Sunday, April 10, 2011


The new 5000 Series rail cars were introduced this month on the CTA rapid transit Purple Line. I got to ride on one the other day. To those who don't notice such things, these cars may not appear all that different from the other cars on the system, the oldest of which date back to the sixties. Although I missed the announcement of their release, as a bit of a transit buff I was immediately struck by the LED destination sign at the head of the train which replaced the ancient nylon scroll system that dates back to the time of Julius Caesar. Gone are the color coded signs which the CTA adapted from the MTA in Boston several years ago. This means my four year old won't know for sure what train she is on, at least until she learns to read in another year or so.

Another major difference is the seat configuration. Like the New York subway system, the majority of the seats now face the aisles instead of forward or backward. This reduces the number of seats on the train but greatly increases the capacity of each car which will be welcome during rush hours. At other times it will mean that a rider is less likely to get a seat which is not entirely welcome news. It also means that the much treasured (for some) window seat will be even more difficult to come by. As an inveterate window gazer, I for one will find this the most unpleasant change of all.

What will be striking for some is the re-introduction of the hanging strap, those vinyl loops hung from the overhead support bars to help support standing passengers, which were once a fixture of New York City's subway cars. While the term "straphanger", referring to a regular user of public transportation, apparently was coined right here in Chicago, the devices themselves haven't been seen around here for a very long time, certainly not in my lifetime, and I'm guessing way beyond.

The ride on the new cars is certainly more comfortable, both smoother and quieter. The Purple Line doesn't run in the subway but I'm guessing these cars perform even better underground. The public address system is also improved, you can now hear the dulcet tones of your operator, not to mention the canned announcer guy, in high fidelity. Gone as well is the familiar bing-bong tone before the doors close, also ripped off from the New York Subway, replaced by a more tasteful, subdued audio signal.

Coolest of all in my humble opinion are the line maps above the doors where a flashing light marks your current location. I saw these for the first time in Tokyo and wondered when we'd be seeing that nice touch here, now I know. There are as well LED signs at both ends of the car displaying the next stop, the date and time and I'm assuming other pertinent information when necessary. These are also found on the newer cars in the Washington Metro (as well as our newer buses and Metra trains), and are very helpful.

Most of the features of the new cars, such as intensive video surveillance, have to do with safety and are not immediately apparent to the rider. For the rail geek in us all, here is one of my all time favorite sites, listing in detail the CTA's entire fleet of rolling stock, including all the information you will ever want for the new cars.

As you can see, the folks at the CTA are not loathe be inspired by other transportation systems, which I suppose is a good thing. In my youth, the L had to be one of the most arcane systems of its kind anywhere in the world. Getting around on it used to be difficult enough for natives. It was virtually incomprehensible for visitors.

Chicago's L may not be as modern, efficient and comfortable as the Washington Metro, which itself is beginning to show its age, nor as beautiful as the Moscow Underground, which had the unlimited resources of a totalitarian government to build it. It's not nearly as comprehensive a system as New York's or London's, not to mention as charmingly idiosyncratic if you mind the gap. Yet to me there are few greater urban experiences than riding around the Loop on the L, and I wouldn't give that up for any other urban transportation system, with the possible exception of San Francisco's cable cars.

All the nifty features aside, I still kind of miss the old 6000 Series cars of my childhood, many of whom were built from parts taken from the beautiful, discarded Green Hornet streetcars. I still fondly remember riding the classic Chicago L cars in the subway in summertime with all the windows wide open, where the sound level was several decibels above the threshold of pain. And no one had a portable electronic device for distraction.

We were tougher back then.

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