The Reader's ideas on how to fix the L: thoughtful, maybe not workable

In comprehensive cover story reminiscent of the Chicago Reader of old, Ed Zotti tells us unabashedly “How to Fix the El” — and has many good ideas. His only downfall is that he’s trying to be very comprehensive in a CTA planning world that is focused on just the area north of Belmont on the Red and Purple lines.

And doesn’t that seem like a stupid criticism on my part? He’s too “comprehensive.” But right now, CTA planners have their blinders on and, more importantly, they only have funding to tackle those problems north of Belmont.

Red-Purple alternatives-2.jpg

Chicago Reader’s new idea (right) for the Purple Line to run alternately with the Red Line into the State Street subway.

So Zotti’s idea to run the Red and Purple lines alterrnately every three
minutes, and to run the Purple into the State Street tunnel may fall on
deaf ears at the CTA, where they are focused on the north end of the
busiest rail line.

My other quibble with Zotti’s piece is that he
only tangentially touched on the alternatives for the Red and Purple
Modernization project, without providing his own views on what he thinks
works best. While Zotti may think he knows how to fix the L, the fact
remains there’s a whole lot of fixing to do on the North Side as well.

Overall, Zotti may be on to something with his ideas, but there still are some kinks to work out, such as where/whether to turn around the Purple Line train and send it back north, and what to do about the Clark Junction choke point.

Give his piece and read and let us know what you think. We’ll have at least one guest post later in the week with another take on the proposal.


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  • First your comment "they only have funding to tackle those problems north of Belmont" is false (CTA Press Release). They don't have any money for construction, but apparently only to pay consultants.

    As far as Zotti, his "comprehensive" overlook is spot on. It is comprehensive only in the needed sense of looking what is needed to cover passenger traffic growth on the North Main and balance it with the Dan Ryan. A lot of the ideas are not new; for instance, the idea of putting the Purple Line in the State St. subway was first proposed in the Circle Line plan about 2003, and we discussed about a couple of months ago about having express and local service with more transfer stations on the Howard to Addison stretch. There may be details to work out, like scheduling and whether there are enough cars, and, in the case of CTA's vision, whether one would have to redo Loyola to get 2 platforms, but he is heading in the right direction. Also, compared to some of CTA's vision, his plans would not be costly (in the capital sense) compared to the $4-8 billion estimates for most of the costly visions.

    On the other hand, you sound like the type that in about 1990 would say not to discuss disconnecting the Howard with the Jackson Park-Englewood, because that is too comprehensive a solution. The only thing that partially surprises me is that he says that the passenger load that once was on the Dan Ryan isn't any more, although it is certainly more than on the South Side Green.

  • In reply to jack:

    I agree with Jack: I hope Zotti's proposals get some serious consideration.

  • In reply to jack:

    Jack - totally agree with you here. The CTA should definitely be listening to thorough, thoughtful plans like this that address the much broader spectrum of issues the agency and riders face.

    The ideas of (a) express/local service, (b) running the Purple line through the subway, (c) fixing the Clark junction, (d) allocating more service to the North Side (where the riders are), and (e) adding a Cermak Green Line stop are all spot-on. The CTA should at the very least be considering all of these as they do their long-term planning. We'll only have one shot at the Red/Purple modernization, and it would be a travesty if shortsighted work there made future improvements more difficult.

  • In reply to jack:

    I thought it was a really good article. So many problems come back to that Clark Junction. The statistics about the Brown line change in ridership was more than I realized when they put it in graph form.

  • In reply to chris:

    With regard to Clark Junction, I never could figure out why they didn't put in a flyover from north to west. After all, they did condemn property at Belmont and Wilton to expand the station. I guess just false economy.

  • In reply to jack:

    I'm sure this yet another Frank Kreusi idiocy.
    They didn't even leave a stub at the north end of track 4 at Belmont so a flyover could be built with demolishing some of the new concrete.
    If the CTA sells off the land at Belmont & Wilton the condemned through eminent domain, then we know that true incompetence has returned to CTA management.
    The other problem is I think a flyover would require moving the Clark Junction tower again.
    But it's totally ridiculous that one NB train halts trains on three other tracks from moving.

  • In reply to jack:

    A simpler short term solution to the passenger imbalance between the Howard side & the Dan Ryan side would be to turn every other train at Roosevelt, using the incline to the L.
    But as one who does ride the Ryan L, it's pretty fully loaded going north during the late morning to early evening. Seats are rare at Garfield. But it's not SRO, like the North Side is.

  • In reply to jack:

    Does the State Street Subway have capacity to handle Purple Line trains? This could be a problem...

  • In reply to jack:

    Build the subway. It grade separates Clark Junction, it boosts Red Line capacity to 24 trains an hour in each direction or close to 20,000 riders an hour in each direction, far more than the current combined total of Red and Purple line trains. It opens additional paths on the Brown Line as well, enough that it's worth investigating whether it solves the 5pm rush hour bottleneck in Brown Line trains. It gives Purple Line speed of operation to all Chicago north-siders and Evanston/Wilmette residents. It's enclosed from the weather, easier to maintain, and no more expensive than rebuilding the viaduct and embankment. Some journey times on the north-side improve by seven minutes or more in each direction; no journey time gets longer. It simplifies the system and makes it more efficient for the CTA to run higher service frequencies. The higher frequencies mean less waits for trains. And it gets Purple express service speeds at all times of the day, not just peak.

    Lastly, if the numbers just aren't there to run comparable frequencies on the South Side, there's nothing to stop the CTA doing what they've done at the past, and that's turning some trains at Roosevelt instead of 95th. If the CTA were really to get visionary with boosting the South Side with transit-oriented development, you could alternate the newly enlarged frequency of service between the current Red and Green Lines, or build a connection to Metra Electric and run some services there.

  • In reply to jack:

    I haven't lived in Chicago very long, so I don't know the ins and outs of the L, but the thing missing in the proposal is what to do with the people who now ride the brown/purple to and from the Loop during rush.

    By moving the purple, those who work on the west side of the loop will have their capacity cut by a great deal. And, on the way home, when many of those people now use the purple, they'll have to ride the brown around, which increases their commute time.

  • In reply to elllveee:

    The problem is essentially what is the proper use of the Brown. You seem to assume the status quo.

    The official reason for having the Purple make all local stops south of Belmont was that the Brown was overloaded. Similarly, the official reason given for the Brown Line project was to increase capacity.

    While the Brown Line does have 8 car trains, it isn't clear whether the CTA increased capacity, or, as Adam Kerman contended about 13 years ago, only intended to decrease frequency. Given the 2010 service cuts, more likely the latter.

    This gets back to my point whether there are enough cars, but the solution is to utilize the New Start project by actually increasing capacity on the Brown Line, and having the Purple only serve as the Red Express.

  • In reply to elllveee:

    Also, I see your point about the Purple providing a quicker commute from Wells, but that's no different than the problem an Orange Line rider has from Wells, nor that someone on Wells has to transfer to get to the Green Line.

    In the meantime, under the current setup, someone going to Linden usually has to wait for a Brown Line train to clear the station ahead before proceeding, and rides in a scrunched up car to Belmont, where, magically seats appear.

    All the article is suggesting is that the passenger load could be more rationally divided.

  • In reply to jack:

    Thanks for the clarifications provided in your two posts. Increasing the brown line frequency (at least during rush) would certainly help if the purple was moved.

    That said, one of the points of the article was to decrease the commute times for people riding the express. But, if you decrease commute times for some people only to increase commute times for others, it is a bit of a wash.

    I do agree with the author, however, that a systemic look at the system was happening rather than just the stops north of Belmont.

  • In reply to jack:

    I like the Reader's idea, but Brown and Purple line trains are continuously packed leaving the Loop from 5-5:30 p.m. Any reduction in that capacity by pulling the Purple line trains out of the mix would be a definite step back. Even keeping the Purples, they should add more Brown Line trains to the evening rush. There is a clear hole right around 5 or 5:10 where nearly 10 minutes usually go by at the Mart without a train, resulting in several packed trains that are unboardable. It's a fairly consistent gap, so I think it's a scheduling issue.

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