A switching problems with a Brown Line train near the Clark Junction caused a two-hour service outage on April 19 — the same day Rahm Emanuel named Forrest Claypool as his choice for CTA president. And as happens with most service outages, I heard complaints from riders about poor communications by the CTA to passengers about what was happening, what the CTA was doing to restore service, and what options riders had to get where they needed to go.
It’s an old problem, one documented by the National Transportation Safety Board after a Blue Line derailment and fire in July 2006 forced the evacuation of 1,000 passenger in the subway north of Clark/Lake station. And the NTSB in 2007 in its report made this recommendation:
“Examine and improve as necessary your ability to communicate with passengers and perform emergency evacuations.”
So I asked the CTA what the it is doing to get information to customer assistants so they can assist passengers. Here’s the reply from a CTA spokesperson:
Customer Assistant Controllers and Communication Coordinators call every station that
is involved in the interruption area and provide instructions to station
personnel. This information is also simulcast on radio channels and
Route managers are also provided details on the extent of the disruption
and the impact on customers. The route manager directs all available
managers/supervisors in the area to first address the needs and safety
of customers involved in the incident.
If that’s the case, then I suggest some customer assistants are not doing the job of relaying the information and may need more training in handling stressful situations.
I also asked why the digital signs at Fullerton and Belmont were not pressed into service to provide outage information. The reply:
Use of the signs at stations presents a challenge during a service
disruption such as this as all of the focus is placed on the above
actions and working to restore service, so the manpower to post
information on signs at the stations by the Control Center is currently
I would suggest that the CTA needs to meet that challenge and have someone posting real, useful information on those signs at ALL times, instead of the monotonous less-than-helpful reminders about Chicago Cards expiring.
Also, the CTA wants us to report if we see a customer assistant or other employee not doing their job:
The most helpful thing that our riders can do is to contact the CTA if
they have experienced a CA or any other CTA employee not performing
their job – it helps us to focus in directly on those incidents and take
steps to ensure that customer service is being handled appropriately.
Riders can email us or call 1-888-YOUR-CTA
Finally, the CTA made the following statement about improvements in communications efforts since 2006:
In any emergency situation, the top priority is to make sure people are
safe. That said, communicating with customers who are affected by the
incident is critically important and there are many changes that have
been made in recent years. And after every incident we review what
worked and what didn’t work and try and determine how we can do better.
There are changes we’ve made in both the technology we use and the way
in which we staff the Control Center. Whenever there is a service
interruption, the Control Center broadcasts instructions to the
operators so that they can keep customers informed using the intercom
system. The Control Center also makes announcements at rail stations,
and we have invested in upgrades to the announcement system to improve
the clarity. Control also posts information about delays on the web
Additionally, managers’ responsibilities have been expanded and include
additional customer communications duties. Previously, Control
primarily focused on communications with field personnel and on service
We also now notify the fire department immediately when there is an
incident. Previously, depending on the circumstances, CTA personnel
might first have investigated first to see if the situation could be
handled by CTA staff.
On the scene, the route manager will direct all available
managers/supervisors in the area to address the needs and safety of
customers involved in the incident.