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The 'L' (sometimes called "L", El, EL, or L) is a rapid transit system that serves the city of Chicagomarker in the United Statesmarker. It is operated by the Chicago Transit Authority (CTA) and is the third-busiest rail mass transit system in the United States, behind New York Citymarker's subway and Washington, DCmarker's Metrorailmarker, although the Chicago rail network is bigger than that of Washington's. Chicago's 'L' is one of only four mass-transit systems offering 24 hour service in the United Statesmarker. The oldest section of the 'L' started operating in 1892, making it the second-oldest rapid transit system in the Americas after New York, where the oldest operating section dates to just a few years prior in the 1880s. The 'L' has been credited with helping create the densely built-up city that is one of Chicago's distinguishing features.


The 'L' consists of eight rapid transit lines totaling . of it is elevated, of it is surface, and of it is underground with over of double-track line with 144 stations. The network is laid out in a spoke-hub distribution paradigm, which focuses transit toward a central loopmarker. Inter-suburban travel requires travel to the loop and transfer to another line. The lines primarily serve the city proper, but also reach eight close-in suburbs; service to more distant suburbs is provided by the Metra and South Shore Line commuter rail systems. Although the 'L' gained its nickname because large parts of the system are elevated, the Red and Blue lines traverse the downtown area in subway and also have long sections in the medians of expressways that lead into and out of Chicago. Chicago pioneered the use of the expressway median for rail lines in the 1950s. There are also open-cut and/or grade-level portions with street crossings on some parts of the system.

It is one of the few rapid transit systems in America that provides 24-hour service on portions of the system. On average 658,524 people ride the 'L' each weekday, 419,258 each Saturday, and 315,240 each Sunday. Annual ridership for 2006 was 195.2 million, the highest since 1993. However, the CTA multiplies actual riders by roughly 1.2 to count riders who transfer between lines, putting the total number of riders at about 162.7 million. In a 2005 poll, Chicago Tribune readers voted it one of the "seven wonders of Chicago," behind the lakefrontmarker and Wrigley Fieldmarker but ahead of Willis Towermarker, the Water Towermarker, the University of Chicagomarker, and the Museum of Science and Industrymarker.


See also: List of stations on the 'L'

Since 1993 'L' lines have been identified by color, although older route names survive to some extent in CTA publications and popular usage to distinguish branches of longer lines:

Red Line

 Red Line, consisting of the Howard, State Street Subway and Dan Ryan branches
The Red Line is the busiest route, serving an average of 230,434 passengers each weekday. It includes 34 stations on its route, traveling from Howard Street terminalmarker on the city's northern border with Evanstonmarker, through downtown Chicago via the State Street subway, then down the Dan Ryan Expressway median to 95th Streetmarker on the Far South Sidemarker. Despite its length, the Red Line stops five miles short of the city's southern border. Extension plans are currently being considered. The Red Line is one of two lines operating 24 hours a day, seven days a week and is the only transit line that goes near both Wrigley Fieldmarker and U.S.marker Cellular Fieldmarker, the homes of Chicago's Major League Baseball teams, the Cubs and White Sox respectively.

Blue Line

 Blue Line, consisting of the O'Hare, Milwaukee-Dearborn Subway, and Congress branches.
The Blue Line extends from O'Hare International Airportmarker through the Loopmarker via the Milwaukee-Dearborn-Congress subway to the West Side. Most Blue Line trains travel to Des Plaines Avenuemarker in Forest Parkmarker via the Eisenhower Expressway median. The route from O'Hare to Des Plaines Avenue is long. The combined number of stations is 33. Until 1970 the northern section of the Blue Line terminated at Logan Squaremarker, during which time it was called the Milwaukee route after Milwaukee Avenue which ran parallel to it; in that year service was extended to Jefferson Parkmarker via the Kennedy Expressway median, and in 1984 to O'Haremarker. The Blue Line is the second-busiest, with 128,343 weekday boardings. It operates 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.

Brown Line

 Brown Line, or Ravenswood Line
The Brown Line follows an route, with 19 stations between Kimball Avenuemarker in Albany Parkmarker and the Loopmarker in downtown Chicagomarker. As of December 2008, the Brown Line has an average weekday ridership of 80,000.

Green Line

 Green Line, consisting of the Lake Street and Englewood-Jackson Park branches
A completely elevated route utilizing the system's oldest segments (dating back to 1892), the Green Line extends with 29 stops between Forest Parkmarker and Oak Parkmarker (Harlem/Lake marker), through Chicago'smarker Loopmarker, to the South Side. South of the Garfield station the line branches, with trains alternately heading to Ashland/63rdmarker in Englewoodmarker and Cottage Grove/63rdmarker in Woodlawnmarker. The East 63rd branch formerly extended to Jackson Parkmarker, but the portion east of Cottage Grove, which ran above 63rd Street, was demolished in stages in the 1980s and 1990s due to structural problems and then not replaced due to community demands. The average number of weekday boardings is 39,685.

Orange Line

 Orange Line or Midway Line
The long Orange Line was constructed in the early 1990s on existing railroad embankments and new concrete and steel elevated structure. It runs from a stationmarker adjacent to Chicago Midway International Airportmarker on the Southwest Side to the Loopmarker in downtown Chicago. Average weekday ridership is 30,111.

Pink Line

 Pink Line consisting of Douglas Branch and Paulina Connector
The Pink Line is a rerouting of former Blue Line Douglas Park branch trains from Ciceromarker marker via the previously non-revenue Paulina Connector and the Green Line on Lake Street to the Loop. Its average weekday ridership is 13,461.

Purple Line

 Purple Line, consisting of Evanston Shuttle and Evanston Express
The Purple Line is a branch serving north suburban Evanston and Wilmette with express service to the Loopmarker during rush hour. The local service operates from the Wilmettemarker terminal at Linden Avenuemarker through Evanstonmarker to the Howard Street terminalmarker where it connects with the Red and Yellow lines. The rush hour express service continues from Howard to the Loop, running nonstop on the four-track line used by the Red Line to Belmont stationmarker, then serving all Brown Line stops to the Loop. Average weekday ridership is 9,956, although this does not count boardings from Belmont south, which are included in Red and Brown line statistics. The stops from Belmont to Chicago Avenuemarker were added in the 1990s to relieve crowding on the Red and Brown lines. The name "purple line" is a reference to nearby Northwestern Universitymarker, with four stops (Davis, Foster, Noyes, and Central) located just two blocks west of the University campus.

Yellow Line

 Yellow Line, or Skokie Swift
The Yellow Line is a nonstop shuttle that runs from the Howard Street terminalmarker to Dempster Street terminalmarker in suburban Skokiemarker. The Yellow Line is the only 'L' route that does not provide direct service to the Loop. This line was originally part of the North Shore Line's commuter rail service, and was acquired by the CTA in the 1960's. There are currently plans to construct an infill station at Oakton Street to serve downtown Skokie. Upon completion (expected in 2009), this will signal the end of over 40 years of the Skokie Swift operating as a non-stop shuttle. Another plan in consideration is to extend it from its current Dempster Street terminus to Old Orchard via elevated rail. Its average weekday ridership is 2,651.


Intramural Railway 1893
The 'L' in 1921
The first 'L', the Chicago and South Side Rapid Transit Railroad, began revenue service on June 6, 1892, when a small steam locomotive pulling four wooden coaches with 30 passengers departed the 39th Street station and arrived at the Congress Street Terminalmarker 14 minutes later, over tracks still used by the Green Line. Over the next year service was extended to 63rd Street and Stony Island Avenue, then the entrance to the World's Columbian Expositionmarker in Jackson Parkmarker.

Later in 1893 trains began running on the Lake Street Elevated Railroad and in 1895 on the Metropolitan West Side Elevated, which had lines to Douglas Park, Garfield Park (since replaced), Humboldt Park (since demolished), and Logan Square. The Metropolitan was the United States' first non-exhibition rapid transit system powered by electric traction motors, a technology whose practicality had been previously demonstrated on the "intramural railway" at the world's fair. Two years later the South Side 'L' introduced multiple-unit control, in which several or all the cars in a train are motorized and under the control of the operator, not just the lead unit. Electrification and MU control remain standard features of most of the world's rapid transit systems.

A drawback of early 'L' service was that none of the lines entered the central business district. Instead trains dropped passengers at stub terminals on the periphery due to a state law requiring approval by neighboring property owners for tracks built over public streets, something not easily obtained downtown. This obstacle was overcome by the legendary traction magnate Charles Tyson Yerkes, who went on to play a pivotal role in the development of the London Underground and was immortalized by Theodore Dreiser as the ruthless schemer Frank Cowperwood in The Titan (1914) and other novels. Yerkes, who controlled much of the city's streetcar system, obtained the necessary signatures through cash and guile—at one point he secured a franchise to build a mile-long 'L' over Van Buren Street from Wabash Avenue to Halsted Street, extracting the requisite majority from the pliable owners on the western half of the route, then building tracks chiefly over the eastern half, where property owners had opposed him. The Union Loop opened in 1897 and greatly increased the rapid transit system's convenience. Operation on the Yerkes-owned Northwestern Elevated, which built the North Side 'L' lines, began three years later, essentially completing the elevated infrastructure in the urban core although extensions and branches continued to be constructed in outlying areas through the 1920s.

1922 vintage 'L' cars
After 1911, the 'L' lines came under the control of Samuel Insull, president of the Chicago Edison electric utility (now Commonwealth Edison), whose interest stemmed initially from the fact that the trains were the city's largest consumer of electricity. Insull instituted many improvements, including free transfers and through routing, although he did not formally combine the original firms into the Chicago Rapid Transit Company until 1924. He also bought three other Chicago electrified railroads, the North Shore, Aurora and Elgin, and South Shore interurban lines, and ran the trains of the first two into downtown Chicago via the 'L' tracks. This period of relative prosperity ended when Insull's empire collapsed in 1932, but later in the decade the city with the help of the federal government accumulated sufficient funds to begin construction of two subway lines to supplement and, some hoped, permit eventual replacement of the Loop elevated.

The State Street subway was completed in 1943; the Dearborn subway, work on which was suspended during World War II, opened in 1951. The subways were constructed with a secondary purpose of serving as bomb shelters, the closely spaced support columns are evidence of this (a plan to replace the entire elevated system with subways was also proposed with this intent as well). The subways bypassed a number of tight curves and circuitous routings on the original elevated lines (Milwaukee trains, for example, originated on Chicago's northwest side but entered the Loop at the southwest corner), speeding service for many riders.

By the 1940s the financial condition of the 'L,' and of Chicago mass transit in general, had become too precarious to permit continued private operation, and the necessary steps were taken to enable public takeover. In 1947 the Chicago Transit Authority acquired the assets of the Chicago Rapid Transit Company and the Chicago Surface Lines, operator of the city's streetcars. Over the next few years the CTA modernized the 'L,' replacing antiquated wooden cars with new steel ones and closing lightly used branch lines and stations, many of which had been spaced only a quarter mile apart.

Shortly after its takeover of the 'L', the CTA introduced an express service known as the A/B skip-stop service. Under this service, trains were designated as either "A" or "B" trains, and stations were alternately designated as "A" or "B", with heavily-used stations designated as "AB". "A" trains would only stop at "A" or "AB" stations, and "B" trains would only stop at "B" or "AB" stations. Station signage carried the station's skip-stop letter and was also color-coded by skip-stop type; "A" stations had red signage, "B" stations had green signage, and "AB" stations had blue signage. The system was designed to speed up lines by having trains skip stations with fewer passengers while still allowing for frequent service at the heavily-used "AB" stations. The CTA first implemented A/B skip-stop service on the Lake Street Line (now part of the Green Line) in 1948, and the service proved effective as travel times were cut by a third. By the 1950s, the service was being used throughout the system. All lines used the A/B skip-stop service between the 1950s and the 1990s with the exception of the Evanston and Skokie lines, which were too short to justify skip-stop service. Also, the Congress and Douglas branches of what later became the Blue Line were designated as "A" and "B" respectively, as were the Englewood ("A") and Jackson Park ("B") branches of what later became the Green Line, so individual stops were not skipped while trains were serving those branches. As time went by, the time periods in which skip-stop service was used were gradually decreased, as the waits at "A" and "B" stations became increasingly long during non-peak service. By the 1990s, use of the A/B skip-stop system was only justified during rush hour due to service reductions. Also another situation was that trains skipping stations to save time, could not pass the train that was directly in front of it so skipping stations was not advantageous in all regards. In 1993, the CTA began the elimination of skip-stop service when it switched the southern branches of the Red and Green Lines; after this point, Green Line trains stopped at all stations, and Red Line trains stopped at all stations south of Harrisonmarker. The elimination of A/B skip-stop service continued with the opening of the all-stop Orange Line and the conversion of the Brown Line to all-stop service. On April 28, 1995, the A/B skip-stop system was completely eliminated with the transfer of the O'Hare branch of the Blue Line and the Howard branch of the Red Line to all-stop service. The removal of skip-stop service resulted in some slight increases in travel times on some parts of the system but greatly increased ridership at former "A" and "B" stations.

The first air-conditioned cars were introduced in 1964 and the last pre-World War II cars retired in 1973. New lines were built in expressway medians, the Congress branch replacing the Garfield Park 'L' in 1958 and the Dan Ryan branch opening in 1969, followed by the first Kennedy Expressway extension in 1970.

The 'L' today

'L' ridership has increased steadily in recent years. Ridership had been remarkably stable for nearly 40 years after the CTA takeover despite declining mass transit usage nationwide, with an average of 594,000 riders boarding each weekday in 1960 and 577,000 in 1985. Due to the Loop Flood in 1992, ridership was at 418,000 that year because the CTA was forced to suspend operation for several weeks in the State and Dearborn subways, used by the most heavily traveled lines.

Although ridership is healthy and growth continues, it has not been uniformly distributed. Use of North Side lines are up, while that of West Side and South Side lines are either remaining stable or seeing some declines. Ridership on the North Side Brown Line, for instance, has increased 83% since 1979, necessitating the station reconstruction project currently underway to accommodate longer trains.

Riders waiting to board a Red Line train on an elevated platform
Annual traffic on the Howard branch of the Red Line, which reached 35 million in 2005, is approaching the 1927 prewar peak of 38.5 million. The section of the Blue Line between the Loop and Logan Squaremarker, which serves once-neglected but now bustling neighborhoods such as Wicker Park, Bucktown, and Palmer Square, has seen a 54% increase in weekday riders since 1992. On the other hand, weekday ridership on the South Side portion of the Green Line, which closed for two years for reconstruction starting in 1994, was 50,400 in 1978 but only 13,000 in 2006. Boardings at the 95th/Dan Ryan stop on the Red Line, though still the system's busiest at 14,100 riders per weekday, are a little over half the peak volume in the 1980s. In 1976, three North Side 'L' branches - what were then known as the Howard, Milwaukee, and Ravenswood lines − accounted for 42% of non-downtown boardings. Today (with the help of the Blue Line extension to O'Haremarker), they account for 58%.

The North Side (which has historically been the highest density area of the city) skew no doubt reflects the Chicago building boom of the past decade, which has focused primarily on North Side neighborhoods and downtown. It may ease somewhat in the wake of the current high level of residential construction along the south lakefront. For example, ridership at the linked Roosevelt stops on the Green, Orange, and Red Lines, which serve the burgeoning South Loopmarker neighborhood, has tripled since 1992, with an average of 8,000 boardings per weekday. Patronage at the Cermak-Chinatownmarker stop on the Red Line (4,000 weekday boardings) is at the highest level since the station opened in 1969. The 2003 Chicago Central Area Plan has proposed construction of a Green Line station at Cermak, midway between Chinatown and the McCormick Placemarker convention center, in expectation of continued density growth in the vicinity.

As of mid-2006 the 'L' accounted for 36% of the CTA's nearly 1.5 million weekday riders, with the remainder traveling on the extensive bus network. The rail system's ridership has increased over time. In 1926, the year of peak prewar rail usage, the 'L' carried 229 million passengers – seemingly a formidable number, but actually less than 20% of the 1.16 billion Chicago transit patrons that year, most of whom rode the city's streetcars. The shift to rail has continued in recent times. Since its low point in 1992 due to the Chicago Flood that closed subway tunnels in the downtown area, weekday 'L' ridership has increased about 25%, while bus ridership has decreased by roughly a sixth.

Rolling stock

The CTA owns 1190 train cars, permanently coupled into 595 married pairs. Cars are assigned to different lines, and each line contains at most three different series of train cars. Currently, CTA operates 986 cars during peak operation periods. The oldest cars on the 'L', the 2200 series, were built in 1969-1970, and the newest, the 3200 series, were built in 1992-1994. The next series of train cars, the 5000 series, will feature AC propulsion and are expected to begin service sometime in 2010. All cars on the system utilize 600 volt direct current power delivered through a third rail.

Renovation and expansion plans

Speed limit sign

The CTA’s current capital improvement spending is focused on the Brown Line Capacity Expansion Project, Slow Zone Elimination, and the rehabilitation of the Red Line. The CTA also plans to re-build and re-open the Green Line's Morgan station, which has been closed since 1948.

The CTA is also actively studying a number of proposals for expanding ‘L’ rail service, including a Red Line Extension, an Orange Line Extension, a Yellow Line Extension, and the Circle Line. Governor Pat Quinn's capital budget proposal for fiscal year 2010 includes funding for "preliminary engineering" on the planned Circle Line, as well as funds for modernizing and replacing the system's aging railcars. However the budget has yet to receive congressional approval.

In addition, the CTA has studied other proposals for expanded rail service which may be implemented in the future.

Current capital improvements

Old and new: Reconstruction of Fullerton station on the Red and Brown Lines
The Brown Line Capacity Expansion Project enabled the CTA to run eight-car trains on the Brown Line. Before the project, Brown Line platforms were too short to accommodate trains longer than six cars. Eight-car trains began to run at rush hour on the Brown Line in April 2008. (However, in order to accommodate the longer trains so soon, stations whose platforms had not yet been expanded had to be closed.) The project also enabled the CTA to improve Brown Line stations’ usability and accessibility.

The Brown Line expansion’s total cost is expected to be around $530 million.

The CTA’s Slow Zone Elimination will continue in 2009. In late 2007, trains were forced to operate at reduced speed over more than 22% of the system due to deteriorated track, structure, and other problems. By late 2008, slow zones were reduced to around 9% of the system.

Planning future projects

All of the new rail service proposals under active consideration by the CTA are currently undergoing Alternatives Analysis Studies.

These studies are the first step in a five-step process. This process is required by the Federal New Starts program, which is an essential source of funding for the CTA’s capital expansion projects. The CTA uses a series of “Screens” to develop a “Locally Preferred Alternative,” which is submitted to the federal New Starts program.

It will likely be years before any of these projects is completed; none of these projects yet has a definite source of funding.

Clinton Street Subway

In 2009, the City of Chicago release a Central Area Action Plan designed to improve downtown, with special attention to transportation. There were a number of transit projects proposed, but the largest one was a new subway running from the portion of the Red Line running under Clybourn, under Clinton in the West Loop, rejoining the Dan Ryan portion of the Red Line just before the current Cermak-Chinatown stop. The estimated cost of this line was $3 billion, with no local funding source identified.

Circle Line

The proposed Circle Line would form an “outer loop,” going through downtown via the State Street subway, then going west on the Orange Line and north along Ashland, before re-joining the subway at North and Clybourn or Clark and Division. The Circle Line would connect several different Metra lines with the ‘L’ system, and would facilitate transfers between existing CTA lines; these connections would be situated near the existing Metra and ‘L’ lines’ maximum load points.

The CTA’s Screen 2 analysis has been completed, and preliminary Screen 3 results are expected in fall 2009. The CTA is currently considering either bus rapid transit or a new heavy-rail ‘L’ line. With respect to the rail option, the Screen 2 analysis favored subways over new elevated tracks, and determined that the Circle Line should follow Ashland rather than Western.

The CTA is currently considering two different possible routes for the Circle Line: “Ashland” and “Ashland-Ogden.” The two are quite similar, differing only in the northwest section of the circle.

South of downtown, both proposed routes follow the Orange Line to Ashland. At Ashland, both routes turn north, diverting from the Orange Line at a new station (which would connect with Metra’s Heritage Line). New elevated track would connect the Orange Line’s tracks to the Pink and Blue Lines; both Circle Line routes then follow existing track north to Lake St. This section of the Circle Line would connect with two different Metra stations.

North of Lake St the two routes diverge. The “Ashland” route continues north to North Avenue, connecting to the Blue Line at Division and Milwaukee and to the Red Line at North and Clybourn. The “Ashland-Ogden” route diverts west at Grand, following Ogden Ave. northeast before rejoining the Red Line at Division and Orleans. Both routes have stops at Lake and Ashland, and both contemplate a new station at Division and Orleans, connecting the Circle Line with the Red, Brown, and Purple Lines.

The renovation of the Paulina Connector, which was completed as part of the Pink Line project, has often been described in planning documents as "Phase I" of the Circle Line.

Gold Line

The proposed Gold line plan would entail taking Metra's existing Electric Line and converting it into a rapid transit line run by the CTA. The route would run along the South Chicago Branch of the Electric Line, running from Millennium Stationmarker in the city center southwards until its terminus at 93rd streetmarker. Estimates for bringing the line into operation place the cost at $160 million

The project's proponents claim that the Gold Line would improve service dramatically by providing for a full fare integration between the city’s rapid transit system and Metra, its region-wide commuter operations as well as providing a model for the improvement of commuter rail systems around the nation. Additionally citizens living along the south lakefront would now have reliable access to a service with trains running at 10-minute frequencies from 6 am to midnight instead of running once an hour during off-peak times.

Extensions of Red, Orange and Yellow Lines

The CTA is conducting Alternatives Analysis Studies of proposed extensions for the Red, Orange and Yellow Lines.

The Red Line extension would provide service from the current Red Line terminus, at 95th St., to as far south as 130th St., decreasing transit times for residents of the far South Side and relieving crowding and congestion at the current terminus. Preliminary Screen 2 results were presented at a public meeting on December 3, 2008, and narrowed the range of options for the project down to three: two possible routes for an extended, elevated Red Line, or a new bus rapid transit route. One possible rail route would follow Halsted to 127th St., with additional stops at 103rd St., 111th St., and 119th St. The other, "UP Rail" route, would angle east, ending at 130th and the Bishop Ford Freeway, with intermediate stops at 103rd, 111th, and 115th. The next step in the Alternatives Analysis process, Screen 3, is planned to be completed in the near future.

An extension of the Orange Line is in the planning stages and would provide transit service from the current terminus, Midway International Airportmarker, to near the Ford City Mall, which was originally meant to be the southern terminus of the transit line. The CTA's Screen 1 analysis, presented at an August 2008 public meeting, concluded that either bus rapid transit or an extension of the Orange Line should be used. At Screen 2 in April 2009, the corridor along Cicero Avenue, crossing the Belt Railway to Ford City via heavy rail, was chosen as the most viable option in any future expansion.

The extension of Yellow Line would provide transit service from the current terminus, at Dempster Avenue, to just west of the Old Orchard Mall. After preliminary Screen 1 in 2008 and Screen 2 findings were released in April 2009, the heavy rail option using pre-existing rail right-of-way, and then heading east along the Edens Expressway, was chosen as the most viable option and advanced to Screen 3 of the planning process.

Other recent service improvements

'L' train painted pink to mark the start of the Pink Line trial service
Pink Line service began on June 25, 2006, though it did not involve any new track or stations. The Pink Line travels over what was formerly a branch of the Blue Line from the 54/Cermak terminal in Ciceromarker to the Polk-Medical Center station in Chicago. Pink Line trains then proceed via the Paulina Street Connector to the Lake Street branch of the Green Line and then clockwise around the Loop elevated via Lake-Wabash-Van Buren-Wells. (Douglas trains followed the same path between April 4, 1954 and June 22, 1958 after the old Garfield Park ‘L’ line was demolished to make way for the Eisenhower Expressway.) The new route, which serves 22 stations, offers more frequent service for riders on both the Congress and Douglas branches. Pink Line trains can be scheduled independently of Blue Line trains, and run more frequently than the Douglas branch of the Blue Line did.

Possible future projects

Other possible future expansions, identified in the "Destination 2020" Regional Transportation Plan, include:
  • New express service to O'Haremarker and Midwaymarker airports from a downtown terminal on State Street. A business plan prepared for the CTA calls for a private firm to manage the venture with service starting in 2008. The project has been criticized as a boondoggle. The custom-equipped, premium-fare trains would offer nonstop service at faster speeds than the current Blue and Orange Lines. Although the trains would not run on dedicated rails (construction of such tracks could cost more than $1.5 billion), several short sections of passing track build at stations would allow the express trains to pass Blue and Orange trains while they sit at those stations. The CTA has already pledged $130 million and the city of Chicago $42 million toward the cost of the downtown station. In comments posted to her blog in 2006, CTA chair Carole Brown said, "I would support premium rail service only if it brought significant new operating dollars, capital funding, or other efficiencies to CTA … The most compelling reason to proceed with the project is the opportunity to connect the Blue and Red subway tunnels," which are one block apart downtown. In the meantime, CTA announced that due to cost overruns, it would only complete the shell of the Block 37 station; its president said "it would not make sense to completely build out the station or create the final tunnel connections until a partner is selected because final layout, technology and finishes are dependent on an operating plan."
  • Mid-City Transitway running around, rather than through the Chicago Loopmarker. The line would follow the Cicero Avenue/Belt Line corridor (former Crosstown Expressway alignment) between the O'Hare branch of the Blue Line at Montrose and the Dan Ryan branch of the Red Line at 87th Street. It would not necessarily be an 'L' line; a busway and other options are being considered.

Two 'L' trains approach the T-junction at the southeast corner of The Loop
Numerous plans have been advanced over the years to reorganize downtown Chicago rapid transit service, originally with the intention of replacing the Loop elevated, which was long seen as a blight. That goal has been largely abandoned, but there have been continued calls to improve transit within the city's greatly enlarged core. At present the 'L' does not provide direct service between the Metra commuter rail terminals in the West Loop and Michigan Avenuemarker, the principal shopping district, nor does it offer convenient access to popular downtown destinations such as Navy Piermarker, Soldier Fieldmarker, and McCormick Placemarker. Plans for the Central Area Circulator, a $700 million downtown light rail system meant to remedy these failings, were shelved for lack of funding in 1995. An underground line running along the lakeshore would connect Chicago's major tourist destinations, but this plan has not been widely discussed. Recognizing the difficulty of implementing an all-rail solution, the Chicago Central Area Plan advocated a mix of rail and bus improvements, the centerpiece of which was the West Loop Transportation Center, a multi-level subway to be constructed under Clinton Street from Congress to Lake streets. The top level would be a pedestrian mezzanine, buses would operate in the second level, rapid transit trains in the third level, and commuter and intercity trains in the bottom level. The rapid transit level would connect to the existing Blue Line subway at its north and south ends, making possible the "Blue Line loop," envisioned as an underground counterpart to the Loopmarker elevated. Among other advantages the West Loop Transportation Center would provide a direct link between the 'L' and the city's two busiest commuter rail terminals, Ogilvie Transportation Centermarker and Union Stationmarker. The plan also proposed transitways along Carroll Avenue, a former rail right-of-way north of the main branch of the Chicago River, and under Monroe Street in the Loopmarker, which earlier transit schemes had proposed as rail routes. The Carroll Avenue route would provide faster bus service between the commuter stations and the rapidly redeveloping Near North Sidemarker, with possible rail service later.

Getting around on the 'L'

Prior to color coding, CTA rail line names were based on neighborhood or town served (Ravenswood, Englewood, Evanston, Skokie Swift), endpoint (Howard, Jackson Park, Midway, O'Hare), parallel streets (Congress, Lake), or even a city park the line traveled past (Douglas). As part of the effort to make the 'L' easier to navigate, train signs now indicate the destination terminal:

  • Blue Line trains display "Forest Park" signs when traveling southeast/west, "O'Hare" when traveling east/northwest. Some southeast/west trains display "UIC" and end their runs at UIC-Halstedmarker, while some east/northwest trains display "Jefferson Park" or "Rosemont" and terminate there.
  • Brown Line trains display "Loop" signs inbound, "Kimball" outbound. Late-night Brown Line shuttle service terminates at Belmont southbound and display "Belmont."
  • Green Line trains display "Harlem" when north/westbound, "Ashland/63" or "Cottage Grove" when east/southbound. The "Cottage Grove" reading is relatively new and the majority of CTA signage does not reflect this. Station signs reading "East 63rd" are equivalent to "Cottage Grove" on train signs.
  • Orange Line trains display "Loop" inbound, "Midway" outbound.
  • Pink Line trains display "Loop" inbound, "54/Cermak" outbound.
  • Purple Line local shuttles display "Howard" southbound, "Linden" northbound. Rush-hour Purple Line Express trains display "Loop" inbound, "Linden" outbound.
  • Red Line trains display "Howard" northbound, "95th" southbound. Some southbound trains display "Roosevelt" during the overnight hours and terminate there. The "95th" reading is new and CTA signage does not yet reflect this. Station signs reading "95/Dan Ryan" are equivalent to "95th" on train signs.
  • Yellow Line trains display "Howard" inbound, "Skokie" outbound.

Since 'L' stations typically are named after the principal intersecting street and Chicago streets tend to be long and straight, many stations on different lines have the same name. For example, there are four stations named Pulaski, five named Kedzie, and five named Western — two of which are on the Blue Line. None of the three stations named Chicago lie in the Chicago Loopmarker: they take their names from Chicago Avenue, six city blocks (3/4 mile) north of the northern boundary of the Loop.
The north west corner of the loop

The Loop

Brown, Green, Orange, Pink, and Purple Line Express trains serve downtown Chicago via the Loopmarker elevated. The Loop's nine stations average 64,800 weekday boardings.

The Orange Line, Purple Line and the Pink Line run clockwise, the Brown Line runs counter-clockwise. The Green Line is the Loop's only through service; the other four lines circle the Loop and return to their starting points. The Loop forms a rectangle roughly 0.4 miles (650 m long) east-to-west and 0.6 miles (960 m) long north-to-south.

While many believe that the city's central business district was named after this section of the 'L,' the term actually predates the 'L' and refers to a now-retired circular routing of streetcars through downtown, which followed the same basic route as the present day elevated tracks.

Making connections

The 'L' serves both Chicago airports but does not connect directly to any of the commuter rail, intercity rail, or intercity bus stations in or near the Loop. Metra, Amtrak, and Greyhound stations, and their locations relative to 'L' stops are:

The Purple Line serves Evanston and Wilmette, with rush-hour express service to downtown Chicago.
Outlying transfer points between 'L' trains and Metra:

Outlying transfer points between 'L' trains and Greyhound Lines bus service:
  • Chicago 95th and Dan Ryan destination is directly above the 95th/Dan Ryan marker station.
  • Cumberland destination is the Cumberland marker station/CTA and PACE bus terminal.
  • Skokie destination is near the Skokie marker station.

'L' or El?

The Chicago rapid-transit system is officially nicknamed the 'L.' This name for the CTA rail system applies to the whole system, as well as its elevated, subway, at-grade and open-cut segments. The use of the nickname dates from the earliest days of the elevated railroads. Newspapers of the late 1880s referred to proposed elevated railroads in Chicago as '"L" roads.' The first route to be constructed, the Chicago and South Side Rapid Transit Railroad gained the nickname "Alley Elevated", or "Alley L" during its planning and construction, a term that was widely used by 1893, less than a year after the line opened.

In discussing various stylings of "Loop" and "L" in Destination Loop: The Story of Rapid Transit Railroading in and around Chicago (1982), author Brian J. Cudahy quotes a passage from The Neon Wilderness (1949) by Chicago author Nelson Algren: "beneath the curved steel of the El, beneath the endless ties." Cudahy then comments, "Note that in the quotation above ... it says 'El' to mean "elevated rapid transit railroad.' We trust that this usage can be ascribed to a publisher's editor in New York or some other east coast city; in Chicago the same expression is routinely rendered 'L.'"

While this is broadly true, it is not hard to find exceptions, such as the magazine Time Out Chicago, which refers to the system as the El and once responded to a letter on the subject by explaining that it chose "El" stylistically because it would be easier for people originally from outside of Chicago to decipher.

As used by the CTA, the name is rendered as the capital letter 'L', in quotation marks. "L" (with double quotation marks) was often used by CTA predecessors such as the Chicago Rapid Transit Company; however, the CTA uses single quotation marks (') on some printed materials and signs rather than double, and it seems safe to say there is no firm policy other than use of quotation marks of some kind. The term subway in Chicago usage is limited to sections of the 'L' that are underground and is not applied to the system as a whole, and Chicagoans typically refer to the 'L' even when they mean the below-ground parts.

Security and safety

In addition to general security issues on the CTA, there were calls to improve CTA's emergency response and communications procedures after a second evacuation of the Blue Line subway after accidents in it (a derailment in 2006 and a stalled train in 2008). CTA has also had a history of train accidents where operators apparently overrode automatic train stops on red signals, starting with the 1977 collision at Wabash and Lakemarker, when 4 cars of a Lake-Dan Ryan train fell from the elevated structure, killing 11, extending to two incidents in 2001, and two more in 2008, the more serious involving a Green Line train that derailed and straddled the split in the elevated structure at the 59th Street junction between the Ashland and East 63rd Street branches, and a minor one near 95th Street on the Red line.

In 2002, 25-year-old Joseph Konopka, better known by his self-given nickname "Dr. Chaos", was arrested by Chicago Police after he was caught hoarding potassium cyanide and sodium cyanide in an unused Chicago Transit Authority storeroom in the Chicago 'L' Blue Line subway. Konopka had picked the original locks on several doors in the tunnels, then changed the locks so that he could access the unused rooms freely. Konopka had briefly associated with a Chicago-area urban exploration group in order to obtain information on how to access the large network of unused tunnels and abandoned rooms on Chicago's transit system as well as to lure juveniles to help him.

See also


References and notes

  1. The CTA website states "CTA’s train system is called the ‘L’, short for elevated.'"
  2. Cudahy, Destination Loop
  3. Garfield, Graham, Frequently Asked Questions. (URL accessed 22 August 2006); McClendon, Dennis, "L", Encyclopedia of Chicago, accessed August 22, 2006
  4. Chicago Transit Authority, "Rail Ridership by Branch and Entrance," July 2006, [1], accessed October 14 2006
  5. Chicago Transit Authority, "Rail Ridership by Branch and Entrance," December 2005, [2], accessed Sept. 1, 2006
  6. Chicago Transit Authority, "Rail System: Annual Traffic, 1979 to present," SDP-x93028, 7-27-93; Chicago Transit Authority, "Rail System: Annual Traffic, 1986 to 2000," PSP-x01010, August 7 2001
  7. Chicago "L".org, "Chronologies - Chicago Transit Authority (CTA) (1947-present)" [3]
  8. Current ridership figures drawn from Chicago Transit Authority, "Rail Ridership by Branch and Entrance," September 2006 [4]
  9. Ridership figures reported for the Brown Line and other lines reaching downtown Chicago via the Loop elevated (Green, Orange, and Pink lines; Purple Line express trains) do not fully reflect usage since Loop boardings are reported separately. Although the figure cited above is from the CTA's June 2006 rail ridership report, the CTA elsewhere has claimed Brown Line ridership of 66,000,[5] presumably arrived at by pro rata distribution of Loop boardings.
  10. Countdown To A New Brown | The Brown Line Capacity Expansion Project
  11. These and other historical details drawn from Cudahy, Destination Loop
  12. Borzo, The Chicago "L", p. 23
  13. Borzo, The Chicago "L", p. 43
  14. Station Jackson Park, Intramural Railway
  15. Chicago 'L'.org - A/B Skip-Stop Express Service
  16. Chicago Transit Authority, "Rail System - Nov. 1980 traffic," Table V, OP-x81085, 5-22-81
  17. Chicago Transit Authority, "Rail System - Weekday Entering Traffic Trends," PSP-x01013, 8-16-01
  18. Chicago Transit Authority, "Countdown to a New Brown - About the Brown Line" [6], accessed September 5, 2006.
  19. Chicago Transit Authority, "Rail System - Annual Traffic: Originating passengers only," OP-x79231, 10-01-79
  20. North Shore Magazine
  21. The Roosevelt elevated stop on the Orange and Green Lines, which opened in 1994, is connected to the Roosevelt Red Line subway stop by a pedestrian passage, so the CTA reports the two as a single station. Ridership in 1992 is for the subway stop only.
  22. Condit, Carl W., Chicago 1930-70: Building, Planning, and Urban Technology (1974), Table 7
  23. 1992 figures from Chicago Transit Authority, "1992 Ridership Review," Technical Report SP93-05; November 2005 figures from CTA website previously cited. Comparison may not be precise; 1992 figures were an annual average, while November 2005 reflected a single month, though one often used as a benchmark by CTA.
  24. page 76
  25. Chicago Transit Authority, "5000 Series Railcars" [7], accessed March 27, 2007.
  30. CTA 2009 Budget Recommendations, p. 34
  31. CTA President Ron Huberman, “Transforming the CTA” presentation, slide 17;[8] a current slow zone map can be found on the CTA’s website.
  32. CTA 2009 Budget Recommendations, p. 33
  33. The FTA’s website provides a detailed description of this process.
  38. See p. 4 of the CTA’s response to public comments.
  40. Noise concerns and community disapproval were significant factors in rejecting new elevated track.[9]
  41. The Ashland routes cost less to build and operate than the Western Ave. routing.[10]
  42. Circle Line Alternatives Analysis Study - Screen 2 Step 3, Accessed 02-16-2007[11]
  43. See p. 132 of the October 9, 2008 update of the 2030 Regional Transportation Plan, at here.
  49. Jon Hilkevitch. Signs mark growth of CTA. Chicago Tribune, 30 October 2006.
  52. Chronologies, accessed Sept. 5, 2006
  53. West Side/West Suburban Corridor Service Enhancements, accessed September 5, 2006
  54. Destination 2020
  55. PB Consult, Inc., Express Airport Train Service – Business Plan, Final Report, September 22, 2006[12]
  56. Hinz, Greg, "CTA's money pit: Big bucks, small bang for agency's planned express line to O'Hare," Crain's Chicago Business,[13] August 1, 2005
  57. Judge, Tom, "Chicago Plans To Run Express Trains On Metro," International Railway Journal, [14], April 2005
  58. Hilkevitch, Jon, "Want a 1st-class ticket to airport? CTA plan would let private company run premium – and eventually express – rail service to O'Hare and Midway," Chicago Tribune, October 4, 2006
  59. Brown, Carole, Ask Carole, "Subway tunnel connections and airport service," Oct. 5, 2006, accessed Oct. 7, 2006. For illustration of Red-Blue line tunnel connection, see Chicago Transit Authority, Transit at a Crossroads: President's 2007 Budget Recommendations, p. 14, accessed Oct. 16, 2006[15]
  60. City of Chicago, "Chicago Central Area Plan: Preparing the Central City for the 21st Century - Draft Final Report to the Chicago Plan Commission," May 2003, [16], accessed Sept. 1, 2006. For West Loop Transportation Center details, see pp. 61ff. [17]
  61. Chicago Transit Authority, "Riding CTA Trains," [18]', accessed September 1, 2006
  62. E.g.

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