Chicago Infrastructure Metro Rail

A 100-Year-Old Chicago Transit Line’s Replacement Pondered

» An early scoping report suggests that a subway replacing the Red and Purple Lines in Chicago’s North Side could cost less than an elevated modernization program.

Elevated rapid transit — like any kind of physical infrastructure — degrades over time.

Faced with decades of carrying hundreds of thousands of people daily in a notoriously extreme climate, the rail line that runs local Red and express Purple trains north from Chicago’s Belmont Station to Linden Terminal in Wilmette Evanston along 9.5 miles of track has seen better days. While much of the rest of the elevated and subway system operated by the Chicago Transit Authority (CTA) has been renovated in recent years, this section of rail corridor and the stations associated with it has continued to degrade, resulting in slowed-down, unreliable trains and damaged structural conditions. Of the 21 stations concerned by this corridor, only 6 have handicap access. That’s bad news for the about 125,000 daily users who take advantage of the line every day.

Thus last month the CTA began holding public meetings on what it calls the Red & Purple Modernization Project, an initial step towards the eventual creation of an Environmental Impact Statement, which in turn allows the CTA to apply for federal funds to renovate the corridor.

In this case, there will be no easy options for the city’s transit authority. Certainly nothing will be cheap. But what might be expensive elsewhere — a subway — could turn out to be the most cost-effective solution for Chicago.

In preparation for public events this year, CTA planners have performed simple evaluations on a number of potential options for the corridor, summarized in the chart above.

The CTA has four fundamental options: Maintain the track in its current condition, allowing it to degrade, slowing trains and requiring constant upkeep and high operating costs ($280 million); Rehabilitate the track, putting it into a state of good repair for a short period of time (20 years) and potentially introduce new transfer options from express to local trains ($2.4-2.9 billion); Build a new elevated line along the Chicago section of the corridor, either with three or four tracks, and rebuild the embanked Evanston portion ($4-4.2 billion); and Construct a subway along the southern half of the line, eliminating the existing elevated portions there ($4 billion).

The second pair of options would require removing some existing stations, a possibility that is making some locals nervous already. Some stations on the current line are less than 1,000 feet apart. CTA planners argue that the construction of a new elevated or underground track would reduce travel times and that the insertion of new stations with multiple access points (today most stations only have one entrance) will, on the whole, reduce average walking time to and from transit.

The fact that the subway option may cost about the same as an elevated alternative is a surprise, but these are preliminary alternatives that will be compared in more depth if the CTA finds the funds to advance the study over the next two years. Chicago mayoral race front-runner Rahm Emanuel has suggested that his top transportation priority for the city is to modernize this portion of the Red Line and also extend it south to 130th Street. Even so, neither project currently has any funding specifically devoted to it.

Nevertheless, ridership on this corridor — possibly the densest 10-mile strip in the Midwest — is growing along with a booming residential population. These people need good access to Chicago’s downtown. What choice does the city have but to find the means to pay for the renovation of the line?

Chicago has completed renovations of several of its transit lines in the past, including the Brown Line in 2009, the Dan Ryan stretch of the Red Line in 2007, the Pink Line in 2006, and the South Side Green Line in 1996. Yet the closest comparison to the project may be the renovation of Philadelphia’s Market Street El, which wound up in September 2009. There, the local transit agency spent $740 million effectively turning a 100-year-old, 2-mile line into a brand new two-track corridor, replacing all track, all of the support structures, and all of the stations. At an average cost of $370 million per mile, it is no surprise that Chicago’s planners estimate estimate at least a $4 billion cost ($421 million/mile) for the replacement of their two to four-track line.

Maintaining the status quo or a basic rehabilitation will do little for the city, resolving few of the existing problems and simply postponing needed repairs to a date not so many years off.

Thus a serious, long-term approach to handling the structural conditions of the North Side elevated will require either constructing a new elevated viaduct or building a subway.

From the perspective of maintaining existing operations along the line, the first solution would be extremely difficult since it would require shutdowns of the portions of the line in which the new elevated structure is being built. Chicago rebuilt the South Side Green Line in the early 1990s — by closing it for two years. That is not much of an option along this corridor, where there is no alternative (unlike the South Side, where the Red Line runs just a few blocks from the Green) and where far too many people rely on these rail services to cut them off entirely. It would be extremely expensive from an operations perspective to introduce a bus service capable of carrying hundreds of thousands of people along the corridor, and the result of such a construction period — it could last years — could be thousands of permanently riders lost.

On the other hand, the subway option offers a distinct advantage in this regard because it could theoretically be built even as operations continue on the existing elevated above, much as Boston’s Big Dig added a highway tunnel underneath the city’s downtown expressway, ensuring permanent road access throughout the construction period. That comparison, however, raises the question of whether the underground alternative is really as good of a deal as the planners comparing it to the elevated route seem to make it, since the Big Dig’s cost escalated exponentially over the course of its development.

Moreover, while fewer stops, fewer curves thanks to the new alignment, and more reliable track would speed the underground trains much faster than today’s elevated, the subway would only have two tracks, versus the four now offered. This would eliminate express Purple Line trains between Howard and Belmont Stations — a service that saves commuters almost half their travel time compared to the local Red Line (12 versus 22 minutes) — and require everyone to take the local. On the other hand, all local commuters in the areas now served by both the Purple and Red Lines would then get generally quicker travel times. Planners estimate that this could attract more riders than the other options. Could this be an acceptable trade-off?

The tunneled train alignment does offer one possibility that the city should study very seriously: The option of selling the development rights to the parcels where the elevated trains once ran. Unlike in many places, where elevated trains run directly over a street, on this corridor, the trains run in the middle of blocks. If a subway were built below, a long stretch of real estate would suddenly be available for sale. This could offset construction costs tremendously.

It is sad, perhaps, that Chicago will have to spend so much money on the renovation of an existing line rather than the construction of a new one — if not now, then sometime in the next twenty years. With a large expansion program in the works, the CTA will have to rely on a generous federal commitment to make any of these projects work. In today’s difficult political environment, finding those funds may be difficult.

Image above: Options for CTA North Red and Purple Line Renovation, from CTA

86 replies on “A 100-Year-Old Chicago Transit Line’s Replacement Pondered”

If they’re going to go so far as to remake the entire stretch, why keep the Purple/Red line distinction at all? Why not run the Red Line straight through from Linden to the downtown subway?

That makes the CTA analysis claiming the subway would be “cheaper” dishonest. A two-track subway versus a three-track or four-track elevated is not an honest like-for-like comparison. The subway is blatantly more expensive, whether you choose a two-track, three-track, or four-track system.

You should point this out more clearly in the article.

I question what powerful political interests want a subway and are willing to cripple transit service to get it.

OK, I see you mentioned it late in the article. It’s still clear that’s the only reason it’s cheaper, the removal of two tracks.

Chicago is already suffering problems with crush-loading on the L. I don’t think a permanent reduction in track capacity is sane.

I love the graphic – it makes it easy to compare the pros and cons of each option. One quibble though – why the ± symbol on platform widths? The ± symbol implies an error or range (e.g. 1000 ± 14), but you seem to using it to mean “approximately”. Might I suggest using the ~ symbol instead (top left of you keyboard)?

So, a new underground Red Line wouldn’t replace the current elevated portion of track that the Red, Brown, and Purple lines all share between Belmont and North/Clybourn, right?

I guess I don’t see the logic behind the subway option having higher ridership in that graphic than the full 4-track replacement.

If weather is a concern, I would advocate for fully enclosed stations along the elevated route as an option.

The two-track subway will have higher capacity than the four track line. Here’s why. First, and most important, the subway provides full grade-separation between the Red and Brown lines at Clark Junction, just north of Belmont. This opens up a lot of slots. Right now, they’re limited at the very most to about 19 to 20 trains an hour total between both Red and Purple combined. Grade separation of this bottleneck would enable just a two track line to deal with 24 an hour.

Second, you’ve got a more reliable service with the subway, less prone to weather and the elements.

Third, the trains will run faster, getting people through this congested area more quickly. A stopping Red Line subway train will get from Belmont to Howard as quickly as a non-stop Purple Express does now. This should be a very significant attraction to riders; right now ridership gets notably sparse north of Belmont, and no prizes as to guessing why — the train is like a milk run. 20mph-limited curves at either end of both the Addison and Sheridan stations; another sharply limited one on the Montrose avenue bridge; and stations so closely spaced that in some spots a new subway station would literally span the gap between two existing elevated stations.

Fourth, the combination of two routes and the lower operating costs mean at least the potential for a generally higher level of frequency, which should further assist ridership. More frequent trains will also mean less waiting, which should make transferring to and from buses much less of a pain — and that should help alleviate any problems from having the stations a half mile apart instead of a third of a mile apart.

Right now the Red Line sees 16 tph in the peak hour (AM rush, southbound). That’s a capacity of 12,800 pphpd assuming crush loads of 100 pax/car and 8-car trains. Current peak demand is just shy of 10,000 pphpd. If Clark Jct “maxes out” at 19tph on the Red Line, that’s 15,200 pphpd. If 10-car trains are operated, that’s 19,000 pphpd. That’s quite a lot of room for growth, without needing to crank up frequency to 24tph. If and when Red Line demand seems to be headed beyond 15,000 pphpd, it seems that platform extensions are in order, and beyond that a single track NB Brown Line flyover should be able to solve the Clark Jct capacity issue with a lot less disruption than a Red Line subway.

DBX, I’m under the impression that the 4-track full upgrade option would resolve many of those issues, including a flying junction north of Belmont and eliminating many of the tight turns – the graphic at the top of the article certainly indicates fewer sharp turns for the full, 4-track modernization.

While anyone who lives on the North Side of Chicago understands the needs for major improvements to the red/purple lines, it is going to be difficult for the CTA to secure billions in funding from the state or federal governments. They don’t exactly have an impressive track record with major projects, especially subterranean ones ($200 million+ for a hole in the ground downtown, what was supposed to be a superstation connecting the red and blue lines). But, as Yonah suggests, going with the subway option would give them land to sell, and Congress seems to love public-private partnerships these days. By adding station entrances and making access easier, there may be opportunities for some TOD, although most of the entire corridor is pretty built up already. Also, moving it underground will likely raise the taxable values of the existing properties that are now immediately adjacent to this very loud, rickety train line.

Most of the red line is above public alleys, so I’m not sure how much land there would really be to sell. Maybe more in Rogers Park than anywhere else since the blocks are oriented east-west.

From Lawrence north, it’s on an embankment. No public alleys there. And the stretch under consideration for subway, as far as Loyola, is an area of intensive high-rise development already. This land would be in demand.

Broadway between Argyle and Devon is a wasteland of parking lots and strip malls. There is still a lot of potential for development there.

First off, through routing Red Line trains to Linden when there is no express service is a no brainer.

I’d also like to point out that the CTA tells us that there’s plenty more renovation work needed on the Dan Ryan branch, including track and ballast replacement.

I could see through-routing some red line trains if the Purple line platforms are upgraded to eight cars in length, but I don’t think it would make sense to through-route all red line trains. As an Evanston resident, I can assure you that we don’t have the transit demand to justify service as frequent as the red line. Second, I don’t think the Linden yard would have space to store all the red line trains, so it makes sense to end some at Howard when trains are going to the yard.

The sensible thing would be something like in DC, where every other run on the Red Line ends in Silver Spring rather than Glenmont. Do the same on the CTA at Howard or at Davis.

It doesn’t make sense for the subway option to cost as much as the elevated replacement. I imagine the high costs of replacing the elevated alignment are mainly due to the need to maintain some service and work around traffic on the streets below.

If instead Chicago shuts down service entirely, it should be possible to construct and elevated alignment for the cost of a new one. Consider that Honolulu is constructing 20 miles of brand-new, elevated metro for about 5 billion, or 250 million per mile, including right-of-way acquisition costs, much less than Chicago plans to spend on just replacing this existing line.

Bus service would take more drivers, but it doesn’t have to be more expensive. Chicago is already spending 280 million per year on operations, according to the article above. It’s true that local buses might cost more, but if Chicago is willing to devote two or four lanes of a parallel street for “bus rapid transit” and give buses priority at traffic signals, buses could average up to 20 mph. With double or triple-length articulated buses and enough lanes on the street it would be possible to carry everyone who takes the train, at nearly the same speed (if with less comfort), while the tracks are rebuilt.

And after the project is done, perhaps the bus service would be popular enough to continue, providing an alternative to the train, and offering service to those who lost a closer local train stop.

(I think a subway would be great, especially considering Chicago’s windy, snowy winters, but politically the cost may be too high, and an elevated alignment would have the same mobility benefits, if not quite as much comfort)

For cost, also factor in big-time property acquisition around the new stations.

I don’t think BRT would be a very effective stopgap—not only would it be near-impossible to get four lanes on parallel streets (even without the parking deal it would be a tough sell), but the signal priority generally isn’t effective if buses run at headways shorter than three or four minutes—there’s simply too much disruption of cross-traffic. That’s why LA’s Orange Line is encountering such problems, and why the TransMilenio (which reminds me of your suggestion) was planned with as few grade crossings as possible.

Unfortunately, BRT in Chicago on that scale is currently unviable, not only because of political and financing issues, but also due to the 2008 Parking Meter deal. By privatizing parking meters for quick cash to fill the budget hole, Chicago essentially privatized its streets for the next 72 years, making BRT, bike lanes, and other forms of transportation planning extremely difficult.

The Chicago Reader has a great series on this:

Some Chicagoans are working to renegotiate the parking meter deal, such as mayoral candidate Miguel Del Valle.

The main reason the the through-routing isn’t done today is because the Red Line runs eight-car trains all day, whereas the (some of the?) Evanston stations can only handle six-car trains.

Another advantage of the underground option is that it would finally allow for a flying intersection at the Clark Junction with the Brown Line. From what I understand, a flying junction going over the current Red-Purple mainline was proposed in the 1970’s but nixed by the EPA in response to concerns about noise and aesthetics. With the underground option, the Red-Purple mainline would go under the existing elevated structure, getting rid of the flat intersection without changing the profile of the Brown Line tracks.

I’ve seen this rail line for myself and it is in really crapy shape and most of it is rusted though. Also the weather up there is really bad and chews up everything that is made out of steel and cement. Maybe they could dig out a four track subway by having one of those giant TBM’s dig one tunnel out at a time under the street in that the whole city sits on sold bedrock unlike Boston’s dig dig also they could dig it fairly deep and avoid the existing line.

I’m not sure what you were looking at, but nothing is “rusted through.” The portion being discussed is on earthen embankment that’s lasted 90 years and with a little surface repair could last another 90. As for tunneling, bedrock in Chicago is around 100 feet below the surface. From -40 to -60 is a layer of blue clay that’s very easy to mine through. Chicago’s downtown subways were just carved with power-driven knives.

take note from Philadelphia, rebuilding the elevated portion saved us nothing and left us with a big, loud elevated over a main street…depressing property values and quality of life. there are little things, like having to make other streets emergency routes meaning not one but three streets have noise issues. the fact that unlike Philly, Chicago can sell off land means they can offset some of the cost this way.

I imagine new property acquisition would be less with the subway option, as the CTA would probably run the line under Broadway Ave, which is the main street parallel to the existing tracks, 1/2 a block to the west. The station concourses would be underneath major intersections where the streets are wider, and entrances would be on the city-owned sidewalks. If they were to renovate the elevated line and make the station platforms wider (which is really needed at many of them), that might require more property acquisition, as you could reach out and touch the adjacent buildings from the train now. Many adjacent buildings had to be taken down due to the Belmont and Fullerton station renovations a few years ago, in part due to the expansion of the stations, and in part for staging the construction equipment.

Great article. Very interesting choices to be made. The project scoping suggests that all the steel elevated structure would be replaced with concrete, which I believe is what happened on the Blue Line renovation as well. The steel is iconic though, and it has lasted almost a 100 years. While the subway option seems like a good choice from cost, construction, and maintenance points of view, the rider experience is very different: underground in a tunnel versus flying over the city with great city views and a sense of where you are going. Personally, I like being above ground engaged with the city: it is one of the important defining experiences of living on Chicago’s north side.

the douglas branch (was blue, now pink line) wasn’t replaced with an entirely concrete structure. the new bents (columns) are reinforced concrete, but the stringers (beams supporting the tracks) are new galvanized steel.

No steel elevated structure would be involved. The section being discussed is earthen embankment with concrete retaining walls.

They don’t have the money. Ponder all you want. it won’t happen. cta is not important. it needs to be knocked down and destroyed. if you want to see a system that works, and works well, go ride SEPTA.

Spoken like someone who never rode the SEPTA.

That’s like comparing the Metra to the CTA. The SEPTA does run a courses through center city, but if it had the same demand as Chicago it would have the same problems.

PS. SEPTA’s entire daily ridership is only 55,000 and the CTA’s red line is 125,000 a day.

Not apples to oranges, but apples to grapefruits.

Not sure where you get your facts Wren, but the El has well over 150,000 daily riders. Even the Broad Street Line has daily numbers averaging close to 100,000. The 55,000 you cite is closer to what Subway-Surface lines or PATCO experience, though I believe PATCO is really around 30,000 – 35,000 daily. What frustrates me is SEPTA can be much, much better than it is, even with the suburban and state meddling with Philadelphia’s city services. I think Casey has them on a good start to turning around.

Maybe so, but Wren also well understated Red Line ridership. In 2010, the Red Line alone averaged 240k riders per weekday, and the CTA L system averaged 670k riders per day. I haven’t even touched on the bus system, which provides almost a million rides per day.

So I think the point that the CTA is NOT “not important” still stands.

The CTA is very important to the Chicago region, though it certainly operates below its potential. While most people can’t get their cars out from under the 5-foot snow drifts today and side streets are impassable, CTA trains and buses are running.

I wonder if it were possible to do as much as possible with prefabricated elements, in a way that a replacement of a given section could be done over a weekend. Maybe one of the civil engineers following these comments may jump in.

On the other hand, despite the fact that it would be renewed, it would still be an above ground system with all its disadvantages.

If I remember correctly, the high number of above ground structures was the reason why some Paris metro lines were converted to rubber tyre systems.

Most of the Red/Purple line in question is run along a retained earth viaduct, so in most cases it wouldn’t be so simple.

But I’m sure they’ll look into it for the southern stretches of the route. I know they’ve been considering replacing individual bridges this way, and the brown line had its bridge over Wacker Drive replaced using a prefabricated bridge back in 2002. They were able to slide it into place over a weekend.

FHWA Summary

Google Street View

At least the CTA kept trains running this time – in ’79 it was a big big big mess. Several Metra lines didn’t run at all yesterday.

I’m glad I live in one of the few neighborhoods where “dibs” is not acceptable practice. Not that anybody could move their cars, even those with garages – the city “plowed” once already, but streets other than downtown and bus routes still weren’t passable this morning. Metra was jam packed this morning even without CPS pupils.

I’d guess they spend just as much or more… over 1/3 of the NYC subway is above ground. Bolting snowplows to the front of the trains doesn’t seem that expensive to me. As far as clearing the stations, they have office employees ride around the system in teams to help the station workers clear the platforms.

If the subway option were to be built, the smart thing to do would be to keep the existing elevated structure and turn it into Chigago’s own “High Line” elevated park. That would likely cause a massive influx of development along the line as it did in New York.

As an occasional visitor to Chi-town, I remember one day when I was on a Northside El platform; one of the locals was proudly showing off his city, pointing out landmarks, and saying, “You can even see the Sears Tower from here!” Setting engineering considerations aside, from the tourist’s (and railfan’s) point of view, elevated is much more attractive than rumbling through a tunnel. In San Francisco, many of the folks who live there prefer the “F” surface streetcars to the underground “Muni Metro”.

I have two guesses as to why the two-track subway option has higher projected ridership:

1. The subway would have more modern infrastructure with respect to not just tracks and signals but also curves and interlockings, allowing higher local train speeds and better-placed stations to compensate for the loss of express service.

2. The subway would remove noise and visual impact from the neighborhoods, encouraging slightly more development.

Alon, your comments are normally so erudite. Do you really think that this, or any other, study would include such nuances?

Honestly? I think if anything studies like this tend to overdo factor #2. Political operatives salivate whenever they hear about development. New York is building an entire subway extension based just on TOD.

I have no idea about #1 – it wouldn’t surprise me either way.

Generally, the CTA hasn’t been big on factoring in TOD (and two of the stations that are slated for elimination are ones which are currently foci for local governments’ TOD efforts), and based on everything I’ve read so far the ridership increases are overwhelmingly, if not only, based on the engineering factors in Alon’s point #1.

Unfortunately, the CTA hasn’t been able to message the benefits of these technical improvements, so a lot of Chicagoans subscribe to the simple more stations=higher ridership=more development equation. And if the public commenting process works as it usually does, those 3-3.5 million new annual boardings won’t be pushing the more thorough rebuild options.

Thanks for the explanation.

And, of course, I completely forgot about the increased local frequencies that would come from eliminating express service. So thanks to you and DBX for pointing that out.

One of the great things about Chicago is that its L lines are mostly above-ground, which connects you with the city in a way you never get in New York. It would be nice to keep the north side Red Line elevated for that reason. But, financially and operationally, I can see the logic behind building a subway.

So far, though, it seems like the subway option is being presented as kind of a straw man, an option that can’t actually happen but is a possibility to ponder. However, it doesn’t seem so far-fetched. The point about selling the old right-of-way makes sense. Along the concrete embankment stretch, the alley usually runs alongside, so this could create a whole line of new development sites where the embankment was facing onto the alley. As for the idea of a High Line, Chicago already has one, on the west side, called the Bloomingdale Trail. The hope of spurring massive development doesn’t make sense along the north side here because the zoning is already mostly maxed out along the line. These are low-rise urban neighborhoods, a very different environment than Chelsea.

Building a subway would allow the CTA to consolidate some stations. If they renovate the existing line, their plan to consolidate 21 stations to 16 will not happen because aldermen have insane amounts of power in Chicago and they won’t let the CTA close a station in their wards. However, if the CTA is building new subway stations at $200 million a pop or whatever, based on modern planning, the aldermen have less to say about it.

BUT, CTA is not experienced at building a subway line and nobody knows what they’ll find under Broadway Avenue when they dig there. Chicago was built, after all, by filling in a swamp with debris from the Chicago Fire and then by building buildings on top of it.

Another unanswered question is how the subway alternative would get from Belmont (elevated) into the tunnel and then back up again somewhere before Howard without deal-breaking property impacts. For rough calculation purposes, going from 20 feet above grade to 20 feet below grade at 2% incline would require an approximatly 2,000 feet zone with no street crossings. Chicago blocks in these neighborhoods are 300-700 feet. That’s a lot of street closures (see other comments about Aldermanic opposition to station closures — they value their through streets no less than stations…)

I checked the lengths of other Chicago area portals on Google maps, and these were the results:

Blue Line – Division: 1070 ft.
Blue Line – Logan Square: 1020 ft.
Red Line – 13th Street: 1190 ft.
Red Line – Armitage: 1200 ft.

That still wouldn’t be enough for an immediate descent out of Belmont to clear Clark St (closing only School St.) I had thought that an immediate descent, followed by a left onto Clark and right onto Seminary, with an exit portal just north of Irving Park would be an adequate compromise, if the Sheridan curve must be eliminated, but it seems there isn’t quite enough space at the standard slope.

Can someone explain exactly which stretch of track would be replaced with a subway in the underground option? I am a bit confused. The Red Line already goes underground south of Armitage, while the Brown and Purple stay elevated. Are we talking about burying the Brown and Purple or about burying the entire Brown, Purple and Red north of Armitage where they share the same elevated structure?

The subway stretch would be from Belmont to Loyola. Since they’ve just renovated the Brown Line stations, Belmont to Armitage would stay elevated.

One possibility regarding fewer stations is that the subway alignment could be built with more street access points per station. I’m thinking of the Washington metro, where most stations have portals a block apart. Given how long the average train is and how long the platforms would be under the street, it seems possible that they could cut a few stations without significantly increasing the distance people have to walk along the corridor to access the stations. It says stations are spaced as closely as every 1000 feet. Almost seems like you would have exits for the same station every 500 feet with a modern subway.

So Chicago is facing major rehab projects on TWO North Side rail rights of way (see The Urbanophile for a discussion of the Metra North Line embankment project–currently on hold).
Sadly, both projects have plans calling for reducing ridership capacity even though they are promoted as improvements. While a subway north of Belmont has potential for smoothing curves between Belmont and Wilson, the embankment north of Lawrence needs very little engineering improvement just decent maintenance. CTA set a record of 76.1 mph on that stretch south of Howard 50 years ago. In that era, CTA ran skip stop expresses all day with net travel time from Howard to the Loop 5-10 minutes faster than today and more frequent.
The huge growth in ridership on the Brown Line makes clear that improvement south of Armitage is more critical than north of Lawrence. CTA has previously floated plans for a link from Fullerton to the west of the River office/rail station area. That is a place for a well engineered subway.

The CTA plan does not reduce ridership; the grade separation at Clark junction, the resulting increase in speed and frequency, and the advantages of a subway see to that.

Metra on the other hand . . . . . oh dear. An absolute waste of good right of way if they persist with this raising and narrowing of the embankment. And Metra has shown absolutely no interest in boosting frequency. Poverty of ambition as well as engineering laziness.

Maybe it’s “subway lust” but I’m surprised that neither Yonah nor the commenters so far have questioned the wisdom of replacing a 4-track mainline with a 2-track mainline. This is, was, and will be the highest ridership line/corridor in Chicago. It feeds into the most densely used route segments in the city, south of Belmont (Brown/Purple elevated and Red Line subway, each of which currently carry approx 10,000 peak passengers per hour in the peak direction). Right now, having four tracks north of Belmont allows Evanston service (and demand) to be operationally independent from north side service (and demand). It also allows the Purple trains to complement Brown trains in the peak (south of Belmont). The current operating plan by no means fully leverages the four tracks that are there — that’s where a couple more transfer stations could help, as well as re-thinking whether over the long term Purple should complement Brown or Red south of Belmont — but how would cutting back to two tracks north of Belmont help address any of this? Do we really need to send 10,000 pphpd capacity up to Wilmette during peak periods? If not, how do two tracks help us to balance overall capacity with demand better than four tracks? Would it require sophisticated use of short turns? Would peak period short turns in a 2-track subway provide better service than all-day complementary Purple (limited stop) and Red (local) service on 4-track el? I don’t know the answer, but so far CTA hasn’t indicated that they do either. Shouldn’t the ultimate service plan (or at least service alternatives) be a bigger part of this process than it appears to be now?

The wisdom of going subway is grade separation. The current at-grade track arrangement at Clark Junction would be eliminated under the subway plan. As things stand there’s a grade separated interchange south of Armitage, but you’ve got Clark junction north of Belmont which simply mangles the capacity, lowering four tracks to less than the potential capacity of two in a grade separated arrangement.

Of course, they could — given enough demolition of surrounding property — grade separate with an elevated four-track. Trouble is, there isn’t enough capacity on the Loop elevated to handle many more trains, so it becomes a lot of trouble for not much gain. Better to simply get the capacity through a simplified arrangement.

If the problem is the flat junction at Clark Jct, then why wouldn’t the solution be to just build a new grade separated track for northbound Brown Line trains (up and over)? Seems like a 5-mile subway is overkill just to solve an operational problem at one junction.

Also, the only really slow areas on the L north of Clark Jct are the track kinks between Clark Jct and Sheridan and the reverse curve at Sheridan itself. That’s all within one mile of track. North of that, all the way to Howard, is either dead straight or on gentle curves (the kinks around Wilson could be easily straightened when the station is rebuilt). Is a 5-mile subway really the best way to fix what’s effectively one mile of slow track? Especially when the result is to give up a 4-track mainline?

There’s a couple major issues with the “four track mainline:”

First, the express tracks (north of the Clark Junction) only get used twice a day, during morning rush hour and evening rush hour. Eight hours total each way, out of twenty-four hours. Add to that the shorter trains on the express lines (six cars on the purple express, vs 8 cars on the red lines) and you have an underused “asset.”

Second, with twenty curves going 35 MPH and slower, the train can hardly be considered rapid transit at the moment. Shrinking that number to two curves at 35 MPH, and you automatically have faster transit even if you cap the upper speed limit at what the original line goes.

Add to that fewer, better placed stations (with wider islands and entrances on both sides) and faster trains in a protected environment (heat lamps don’t cut it), and you’re able to handle what four tracks tries to do with two. Plus, if you plan things right (something American Mass Transit seems unable to do, alas) you can remake a couple other bottlenecks (stub line north from the Clark Road Junction to service the area from Belmont South, a third rail line to handle the Yellow Line) and REALLY improve things on the north end.

It’s a little frustrating how divorced the RPM discussion seems to be from service planning.  It seems to be an entirely engineering-driven discussion, about how a particular asset should be rebuilt.  That wouldn’t be particularly problematic for any other line, but it’s tunnel vision for this corridor.  And it’s short-sighted, because all the press coverage and public discussion has focused on station closings and express service, things that the RPM project team is ill-equipped to discuss or defend. As a result, Monday’s Chicago Tribune has a column where CTA backtracks from the whole project. The combination of an eternally penniless CTA and a city administration with no real interest in long-range planning means that there’s no one in the city with a map on his wall who knows what we’re working toward.

And this part is sadly typical of Chicago transit. Their community relations are terrible. Metra, CTA and Pace alike, and their oversees at the RTA. “Moving Beyond Congestion” never encapsulated the case for expanded, faster, more connected and better transit, even though that’s what it was actually proposing. Instead it looked like an engineer’s shopping list. The subway ought to be a slam dunk here, no more expensive than the elevated, more frequent and faster trains, more ridership, more capacity, simpler for passengers, and far lower operating costs, yet once again they’re simply explaining it in engineering terms.

Yonah, good to see this up so soon after the scoping meetings. As a Chicago resident I’m concerned that they will find a way of doing something that’s politically expedient for the gripers rather than doing what helps the greatest number of people. They absolutely need the maximum possible capacity and speed on the Red Line because it’s slow and overcrowded as it is, and given that there’s essentially no difference in cost between the full rehabilitation plans they should surely choose the plan that provides that capacity and speed.

It’s also complicated by the fact that many in Chicago have realized that they’re underutilizing their existing infrastructure, so all over the metro area there have been pushes for TOD–including around Jarvis and South Boulevard, two (comparatively) weak stations which have been targeted for consolidation in this plan. So, you have the city trying to better fit itself to transit while transit’s trying to fit itself better in the city–there’s going to be some awkwardness.

While I’m 100% with you on the advantages of a subway and the CTA needing to better explain service advantages (especially with the Clark Junction–why is nobody mentioning that outside of internet transit-nerdom?), the arguments about station consolidation reaches deeper into today’s transit zeitgeist. We’re seeing a bigger emphasis on using transit as a redevelopment tool and a renewed interest in putting big money into local-stop services (look at the recent debates in Honolulu and Vancouver about surface vs. elevated rail), which is definitely feeding into this debate. A lot of people seem to have forgotten that speed matters, and that the Red Line’s main competition isn’t walking on the sidewalk but driving along LSD.

Of course, this all comes back to communication–the number of station exits would go up to 19 with the underground option or 21 with the elevated modernization plans, as opposed to 15 now. Station consolidation really is a win-win, and the CTA needs to better explain that.

Oops–my entrance numbers are only for the Red Line. On the Purple Line, entrances would go up to 10 from 8.

I agree we should do what helps the greatest number of people, but I’m highly suspect of the cost estimates that have been presented to help inform the discussion. I can’t get my head around a subway being cheaper than an elevated (especially when portal construction would have no less impact on service than would elevated reconstruction under service). CTA’s north mainline is essentially a good and fast alignment north of Irving Park Road. I’m not convinced that the embankement structure is so totally unsound that it needs to be torn down and replaced with an open structure. If this is true why haven’t the freight railroads who own hundreds of miles of similar embankment structure all over Chicago reached the same conclusion? I think the route can be largely modernized in place with some ROW needed for softening the Sheridan curve and smoothing a few other curves. The way to fix Clark Jct is with a flyover for the NB Brown trains – but that could also be a stand-alone project. Then you’ll have a fast, accessible railroad with 4-track operational flexibility rather than 2.

The embankment of the Red Line has a few big issues:

*It’s walled in–the embankment for the Red Line is kept in place by concrete gravity walls, so it’s just not the mound you see in some other places. From what I understand it hasn’t been all that well-maintained, either, and it’s pretty difficult to maintain because of the amount of building nearby, so whatever we do will ultimately be just a patch. An open concrete structure would definitely need patches as well, but I’d guess it would be easier to maintain and eventually replace elements.

Ultimately, at some point even simple-looking mounds need to be restored too, which is what the most more extensive renovation options suggest for the Purple Line.

*To build platforms to modern standards–wide enough for the ADA, situated to allow for multiple entrances–you’d still probably need to get rid of the embankment (and engage in some property acquisition) to build a new platform with passing tracks. Otherwise, your stuck with rebuilding in the old footprint. The CTA’s done this before–Loyola and Granville date back to 1982 and 1980, respectively, and they haven’t aged all that well.

Property acquisiton’s also a big deal for softening curves, especially at Sheridan.

*Maintenance hell–no matter whether you modernize or rebuild, much of the subway could be built without disturbing the CTA’s current operations, only disturbing service when connecting the ends.

*A Brown Line overpass is almost certainly a nonstarter–it was nixed in the 1970’s by the EPA for noise and visual impact reasons, and I doubt that it would fly (pardon the pun) now, either. Property acquisition would be pretty heavy for that as well.

Thanks for your points, Beta.

As for the walls, do you or anyone know how extensively CTA has assessed their condition? Before we throw billions at their replacement, it would be good to spend a few million to fully understand their condition and not make assumptions based on a cursory analysis. Sometimes how things appear on the surface is not a good indicator of their true structural integrity (both good and bad!). Also, there are many ways to replace walls, and it would be interesting to learn which options CTA has explored and dismissed and why. Again, if billions are at stake it might be worth a little in-field testing and experimentation to try out different strategies for wall replacement (sheet piles, H piles, secant piles all come to mind as more than just “patching” – I’m sure engineers have many other techniques too). I only say this because CTA’s retained embankment is only one of hundreds in Chicago and the freight RR’s are always assuring everyone that theirs are in better shape than they appear.

I also take issue with “modern standards”. The issue should be providing ADA access and accommodating passenger demand and life safety egress standards — not blind adherence to a self-imposed CTA design “standard” that calls for 24′ wide platforms. It’s entirely possibly to fit an ADA and code-complient platform in a 14′ width. But it requires a bit of creativity. You can load from either end with ADA ramps, or you could stagger the berths in a way that allows 6′ openings for vertical access and 7′ clear from the platform edge (and also allow for vertical access at the end of the platform). It can even be done without staggering the berths (see CTA’s own Green Line 35th-IIT station).

I agree that property acquisition at Sheridan is a big deal. But if the retained embankment north of there doesn’t need complete reconstruction, Sheridan then becomes the most disruptive part of the project — and that by itself seems much less disruptive (not to mention less costly) than a subway replacement. The subway disruption would not only be at the portals (which if they’re under the existing tracks will be very disruptive to service). But as I understand it, from north of Belmont to Sheridan, the subway would actually be under the existing tracks. Good luck doing that without disrupting existing service. Even bored tunnels under city streets cause some degree of ground disturbance. But streets & underground utilities are more forgiving to settling an inch here and there than will be the steel elevated structure built on spread footings.

I agree with your concerns about a Brown Line overpass. But I don’t see how a subway portal north of Belmont will be any less disruptive to the neighborhood (especially if it’s configured in a way that eliminates the flat junction).

And thanks for your rebuttal. Unfortunately, I think you’ll need an Alpha to answer your questions in a satisfactory manner, but here’s my two cents:

*I can’t give you anything detailed about the gravity walls–I’ve only read and heard about their condition over the years. Repairs–and maybe even reassessing their condition–would be very different in places like Edgewater, given the cramped conditions, and even the embankment itself might need some work–I’ve seen a couple of references to the embankment’s poor drainage, so I’m pretty sure seepage is a long term problem and one of the reasons the projected twenty-year lifespan. The Evanston embankment would be essentially rebuilt under the full reconstruction and subway options, something that’s very difficult in Chicago because of the constrained conditions.

*With regards to stations, I think the CTA’s basic rehab would provide the same sort of revision as 35th-IIT–keeping the profile of the station the same while adding in an elevator. From what I understand, if you’re revising a station to ADA standards, keeping the current, narrow profile is perfectly permissible. If the CTA wants to consolidate some stations, though, with multiple entrances, they have to pass a more rigorous standard because the stations would be considered new. It’s also not just about ADA accessibility–the modernization options are also about brining the stations to a level of design comparable to other late twentieth/early twenty-first century systems.

*The subway would not be underneath the current elevated structure (in alleys), but underneath Sheffield, Broadway and Sheridan before rising to the old ROW north of a new Devon-Loyola station (see below for DBX and I bemoaning the CTA’s communication skills), so you while you would have disruption of service when connecting either end of the subway, overall there’d be much less than with the elevated options. It would probably be about 40′ underground going through clay, like the State and Dearborn subways, which were built without much disturbance on the surface. Again, I’m not sure about the exact profile of the southern subway portals, but the Blue Line has portals along commercially active parts of Milwaukee Avenue and they are much less visible than the Orange/Green flying junction and don’t really have that much of an effect on activity on Milwaukee.

Of course cleaning up Clark Junction is worth doing. That said, because Addison/Wrigley Field is the next stop north, the ballpark is a perfect location for a two island four track station whether subway or L. Fixing the curves around Sheridan Road is worth doing. Adding a new local/Express stop north of Addison is less important than restoring AB skip stop in daytime weekday service. The long term hope is that Yellow Line service gets extended so that Yellow and Purple can become alternating ends of the Red Line thus reducing switching issues at Howard.

On a much different scale, Metra North Line should honor CTA passes @ Davis, Main St, and Ravenswood Stations thus offering more options to all riders.

I’m sorry, but A/B restoration’s a horrible idea. First of all, getting rid of A/B service increased ridership on the CTA, so why would they want to go back to a failed policy? And it’s easy to see why–for many the increase in speed would be canceled out by increased wait times, which generally have a more deleterious affect on ridership. According to, A/B only cut about 2.5 minutes from travel times. The very shortest headways on the Red Line now are 3 min, so if you re-instituted A/B a lot of people would see their maximum wait go from 3 to 6 minutes–hardly seems like much of a gain for me. And it would be truly awful off-peak.

It also inconveniences people going from an A to a B station, forcing a transfer when you’re only trying to get from one part of the line to another (and a lot of the Red Line’s ridership is inter-north side). Curve straightening, station consolidation, and new track will do quite fine to speed service up.

@ Beta When I lived there headways on the North South thru route in rush were 105 sec. AB skip went to local after PM rush, but during daytime trains were frequent, and as I pointed out earlier FASTER end to end. I take your point about short rides on the north side. As to ridership stats, I don’t have the ## but I will refer you to “A & B Express Service Goes Into Hibernation” by the late George Krambles writing at the time as the retired Exec Dir of CTA in “The New Electric Railway Journal Spring” 1995 issue p 4. He notes that CTA went all local as a cost cutting response to falling ridership along with lengthened headways. He stated “headways of ten to twelve minutes at “A” or “B” stations was justified.” If longer, all stops were better. BTW he claimed that institution of AB speeded up service enough to cut four eight car trains out of rush hour service without increasing headways.
I agree about easing curves, higher track maintenance, but I reiterate that if the net time Howard to Monroe St is 6 or more minutes faster skip stop the net from any given stop is NOT slower and might get riders a seat. Note also you are getting trains only half as often as in the 50’s/60’s.

I’m getting it from the aforementioned link, which gets its information from this archived Tribune article. Even if the time difference from the Tribune is wrong (which wouldn’t surprise me), though, there’s still the issue of perceived travel time. Quick service is important, but generally time spent in a vehicle isn’t perceived to be as long as time spent waiting, especially waiting time (see here or here). In short, frequency really matters, and that’s the big reason why the two-track subway—which sends all Evanston and Howard trains to the same stations—ranked best in ridership, even if it means slightly longer trips for Evanstonians (I’m betting most of the increase would come from Chicago). I have a hard time seeing how increasing wait times would increase ridership.

Just about every west, northwest, and north cta train lines has been expanded in the past 10 years. Heck, the orange lines was even build and plans being made to extended that line. However, the south end of the red line has remained the same since it was built back in 1969. There are about 15 cta bus/Pace buses that end at this point. In my opinion, a total neglect to those communities, where most attend schools, cummute to work, or visit others parts of the city. Still, if were live anywhere south of 95th street, you have to

Jeremy, I think you’ll find that there has been no expansion in the last ten years. In fact, the north and northwest sides have been service reductions within the past five years.

cont….take a bus to 95th to take a train anywhere. Some people were riding for 30 to 45 min to this point just too get to the train. Stop neglecting the the obvious. We can always find money to expand the blue line past Ohare where it has already been extended from jefferson park. yet, no money to extend the red line past it original ending point when it was build. The usual political and social issues in Chicago…..nothing to give a hand up for minorities…yet the rich and famous….have it all.!!!!

@Jeremy Henley. For the money CTA wants to spend extending the Red Line so that the feeder buses can go to different stations, we would do far better to break down the CTA/Metra class divide and make Metra service on the Rock Island and Electric lines much more frequent with full fare integration so that a rider on the feeder bus could hop the Metra trains which are much faster to the Loop. see the Grey Line proposal for details. We already have most of the track, the cars/engines sit idle most of the day between rush hours and once the faregates are in place and a couple stations built we could have this up and running before the EIR revisions are done for the Red Line.

Why not have a new Red Line subway AND Rapid Transit with EMUs on the UP North line? Triple track = express capability. Winning.

I grew in Chicago in the 1950’s and 1960’s, on the South Side not the North Side, and left in 1975. But I can figure this out. Sorry about the possibly violent metaphor, but bite the bullet. Build a cut-and-cover subway from Clark and Division to Loyola under La Salle, CLark and Broadway. Connect the Ravenswood line to the subway under Clybourn. When it’s all done, tear down all the unneeded elevated tracks on the Ravenswood line and north of Belmont. It’s a permanent solution.

I am sure the the rest of the cast-iron-girder elevated system and be rebuilt over time. Horror of horrors, perhaps the Loop itself could be superseded by a third downtown subway or a mass terminus for some or all of the lines. Another possibility would be to build a new elevated structure for the Ravenswood along Lincoln Ave. Unlike other lines, I do not think so much development has occurred on account of the placement of the Ravenswood line stations other than at Lawrence and Kimball.

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