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

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

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.

  • david vartanoff

    Not mentioned and not cheap either would be lengthening platforms to allow 10 car trains.

  • Michael Babcock

    I feel like they could be more transparent about the tangible benefits. If they’re going to be able to add more trains- why not tell us how many? Talk percentage capacity increases or number of trains per hour.

    The CTA discusses capacity constraints and the steps they are taking to fix this, but I feel as though the public would benefit from knowledge of the actual impacts of this work. It would certainly aid in the fight against the Milwaukee ave corridor NIMBYs.

  • johnaustingreenfield

    I’m asking about this…

  • Carter O’Brien

    Oh, the irony that they cry poor on an electricity supply yet haven’t taken advantage of any of their wide landholdings/the stations themselves to install PV panels and solar arrays. The fancy new Belmont Blue Line roof is a prime example of the disconnect. That was an opportunity to showcase the City’s commitment to Net Zero and renewable energy, and instead like something Lego made that still has a protective plastic film on it waiting to be removed.

  • Tooscrapps

    It’s not the lack or cost of electricity, but rather the capacity to turn AC to DC in order to run more trains.

    However, I don’t disagree with your point that renewables should be part of any new station or renovation.

  • Carter O’Brien

    Fair point – but given that PV produces DC to begin with before inventer/microinventers converts it to AC…

  • Carter O’Brien

    The problem with the obsession with Milwaukee Ave is it complete ignores that a huge amount of Blue Line riders get to it from the bus. So if you build heavy around L stations the ride-share, Amazon, Grub Hub, trash/recycling pick-up, etc can make it so congested that you’re actually harming the people that are supposed to be benefiting from this.

  • Tooscrapps

    I would guess there would be some mismatch with the relatively low-voltage PV panels and the 600V required, but I’m no electrician and its been about 15 years since HS physics.

  • Courtney

    All the more reason the alder could say no Amazon, Grubhub, etc by car-only bike. It’s not like many of these areas around the Blue line couldn’t be served by bike.

  • Carter O’Brien

    I’m sure you’re right – but this is the kind of agency that should be learning how to make solar work for them. The idea we’re going to get Chicago carbon neutral without these kinds of scalable projects is IMO kind of silly. These are the opportunities. Bring in City engineers, utility engineers, planning professionals,etc. and start getting it done. At Belmont they didn’t even do anything to address the dismal street flooding that occurs that with every intense rainfall, all of their planter beds are completely empty, ugh.

  • Austin Busch

    I’d agree there’s an issue of not using the roofs and sidings appropriately, but for the cheaper option of installing a green roof. The power generated is not very significant compared to use, and the system would need a more consistent source for direct input. Basically, it would all be going to the general grid anyway.

    Rolling out some turf on the side of tracks, and putting in green roofs at all station rebuilds would go a long way to slow flooding and heat island effects. It would also help with air quality at the freeway median stations.

  • Carter O’Brien

    It may not be significant compared to use at one location, but they have a *lot* of land to play with. Just spitballing based on my own array and the one here at the Museum, but I’d guess they could easily get a 50KW array up at Belmont had they prioritized function over form.

    Green roofs sound easy & straightforward but the weight load is a big headache. They really only make sense if you’re also getting the insulation/heat island mitigation value from them, the PV at least generates electricity that can be managed and sold back to ComEd.

  • rohmen

    I thought the capacity of the Forest Park train yard was another issue that constrained running more trains, though I guess the workaround is just running more short turn UIC trains.

    As a frequent user of the Forest Park stretch, it would be nice to see them invest more in that stretch as well (outside of the UIC and IMD stations, little else has been work on in decades), as it’s getting pretty run down, though unfortunately the plan seems to keep it all tied to whether the 290 expansion happens.

  • planetshwoop

    I spoke to a CTA engineer about this recently. Apparently a big part of the issue is the ties are at end of their useful life and the sub-surface is not in good condition either So it will be a big deal to upgrade.

  • ardecila

    10 car trains draw more power than 8-car trains, so I’m guessing they can’t just extend platforms without first upgrading the power system. I’m reasonably confident that the new power upgrades are being designed for future 10-car operation as well, CTA does sometimes like to future-proof things even if they don’t mention it to the public.

  • rohmen

    Yeah, that’s what I’ve heard as well. The rub, though, is that the “scope” of the work is used by both CTA and IDOT to suggest that all of the track work needs to wait until the I-290 widening project starts—in effect using the Blue Line work to bootstrap arguments in favor of the I-290 project. A decade later, and here we sit, though the Forest Park branch has track conditions that are in my understanding some of the worst on the system.

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