Blue Line Needs Better Signals, More Electricity, Articulated Trains to Alleviate Crowding

Damen Blue Line station by David Wilson

A new study from the Chicago Transit Authority on ‘L’ capacity highlights where trains are running at capacity, and how the CTA can alleviate crowding. We’ll focus on the Blue Line’s O’Hare branch since that is where is a lot of new TOD developments are being built –and many have already opened – causing some existing residents, and the airports commissioner, to be concerned that the new residents will escalate a crowding issue.

The study [PDF] showed that the Blue Line along Milwaukee Avenue is “at capacity” between Western and Clark/Lake inboundin the morning, and “nearing capacity” between Clark/Lake and Washington. The Blue Line has “available capacity” everywhere else.

map of passenger crowding in the morning inbound rush hour
Map shows “at capacity” line segments in red across the CTA ‘L’ system, going toward downtown, during the 6-9 AM rush hour.

The constraints, or “weakest links”, as the study calls them, are a lack of electricity supply between Harlem and Grand stations that is necessary to power additional trains, long passenger boarding times at Clark/Lake, and a limitation of the signals around Clark/Lake.

The study listed some possible solutions that would require further study. Across the system, switching to a new signaling system could increase capacity on all lines. Currently, the CTA uses a fixed-length block signal that means each train virtually occupies what can be a very long section of track, sometimes putting two train lengths in between two trains. By using a moving block signal, each train occupies a shorter section of track making it possible to run more trains.

On the Blue Line, specifically, the CTA could expand the yard at Forest Park to be able to store more trains for more service on the O’Hare branch. The CTA is only able to maintain its service on the O’Hare branch at current levels by turning around some southbound trains at UIC/Halsted to go back north. The study says having to do this is probably also a capacity limitation but it’s the only way to run as many trains on the Blue Line the CTA runs today.

To deal with the lack of electricity to run more trains between Harlem and Grand, the study recommends looking at how power is currently distributed.

The study acknowledges that articulated train cars (also called open gangways, or walk-through) could increase passenger capacity. This is something we’ve advocated before, as it’s used around the world to hold more people and redistribute them across all cars. However, the study says that only the “married” two-car sets should be articulated. Doing this would hold a handful of new passengers, but still have some of the benefits of allowing people to move to a slightly less crowded section of the two cars. The CTA could also extend all platforms to accommodate 10-car trains.

Finally, the study suggests targeting new housing and mixed-use developments along portions of many of the ‘L’ lines that aren’t approaching current capacity. The Orange Line, for example, has suburban-style development patterns surrounding many stations, and has available capacity for more riders. Adding more jobs near Midway airport could also use the available capacity on the reverse commute (headed away from downtown in the morning, and towards downtown in the evening).

  • undercover epicurean

    Those cars everybody on the red line hates would help substantially, standing riders get crowded in between the vestibules on the 2600s.

  • The Blue Line will get new trains, from the 7000 series, starting in 2019 (my guess, as the factory that’s making them is under construction now).

  • rduke

    I understand we have married pairs now, but what technical limitation with existing infrastructure makes it impossible to stop ordering the damn things if they cause so much headache?

  • It’s been conjectured but not proven that articulated train cars on the market wouldn’t be able to turn on the Loop L turns.

    Also, it’s been posited that the CTA’s shops are configured for 2-car trains.

    At the least, articulated trains that don’t run on the Loop L would need to have 4-car sets (2×4 to make an 8-car set) because of limitations on Yellow and Purple line station platform lengths.

  • Isaac Maria

    Is reconfiguring the UP-NW metra line to increase the number of station and frequency of trains a distant possibility?

  • Carter O’Brien

    Have you been on one of the red line trains in rush hour? About 25% of the seats routinely go unused as the people on both sides spill over. Then there is the face you have people trying to navigate an aisle full of wildly varying shapes and sizes of people’s legs and feet. They may have looked good in theory, but they are not an improvement in the real world.

  • PepePizza

    People are overweight. So, many of those weight challenged folks take up two seats on those Red Line trains. Rush hour is a nightmare.

  • Elect a mayor who cares about Metra and the answer might be yes.

  • Chicagoan

    Development surrounding the Orange Line sucks, for the most part, but there’s a lot of potential, especially around stations like 35th & Archer.

  • david vartanoff

    CTA had four articulated trainsets bought in the 40s last used on the Yellow Line (one survivor is in the Trolley Museum in South Elgin).
    As to acquiring new ones, CTA cars are custom anyway so ordering articulateds tailored to CTA’s clearance constraints is not a problem.

  • david vartanoff

    Platform lengthening needs to start immediately–ten car lengths system wide.

  • planetshwoop

    I wonder if residents would accept an express bus to off-load some of the capacity. Imagine an articulated bus (like the ones on the lakefront) that would stop at Logan Square and stops along Milwaukee until Division, then run express to the Loop.

    I mean, obviously fixing the Blue Line will require lots of little things along with some big ideas to more capacity eventually: Metra, BRT, extra trackage along the route, etc.

  • Cameron Puetz

    Since they’d have to sit in traffic on Milwaukee, there’s a limit to how express those buses could be. There isn’t much space to work with on that stretch of Milwaukee to increase bus speeds. More frequent Metra service on the UP-NW and MD-N would be the most effective way to shift load off of the Blue Line.

  • TG2017

    The Orange Line’s alignment along very active freight rail doesn’t really help development, either.

  • Jeremy

    Isn’t Metra a function of state government, not city?

  • Andrew Dunham

    Automation on the Blue Line please.

  • Chicagoan


  • Chicagoan

    I ride the Red Line at least five days a week and I’ve been doing this for the last three years. I don’t feel like 25% of the seats go un-used, especially during rush hour. I’d say on a packed, rush hour train, every other car will have one, two, perhaps three seats open, due to a number of things. Aloof Cubs fans, manspreading, seat stains, sleeping people, and trash that people don’t want to pick up are common examples. Chicago transit riders need to be better, but the Red Line has better etiquette than the Brown Line, for instance.

  • Carter O’Brien

    Manspreading in my observation is much worse on the Red Line, because a manspreader on the old two-seaters can only muck up one seat, whereas on the Red Line they can literally take up three. I have been riding these lines for 40+ years and currently take the Brown Line in the morning and the Red Line and Blue Line in the afternoon (varies by day of the week)

    The Blue Line seems to be the worst for sleeping as it gets people who take it to O’Hare and then are able to just turn right around, but is the Red Line’s longer seating aisles that encourage sleeping. Also, the Red Line that goes to Wrigley, not the Brown. The trash problem is exponentially worse on the Red Line, there is no comparison. Of course, the Red Line is also the fastest line, so it’s got that going for it.

  • Yes, as is CTA.
    The mayor cares about CTA but not Metra.

  • Carter O’Brien

    I’ve taken the Red Line in the morning recently and I’ll amend my observations to note that in the morning, it does seem to be much better re: use of space. Afternoons/early evenings are a totally different animal, for whatever reason. I think having people’s legs in the middle of the aisle is the Achille’s heel, the designers didn’t seem to understand that a few tall people towards the middle facing each other can make it almost impossible to squeeze through to get to empty seats towards the ends.

  • Chicagoan2

    Yea, Chicago train cars are much narrower than the average. Normally legs aren’t an issue with this layout as the there is usually more peace in the middle.

    That said hop on the 2k series cars on the blue line and you’ll quickly notice no one stands in the middle at all they just pack like sardines around the door while the aisles are wide open. The 4 seat rows effectively make the standing space unusable.

    There really needs to be a system wide analysis to maximize car capacity, i.e bigger cars, more cars per train, articulation, or more frequent service. Right now it’s just low hanging fruit upgrades that are being done.


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