CTA communication problems persist in Howard meltdown

Friday was not a good night for the CTA.

First, there was a power outage at Howard, where the Red, Purple and Yellow lines converge. This happened at the height of rush hour. CTA tried to respond to this by bringing in generators. But it was still a slow slog to Howard and beyond for northbound passengers. I ended up bailing at Granville and walking to Morse. Great exercise, but not at 10 degrees.

Then a minor derailment of a Purple Line train at Howard just mad matters worse.

Passenger communication problems persisted. If you follow the CTA on Twitter, you got some good information. But what if you don’t, and were stuck on a train crawling to Howard, as many were last night? My motorman said there were “defective tracks” at Howard. Guess he didn’t get the memo about the power outage.

Here’s the experience of Tattler reader Chuck:

Started my trip on the “L” at Berwyn, boarding a Northbound Red line train at 5:30.  The driver was nice enough to let us know about the power disruption at Howard, holding the train at each station North so people could wait inside the train for Southbound trains.  That was the end of any information.

Arriving at Howard at the Southbound platform, 45 minutes later, there were no announcements, no personnel, NOTHING to let people know what was going on and what the alternatives were.  Everyone was milling around the platforms not knowing what was going on. I finally exited the station hoping to find a cab and saw a bus waiting with “Purple Line Shuttle” on the front.  Assured it was going to South Boulevard where everyone could catch a Purple Line train to go further North …  Shuttle dumped everyone at South Boulevard and Chicago Avenue.

At South Boulevard the CTA attendant assured the crowd that NO TRAINS were operating on the Purple Line.  Waited for a 205 bus that never showed up and finally walked to downtown Evanston arriving at my destination at 7:00 p.m.

Wouldn’t have been so bad except for the bitter cold and unshoveled sidewalks.

Reminds me of the old CTA days without loudspeakers at each station—you’re on your own and Good Luck!



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  • fb_avatar

    Calling this a communications meltdown is hyperbole at best.

    I received multiple alerts about this and I don't ride the red line. It's also disingenuous to say updates were only given on twitter. You can get updates via email or text: http://www.transitchicago.com/updates/

    Everyone and their mother is on their cellphone on the train but when there's a delay people expect cta staff to personally pull them aside and explain everything, and then personally escort them to alternate transportation. Use your phone to find out what's going on, it's not hard.

    cta often gets it wrong (still angry and frustrated by ventra) but you guys really missed the mark with this one.

  • In reply to Jason Treadwell:

    Jason, you missed the point Chuck was making. There's a big disconnect with hyperlocal communications, as Chuck points out. Like, where do I get the shuttle? Where is it going? When will it be here?

    That's what I'm talking about.

  • In reply to Kevin O’Neil:

    Exactly. I noticed he said he knew all about it and he was not affected. It seems the CTA is still focused on keeping people who are not actually riding the system informed of what's going on. That's a bonus but it's not the primary obligation.

    Sorry Jason, NOT everyone has a smartphone and is constantly using it. Or to put it another way, people without smartphones, and their mothers, still exist as people and should not be written off as deserving to be treated like second-class citizens. (Personally I do like to read on my Kindle while in transit, does that redeem me at all in your view of the world?)

    Last I checked it wasn't required to show you have an operating smartphone before you can board. The CTA has a responsibility to communicate with all the people on the system, using technologies in place on the system (loudspeakers, electronic sign displays, employees) and not requiring passengers to invest in their own in order to receive messages. It should be simple to do, really. The speakers are apparently in the process of being upgraded to be audible as more than random noise, there are more and more electronic signs (if only they would get custom messages to them) and employees can say stuff (or write it on a whiteboard) if someone would just instruct them what to say! I wish they would just focus on completing this process and not assume that putting something on Twitter and Facebook takes the place of all that.

    Modern cutting edge tech is very nice for people who feel a need for it and have it, but it doesn't let the CTA off the hook for communicating on more basic, non-discriminatory and inclusive levels.

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    In reply to CCWriter:

    I agree with you and Kevin that cta could do better at announcing delays at stations. But motormen have enough going on and should not be required to divert more of their attention away from operating the train.

    cta also shouldn't be in the business of rerouting all affected riders, as they have different destinations and the result would be a disaster and far beyond the capacity of the few staff at each station.

    ccwriter: perhaps you didn't read my entire comment: you do not need a smartphone to receive text (SMS) updates from cta: http://www.transitchicago.com/updates/

    I recommend signing up for it.

  • In reply to Jason Treadwell:

    I get charged for text messages. Again, not my responsibility to pay to be told by the CTA what the bleep is going on.

    Not saying it should be motormen. Not saying the CTA should have to give everyone a detailed alternate itinerary. But there's still vast room for improvement.

    I had a guest post on here last spring where I detailed my amazement and frustration that the CTA, after loading people onto a bus at Belmont, could not or would not tell the passengers where said bus was going. That's how ridiculous it gets.

  • In reply to Jason Treadwell:

    CTA supposedly has the means to access the loudspeaker system from the Control Center at the secret location of 120 N. Racine.

    The motormen have had 2 way radios since 1979.

    CCWriter is correct--there should be no need to have a cell phone as a prerequisite to riding the CTA.

  • In reply to jack:

    Thanks Jack.

    And by the way, one redeeming feature of those new L cars with the bad seating is that they have an electronic display in each car that gives the time and the next stop. The information is coming from somewhere--this suggests that custom, real time messages could be sent directly to specific lines or even trains from headquarters.

    Even with the potential means of communication that are being added or fixed, there remains the question of what message to send. The CTA ought to have an assigned person or persons whose job it is, when something unexpected happens that affects riders, to ask "what do the affected riders need and want to know about this--what are the facts we should be telling them?" And then to quickly come up with the right answer and use the appropriate channels to get it done.

    And perhaps, to advocate in the riders' interest in other ways...like saying "let's not move the train away from a station out to where people can't even get off."

  • In reply to CCWriter:

    More than likely, the display is controlled solely by the gps and is not interactive.

    However, there were the stories about the friendly motorman who retired, who was able to use the PA system without guidance from Mr. CTA. I guess he did not have compatriots.

    And the problem is that CTA has a worthless PR department, but apparently no way of communicating with passengers; however, while Metra has a way to make announcements on the station platforms from the control center, the dumpoff at Clybourn a couple of weeks ago indicates that someone there or at the UP doesn't have much concern for the passengers, either. I wonder if Metra passengers on the train get advisories when there is the [it appears] once a day suicide on the tracks or fool going around the gates.

  • In reply to Jason Treadwell:

    What on earth do you mean that "motormen have enough going on and should not be required to divert more of their attention away from operating the train."?

    If the train is just sitting there, the motorman has absolutely nothing to do, except twiddle his thumbs, while waiting for clearance to move the train!
    So he could easily turn on his mic & inform the passengers what he was told on his radio from the control center.

  • In reply to Jason Treadwell:

    I was stuck on a southbound train on the downslope between South Boulevard and Howard for about 90 minutes, without being able to get off or go to the bathroom. The train initially sat at South Boulvard for about 30 minutes (and we could have gotten off), but for some reason the train eventually moved between stations, so we were stuck. Jason, what good does getting on my cell phone do? The power was eventually cut and it got very cold (cold enough to see my breath). There eventually was a "medical emergency" that ended up just being a panic attack on a different car. CTA is lucky that there were not any real medical emergencies though.

    The end result was that it was all not that huge of a deal, but when you're actually STUCK on the train and you don't know how long it will be, it is incredibly frustrating. I give the CTA a big fail on this one.

  • I found it interesting that the local media knew what was going on and posted it on their mobile apps, but CTA's Facebook page mentioned nothing, as well as the train conductors. You would think a quick announcement over the louder speakers would be pretty simple. They really need to work on utilizing their communication system on Baird the trains and station platforms more effectively.

  • In reply to RFlores80:

    Conductors can't give out information because they don't exist. Motormen drive the trains and frankly, they have enough to do without having to make announcements about why the trains aren't running. If they were even told what was going on.

  • In reply to Cheryl:

    Conductors have not existed since November 9, 1997.

  • In reply to Cheryl:

    The motorman apparently was sitting in a stopped train and has a 2 way radio.

    If the motorman was not sweeping the cars, what did the motorman have to do during that delay that it would be so important as not to get on the microphone?

    I'll bet that the real reason is that the secret Control Center didn't know what it was doing.

  • I disagree. Requiring everyone to rely on cell phones for updates is foolish. Announcements on my train never gave any detail, merely perennial referring to a "delay".

  • In reply to WCityMike:

    They need a canned announcement for longer delays: "Attention passengers, you will be on this train for an indefinite period of time. Further information will not be available."

    The cell phone version could be: "Those of you on the train are our captives and you should be grateful for it. Ask questions of the outside world if you dare--it will not help you! Those of you waiting for someone to arrive home--despair! Bwaaaahaaahaa!"

  • The only reason that I had any idea what was going on was that I was in the first seat of the first car and could hear the operator's radio. Even then the main thing that was clear to me was that there was a lot of confusion.

    What a mess.

  • In reply to Kim Z Dale:

    As I said above, since the operators have radios, they could have pressed the button on their microphones and told the passengers what they knew.

  • The operators/motormen were too busy cleaning their trains.

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    My issue is with internal communication. I was on a Purple Line train, possibly the first one after the derailment. Our driver did an excellent job of keeping us informed. The train finally pulled ahead enough to get passengers off at Howard through the first two cars and staff on the platform directed us to shuttle busses. The Purple Line shuttle bus dumped everyone a block north of Main Street, with instructions to get back on the trains. Nope. The trains weren't running. This left hundreds of people to their own devices on dangerous footing in 7 degree weather. An official apology would be nice.

  • Having been on one of the Purple line trains what was delayed for over 45 minutes, it was hilarious that I was able to tell the other riders exactly what the CTA should do to get us off the train within minutes of us being stopped and then to see the CTA do it over 45 minutes later,... Exactly what I was saying they should. The CTA is pretty pathetic and should consider allowing the private sector to offer service.

  • In reply to Metrarail:

    I mentioned about 10 years ago that CTA could contract out operations to someone like First Transit, instead of letting political hacks run operations.

    However, given your sign-on, and the complete mess the UP made throughout the cold snap, including discharging passengers on the Clybourn platform, I don't think anyone can take your suggestion seriously. The Tribune has a headline on Lawmakers grill new Metra boss over weather problems, part of the story being "The officials warned Orseno that more excuses and attempts to place blame on Metra's contract carriers, the Union Pacific Railroad and the Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway, will not be tolerated."

  • In reply to jack:

    Metra has been letting the UP get away with murder for years.
    Only the UP shuts down the train lines for high winds, while the parallel Milwaukee lines, which are run on Canadian National tracks keep running on or near schedule.

  • In reply to ScooterLibbby:

    On the Milwaukee District point, also run by Metra directly, and on either Metra or Canadian Pacific managed track. As the NCS derailment, balking at running more NCS trains, and attempts to block new starts on their lines show, CN is even more contemptuous of facilitating commuter service than UP.

    "letting UP get away" is the operative phrase. The updated version of the story has stuff like Orseno saying that it would be futile to impose financial penalties on UP. Not even Kruesi (NABI) or Claypool (Cubic) were that heedless to requiring that contractors meet contract requirements before getting paid. However, it appears that UP gets $102 million a year (based on the 2014 Metra budget) of taxpayers' money, without even being required to notify Operations that it was cancelling trains. Hence, I question whether letting "an old railroad guy" running the agency is really going to improve things.

  • Chuck wrote: "Reminds me of the old CTA days without loudspeakers at each station---you're on your own and Good Luck!"

    Now that they have speakers, you generally only hear the sappy voice of "TSA lady" announcing incoming trains. Any special instructions are at 1/5 of that volume and incomprehensible.

    Oh, and you also hear "CUSTOMER ASSISTANCE IS NEEDED AT THE KIOSK!" in a whiny "Patty/Selma" voice. Egad.

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