The L Challenge in review: Final thoughts on the CTA system, idiosyncracies

Editor’s note: Last week I published a two-part series recounting the efforts of a British rail enthusiast to ride every CTA train line through every station as quickly as possible. Read Part 1 from Thursday and Part 2 from Friday.

Today, that intrepid Brit Adham Fisher shares final thoughts on his short but many-miles-long visit.

Guest post by Adham Fisher:

When I run around foreign transit systems, I do try to notice some similarities and differences between them and home.

From my research of the L, it seems that it can be considered almost as much a cultural icon of the city for locals as the London Underground is across the Atlantic.

London takes great pride in having opened the world’s first underground railway in 1863, and for many years the map, probably the most famous in the world, has served as a formidable alternative to a street plan. Residents and visitors can find their way about the city using only the diagram; such is it in the minds of the population.

The Tube map represents London all over the world. But London’s trains run entirely underground in the central zones, coming to the surface further out and crossing the occasional bridge, like many other cities.

The innovative elevated design

A large part of the Chicago network is made up of elevated railways running directly above the streets, the first of which was opened in 1892. A few other cities like New York followed suit, but later tore down many elevations in favor of subways.

Chicago persisted with its innovative elevated design, and this is what has made it among the most unique rapid transit systems on the planet.
I am sure that the average Chicagoan would consider the Loop an emphatic
emblem of their city. Of course, the Loop is a thriving part of
Chicago’s city centre and not just the train tracks that border it. But
were it not for the encompassing railways, the area might not be so
recognizable, or have its name – the Loop.

I find it a novelty
walking from the Loop to my hotel underneath the tracks, being showered
with droplets courtesy of last night’s rain as trains pass overhead, and
momentarily deafened by them too.

Even the subways are elevated
– at least closer to ground level than London’s. People chat away on
their mobiles underground, which is impossible in London on a
deep-running line.

Long platforms in State Street subway

perplexing area of design is in the platforms of the mid-Loop subways;
they are several hundred feet long and take up the entirety of the
station tunnel. It’s puzzling if one has not seen it for themselves, and
even when they have.

Basically, each platform between Lake or
Monroe to Jackson is about a block in length. Between them there is a
miniscule slice of actual tunnel before the next station’s platform
begins. One can look down the line and see the station ahead, maybe two.

But the trains only stop in the signed, lit and designated
areas at one end, even though one could theoretically walk along the
platform to the next station were it not for the wall. I wonder why it
has been designed like this, and vow to walk the entire length of a
platform at some point, but sadly, I do not do so during my stay.

with the large station names suspended on platforms (which bizarrely
have the Chicago grid references on them as well), the L has several
smaller square signs fixed to pillars, with the first letter (or
numbers) of the station in large letters, and the full name underneath
with the line color. Interesting.

Next stop: Buskers paradise

On the Red Line I see designated areas for buskers.
They are on the platforms in the bright areas where trains stop, which
undoubtedly are highly populated during rush hour. And of course, the
buskers must battle the barrage of train noise hurled at them every few

During my stay I see and hear rappers, singers, dancers
and a couple of 9-year-old drummer boys, although they were in the
tunnel between the Red and Blue Lines.

There are busking spots
on London’s system, but these are strictly confined to the maze of
corridors that make up certain stations. I am sure London Underground
would never allow people performing on the platforms, and I feel
uncomfortable watching them here; the sense of health and safety that
can sometimes come over a Briton due to its prevalence at home.

of health and safety, while cruising high above the neighborhoods,
there are hardly any barriers at the sides of the elevated tracks, which
makes for great views from the curves of the Red and Brown Lines. If we
had such a system in Britain, barriers would be in place for certain;
the health and safety executives considering the possibility that trains
could derail and fall several feet to the ground. While I imagine this
is highly unlikely, I cannot help but wonder if it has ever happened…

For want of good CTA pocket map
I must mention maps. Most transit customer maps are conveniently small,
apart from in Brussels where they are non-existent. Perhaps I was
looking in the wrong place, but all I picked up in L stations when I
first arrived were CTA fold-out wall charts showing a plan of all of the
transportation within Chicago on one side and destinations and running
times on the other, with a few square centimeters dedicated solely to
the L diagram.

On record attempts I like to have a pocket map
with me, on which I can cross out stations. It would be impractical to
keep consulting the large thing, so the map I used was cut out of it
with improvisation.

But evidently I had been looking in the
wrong place, because a few days later, a very nice couple chatted to me
on the Red Line, then took me out for lunch just because I was British.
(Yes! More like them, please.)

I bemoaned the fact that I could
find no small maps, and they presented me with a tiny, folded version of
the CTA wall chart and a long key ring out of which one could roll an L
diagram. They are very handy, but I think they would be too small for
my writing.

So. Reid and Drew took three hours
to ride at least one stop on every line.

CJ, Trey, Sarah and Jason rode the system
to each terminus in 10 hours and 53 minutes.

I have visited every single station by train, including the ones with the same names on different lines, using basic rules drawn up by Guinness World Records in 9 hours, 36 minutes and 33 seconds. Am I winning?

From Adham Fisher, an Englishman in Chicago.


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  • I'll go back to the main point--it is really easy to write about something about what one doesn't know anything about.

    The L as innovative? As he pointed out, other places have them. Off the top of my head, besides NYC, Boston and Philadelphia. In fact the entire system was known as the Boston Elevated Railway Co., including the streetcars. If he went to San Francisco, he would think that the heritage PCC streetcars are innovative too.

    As pointed out in any Chicago history book, the Loop was so called before the L because of streetcar loops.

    As far as barriers, apparently he was totally unaware of the barrier at Lake and Wabash, and why it was there: BECAUSE THERE WAS A CRASH IN 1977, killing several people.

    In short this is just praise for the cheap capitalists of the 1890s who found it less expensive to buy easements than build a subway, and a government that never had the money (just look at all the subway plans on to replace much of what is left. Including, one can point out, building the Broadway subway.

    I suggest that someone read Krambles and Peterson, CTA at 45, and read all of before claiming to have any knowledge of the system.

  • Adham,

    It might interest you to know that the cell phone use is new for us too. I think the past two years for most people, although one of the cell phone companies had an exclusive deal before that. They use towers in the subway itself as an emergency communication system, and the CTA leases those out to the providers. Hopefully the Tube will make a similar deal :)

    It seems like most of the safety issues on the elevated lines have been due to operator error. The resources Jack mentioned are really good if you are interested in CTA history. The crash he mentions is described in and briefly addresses the claims about the origins of "the Loop."

  • I'm sorry about the negative tone of some posts here, Adham, and just want to say I'm so glad you came here and experienced the L and wrote about it. Always fascinating to read a newcomer's point of view. And you're a fine writer.

  • I have walked the half-mile or so from Jackson to Lake underground. It's kinda fun, and a great way to pass to the time if you have a long wait for the next train.

  • In reply to jgrode:

    Cool, is it still accessible with the Washington closure?

  • In reply to jgrode:

    I second the advice to not take the negative tone of some comments to heart. Just pride of system.

    Phones underground are not due to the subways being close to the surface but rather due to steps taken by the CTA to make it available, at least to certain phone service providers.

    The Lake Street to Jackson continuous stations on the Red and Blue lines have always been a favorite of mine as well. Recently some (at least) of the stations have been undergoing renovation from dark and colorless to bright and ceramic tiled shiny. Maybe someone else here can enlighten both you and me as to whether the current closure at Madison? on the Red line will be restored any time soon or actually closed for good?

    Chicagoans learn the grid system early and use it often. Having those numbers on the CTA maps help teach the system and serve as a handy reminder to those of use who are old enough to have begun to forget them. So no, not really bizarre at all, eh?

    Yes, trains fall off. The one at Wabash and Lake was rammed from behind as I recall. Check the links in the other comments.

    Now for a quintessential Chicago Loop joke:

    A guy gets on a bus and asks the driver if the bus goes to the Loop. The driver says naagh, this bus goes beep beep. (Works better spoken.)

  • In reply to jgrode:

    Sargas: I see. There have been discussions about implementing that on the Tube, but I don't think it's necessary. I am sure most people can live without their phones for 40 minutes or fewer.

    Scott: why, thank you. I did want to respond to your remarks about my observations of the streets. As Chris pointed out, British streets do have a rather strange naming system. All are named, and there are sensible ones relating to area or direction (London Road); random and questionable ones (Cokayne Road, Bell End); then a few grouped roads with a common theme, for example, William Shakespeare (Shakespeare Drive, Hathaway Avenue, Avon Road). And the names can change halfway along for no reason. Now, a European might visit America, look at a map and think, just numbers? But by no means are numbered streets a bad thing. I'm quite interested in why there are none on the north side, as CC mentioned.

    Jgrode: I didn't know one could do that. I had thought the platforms were walled off.

    Wegerje: Hehe. I got it.

  • In reply to Adham:

    Chicago has its quite useful grid system focused on State and Madison: it's fun to do the math to figure out the distance between addresses on the same gridline street (eight hundreds per mile, in most places) or memorize the grid locations so you know that 800 North Whatever Street is probably at Chicago Avenue, for instance. But like London, some other little systems happen in various places, like the groups of same-initial streets grouped by letter (Kildare, Kostner, etc., then Lavergne, Lacrosse, etc., then some M's...); then there are the Avenue A, etc., streets on the southeast side near the Indiana line. I once advised a visitor, "go up La Salle past the Great Lakes (Ontario, [Ohio], Erie, Huron, Superior), keep going through the trees (Oak, Maple, Elm), and if you hit the German poets (Goethe, Schiller), you've gone too far." There are the presidents (some of them) in the Loop and extending west across the city. I learned the hard way in London that there's no grid: was running late for a reservation at Gordon Ramsay and assumed the same address on a nearby street meant the restaurant would be aligned with that once I found the right street...a big No to that! It ain't Chicago!

  • In reply to Adham:

    I just read through Adham's experiment and it seems quite interesting. I've always thought about riding the entire system, but without transferring. It seemed that his intent was to visit every station outside of downtown one time, which would make some bus riding necessary. I also think some people jumping on his case was unnecessary. I don't think he believes the Tube is the best system, but rather a reference point because of his familiarity with it. When I lived in the Twin Cities, I had to figure out its grid system, using my knowledge of Chicago (because I lived here for so long) as a guide. Once I got the zero points, it all made sense, except around the Mississippi bend and the U of M, but I still got it. Riding public transportation in a new city with no reference points can be very difficult. If Adham really wants a challenge, he can try NYC, where there are many lines AND combinations of express and local trains, but at least all of the trains serve Grand Central.

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