Repairing CTA slow zones: Like Sisyphus and his rock

It’s a typical Sisyphean task – seemingly futile and hopeless. The CTA makes some good headway on repairing rail slow zones in one area, only to see rails deteriorate in another area and get added to the slow zone map.

In August of last year, the CTA announced a $15 million project to add more track and viaduct work to the Red Line North station project to address slow zones and other repairs. While some progress was made in eliminating slow zones on the Howard line tracks, new slow zones cropped up since then on the Purple Line Express tracks. In fact, in sheer numbers, the linear feet of slow zones from Wilson to Howard increased by 223 feet – from 26,400 linear feet in April 2012 to 26,623 in April 2013.

Here’s the April 2012 map:

April 2012 north Red Line slow zones

And here’s the April 2013 map:

April 2013 north Red Line slow zones

CTA spokesperson Brian Steele said that all the slow-zone remediation work that was part of the Red North project has been completed. It was effective at eliminating most slow zones near the project stations.  “However, an unresolved slow zone between Granville and Loyola will require far more complex work since a crossover is involved,” Steele said. “Replacement of that crossover is part of the longer-term vision for Red Purple Modernization.”

We noticed that this year a new slow zone was added between Argyle and Bryn Mawr. Steele said 850 feet are due to a cracked rail and will be removed sometime next week. The remaining 2,000 feet were recently implemented and are due to a worn crossover at Berwyn. There is no time frame yet as to when repair work will be performed.

And the CTA’s Steele nodded to the Sisyphean nature of slow zone work with his final comment:

“As you know, slow zone occurrences are dynamic – given the age of and the heavy use of these tracks, new slow zones are going to occur, especially following longer periods of extreme hot or cold weather. We continue to remediate the ones we can and are confident that our longer-term program will resolve all slow zone issues.”


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  • No, the problem is the use of wood ties & limestone ballast.
    While they have replaced the 30+ year old wood ties with plastic ones on the North Main, the cheap limestone ballast just can't hold up under the use. They need to spend a little more now & use granite, which will outlast several generations of limestone.
    As for that switch replacement north of Granville, to say that its replacement is part of the almost never to happen modernization project is insane. Replace it now & the speeds between Loyola & Granville will go from 5MPH to at least 30MPH overnight!

  • I agree on using granite ballast. It also looks like they are no longer using plastic lumber. The whole loop renewal, Wells bridge and Hubbard curve projects all are back to using wood ties. They rebuilt the catwalk along the Hubbard curve using wood instead of the newer metal type material that had been there previously. I don't know why the CTA is taking a step backwards in this regard. Kevin, it may be a good follow-up.

  • In reply to joeconey:

    I think they have to use wood ties on the trestle structure, unless plastic would also work. I don't think they can use concrete ties there.
    The problems with the wood ties is when they're set into that crappy limestone ballast, it doesn't drain & the ties rot.
    But I've noticed that the wood ties on the trestle are rotting faster than in previous installations.
    I don't know if there have been changes in the pressure treatment or if the wood is just of poorer quality than decades ago.

  • In reply to ScooterLibbby:

    According to someone on the bus forum, they are using granite ballast for the red line renewal. They are still using wood ties though.

  • Despite what Steele says (last night he was portrayed in a documentary on Channel 20.1 as the spokesman for CDOT), it gets back to the CTA always doing a Homer Simpson job. This time--they fixed the North Main except they didn't. Sounds just like the current story on the 2005-7 Dan Ryan work. The question still is--how long is that going to last?

  • In reply to jack:

    Jack, Steele used to be CDOT spokesman before Gaffney left the CTA.

  • In reply to Kevin O’Neil:

    Fungible political hack, like most people at the CTA (Claypool obviously, Terry Peterson from CHA, Rodriguez and Huberman before them) instead of professional management? Heck, even Steele has to clear up some of Claypool's misstatements, but apparently not the 5000 car seat one.

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    What is a crossover, exactly?

  • In reply to Brian:

    A set of switches where trains can change tracks, such as at Granville, where there were two "incidents," or at 47th St on the Metra Rock Island where a couple of trains derailed and killed or cut the legs off passengers because the train went through a 10 mph crossover at 70.

    If you want to see a whole mess of them, look at the Red/Brown Lines around Fullerton and Belmont, where numerous ones were installed to allow 3 track operation during that project.

  • I think the Red line travel time is now significantly slower between Belmont and Bryn Mawr than before the slow zone project was announced. It seems they take one step forward and two steps back with slow zone removal. I have little faith in general with the CTA's work quality with track and track structures....for example take a look at the slow zones cropping up on the relatively new Pink Line tracks. I can't recall any other rapid transit system I've been on in the world that is riddled with slow zones like the CTA's train system. Clearly there must be a severe lack of necessary ongoing maintenance. I'd rather have fast speedy trains than the "extras" they are spending money on such as the train tracker screens.

    I also agree its ridiculous for them to count on the Red line rebuild anytime soon to fix the majority of the slow zones. The failing crossovers at Berwyn and Granville won't hold up for that long. This sounds like the typical CTA way of deferring maintenance on a line until it's in such horrible shape and it is at risk of being shut down, so then they can apply for New Start federal funding to completely rebuild the line....a la Pink Line. This approach results in many years of painful slow zones, unreliable service and then years of full or partial shut downs of the line. Had the Dan Ryan line had regular ongoing maintenance and superior materials used over the years when replacement projects were undertaken, I bet this 5 month shutdown could have been completely avoided.

    Next up, the Congress line will need the same shut down and rebuild as the Dan Ryan. The tracks appear to be in nearly as bad of shape as of recent.

  • In reply to Matt:

    It isn't just lack of maintenance, as someone just poured a little less than $100 million of some taxpayers' money into the north Red Line. Your statement " I have little faith in general with the CTA's work quality with track and track structures" seems like the correct answer. And, of course, the one exposed in the 2005-7 Dan Ryan project, the Brown Line project, and now this project, of a half ---ed job "we fixed this, except we didn't fix that or that or that." Such as the 2007 construction report on the Dan Ryan saying "we eliminated slow zones," but it appears only for 5 months.

    But the CTA Inspector General won't investigate that. And people wonder why I said that the rapid transit system will be virtually inoperable in a few years.

  • In reply to jack:

    I really believe that CTA is buying substandard materials so they can have politically connected contractors supply more materials & get the contracts for the repair work over & over again, instead of buying first quality from the start.

    As for the crossovers north of Granville, I don't believe them when they claim they've deteriorated, I think there's a problem with the remote operation of them. There have been two incidences in the last year where one of the switches opened by mistake. The sensible temporary solution would be to end remote operation of those switches & lock them in the straight position & require someone to go there to throw one if necessary. These are rarely used except when weekend work has been done on both tracks in one direction, causing the trains to stop on the wrong side of the platforms from Granville south to Wilson. That alone would increase the speed there.

  • In reply to ScooterLibbby:

    According to someone I no longer recognize, everything there was normal after the first whatever, then there was a switchman there during "normal operations." Then the second accident, which no one even attempted to explain, occurred.

  • What about the bloody Blue Line? I swear the western segment has been one big slow zone for years. I took the westbound from LaSalle to the Medical Center last week, and the train was creeping along at 10 mph from Racing to the Medical District. I looked out the window at the inbound tracks, and they looked horrible.

  • In reply to SpinyNorman:

    In about two years, mayoral candidate Todd Stroger will discover a problem there and ask governor Lisa Madigan for a new Build Illinois program to cough up $500 million for it. Change the names, but that's how the Dan Ryan became a crisis.

    And then they will talk about all the jobs created on the west side.

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