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Public Transportation Fri Mar 14 2014

Delays, Complaints On Transit Piled Up This Winter. Is There End In Sight?

Metra in winter
Photo by Chuck Berman, courtesy of Chicago Tribune

There's been a lot of talk about the performance of our public transit system this winter.

As the snow piled, so did Metra service delays and trash on 'L' trains.

Buses didn't fare much better either. There's a chance you were freezing your butt off on one. The CTA spent three times as much money this January as it did last year on replacement heaters.

This winter is (so far) the third snowiest ever on record and it really didn't bode well for us nor for our means of transport. Only 30 percent of Metra trains were on time during the cold snap of Jan. 6-7. Metra's been highly criticized for its performance during extreme weather this January.

The extreme cold and snow caused extreme difficulties for Metra switches, which date back to the 1930s.

But it didn't even take extreme weather to ground or delay Metra. On March 13, for instance, when the temperature reached about freezing and while there was some snow on the ground, none was falling, Metra tweeted out 14 different tweets about delays system-wide. Several times this winter we've heard of Metra delays even on days when the weather was seemingly pleasant.

"Extreme weather is a challenge for everyone," said Michael Gillis, Metra spokesperson.

Communication was another problem; on many occasions riders complained they had no idea what was going on or how long they'd be delayed. Recall the incident that left riders stranded at the outdoor Clybourn stop in the freezing cold. Some complained they had to wait up to 45 minutes.

"There's a lot of things we're doing to attempt to improve how we communicate with riders," said Gillis.

Gillis explained that blanket alerts will forewarn passengers in advance of delays in the future, conductors will be reemphasized the need to disseminate information on the intercom more frequently, customer response teams will be out in force to answer questions in the event of crowding situations and display message boards and train tracking software, which will be enhanced later this summer, will be utilized.

On the UP railroad, Metra is working on equipping its conductors with cell phones so that they can directly correspond to officials rather than indirectly which is the case now.

Service delays haven't been a major issue this winter on CTA buses and trains. According to RedEye Reporter Tracy Swartz, who runs the Going Public transit section and spends a ton of time at or traveling to CTA stations, there have been complaints about delays, mostly because of icy tracks, but also complaints about debris and dirty cars because an increase of homeless on them.

Rahm Emanuel was in Austin, Tex. this week at South by Southwest (SXSW) touting our city. In his pitch to techies, he said Chicago's the "it" place. It's got a great cultural scene, great people and a great public transit system.

If techies buy his pitch and do relocate here, we might assume they'd like to live in a neighborhood that has convenient and rapid public transit access to destinations like 1871 and co-working spaces throughout the city. I don't know that they'd be thrilled to deal with service delays or feces! more than your average person.

Not to ignore the bright side of things. CTA has embarked on a number of modernization projects recently. The Red Line South project was completed on time and on budget last October. Today, Red Line trains glide from 35th street to 95th. Blue Line rehab is in the works to modernize and upgrade the O'Hare branch of that line. Temporary bus shuttle service kicks off next weekend for the $492 million, four-year project; the California station will be closed that weekend. Rehabbing the Red (north) and Purple Lines struck a positive key when it was placed on the Obama administration's list of recommended mass-transit projects recently. Though it's too early to say when that project will start.

Metra has rehabbed a lot of its suburban stations, though city stations, of which there are 77, are mostly in dire need of improvement. Public meetings are being held throughout March and April to discuss how to enhance neighborhoods around city Metra stations and how to improve pedestrian and bicycle access to them.

Nationwide, public transit usage has reached the highest level of ridership since 1965. But in Chicago, usage is flat or even down, according to a report by the American Public Transportation Association.

This excerpt from a Sun-Times editorial below sheds some light on why:

"Chicago has long been known as a transportation center, but its services have stagnated as other cities have invested more heavily. Shanghai opened its first rapid transit line in 1993 and now ranks third worldwide in annual ridership. Here, though we have the nation's third largest transit system, we're not spending enough even to stay in place. A December report by the Metropolitan Planning Council concluded the Chicago area is investing less in public transit than other American and foreign cities, and therefore has had less ridership growth than all of its major competitors."

In the next few months, we will hear more about the RTA--the oversight body of CTA, Metra and Pace. Soon, it could be dismantled; Gov. Quinn's Northeastern Illinois Public Transit Task Force will hear proposals that would shake up how the RTA, CTA, Metra and Pace are organized. "There is a better way to run a railroad," wrote the Sun-Times. So that could be something to look forward to.

A silver living for now? Public transit apparently makes you healthier. So as we deal with a few more transit delays this winter, just remember, although it's making you stressed, it's probably making your physical health a little better. Oh, and also remember to make the switch to Ventra, and don't forget to register your card online. The transition to Ventra will be complete by July.

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taxpayer / March 22, 2014 10:55 AM

Once again, we see the assumption that spending more = better transit. First we need to see that transit investments are thoughtfully planned, and transit operations competently managed. Until then, how can we evaluate how much public expenditure is appropriate?

Michael Brzozowski / February 7, 2015 10:23 PM

I am a 71yr old senior. I'm complaining about a lack of heat on the Blue Line

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