Chicago’s ‘L’ Train Turned 125 Years Old Yesterday — What’s Next for the System?

An historic train car from 1924. Photo: Steven Vance

The Chicago Transit Authority celebrated the 125th anniversary of the ‘L’ yesterday by bringing out rapid transit cars built in 1923 and in 1976. The Chicago & South Side Rapid Transit Railroad Company commenced “Alley L” service on June 6, 1892, in an alley east of State Street between Congress Parkway and 39th Street, according to the CTA. The CTA also highlighted its own 70 years of service. The authority was created in 1947 to unify the different bus, streetcar, and elevated companies.

Each train ran around the Loop for 90 minutes, and required a normal CTA fare to ride. On the older train, one CTA worker was dressed in a vintage conductor’s uniform, and another explained the train’s features and historical facts over the PA. The trains are part of the CTA’s heritage fleet that can be chartered for tours, wedding parties, or film shoots.

4000-series 'L' car from 1924 through Clark/Lake
The 4000-series L cars had operable windows for natural air conditioning. Photo: Steven Vance

A lot has changed since the Alley L began. The most significant upgrade was the use of electrified trains instead of steam engine-pulled trains. The next innovation was giving each car its own motor that could be controlled from a single point, instead of using motor cars at the ends. That “electric multiple unit” was invented by Frank J. Sprague, and used first in Chicago. The CSSRTRC put the EMU cars into service just six years after the Alley L began.

What will the next 125 years bring?

The difference in ride quality between the 4000 series train built in 1923 and the 2400 series train built in 1976 is remarkable. The 4000 series train movement is jerky, and the lights flicker when the train passes between separate electrical zones on the track. However, the 2400 series train ride performance is much the same as the current 5000 series trains currently in service on all lines but the Blue Line. The appearance is largely the same, too.

2400-series 'L' car from 1976 in Bicentennial livery
The 2400-series L cars were retired last year. This train was painted in red, white, and blue, to commemorate the country’s bicentennial. Photo: Steven Vance

The Blue Line will be getting new 7000 series cars in the next few years. The American subsidiary of a major Chinese train manufacturer recently got a permit to construct a $40 million factory in Hegewisch. These cars’ appearance will deviate a little more from the current design than the 5000 series deviated from the previous design seen on the Blue Line. But the new cars still look nothing like state-of-the-art rail cars in other cities. I explored international designs in a post in 2013.

One innovation the CTA should consider adopting is articulated trains, where there are no doors between rail cars. This adds capacity without additional cars, and redistributes passengers for a more even load. In addition, many new subways around the world are either fully or partially automated. Paris has a new automated line, a converted automated lane, and is converting another line to become automated.

What changes would you like to see in Chicago’s rail system in the next century? Let us know in the comments section, and enjoy this two minute video of yesterday’s event by Streetsblog reader Jack Brandtman.

  • I just got back from my first visit to Amsterdam, Copenhagen, and Berlin. Most of their trains – including subways – have buttons to open the exterior doors. That would be nice in Chicago so the doors don’t open automatically at every stop regardless of whether anyone is getting on or off. In the dead of winter, that gets really annoying.

  • Yep. It’s the same on the commuter trains, too.

    A lot of subways and streetcars in Europe have an “all doors” mode and a “winter mode”. In all-doors mode, the operator can open all the doors during busy times to avoid the short delay that a passenger on board or a passenger on the platform might have in moving to push the button.

    In winter mode, each door only opens upon request.

    One of the historical facts about the 1923 train cars was that a conductor would only open the doors, which were manually operated, at which they were standing.

  • Chicagoan

    -Green Line extension to Jackson Park and the Obama Presidential Center, with stations at Stony Island Ave. and Woodlawn Ave.
    -Red Line extension to 130th St. & Altgeld Gardens.
    -Yellow Line extension to Old Orchard Rd. in Skokie, as well as Asbury Ave. in Evanston.

  • Some good points on fully articulated trains here:
    The inside corners of the Loop are some of the sharpest curves in American railroading — looks like a 72′ turning radius. The AASHTO Green Book gives a 40′ turning radius for an articulated bus, but that’s only with a 34′ “car length.” The turning radius for a double-trailer truck, where each trailer is 48′ (CTA cars are 48.5′), is 60′ — and those don’t allow people to stand on the articulation joints.

    The only way to get around this (this is how buses and European streetcars are fully articulated) is to make the cars even shorter. But *so* much about CTA is based around the standard car lengths, like the 8-car platforms, the 2-car maintenance decks, etc.

  • Jeremy

    Couldn’t articulated cars be put into service on the red and blue lines? They don’t make as sharp turns. As the trains on the loop tracks.

  • what_eva

    Bad idea for the Red line as it would remove the option of using the Loop. That’s used more than you might think due to maintenance on weekends or problems in the subway. (the opposite occurs with Browns going in the subway sometimes, but that doesn’t matter in this case)

  • Arg, the Green Line makes only one turn in the Loop! All of the other lines on the elevated Loop make four turns!

  • Aaron W

    I wish the brown line could be extended via a subway extension 2.5 miles under Lawrence Avenue, from Kimball to Jefferson Park, with stops at Pulaski & Elston. Albany Park is relatively dense already. Plus it would be nice to have an east/west rapid transit line across the north side of the city so that northsiders aren’t stuck with two less-than-ideal transit options: taking a bus which can get stuck in east-west traffic or riding the L all the way downtown and transferring there to the blue line to reach O’Hare.

  • silverplex

    Better idea: Belmont subway

  • Davey43

    In fairness to BART, those doors are relatively plugged in – even with the new cars coming at some point, you could assume that the design is as close to articulated as it gets.

  • Expansion of the system with at least one N-S line, possibly on Cicero, to connect the Blue, Green and Orange lines; Extending Brown to connect with Blue. Doors that open with push-buttons (already said, but worth repeating) so we don’t freeze in winter or bake in summer during extended stops. Doors that actually close when they announce they will—I’m tired of that open-close-open-semewhatclose-open-close-open-close stuff.

  • david vartanoff

    CTA HAD 4 articulated trainsets bought in the late 40s. One set is at the trolley museum in South Elgin.
    As to other dimensional constraints, platforms can be lengthened, repair facilities can be modified. The single most difficult issue remains sharp curves, although the infamous S curve just south of the Loop was eased a few years ago. The issue at the corners of the Loop and other crunch points is buildings which would have to be removed to allow gentler curves.

  • I think the “doors somewhat close” stuff is because of other passengers at other cars that you can’t see. Sometimes it’s the door being sensitive to people standing very close to them on the inside.

  • david vartanoff

    Red Extension is a poor plan. Double tracking the South Shore between Kensington and Hegewisch and restoring the four local stations closed in the late 50s, (one was precisely where CTA wants their Altgeld Station to be), is much cheaper and if Metra cooperates in running frequent service along with the balance of the Gray Line Project upgrades, trains could be running in a couple of years. The key issue is fare integration so that these routes are de facto new L lines.

  • David, I am going to be addressing the RTA and Metra Boards this month — and the Metra Meetings on the 19th and 22nd on improving Electric District headways, and incoporating the MED into CTA’s “L” system.

  • Carter O’Brien

    Wishlist: people stop playing with their phones while actually walking on L platforms, stairs and escalators.

    All of the “efficiency upgrades” in the world will never make up for the systems drag people cause these days by not being ready to board and exit trains in a timely fashion due to being distracted.

  • TG2017

    – Build out of the crosstown “Lime Line” down Cicero
    – Takeover of Metra Electric District by the CTA
    – Extension of the Green Line to serve the 63rd Street MED station (which once existed, but was never used and then torn down)
    – Brown Line extension down Lawrence to join the Blue Line at Jefferson Park, continuing on to O’Hare
    – Brown Line grade separation
    – West extension of the Green Line along 63rd to meet the Orange Line and proposed Lime Line at Midway

    And, outside of the CTA rail system, electrification of Metra and Ashland BRT (wishful thinking).

  • david vartanoff

    Minor correction, the Jackson Park Branch of what is now CTA’s Green Line did historically serve both the MED (then known as Illinois Central Electric) and terminated at Stony Island offering transfer to/from the Jeffrey,Stony Island, and South Deering bus routes.
    As to your other ideas, YES!!!

  • TG2017

    Thank you for the correction!

  • Alex_H

    Lol, wow, I can honestly say I have never found this to be an issue. I’ll take your word for it!

  • Alex_H

    This is also my theory.

  • Carter O’Brien

    Sigh… I missed a train yesterday as the person in front of me didn’t put their phone down until they got to the single entrance/turnstile on a brown line stop. And I routinely miss buses (that run erratically) while people go half speed down the stairs exiting the L in the Loop.

    Then there are the delays clearing and boarding trains and buses because people aren’t paying attention to their surroundings until the very last second. It’s always been a challenge, but as a lifetime user it truly is bad on a level not possible before, similar to the issues cyclists face with distracted drivers.


South Side Groups: Make the Metra Electric Run Like the CTA ‘L’

A dozen neighborhood organizations, along with the Active Transportation Alliance and the Center for Neighborhood Technology, are calling for the Metra Electric line, with its three branches that run through several South Side communities, to operate like a CTA ‘L’ line. The fourteen organizations signed a letter to the editor of the Chicago Maroon, the independent […]

Urine Trouble: How Can the CTA Keep Its Elevators Free of Pee?

[This piece also rain in Checkerboard City, John’s transportation column in Newcity magazine, which hits the streets on Wednesday evenings.] I don’t mean to sound pissy, but the Chicago Transit Authority is having difficulty keeping ‘L’ stop elevators urine-free. Some say it’s the agency’s Number One challenge. Like most Chicagoans who get around by rapid […]