Anyone who’s ever been stuck on a stopped el train knows it’s not a pleasant experience. Number one, you’re getting nowhere fast. Then there’s the fact you are cooped up in a metal tube with total strangers for an indeterminate amount of time.
The CTA says it knows that---and they share your pain.
“We recognize there is an issue, and we agree with you that that issue needs to be addressed,” says the agency’s Brian Steele. But he quickly added, “Mechanical disruptions that lead to service delays are pretty rare.”
He’s right. Out of the hundreds of thousands of miles traveled by CTA trains during any given year---an actual stopped train doesn’t happen that often.
But an analysis by NBC 5 shows that it does happen on Blue Line trains more than all others.
Responding to an open records request, the CTA said between January of 2017 to May 2018, there were 471 disruptions of 10 minutes or longer. Of those 469 breakdowns, 162 were on the Blue Line. The Red Line was second with 94, followed by the Green with 55.
“First and foremost, the Blue Line is our second busiest line---it’s also our longest rail line,” Steele said. Plus---it’s also the line which may have gotten the least amount of TLC in recent years.
“The Blue Line has some of our older rail car series---they were built in the early and mid-1980’s,” he notes. “They’ve been overhauled since, but they’re reaching the age where they need to be retired.”
Steele likened the Blue to a road filled with potholes---leading to slow zones, and a lot of wear and tear.
“When the rail is worn, you have to run trains at a slower speed.”
What about the causes of breakdowns? The CTA data showed the number one issue is brakes.
“Brakes are one of the most complex components to a rail car, probably second to the propulsion system that moves the rail car,” Steele noted. “If just one small part of that larger system fails, then we have a braking issue where the operator has to leave the train and check.”
Bingo. Stopped train.
The second leading cause of disruptions is doors, followed by train propulsion systems.
“A train won’t actually be able to move unless the doors are properly secured,” he said. “Remember, the doors open and close hundreds, if not thousands of times during a service day.”
It’s important to note that CTA trains make some 12 thousand trips in a given week, and most take place without incident. And it would only be fair to argue that if you are really unhappy with having to sit next to that guy playing the saxophone in a stopped train---you might want to take it up with Springfield.
“Since 2011, the CTA has completed, announced, or begun over $8 billion in modernization projects,” Steele notes. But he also points out that the State of Illinois hasn’t managed a capital bill since 2009. And the Civic Federation said in a recent report, that the CTA’s “state of good repair” backlog is approaching $13 billion.
Indeed, that same Civic Federation report warned that the CTA will need over $23 billion over 10 years just to address its backlogged needs.
Steele notes another issue which prevents the addition of more trains on the Blue Line: power. Anyone who has tried to plug too many appliances into the kitchen counter, knows there are only so many watts to go around.
“We are running, right now, as many trains as possible, on the O’Hare branch of the Blue Line during the am/pm rush,” he says. “We are running as many trains as possible, and we are running them as closely together, as we can.”
One other note. A 2016 report shows that the CTA manages over 22,000 miles between major mechanical failures, even though 25 percent of its vehicles are now classified as “beyond their useful life”. But even that put Chicago in fifth place among America’s mass transit systems. Philadelphia and Houston both say at least 39 percent of their rolling stock is obsolete.
From January 2017 to May 2018, the CTA had 469 disruptions of 10 minutes or longer. Here they are, by line, and by cause.
- Blue Line 162
- Red Line 94
- Green Line 55
- Orange Line 53
- Purple Line 42
- Brown Line 35
- Pink Line 23
- Yellow Line 5
- Brakes 185
- Doors 146
- Propulsion 67
- Suspension 25
- Communications 12
- Coupler & draw Bar 7
- No Defect 7
- Trucks & wheels 5
- AC/Heat-ventilation 4
- Windows 3
- Traction power 2
- Destination sign 1
- HVAC 1
- Lighting 1
- Network 1
- Converter/inverter 1
- Emergency 1