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TAKING CHICAGO MASS TRANSIT? Get Ready for a Rough, Crowded Ride!


More than in many other major North American Cities, we in Chicago have come to depend on our Mass Transit System.  CTA Buses and El Trains, METRA Commuter Rail to the suburbs, and PACE Suburban Buses are ridden each day by thousands of commuters and non-commuters each day.

Free fares to those over the age of 65 throughout the State of Illinois, enacted this spring as part of a Mass Transit Bailout Package involving a regional Sales Tax Increase, has swelled passenger count past old record levels.  So has the skyrocketing cost of a gallon of gas - to over $4.30 for regular in some parts of Chicago.

With Labor Day behind us, and school in session, students and their parents, no longer out of town on family vacation, will again hit public transit to get to school or to work.

Problem is - aging buses have only so many seats.  And funds for new buses for Chicago Area Transit Agencies are hard to come by from State of Illinois and Federal Agencies.

"There's a huge bounce in ridership after Labor Day vacations," said CTA President Ron Huberman, who noted CTA ridership historically peaks each September.

Here in Chicago, the Chicago Transit Authority is re-stocking its driver and El motorman ranks.  Recent high attrition and a hiring freeze by the averted "doomsday" transit scenario earlier this year points up a real staffing need here - quickly!

Delivery of new CTA rail cars—to replace trains that began service in 1969 and should have been retired 10 years ago—remains delayed until 2010, at the earliest.  Also, the CTA has received only half of the 400 new buses it ordered to replace 1991 models that had been due for retirement in 2003.

This situation forces the CTA to repair and continue to use its current older cars and buses, and to put more supervisors on duty on El platforms to call on additional train cars immediately as needed.

As part of an experiment to begin early next month, the CTA will run some train cars seatless, and reduce seats on many buses, in an attempt to pack more riders onto current rolling stock. 

METRA Commuter Rail in Chicago has eliminated bar car service and will remove toilet facilities in many cars to increase capacity.  They are also rehabbing several 1950's-vintage train cars previously sold, then repurchased, from another transit company early this year.

PACE Suburban Buses, which has long lagged behind the other transit lines in gross ridership, has cut special express buses serving Chicago Cubs and Bears games to free up buses for increased service each evening.  It has also beefed up service feeding METRA and CTA Train Terminals, and certain industrial and business parks in the suburbs of Chicago.

The CTA, which provides an average of 1.7 Million rides a day and is already operating at full capacity during rush hours, is bracing for up to 200,000 additional riders each weekday, according to representatives of the transit agency..

Most CTA passengers are on their train or bus for relatively short distances. However, METRA riders may travel upwards of 50 miles each way, in some cases while standing in the aisles and vestibules of packed trains.  Also, when METRA trains are so crowded, the conductors don't always collect cash fares, so revenue is lost,

Sustained ridership increases each month leave little doubt that public transit nationwide is experiencing a comeback, as commuters drive less. The 53.2 billion-mile reduction in total miles driven nationwide since last November has surpassed the mileage decline during the oil crisis of the 1970s, according to the U.S. Department of Transportation.

But here in Chicago, limited money for capital improvements and new train cars or buses threatens to erupt into a major problem as transit ridership continues to grow.

Ridership on CTA buses has increased 6% through July, compared with the first seven months of 2007, while El ridership rose 2%, the CTA said. System wide, weekend ridership on the CTA has increased 6%.   And this is on top of ridership increases in 2007, which were at their highest levels since the early 1990's!

"We're ecstatic about the phenomenal growth in ridership but concerned about our capacity to manage and keep the new customers," continued CTA President Huberman.  He calls State of Illinois passage of new capital funding to help pay for new buses and train cars the agency's top priority.

"Some people are willing to push onto a crowded train or bus during rush hour and find that acceptable," Huberman said. "Other people simply will not opt for that transportation."

Now that Labor Day is passed, the CTA plans to run its fleet more efficiently by taking the following steps -

• Deploying managers who have the authority to call extra buses into service at pinch points during rush periods. The goal is to redistribute buses where they are most needed and ease bus-bunching.

• Increasing the number of train runs through the end of the year as slow-zone construction is completed, particularly on the O'Hare Branch of the Blue Line and in the Red Line Subway.

• Doing more short-turning of trains on the Brown Line corridor and along the Blue Line to address pinch points where waiting passengers cannot board already full trains. Short-turning involves running some trains on a portion of the route in the morning to pick up passengers at high-volume stations and deliver them to the Loop.

Meanwhile, METRA ridership increased 5% in the first half of 2008, compared with the same period in 2007.

The Suburban Rail Agency expects 2008 to be its third consecutive record-setting year, according to Lynette Ciavarella, METRA Director of Planning and Analysis.

Eight of METRA all-time top 10 ridership months have occurred since June of last year.  Weekend ticket sales are outstripping all categories, up 20 percent in the first half of 2008, Ciavarella continued.

But without millions of dollars in new funding from a state public works program, METRA Suburban Rail cannot buy the additional cars it needs to meet projected continued growth in ridership, commented METRA Spokesperson Judy Pardonnet. The commuter railroad has not acquired any new trains since 2005.

For more details, read Jon Hilkevitch and Richard Wronski's story in last Tuesday's edition of the Chicago Tribune.


Posted: Thursday, September 04, 2008 2:19 PM by Dean's Team


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