Brian Carl has a system for handling crowded Blue Line trains leaving downtown during evening rush hour: He walks the extra blocks to the farthest-out station in the Loop so he can get on before the rush.
He doesn’t have that option in the morning, when he finds himself seemingly waiting longer for trains than he did before the COVID-19 pandemic. He boards before the busy Logan Square and Wicker Park neighborhood stops, but trains are often already crowded when they reach him.
Carl said he knows the CTA is short on staff, but more frequent trains during peak times would help.
“It’s not as convenient and streamlined as it used to be, especially for rush hour.”
Six months ago, CTA President Dorval Carter unveiled a broad plan to address service, safety and other challenges the city’s transit system was facing. And by many of its own measures, the agency has improved. Bus and some train service is running closer to schedule, making wait times easier to predict, even though scheduled waits are in some cases longer. It also means so-called ghost buses and trains, which show up on digital trackers but fail to arrive in real life, are less likely. And the violent crime rate on trains dropped last year, although it remains well above pre-pandemic levels.
But challenges remain. The CTA is still running far fewer trains than scheduled on its two busiest lines, and the agency, like other transit systems around the country, continues to face bus and train operator shortages. Even as public transit ridership remains well below pre-pandemic levels, some riders, like Carl, contend with crowded trains, particularly on the Blue Line. Concerns about safety and nuisance violations like smoking persist.
At a recent CTA board meeting, Carter highlighted improvements in service, but acknowledged riders still encounter frustrations.
“There is still a lot more that I need to do,” Carter recently told the agency’s board. “We are not out of the woods by any stretch of the imagination, and we continue to deal with the daily challenges that any transit system faces as we continue to dig our way out of the impact of this pandemic. But I am pleased with the progress that we’re making.”
Morgan Madderom, a member of the commuter advocacy group Commuters Take Action who works in the 40th Ward office, doesn’t have a car and commutes to work on the bus five days a week. She sometimes finds herself taking a ride-share home if the bus is running too late for her to pick up her dog from day care, or asking friends to pick her up from the grocery store when the wait for the bus is too long.
“Especially when it gets cold, it’s terrible,” she said.
In an effort to stay on schedule and better match its service to the number of operators available, the CTA has rolled out new train and bus schedules that include changes to listed wait times. The agency has also been upgrading some trackers to address concerns about ghost buses.
Madderom applauded the CTA’s attempt to make the schedules more accurate. But she says riders continue to be ghosted by buses or trains that don’t show up, and she’s frustrated that, by her group’s calculations, the changes have meant cuts to the overall number of trains and buses scheduled to run each week.
CTA spokesman Brian Steele said the schedule changes don’t amount to running less service than before they were put in place, and they better match the actual service running. At certain times of the week, the new schedules call for more trains or buses than before, he pointed out.
In January, the CTA ran nearly 93% of its scheduled buses, up from 80% a year ago but still below the 99% of scheduled service the agency was running in 2020.
On trains, unexpectedly long wait times that are double the scheduled length happen dozens of times a day across the system, but the number of instances is going down, according to CTA data. The Brown, Orange, Green and Pink lines are running between 87% and 95% of scheduled service on weekdays, compared with a systemwide average of 95% before the pandemic.
Still, the Red and Blue lines — the two busiest in the system — continue to lag, with the Red Line running 72% of weekday scheduled service and the Blue Line running 67% since new schedules were put in place.
The two lines are the agency’s longest and serve the most people, making them more complex to operate, maintain and staff, said Mike Connelly, CTA’s chief planning officer. They are bearing the brunt of the challenge as the CTA faces a staffing shortage.
“Those are the two lines that will feel the result of us being short-staffed the most,” he said.
The shortages of bus drivers and train operators are behind the bulk of the CTA’s recent schedule changes and challenges, and the agency’s board has approved financial incentives intended to help with employee hiring and retention.
A late January hiring fair had the highest attendance of any in recent years, Carter said recently, but the agency still has dozens of rail operator vacancies and hundreds of open bus driver positions.
With little slack scheduled into the system, pauses in service for routine issues like stuck doors or sick customers can spiral into bigger disruptions, Connelly said.
“If we had more operators, we’d operate more service,” he said. “And until we can hire and train enough rail operators, there’s only so much service we can actually send out on the system.”
The heads of the unions that represent bus and train drivers said hiring isn’t moving fast enough.
The CTA doesn’t directly hire train operators, but rather pulls them up from other rail positions. Eric Dixon, head of the union that represents train operators, said the agency has exhausted the list of eligible employees.
Keith Hill, president of the union that represents bus drivers, applauded the recent hiring and retention incentives for employees, but said the CTA could streamline the hiring process and eliminate requirements unrelated to driving, like a written entrance exam with questions on other topics, to help it move faster.
“They’re putting forth the effort, but they need to change some of the stuff to get it done,” he said. “They need to do a different and aggressive approach.”
Riders of Blue Line trains, in particular, have in recent weeks experienced long wait times and trains so crowded that passengers are sometimes left behind on platforms, CTA leaders acknowledged. Carter attributed the long wait times to zones along the Forest Park branch of the line where trains are forced to slow for safety reasons, combined with ongoing operator shortages on a line that runs through neighborhoods that have seen significant development and higher demand for rides in recent decades.
Blue Line ridership has also recently come back strong from pandemic lows, Connelly said.
The CTA began adding two or three extra trains during morning rush hour that run along the busiest parts of the Blue Line, Steele said. A team of CTA officials also began monitoring morning service and staffing in real-time, and employees began making customized announcements at crowded stations informing riders of the locations of the next several trains, Steele said.
When the CTA next updates its schedule in March, the agency plans to add additional trains that run only along the busiest, central parts of the line.
At the end of January and beginning of February, average wait times during morning rush hour on the Blue Line were between 9 and 9.5 minutes, which marked an improvement over earlier weeks, Steele said.
Still, that is likely a departure from riders’ pre-pandemic Blue Line experiences. In the fall of 2019, between 7:30 a.m. and 8:30 a.m. on weekdays, trains along the busiest parts of the branch between O’Hare and downtown were scheduled to run roughly every three minutes.
Riders on several train and bus routes said they have seen little change over the past six months, and some continue to have long waits to transfer between trains or from trains to buses. Monica Westlake said she has to wait anywhere from 15 to 30 minutes for the 18th Street bus when she transfers from the Roosevelt station on her daily commute home.
Conditions on trains and safety also remain concerns for riders. Jennifer Petersen, who mostly rides the Red Line, said smoking and a “party vibe” on weekday evening rush hour trains remain a problem. Morning rush hour seems to have improved because trains are busier, she speculated.
“There are some days where I think, why don’t I just take an Uber or a Lyft or a taxi or any kind of other transit to get home,” she said. “I don’t like to, because the reason I live in this neighborhood is because I want to be close to transit, and I want to be environmentally conscious.”
Oscar Smith, who takes the Green Line to the Purple Line to get to work, also said he continues to see a lot of smoking on the train.
“I’m thankful that my son isn’t with me when I (see that),” he said. “I have a 6-year-old, so I’m thankful that he’s not seeing all of that.”
The Tribune found in December that the rate of violent crime on CTA trains began to drop in 2022 for the first time since the pandemic emptied public transit of many riders, but it was more than twice as high as the years before the pandemic.
From January through November last year, there were about 6.2 violent crimes, like robberies, homicides and more aggressive assaults and batteries, on the “L” for every million rides. That was down from a similar time period in 2021, when violent crimes reached 6.8 per million rides, but remained higher than any other year in the past decade.
Nonviolent crimes like pickpocketing ticked up to 6.5 per million rides from 5.9 during a similar period the year before, but remained lower than during similar periods in 2018, 2019 and 2020, when they reached the highest rates of the past decade and topped 8 crimes per million rides.
In August, the CTA signed a $30.9 million contract with Action K-9 Security to bring in K-9 security teams to join the police officers and unarmed guards patrolling the system.
The train operators union has called for the return of conductors on trains and dedicated transit police to address crime on the system. Dixon said current measures like the CTA’s unarmed guards and K-9 units are not effective, and the Chicago Police Department, which has also sent extra officers to the system, is busy elsewhere in the city.
“When you’ve got one person operating an eight-car train, there’s no way in the world you can see what’s going on (in) the back of that train,” he said.
Afternoon wait times and safety remain concerns for Brian Rakow, who commutes on the Blue line to downtown three days a week. A longtime train rider, he had never previously avoided public transit, he said. But after a recent work event downtown he decided to take a $40 ride-share home, worried about encountering safety issues on the train.
“I’m not going to risk it that late at night, especially at that time there’s longer wait times and it’s not as crowded,” he said. “At that point it makes it even worse.”