Why the CTA runs shorter trains at off hours - to save money!

In my eight-plus years of blogging about the CTA, one of the more common complaints I’ve gotten is riders wondering why the CTA runs short trains during off-peak hours – especially on the Brown Line.

They always say: “Well, how can it cost *that* much more money to add two or four more cars?”

Well, thanks to Monday’s Getting Around column in the Tribune, now we know exactly how much more money it does cost. Columnist Jon Hilkevitch reports:

The cost of running a four-car train from the Kimball terminal to the Loop and back to Kimball totals $324.75 on average, according to a CTA itemization of available expenses in 2011 that the Tribune requested. The cost increases to an average of $447.94 to run a six-car train and $571.12 to operate an eight-car train, the agency said.

Chicago Tribune graphic

In a cost-saving move, the CTA no longer operates six-car trains on the Brown Line, nor on any other lines during midday service, officials said.

Transit officials said five expenses comprise the total operating costs: electricity; rail car maintenance, which includes parts and labor for repairs; operator salary and benefits; indirect costs, which include coupling and decoupling trains, cleaning a rail station and maintaining facilities; and capital expenses, which include the wear and tear on rail cars, tracks, signals and power infrastructure.

Changing the size of a train requires at least three workers — one or two switch workers, a yard master and a lead switchman — to couple or decouple rail cars and move the train out of the yard to begin service, officials said. They could not provide a cost estimate of a sample coupling-decoupling procedure.

On the CTA rail system as a whole, to operate a train for an hour the operator accounts for about 31 percent of the cost; power, 19 percent; and maintenance, 50 percent, according to the transit agency. Power and maintenance costs are about twice as much for an eight-car train as they are for a four-car train, officials said.

So there you have it folks. The CTA is saving $246.37 on a Brown Line round trip with a four-car train vs. an eight-car train. And a spokesman told Hilkevitch: “We are unaware of any current off-peak service where trains are at maximum capacity and passengers are unable to board.”


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  • CTA running shorter trains off peak isn't news, the bellyaching to Hilkevitch is.*

    Unlike Metra diesel lines pushing empty tin cans because of the location of the cab cars,** it makes sense that if CTA runs twice as many motor cars, it will use twice as much electricity. With all the car shuffling, one wonders if CTA is really keeping track of car mileage, but, if so, that would also tend to make sense.

    * Just wait until they get 5000 style cars (even if rebuilt 3200s) and see how many seats there are.
    **And Metra isn't running 10 car trains off rush, either.

  • In reply to jack:

    No one said it was news the CTA is running short cars. The news is the CTA is putting an exact dollar figure on what it costs to run a 4-car vs. 8-car train. And Hilkevitch has that story, so I give him kudos for that.

  • In reply to Kevin O’Neil:

    I hadn't implied otherwise. I only stated that the bellyaching was news, although CTA giving him the figures probably also is news, given the transparent :-) way they normally run their operation.

  • In reply to jack:

    *Probably* news? How about - big news?

  • In reply to Kevin O’Neil:

    You mean compared to "we can't change the seats, so get lost?" Which, in effect is what the last thing the spokesmodel told Hilkevitch? Or was it compared to "we don't have any secret plan to give Bombardier a no bid deal to rehab the 3200s?" Or "the budget is due when the budget says it is due?"

    Yeah, I guess it is big news that for once, CTA put some numbers out there.

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    In reply to jack:

    What seats? The 5000 cars have about 8 seats and a couple of benches.

  • In reply to Joseph Finn:

    At least they aren't the max capacity cars.

    And benches usually are flat, but that was Kevin's point.

  • When I was younger, it was 8 cars during rush & 6 cars midday on the Howard/ Jackson Park/Englewood Lines. All 6000s.
    Then the CTA got real cute & decided that 4 car trains midday were better, not because they cost less to run, but because it was easier to break an 8 into two 4s.
    And middays were unrelentingly crowded because of that.
    Now it's all 8 cars on the Red Line 16-18 hours a day!

    We all know they won't run 4 car trains on shorter headways on the Green, Pink & Brown. Green already is running at 10-12 minute headway midday & twice that after the split at 59th St. Get on anywhere on either 63rd St. branch & you can wait 20+ minutes for a train!

    And Metra never bothers to break trains, even though all of them have at least two cab control cars, with some having three.
    I live a block from the UP North line & see them running with 3-4 empty cars during midday & late evening/night hours.
    Plus Metra's coaches aren't 25-30 tons like a single L car, but closer to 70 tons full load that requires a hell of a lot of diesel to push/pull them!
    Metra has all the inbound non-rush & reverse commute runs on the Milwaukee Road lines run with the two head end coaches empty. This must be Soo Line/Canadian Pacific policy.

  • In reply to ScooterLibbby:

    As I said above, Metra does not run 10 car trains on weekends, for instance.

    The 2 control cabs are apparently so they have 3 black boxes to tell them that the cars derailed at 47th on the RID. However, there is usually only one cab car (8400) on the UP.

    And, of course, the south side main was cut from the north side main because it didn't pay to run 8 cars south of there. People on chicagobus.org have pointed out that the unstated but actual "crowd reduction plan" on the L is to shortturn Blue Line trains at UIC or Jefferson Park.

  • But which is cheaper: running more 4 car trains under the service adjustment or running the old number of trains with 8 cars. That is what I want to know.

  • In reply to greenecity:

    Greenecity, that's a good question. I haven't asked the CTA that, but one would expect the answer to that's it's cheaper in the long run to run more more 4-car trains, or else they wouldn't do it!

  • In reply to greenecity:

    The service adjustment doesn't affect the length of the trains. In essence, the rail part of the service adjustment was financed by short turns. Look at the Blue Line timetable, for instance.

    As I noted at the top of this topic, the bellyachers were confusing the issue. For instance, I'm pretty sure that the 7:36 starting at UIC and ending at Jefferson Park at 8:09 is an 8 car train. But, theoretically, it provides relief in the heaviest part of the route.

  • In reply to jack:

    The Blue Line is all 8 cars from about 5am until ~11pm (depending on the mood of the yardsmen) during the week. Sometimes its a lot later during the week. Weekends are always a best guess. If there's single tracking, then its 8 cars all day but if not, especially with the additional service, its down to 4 cars which is exactly what's needed with 5 minute Saturday service and 6 minute Sunday service.

    The short turns as Jack mentioned are for the heaviest part of the route. There's absolutely zero need to send that much service west of UIC on weekends (IMD would be ideal but there's no way to turn trains without a capital project).

    Kevin- the best way to answer the question whether or not its cheaper to run 4 vs 8 car trains depends on the number of cars/ operators needed to run the service.

    You could run the blue line in the following configurations:
    8 cars every 10 minutes with a best guess of a 3 hr cycle time. You'd need 18 trains (or 144 rail cars).
    4 cars every 5 minutes with again, a guess of a 3 hr cycle time. You'd need 36 trains (or 144 rail cars).

    Let's just say that the blue line is 20 miles each direction.
    Running 8s every 10 would cost $571.12*18...$10,280.16
    Running 4s every 5 would cost $324.75*36....$11,691

    Now you could manipulate the service on the 4s to run say every 6 or 7.5 but then you'd have to deal with more crowded trains. In essence, running 8 provides ample capacity and is cheaper where as 4s provide capacity, convenience, but costs more.

    Where on the blue line, its different because half the trains short turn on weekends. That's cheaper.

    The unspoken determining factor isn't in the 4 vs 8 question, its how the runcut is done. If you run more frequent service, you have more straight runs and reduce contract violations with splits and spread time which cost any agency a ton of money. If the runs are better built, running 4 cars every 5 mins in theory could be cheaper than running 8s every 10.

  • In reply to ibright05:

    "Where on the blue line, its different because half the trains short turn on weekends. That's cheaper."

    D. Harrison pointed out on chicagobus.org that that was the biggest change in the decrowding schedules. Since the Ridership Report indicates 1/3 of the ridership on the Forest Park segment compared to the O'Hare one, that makes sense.

    Anyway, the complainers' argument was based on the Brown Line not running 8 cars off rush, like there was an entitlement to get one of the 41 seats per car.

  • In reply to jack:

    Heh. I'm grateful when I can squeeze on a train during rush, let alone demand a seat. There's the saying that you're paying for a ride, not a seat.

  • This is not about getting a seat but about spending taxpayer money. I am solely talking about the Brown line because that is what the Hilkevitch piece described. The Brown line did not see a huge increase in the number of peak trips and there are no short turns, just the Brownage. So was it cost effective to add off peak 4 car runs as opposed to the fewer runs previously but with more cars. As an example, it is cheaper to run 9 8 car trains ($5140.08) than it is to run 18 4 car trains ($5845.5), even though they both give you the same capacity (72 cars).

  • For the record, if it were up to me, I would like to see the $16 million dollars saved annually by cutting routes go towards eliminating slow zones. I don't care about not getting a seat or standing in cramped cars. In fact, I am one of those people who push past the gawkers by the door and go to the 2 foot by 1 foot area in the middle where most people refuse to go. What I care about are slow trains.

  • In reply to greenecity:

    No 'L' line saw a huge increase in peak trips. You only needed a couple of trips to decrease the loads. Say if pre de-crowding there were 3 trains carrying a total of 2400 people (averaging 100 people per car). Now post de-crowding there's 4 trains carrying the same 2400 (averaging 75 people per car), you'd see there's a huge difference in loads, it's more than enough. Saying that well there aren't many more trains does not mean that the capacity on the line hasn't been greatly changed. But even if the cta added a number of trains, if they're still bunching then it wouldn't mean anything. Also, you can't add many more trains on the brown line (on top of the other lines getting additional trains) because then you'd have issues in the Loop.

    Re: Additional off peak trains. Like I said in an earlier post, yes it can be more cost effective to add more four car trains if the runcut is done right. Providing more straight runs reduces any spread or split violations within the cut which saves cta money.

    Re Slow Zones: Eliminating bus routes does not mean slow zones would get fixed. One is paid for by operating funds and the other is paid for by capital. Yes, there's a difference.

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