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Blue Line Service Disruptions in May for $207M Signal Upgrade

A Blue Line train at the Damen stop in Wicker Park. Photo: Jeff Zoline

As more and more professionals who work downtown move to the Northwest Side, and transit-oriented developments become increasingly common along Milwaukee Avenue, there has been a rising chorus of complaints about rush-hour crowding on the Blue Line's O'Hare branch. Between 2006-2016, ridership on the branch grew by 5.4 million rides, and it's currently the second-busiest branch in the system after the north Red Line, carrying more than 86,400 riders on an average weekday.

Today the CTA announced it will be taking a step to  address the problem by replacing the 35-year-old signal system between the Jefferson Park and O'Hare stations, which will allow the agency to run more trains. In exchange for the future benefit, customers will have to put up with seven weekend-only and two extended service disruptions between May and November.

The work is part of the CTA's $492 million Your New Blue project, which also includes 14 station upgrades, nine of which have been completed, plus track improvements along the O'Hare branch. The most recent milestone in the program was the completion of the $17 million Belmont station rehab, which included a large Jetsons-esque rain canopy and a new prepaid boarding bullpen for westbound bus riders.

According to the CTA, the signal project is the first major upgrade to this section of the Blue Line since it was extended by eight miles from Jeff Park to O’Hare in 1984. The first service disruptions, called a "line-cut," is scheduled for this weekend from 10 p.m. Friday to 4 a.m. Monday between Jeff Park and Harlem

During this time, CTA will provide free shuttle bus service between the two stations. Shuttles will operate about every 3 to 6 minutes from 4 a.m. to 11 p.m., and roughly every 7 to 15 minutes overnight. Customers who use the shuttle will be get a free transfer back to the 'L' system at the Jeff Park or Harlem stops. Passengers will need to tap their Ventra payment devices on at the turnstiles, but they won't be charged  a second fare.

The next weekend line-cut is slated for the weekend of May 17-20, also affecting service between Jeff Park and Harlem.

Workers do track repair on the O'Hare branch. Photo: CTA
Workers do track repair on the O'Hare branch. Photo: CTA
Workers do track repair on the O'Hare branch. Photo: CTA

Why the CTA Can't Add More O'Hare Branch Runs, and What They're Doing About That

While we're on the subject of the overcrowding on the O'Hare branch, a handout distributed at last week's community meeting on the Logan Square Affordable TOD plan explained the CTA's challenges in addressing the problem, and other strategies they're employing besides the signal work. Let's take a look at the issues.

Since 2012 the CTA has added nine trips during both the morning and evening commutes to meet the growing demand. During the a.m. rush, they've been running as many trains as the current power and signal system allows between O'Hare and the Loop, and they recently added more trains to the middle of the route, where the most severe crowding can occur.

But one limiting factor to adding more trains is power. The trains require 600V electrical power, known as "traction power." the CTA has its our own electrical substations that convert regular alternating-current electricity from the power company to the specific direct-current power that's needed for their trains. The more trains that run, the more power is used and the substations are now at capacity on parts of the line.

As part of Your New Blue, in 2017 the CTA began a $42.9 million project to upgrade three electrical substations, including two that serve the O’Hare branch. When work is completed next year, upgrades to the substations will help improve reliability along portions of the Blue Line.

And in February 2018 the CTA launched the $179 million FastTracks program of track repairs and maintenance to make trips faster and smoother, bankrolled by ride-hailing fee revenue. FastTracks includes a $25M project to add a new substation to provide more power to the O’Hare branch. Construction is scheduled to start this year.

The CTA says these strategies, along with the signal upgrades, plus the arrival the new 7000-series rail cars next year, will allow them to add more trains during the busiest times. Hopefully that will result in a little more elbow room for Northwest Side straphangers currently dealing with sardine-like conditions on the morning commute.

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