Saturday, May 24, 2014

Brown Line Flyover

After years on the drawing table, the Chicago Transit Authority has recently announced plans to build a new structure on the elevated tracks shared by the Red, Purple and Brown lines at the Clark Junction just north of Belmont Avenue. The structure would be built for north-bound Brown Line trains, elevating them above three sets of active tracks which they currently must switch across in order to continue on their journey culminating at Lawrence and Kimball Avenues in the Albany Park neighborhood on the city's north side.

The CTA puts a price tag of 320 million dollars on the project which if realized, would necessitate the demolition of at least sixteen buildings in the Lakeview neighborhood. That's too much money and sacrifice some critics suggest, to eliminate the average 84 second delay the CTA claims that riders on all three lines experience today. The CTA would no doubt counter that when you multiply those 84 seconds by the combined daily ridership of the three affected lines, (around 400,000), it turns out to be quite a few saved seconds indeed.

A friend of mine who works in the transit industry, but not for the CTA, posted a comment on Facebook stating that a handful of shortsighted people, i.e.:  neighborhood residents, preservationists and other concerned citizens, are standing in the way of a much needed project that will greatly improve the lives of everyone who rides those lines.

"I can authoritatively say..." said my friend, " me, you want this." Calling opponents of the plan the "mental midgets," he claimed that the flyover not only will allow for a 15 to 30 second reduction of commute time (he apparently doesn't buy the CTA estimate, and for the record neither do I), but it will also allow the system to run more trains on those lines, further reducing wait times and delays.

Sounds promising doesn't it?

Well at the risk of sounding like a mental midget, I for one am not so sure. Now I'm far from an expert on the running of a railway, unless you count the number of hours I've spent with model trains. However I am very well versed in delays, especially those on the Red, Purple and Brown Lines, all of which I ride regularly. Please indulge me for a moment to prove my point:

As my morning commute begins at the Howard Street station, the terminus of the Red Line, I have the option of taking either the Red or the Purple Line to work in Chicago's Loop. If the transit gods are with me, which is usually not the case, a Purple Line train arrives at the station just as I get there. That train runs express (so to speak) to Belmont where if I'm lucky, a Red Line train will be waiting. There, if I'm willing to give up my seat, I'll switch over to that train since the trip to the Loop from Belmont is much quicker on the Red Line as it has fewer stops and takes a less circuitous route than the Purple. If my connections are good and there are no delays that day, again the exception not the rule, I can make it to work door to door, in a tad under an hour.

Between the two lines, the average difference in transit time from Howard to Belmont is approximately equal to the amount of time that the Purple Line trains are spaced apart, meaning that theoretically, if I miss a Purple Line train at Howard, the odds should be good that it's no worse than a break-even proposition to wait for the next one, rather than to board a Red Line train already at the station. (Red Line trains are spaced much closer together). Furthermore, a lot of passengers not boarding the Red Line at Howard is a good sign that its been a while since the last Purple Line left the station, and the odds should be good that another one is coming soon. Therefore it stands to reason that waiting for a Purple Line at Howard should be a good bet.

But alas, despite all the thought put into deciding which train to take, choosing between the Red and the Purple Line at Howard is little more than a crap shoot. There have been many times when I've waited twenty to thirty minutes for a Purple Line train with no explanation for the delay, all the while watching countless Red Line trains leave the station. There have been other times when after just missing a Purple Line, I've boarded a Red Line train, only to have it passed by three or four Purple Line trains before Belmont.

My point is this: the most frustrating thing for a commuter is not the amount of time of the commute, but inconsistency. It's nice to know that if you leave home at a given time, you will arrive at your destination in a set amount of time, give or take a minute or two. Delays of course are an inevitable part of commuting, but some of them, like the one at the Clark Junction are predictable and can be calculated into your commute time. Frankly in the ten years I've been riding this route, I can't remember ever being held up at that junction more than one or two minutes at the very most. Quite often like this week, going to and from work, there were no delays at all at the junction.

Since I do consider myself something of an authority on this very particular subject, I can say without reservation that the delay caused by waiting for Brown Line trains crossing over the tracks at the Clark Junction is definitely one of the LEAST significant delays during my commute.

Far more annoying are the unexpected delays when a train of any color line stands between stations anywhere along the line for five, ten, or more minutes. More often than not the operator will explain (if he or she bothers to), that the delay is caused by a backup of trains ahead. Ah you say, but if the new overpass is built, it would eliminate many of those backups. But from my experience, the most serious delays in the morning occur past the junction, when Brown and Purple Line trains all vie for the same right of way. Since southbound Brown Line trains are the only trains going through the junction that are not affected by the crossover, it's difficult to imagine how a backup of those trains could possibly be caused by the crossover.

On the ride home, by far the biggest irritant is trains backing up at Howard Street. Three lines use that station, in addition to the ones mentioned above, the Yellow Line, formerly known as the Skokie Swift, like the Red Line uses Howard as its terminus. Backups at this station, especially during rush hour are the rule, and it is not uncommon to sit on a train from ten to twenty minutes within sight of Howard, waiting for trains ahead to clear the station. As these backups happen on my way home, they are not as critical, but every bit as annoying. It's very difficult to explain how a one minute delay at Belmont could lead to a twenty minute delay five miles north.

Again I'm not an expert on what's causing these delays that seem much worse now than in the past but I have a few suspicions. The most obvious cause I think is wear and tear on the infrastructure. This past winter wreaked havok with the system and frequent delays occurred on a daily basis. That's just the nature of the game and I don't blame the CTA, apparently things were much worse on the Metra, Chicago's commuter railway. However it's hardly a surprise that an elevated structure that is over a century old would show signs of age. Currently, trains that should be capable of speeds of  30 to 40 mph are frequently reduced to a snail's pace because of poor track conditions.

Switches malfunctioning, and not just at the Clark Street junction, are another cause for delays. Back in the day, there were control towers at the major rail junctions manned round the clock by operators who were on hand who could manually operate the switches if the mechanical systems failed. Today the switches are controlled remotely at a central location, a great cost savings at the expense of efficiency in the case of problems. About ten years ago the CTA eliminated more personnel when they went from two person crews, an operator and conductor aboard each train, to one person crews. That meant that minor problems aboard a train which could once be addressed by the conductor while the train was in motion, now have to be dealt with by the operator, obviously stopping the train and with it, every train behind it.

Also, CTA trains now must be wheel chair accessible which is a great thing. Unfortunately with a one person crew, if a passenger in a wheelchair wants to board a train, it is the operator who is usually responsible for fetching and placing a metal ramp between the platform and the train for the passenger's access. Then the operator must return the ramp to its container before proceeding back to the controls. I've seen this highly inefficient process take up to five minutes to complete. Then the entire process is repeated once the passenger needs to get off the train.

The cash-strapped CTA can sometimes be forgiven for these and a whole slew of service related problems as I often think it's a miracle the authority is able to run at all. However with 320 million dollars burning a hole in someone's pocket, I think the agency would be do well by addressing some of these other problems before they tackle building the "Brown Line Flyover" as it has been called.

Given the chance, this is how I would prioritize spending that money:
  • Fix the infrastructure - My question as to why trains have been moving so slowly lately when there is no traffic ahead was answered one day when I stood at the back of a slow moving train and looked at the condition of the tracks we had just rolled over. Instead of two straight lines converging into the distance, the rails resembled the wavy lines of an active oscilloscope readout. One day as our train huffed and puffed at a breakneck five mph, a woman asked her companion: "where do you get on the express train?" "This is the express train" was the answer. It's obvious that trains running at these painful speeds cost commuters far more than one or two minutes per ride.
  • More efficient stops - Obviously, stopping for passengers takes up a lot of time. Along the Red Line between the Loyola and Wilson stops, stations are placed at intervals of three, and sometimes even two blocks apart. Having stations that close together runs contrary to the idea of rapid transit. Of course the proposal to eliminate stops would go over with the public like a lead balloon. So how about this: go back to the old system of alternating stops during rush hour? Long time Chicagoans will recognize the idea of designating lower volume stations as either A or B stops which would be served exclusively by alternating A and B trains. The more used stations would be designated AB stations where all trains would stop. The CTA successfully used this system for years. Metra uses a similar system during rush hour. Fewer stops per train would result in shorter ride times and fewer opportunities for unexpected delays.
  • More efficient make-up time after delays - Today it seems a much less common practice after a delay to space out trains by running the leader train as an express. Using this practice more often would help reduce backups caused by trains bunched together after a delay. It's true that using these efficiency measures would inconvenience some riders, but on the whole, the system would benefit. In both cases, computer algorithms could be put into place that would determine which and how many stops should be skipped by each train to maximize flow while minimizing passenger inconvenience. 
  • Hire more people - I know that not in a million years will we see the return of regular two person crews on L trains but perhaps it would make sense, at least during rush hours to put another crew member aboard each a train to help make things work a little smoother. Re-manning switch stations at the major junctions would speed up the delays caused by inevitable equipment problems. Also, stations today are inadequately staffed. With the CTA's confusing and bug-ridden new Ventra Card payment system, attendants are now spending so much time helping passengers figure out how to pay for their ride (several minutes per passenger in some cases), that they are unavailable to assist with other things, such as assisting handicapped passengers board and alight from trains. Short of that, perhaps a mechanical ramp system could be put into place that people in wheelchairs could easily operate themselves, eliminating one extra job for the already overburdened operators .
  • Replace track on already existing right-of-way - The elevated structure south of Armitage and extending at least to Chicago Avenue, used to support four sets of tracks. Over the years, two of those sets were abandoned and left to decay. Ultimately they were removed. Since the acquisition of property for right-of-way is the most expensive aspect of building new rail projects (including the Brown Line overpass), would it not make sense to restore these tracks on already existing right-of-way to accommodate express trains from Fullerton into the Loop? This would not only free up some of the backups on the Brown and Purple Lines, but it would give at least some passengers the option of saving an extra ten minutes of commute time.
It's not difficult to understand why executives like CTA president Forrest Claypool, and politicians like Mayor Emanuel like projects like the Brown Line Flyover. They can point to these splashy projects as part of their legacy. They can say they created jobs and improved the system, however modestly. On the other hand, it's a little hard to place your legacy and engrave your name upon a new section of track, a train that doesn't make all the stops, or an extra station agent.

As anyone who has read this blog knows, I am a huge advocate of public transit. I believe that all great cities give residents and visitors numerous options of getting from one place to another that don't involve the dangerous, over-priced, over-taxing, over-polluting, personal transportation device known as the automobile. Articles by two local writers whom I admire, Blair Kamin, and Lynn Becker, I believe slightly overstated the issue when they compared the Brown Line Flyover to the massively destructive public works campaigns of Robert Moses in New York City and Richard J. Daley in Chicago. If I could be convinced that this project would significantly improve Chicago's transit system, even at the cost of sacrificing some buildings, I would wholeheartedly support it.

However looking at the matter from a practical, cost/benefit perspective, I have to seriously question whether spending money that could be used far more constructively, displacing homes and businesses, and destroying several buildings, some of them over 100 years old, some of them not even ten years old in a vibrant community, is worth it in order to possibly shave off a few seconds of travel time for commuters.

Remember folks, I'm one of those commuters, not somebody who lives in the affected neighborhood complaining about change. Personally I have everything to gain and nothing to lose if the Brown Line Flyover is built, that is with one exception:

To me the greatest fallacy is the assertion that if the Flyover is built, it would enable the CTA to run more trains over the three lines impacted. From my experience as I previously stated, the system in its current state south of Clark Junction, simply cannot efficiently handle the number of trains it has running at the present time. Unless most of the changes I stated above are enacted, how on earth will it be able to handle more traffic?

The answer is simple, it won't, and I'm afraid that unless plans can be put in place that will make the entire system run more efficiently, the Brown Line Flyover will only create more traffic problems than it will solve. Without those plans in place, in addition to the destruction of part of a neighborhood and the homes and livelihoods of its residents, I can't help but believe that the Brown Line Flyover is a foolish idea.

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