Secrets of the Trade: CTA Motormen Tell Their Stories

From sex to drugs to attacks and close encounters, veteran operators from Amalgamated Transit Union local 308 tell their stories

They are the men and women who drive Chicago’s el and subway trains, covering thousands of miles in all conditions, every year.

But could you do what they do?

“We’re the first ones to deal with situations, because there’s no one else there,” says union chief Kenneth Franklin. “We see, we hear, anything and everything before police can get there, before the fire department can get there, we’re relied on for acting instantly because we have all these passengers in our hands."

CTA Motormen Tell All, Share Secrets of Chicago Transit System

To get an idea of what motormen deal with on a daily basis, NBC 5 Investigates assembled a group of veteran operators from Amalgamated Transit Union local 308. They spoke of the trials of moving tons of steel over and under Chicago’s streets, while dealing with very unpredictable challenges from passengers. 

We’re not just talking about the occasional untalented musician or panhandler passing a hat. How about people in the darkened tunnels---between stations?

CTA motormen share their experiences after years of working on Chicago trains.

“There was an actual guy that lived in the elevated part of the tunnel,” motorman Deborah Lane told us. “He had a TV, mattress, and everything connected to the CTA’s electrical system.”

Retired motorman Elwood Flowers, who drove trains for four decades, said he was taught early in his career that a dead giveaway can be a light ahead in the tunnel which should be steady-but isn’t.

“If any of those signals blink at you---that’s a body that you can’t see,” he said.

Sex among passengers, they say is commonplace, as is drug use. And all manner of criminal activity.

“I’m all on my own, there’s nothing I can do personally,” said motorman Thomas Moore, who had a man shot on his train earlier this year.

CTA motormen share their experiences after years of working on Chicago trains.

“As soon as I stepped out of the motor cab, I saw the blood going all the way down the platform,” he said. “Apparently they were arguing over selling cigarettes, and one guy ended up shooting the other guy twice.”

Moore said he wished he was able to view cameras in the cars on his trains, but for safety reasons, he can only do so when the train comes to a complete stop.

“When you push the emergency buttons in one of those cars, I can hear audible sound, but I can’t see what’s going on.”

CTA motormen share their experiences after years of working on Chicago trains.

Many said they had been physically assaulted. Motorman Deborah Lane recalled one man coming at her with a screwdriver.

“His thing was, I’m going to find you, I’m going to kill you,” she said. “It took a mental toll on me.”

By the way, did they say sex? The operators laughed. Marcene Anderson recalled one couple vividly.

“The woman was just sitting on top of the man,” she said. “And they had their coats around them and she was just riding him."

There is also the occasional—ahem—passenger who can’t wait to disembark for a real rest room.

“We see human waste, we see urine,” Lane said. “And we have to operate that train.”

CTA motormen share their experiences after years of working on Chicago trains.

All said they had stopped a train to put out a fire. Most said they had seen passengers shooting heroin.

CTA motormen share their experiences after years of working on Chicago trains.

“I’ve seen them with the needle in their hand, and once they came to the stop, they got off the train and left the needle in the crease (of the window),” Anderson said.

There are also tragic moments---suicides. For the motormen, those happen up close.

“A passenger committed suicide in front of my train, then I had to evacuate the train,” said Anthony Jones, a motorman of 15 years. “I had to put my own personal issues on the back burner, and go into CTA mode, and direct passengers to other trains.”

By the way, there is one other issue, a creepy-crawly one, which could send shivers up the spine of even the most hardened traveler.

“Bed bugs from homeless people,” Moore said. “I have to go back there to that car and get everybody off of it, isolate the car, cut all the doors out, so they can call someone to exterminate.”

CTA motormen share their experiences after years of working on Chicago trains.

“This is like out of a horror story,” said Franklin, the union president. “We’ve had individuals so infested with bed bugs, that you can see the bugs activity on that person.”

Informed of the motormen’s complaints, a CTA spokesman told NBC5 Investigates that the presence of bedbugs is “very rare, in the context of the hundreds of thousands of rail trips CTA provides each year.”

If there is one issue which shows genuine friction between the motormen and CTA management, it’s the decision in the late nineties to eliminate conductors from the trains. The agency argued at the time, that in addition to cost savings, safety was actually increased, because the motormen became more engaged with full operation of the trains.

But the men and women who drive the trains note the elimination of the conductors led to an inescapable truth: on a train which can be longer than a football field, they are usually the only authority figure on board-one CTA employee for a thousand passengers.

“Somebody has got to step in there and say, hey, what about the safety of these people,” Flowers said. “The first guys to know that there’s no conductor on there is the wrongdoer."

CTA motormen share their experiences after years of working on Chicago trains.

Moore, a 29-year veteran, said in this era when terrorism is a fear around the world, he especially thinks about it when he drives a train under the Chicago River.

“Every time I go through there, I just kind of hold my breath,” he said. “You never know.”

Oh, and by the way, on top of everything else---they do have to drive the trains.

“As the motorman, we’re the fireman, we’re the policeman, we’re the counselor,” Lane said. “We’re everything."

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