a mouse and do some proper work. Anyway, this is September 23rd, and Chicago was the first stop on a 1-month tour through the American Midwest and South, all in preparation for my forthcoming book "Subways &Light Rail in the USA – Vol. 3 Midwest & South" due to be released in December 2014. So there will hopefully be more interesting blog entries in the next few weeks, so check back if you're interested.

The Chicago 'L' is quite well known so I won't give you a general description of the system, just my thoughts and impressions after riding the system intensively over the last few days and taking hundreds of photographs (which is no problem at all, it seems, I have never been addressed by anybody, just yesterday a woman took pictures of me while I was taking photos and probably meant to report me for 'out-of-the-ordinary' activity, although this was actually outside the station proper at Sox/35th on the Red Line). All in all, transit police or other vigilants are hardly present anywhere, which I hope is a good sign. Generally, I would say, people's behaviour is quite good and I felt quite comfortable on all trains. The only sections I didn't ride were the two southern ends of the Green Line beyond Garfield as they go through areas often quoted as delicate.

The fare system has now been completely changed to contactless smartcards, a system called Ventra (would be interesting to know why this is the name as to me it suggests 'belly, womb' as in Spanish 'vientre'). Arriving at O'Hare, it took me quite a while to get my 7-day ticket, not because the vending machines were so difficult to handle, but because they ask for your ZIP code when paying with a card, and I misunderstood this for PIN code, which would be what I would expect to enter. Living in Germany, my credit card can be identified by a 5-digit ZIP code, but what would happen if someone had a British or Canadian card with their weird post codes, or countries with a 4-digit code, would that be accepted by the machine? Anyway, I think that a major entry point like O'Hare really needs a proper staffed ticket window where people are properly helped, although there are staff around to help, there is nothing worse for many people than being confronted with a machine upon arrival to a new city. This brings us already to one of the major deficiencies of the CTA system, a lack of costumer service offices. In fact, there is only one at their headquarters near Clinton (Green/Pink) station. At other stations, there is someone in the booth and they come out when help is needed at the machines, but often they looked like saying 'please don't disturb me'. I think, any transit operator should have several staffed offices in strategic places and well visible where potential riders can go and ask for information. Network maps, especially the large system map, are available at the ticket gates in most stations, the smaller downtown map was also available in some places and also at the Tourist Office.
When you buy a single-ride ticket (with transfer within two hours or so) or a day ticket, you get a disposable paper smartcard, but anything valid longer, is loaded on a proper Ventra plastic card, which costs $5.00, so for a first-time visitor, a 7-day pass costs 28+5 US$. But given that a single ride from O'Hare would also cost $5.00, it's still a good deal. Otherwise a flat fare is required for the entire Chicago area, as far as CTA is concerned, Metra still maintains its own fares and Ventra cannot be used as of yet, I guess it will be expanded to them in the future, too. The Ventra card can also be used to store money to pay in shops. Although a day pass costs $10.00, all in all, the CTA fare system is quite good and easy to handle.

The 'L' system is changing continuously, which is natural, given that some of the elevated sections on the Green or Brown Lines are some 120 years old! CTA has closed entire sections over a longer period for upgrading, and now there were also lots of announcements 'We are being delayed because crews are working on the tracks' and often I actually saw workers walking on the tracks. Good results are perceivable on the southern Red Line, which was upgraded a few years ago, and which allows speeds of 100 km/h, I would guess, providing a similar experience to BART or DC's Metro. The Blue Line to O'Hare is quite fast beyond Belmont, although trains tend to hop a bit, but otherwise it is quite a crawl like most other lines. I also took the Purple Line Express once from Belmont to Howard, but it was so slow I was waiting for the Red Line to overtake (which it didn't, after all). Also many stations have been rebuilt, currently California (Blue Line) is out of service to be rebuilt in its traditional style, while others have been rebuilt at some stage but with a more contemporary design. Most of the Red Line's underground stations have already been refurbished, except Monroe and Clark/Division (the latter being done now), which really improved their appearance. Most of the Blue Line's underground stations, however, still boast their basic and, honestly, rather pathetic appearance, so some action is urgently needed here, too. All in all, the stations are very narrow, and now with lifts having been added to some, space and visibility is even more restricted. One thing I have not quite understood are the continuous underground platforms on both subway routes through the Loop, from Washington to Jackson on the Blue Line and from Lake to Jackson on the Red Line. The areas between the proper stations are lit, though slightly dimmer than the stations, and appear a bit spooky. I didn't walk through them, but what you see from the train is that hardly anyone is there, and those who are, you wouldn't want to meet. So wouldn't it save quite a lot of maintenance costs if these intermediate sections were closed off completely? Why were they built like that in the first place?

Signage generally is good, although next-train indicators do not exist in the entire system. At some stations there are video screens, but like with American TV news programmes, the information they are actually meant to provide, is only visible for a short moment, whereas most of the time adverts are played. If they want to play adverts to pay for the service, a split screen may be a solution, but having to waiting a full cycle until the desired information eventually comes back, is very user-unfriendly. In most cases, I thought that the indicators were positioned in the wrong place, they should be above the platform next to where people wait, actually a kind of norm on all European metros, I think. What I found missing, though, in stations are neighbourhood maps.

The elevated Loop is a funny and fascinating thing, but like a left-over from times gone by. Riding a train on it, is quite pleasant as you can enjoy the view through the streets with their high buildings, though it takes a while for visitors to figure out which line runs around the loop in which direction. But being on the street, it is more like a nuisance, very loud as the trains rattle over the iron structure, and visually rather an eye sore. Many iron trestle structure like old bridges often have an elegant appearance, but the Loop certainly hasn't, also because it looks neglected with paint peeling off. 

I can understand why New Yorkers demolished their elevated lines at least in Manhattan, and why Berlin didn't allow such structures through the city centre in the first place, instead Siemens had to build along a rather tangential route. Many of the elevated stations are not fully accessible, and climbing their steep stairs can be a pain for many, especially for those who travel to Midway Airport on the Orange Line. But, of course, tearing the elevated Loop down nowadays would kill a real landmark, but some modernisation is needed. I also suffered from its noise every night and morning as my hotel was close to the Green/Orange Line viaduct just south of the Loop. Track needs to be optimised and all other measures to be taken to reduce the noise impact. I guess the same is true for most elevated sections which often travel through the backyards of homes, a typical feature of the old 'L' routes.

What I like least in Chicago, however, is the rather unusual naming of stations. In the rest of the world there is a certain understanding that the station name should clearly identify a position within a city and should therefore be unique. In Chicago, however, the same name may appear several times as generally the name of the intersecting street is used, and streets are very long in Chicago. As a result, there are three stations called 'Chicago', five called 'Western' etc. and the worst case, there are two stations called 'Harlem' on the same line, the Blue Line! I wonder whether this system is not just confusing for visitors or also for locals and trip planners? Some stations like 'Clark/Division' actually carry the second part on all signs, whereas on some others, this is added in the acoustic announcements, e.g. at 'Grand/Milwaukee', otherwise I guess you always have to add the line colour to make sure people understand which station you mean. This is certainly easier since line colours were introduced officially in the early 1990s, I wonder how people managed to identify their station before, I guess just like 'Addison on the Howard Line' or so.

Just like in New York, what I miss for such a big system is a proper logo. In some places you can see a CTA logo, but although the 'metro' is generally called the 'L' (CTA always uses these quotation marks), there is no L-logo. True, 'L' is not the nicest letter in the alphabet for a logo, generally symmetrical letters like T, U, S or M are much nicer. Probably a Boston-style (T) would be the best choice, as it is also part of CTA and transit is a word widely used over here. It is also used in several other cities across the country, and I generally prefer a standard logo for an entire country so visitors know immediately what that is when they see such a logo. Elevated stations are, by nature, easily visible, but underground stations certainly need better signage. One example is North/Clybourn on the Red Line, which actually has a nice new headhouse (paid for by Apple, I was told), but you can actually only see it once you are in front of it, whereas a proper logo would be visible (if placed correctly) from all sides.

The CTA trains are all rather uniform although they belong to different generations, but even the blue and red colour on the older cars was removed to make them all look similar in stainless steel only. The new 5000 series is probably a good vehicle and provides a smoother ride than the older types (which are quite good, too), but if I hadn't read about them before, I wouldn't have identified them as new. It is a pity CTA is so conservative when it comes to train design, why don't they dare something more contemporary? So the big novelty for the passengers was the longitudinal seating but I've heard they don't like it much, and neither do I. They do have another, less visible, feature, though: when the doors open, they sort of kneel down to match the height of the platform. Otherwise, their setup is just like that of the older cars. I think the doors should be wider, and the standing area next to the doors should be larger. The driver's seat is always on the right side, although the larger number of stations have island platforms. This means that the driver has to get up and walk to the other side to open the doors, which in some cases costs several seconds (once I observed a driver who was hardly able to walk, no wonder that train had accumulated a long delay and the next was following soon after!). Generally, my impression was that trains run rather irregularly. I was already wondering when I saw the 'timetable' which mostly gives very vague intervals, like every 4-12 minutes...

Another anachronistic feature of the Chicago 'L' are its flat junctions on the Loop, which naturally cause some delays during peak hours, most notably at the northwest corner where two branches come into the Loop and different lines take different directions around the Loop. While the Red and Blue Lines are proper metro lines, the Loop lines have a certain Stadtbahn or light rail feel to them, especially on some outer sections, where the Pink, Brown and Purple Lines have several level crossings despite the use of a third rail power supply, but apparently this is no major safety issue. The Yellow Line (or Skokie Swift as it is still known) also features many level crossings. Until not too long ago, its outer section used an overhead wire inherited from the old North Shore interurban, but now it also has third rail throughout. Fortunately an intermediate station was added on that line recently, but it still runs nonstop through continuously built-up areas. Generally on the entire system, spacing of stations is very uneven. Historically, the old 'L' lines had too many stops, and many were closed over the years, and interestingly, new ones have been added on the Green Line, like Roosevelt or Morgan, and another one is now under construction at McCormick Place, actually in places where previously stations did exist!

Chicago kind of pioneered mass transit in the median of freeways, when it opened the Congress line to Forest Park in 1958 (now Blue Line), which actually replaced an old elevated line. Later new routes were built for the Red Line to 95th/Dan Ryan and the Blue Line to O'Hare. Generally I don't like this kind of alignment as the stations mostly are isolated from the neighbourhoods they serve and mostly not very pleasant to wait in with traffic rushing past on both sides. In the case of the Blue Line's Forest Park branch this is accentuated by very narrow and rather long ramps that lead down to the narrow platform, although the median of the freeway would actually allow a much more generous layout. Things are much more pleasant on the Blue Line's O'Hare branch.
As a network, Chicago's 'L' system basically consists of radial lines, so all transfers are located in the Loop area or nearby. Direct transfer options. i.e. without leaving the closed station area and exit to street level, only exist in very few places, namely Clark/Lake, Roosevelt and Jackson, and of course at Belmont and Fullerton where Red and Brown share the same platforms. In other cases, transfers are made via public streets, now no longer a problem with smartcards programmed for free transfers anyway (there are still many signs saying 'farecard holders only').

There is not much I could say about the Metra commuter rail system as I only used it once. I took the Metra Electric Line to South Chicago and then back to the University of Chicago at 59th Street. I have to say, I didn't like those trains, sitting upstairs you can hardly look out of the window because the windows are so small, and in fact I don't really understand the idea behind those gallery cars. Wouldn't a proper double-decker provide more capacity? Anyway, I don't like double-deckers on urban lines, and this line is pretty urban, even rather like a light rail line from where it splits from the trunk line, running in the median of an urban road, so they should really convert it to something St. Louis-like and run it more frequently to make it worthwhile. A train every hour is really no urban service. As the trunk line has four electrified tracks, a good local service with a train at least every 20 minutes should be possible. The other thought which frequently comes to my mind when I see a line like this is why doesn't it continue further downtown and out north. A tunnel under Chicago River would bring it to a deep-level station at Water Tower Square in the centre of the Magnificent Mile shopping area. Further north it could be linked to one or two of the Metra branches creating a proper RER-style system. If properly integrated into the Ventra fare system it would without doubt be very successful. I always think that Americans should more often look at Australia to see how existing railways can be converted into great urban rail systems.


Chicago at UrbanRail.Net


  1. Interesting post and beautiful pictures. Agree with you on the bad name choice for the smart ticketing system, especially if you take into account the large native Spanish-speaking communities existing in the US, Chicago included. To me, as an Italian native speaker, the first association is with 'ventre' too, and also with the verb 'sventrare' (literally, 'disembowel', but also used for something destroyed by an explosion, especially a building).

  2. A few things to note:

    1: There have been plans to tear down the loop in the past, but they all ended up being too expensive. Besides, once it became obvious that Chicago was stuck with the "el" the people decided to fall in love with it.

    2: Part of the issue with the "el" trains is that they're stuck with the short trains. Lots of tight turns in the system limits the size of the cars, so to compensate they couple them together and run them in twos. There were two tight turns at the spot where you took your picture of the orange and green line tracks until a few years ago, when they rebuilt it to a smoother turn.

    3: The trains on the Electric are museum pieces in themselves, being made of a specific metal that ended up being used for only those trains. And there have been plans laid out to remake service into a better version of what it is (The Grey Line Plan being one, Crossrail Chicago being one presently being bandied about) but, this being the United States, I'd bet on the Metra Electric being closed down before those plans get moving.

  3. Robert, after visiting London, and formerly residing in Chicago, I find that service frequency for the Metra commuter rail system within the Chicago is quite horrible, especially considering that many Metra stations within the City of Chicago are areas not served by the L. In contrast, the local suburban rail within Greater London runs at rapid transit frequency, even in off peak, as there are many areas of London not served by Underground.

    1. I love how the commuter trains in London run at rapid transit frequency. South of the Thames, which is poorly served by the Tube, the suburban rail network is quite extensive.

  4. Where to begin.

    1. Before Ventra, the CTA had a perfectly adequate electronic fare system called the "Chicago Card." Why the switch occurred is anyone's guess. It was almost universally despised, though perhaps people have gotten used to it by now.

    2. Why stations are named after streets as opposed to neighborhoods: You're correct that this is not how modern Metro systems operate, but Chicago's system is extremely old, and both the system and city residents are oriented to the grid system of street names and address numbers as opposed to neighborhoods (thus, you'll notice, the station signs all have the block numbers designating the station's location). Furthermore, under Mayor Jane Byrne, stations outside the City limits could not be named for the town or suburb they were in, but had to list the cross-street, to avoid giving any town preferential treatment. Thus "Rosemont" was originally "River Road," and "Forest Park" was originally "Desplaines" (the latter is very confusing, as there is another suburb called Des Plaines that is nowhere near that station). Even the station entrances have only recently added the names of the stations, and you'll still see a few old signs here and there along the lines of "West-Northwest Trains" or "Use Rapid Transit: 25 minutes to Loop."

    So some things have changed, but you're right that this is not a system set up to be helpful to outsiders. Chicago wants to be, on the one hand, a world-class city with foreign tourists and travelers, and on the other hand remain its historic culture of a provincial Midwestern city made up of the Stockyards and insular neighborhoods defined by ethnicity. The El is a perfect hybrid of the two attitudes.

    3. The northern part of the Red Line/Purple Line is the busiest, oldest and most decrepit part of the El system, a remnant from when the El had far fewer customers and ran 2-car trains. Most of the other lines have been substantially rehabbed or will be (the exception is the Blue Line -- the O'Hare branch is being rehabbed but the Congress branch to Forest Park is largely untouched and pretty slow). Rehabilitating the Red Line north of Belmont is going to be enormously expensive and fraught with politics. The line has too many stations, but eliminating stations is politically difficult if not impossible, especially in the upscale neighborhoods the Red Line serves. The best solution would be to put it underground and sell the incredibly valuable land above it, but that probably won't occur because it would also involve eliminating many stations.

    4. You took what is probably the most unusual of the Metra lines -- the Electric cars are old because, as the only electrified commuter line, they're hard to replace. Metra service in the city not great, but most people prefer it to the CTA. It is not an S-Bahn-type system but it is considered fairly reliable and runs more frequently than most commuter rail services in the US.

    5. Finally, you noted that the system is almost entirely centered on the Loop. There has been almost no expansion of the CTA in decades and no serious plans to do so. I am surprised that no one has proposed a Lawrence Ave. subway linking the Brown Line terminus at Kimball with the Blue Line near Montrose or Jefferson Park. Expensive, yes, but it would provide a direct link between O'Hare and the North Side and, with one relatively short extension (maybe 2-3 miles) would make the system less Loop-centric and facilitate neighborhood-to-neighborhood rail travel.

  5. Regarding foreign bank cards and zip codes, I asked the Ventra customer service and they responded: "Yes, you can use your UK bank card to load a Ventra card for travel on the CTA trains and buses. When processing a transaction you will need to provide a zip code to the machine. For customers that do not have a zip code we ask that you use 00000 or ***** at the machine."

  6. You really cant get rid of the El. It is one of the most famous landmarks of the city, and it has been there for (literally) more than 200 years. The tight layout of downtown Chicago streets limits the potential for elevators or even entrances to subways. There is sinply no room, seeing as, by most measures, Chicago has one of the densest downtowns, even denser than Manhattan in some areas.

  7. I was in the Chicago area in July 2013, when the Ventra card system was still in the future. I will consider myself forewarned before my next visit. Did you notice the "ghost stations" on the Blue Line west of downtown? There are at least two platforms where the trains never stop, and where the street-level entrances are blocked. I have read that these stops were abandoned because the neighborhoods nearby have deteriorated to the point that keeping the stations open was not practical. When you rode the Red line, did you notice the train running slowly for no apparent reason? One of the locals (I live in the Los Angeles area) the speed control system is a piece of junk and applies speed restrictions where they are not needed. Regarding the Metra Electric: I think the last "Highliners" from the 1970s have been retired. Since the cars are in "commuter" service, there's probably no reason to make the windows any larger--they aren't designed for tourist traffic.

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