The L Challenge: A Brit's thoughts on the CTA as he rides every train line, station

Editor’s note: Following is the detailed story of a Brit who came to
Chicago to ride every L rail line through every station in record time.

only problem is there is no official recorded record time. And Adham
Fisher is quite accustomed to competing to break the record in London’s
Tube Challenge.

I love his account because Adham sees things so
much differently than us folks who have been in Chicago for awhile. He noticed things that only out-of-towners might – things we residents take for granted.

And a special note: I has asked Adham to give more details of what routes he took, and what line he was on. But he demurred. He was afraid that someone might know the route he took and beat what he thinks is a pretty good time. Gotta love that American, er, British, competitiveness.

This is the first of two parts, with Part 2 published Friday.

The lure of Chicago’s L – by Adham Fisher

Chicago. America’s
second city. A metropolis of fantastic food, culture, sights, music and sport
that is renowned throughout the United States
and all around the world.

My friend invites this Englishman on a trip there and I jump
at the chance. But while he will attend a comic convention and visit museums, I
intend to immerse myself in, and appreciate, something that many people in
cities take for granted: the public transport. In Chicago’s
case, it is the largely elevated rapid transit system, affectionately known to
locals as the L, operated by the Chicago Transit Authority.

The reason for this is that I try to push the boundaries of
public transport. While most urban dwellers consider it a chore for commuting
and spend only as much time on it as is strictly necessary, I embrace it as a
challenge. It is there to be explored, and going left of the field with it
presents it in a very different light.

Of course, if I tell an average person down at the pub that
I have been end to end on a transit line without needing to, I do receive
strange looks. But afterwards can come a somewhat bewildered respect.

Beginnings of my rail
interest: The Tube Challenge

I started my public transport quests by riding most bus
routes in and around my home city of Leicester,
United Kingdom.
More recently, I have tried eight times to break the official Guinness World
Record for visiting every station on the London Underground (Tube) as quickly
as possible – informally known as the Tube Challenge.

New York is the only other city where one can set an
official record of this type (and I have not even thought about that one yet),
but I have continued to visit every station or stop on various underground,
bus, train and tram networks when I can and time my runs, just for fun.

From the city of Madrid
to the country of Luxembourg,
my attempts have remained in Europe thus far, but now I
intend to focus on an American system for the first time, and Chicago’s
is the subject. I will try to visit every L station in as quick a time as I can

I wake up in England,
on English time, at 6:30 a.m. on
Thursday, March 17. I make last minute preparations for my trip, as I will also
be promoting my musical record Mothers’ Day under the name AFS, based on
samples of an unknown man found in Winnipeg.
It’s now available on 12-inch vinyl at Reckless Records, Dave’s Records and K
Starke Records. You should buy it for your mother, a child, anyone. See my artist page and the Mothers’ Day site for more on

I meet my friend at Heathrow
Airport and we fly, taking about
nine and a half hours to travel to O’Hare, via Scotland,
Greenland and Inuit Territories. After my first
experience of the L getting from the airport to our hotel, we settle in with an
evening of drinks and chat with our American acquaintances. They leave at about
2 a.m. on Friday, March 18 Chicago
time. Bear in mind that England
is five hours ahead of the Midwest at this point so I
have been awake for 24 hours. My friends turn in. I do not.

I pace around the room. I have a route to visit every
station and I have researched it as best I can from thousands of miles away.
But for an excursion of this type, one cannot research properly until one
travels on the system. I have traveled on two trains only and do not know the
plans of the stations where I will need to change.

I also am unaccustomed to Chicago’s
grid layout of roads and it is initially baffling to determine a street without
looking at a map (this does actually cause me a delay in the attempt – more on
that later). Ideally, I want to do some full research on Friday and make the
attempt on Saturday so I am better prepared. However, as much as I want to say,
“I flew to Chicago, did the subway and flew straight back” (VERY strange
looks), I do want to do other things in the city and spending two days on the L
will restrict that.

Therefore I make the decision to play it blindly and go for
the Friday, and as it is already Friday, this means no sleep because it needs
an early start. I have estimated it will take me 12 hours,

and I will never get up in time if I go to bed
now. Usually I have hardly any sleep before these excursions as it is, but even
by my standards, being awake for 30 hours before I even start is ridiculous.

At about 6 a.m., I slip outside the hotel for a warm-up jog.
Having been warned about the Chicago
chill, I was surprised to find the weather very mild indeed when I landed, and
it is not bad now either. I had considered taking my fleece with me on the L,
but decide I do not need it (nor my specially purchased long johns – I want a
refund) and opt for my usual two layers. I run a little in this attire and feel
all right, then head back to the hotel

I leave the hotel for a second time at 7 a.m. This is it.

My quest begins
I enter the CTA for own “L Challenge” and ask a staff member
about tickets. I decide on the one I want and am poised to buy it from a
machine with cash, before she tells me that the machines do not accept cash.

CTA, you need to work on that. As I am trying to avoid
extortionate card charges wherever possible, she sends me across the road to
buy the pass from a supermarket. Upon my return, I reveal the reason behind my
many questions and strange manner – I have come from England
to visit every L station in one day.

The lady is incredulous, as is the man behind me at the
barrier. Perhaps this public transport fortitude is a British thing and
Americans do not possess it. Apart from in New York,
maybe. There is an official
record there,
after all. Currently 22 hours, 52 minutes and 36 seconds, in case you were

I board the first train of the day, but the time does not
begin yet; I must first travel to the desired station. I doze off a little, but
this is not proper sleep. Despite my fatigue and jet lag, I am at least happy
that the time is reasonable. Sometimes I have to commence these things before 5

I reach the starting station and board the first train of
the challenge. The doors close, and my finger punches the stopwatch start

And we’re off

This is it. The Chicago CTA L Record attempt is officially
underway at 8:06 a.m.

I am tired, nervous
and excited.

I’ll be keeping a diary of
the day where possible, but I don’t expect to write much.

“Welcome aboard run number [888],” booms the male automated
voice of the CTA train host as we pull out. This is a surprising novelty for
me. In London on an official record
attempt, one must note the operating number of the train displayed on the front
– a tad difficult in the event of a tight change and a one-stop journey when
one is situated in the middle of the train. But on this system, the run number
is announced! It is only given occasionally and throughout the day I do see
some numbers on train fronts, but I find it most amusing; it is not as if the
average passenger needs to know the run number.

During the journey, I also will hear the voice announce such
things as:

  • “This is [station], as far as this train goes”
    as opposed to the more direct and business-like “This train terminates here.”
  • “Eating is prohibited on all CTA vehicles” – a
    strange rule as I do see some vending machines on the system.
  • And “Gambling is not allowed,” which gives me
    the image of someone trying to run an illegal casino in a subway carriage. At
    least I do not see anyone soliciting, as reported on CTA Tattler.

Speaking of carriages, if you are in the front or rear one,
you can see onto the tracks. The driver’s cab takes up one window but the other
is free, from which you can gaze at the tracks. In Europe,
the cab tends to be completely walled off in the end carriages and the only way
you can pretend to drive is by taking an automatic train with no driver,
although these tend to be rare.

The first change happens. I step onto the platform to await
the next train and notice an enclave with heating elements above, into which I
may step to warm up. This is another novelty, not very necessary in this mild
weather but doubtless invaluable during the bitter winter. More systems with
outdoor stations could benefit from this; often they have shacks for waiting
rooms that aren’t even warm.

I see two Chicago Police officers. Their department patrols
the L regularly in addition to CTA staff, and issues fines on the spot if they
see someone engaging in illegal or dangerous activities, like walking between rail
cars via the end doors. In Europe, that happens all the
time and no one cares. But I do wonder if I will be reprimanded for “suspicious
behavior” (CTA host), taking photographs of every station name. Thankfully, I
am not.

On a note, I do like how one sees the side destination
panels back to front from within trains

I am bound for downtown next on the next train, and begin to
appreciate the L-egacy. I might only be some 20 feet above the ground, but feel
as though I have a completely different view of the city from this height. I
look down at moving cars over the edge of the elevated tracks. Most of the
time, I go faster than them.

I see onto the roofs and verandas and into the windows of
houses and apartment blocks on both sides, with some clues as to what occupants
have been doing: washing lines, deck chairs, barbecue stoves. I can observe
distinct characteristics of different neighborhoods, and even individual
blocks, as the train moves across the city.

By far, the line that impresses me most in this regard is
the Brown. From the Loop to Armitage, it snakes its way
through back streets among low-level housing, like another road running above
pavements, from which I see whole neighborhoods around and below.

I imagine being smug in rush hour, looking down as traffic
clogs the streets and I am on the move above. I am in my own world up here, and
I regret that I only will travel on this section once during my visit.

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