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CTA celebrates 75 years of service with a day of nostalgia

5:03 PM CDT on October 3, 2022

One of two 1960s “green limousines” offering rides downtown during the celebration, and a rider with period-appropriate pants. Photo: Eric Allix Rogers

During Saturday's festivities, the new transit advocacy group Commuters Take Action hung out at Daley Plaza doing outreach to riders and passing out the flier below, which included a QR code directing people to the group's linktree. - Ed.

Image: Commuters Take Action
Image: Commuters Take Action

On Saturday, October 1, the Chicago Transit Authority marked its 75th year of service with a celebration showcasing its Heritage Fleet. The historic rail cars and buses, some of them predating the agency’s creation in 1947, preserve the history of transit in Chicago. They are restored and maintained with proceeds from CTA gift shop sales and private train charters. The work of maintaining them – and occasionally operating them – is done by CTA employees who volunteer their time. At a moment when operational and safety problems on the transit system have frayed public confidence in the CTA, dedicated staff went above and beyond their normal jobs to invite the public to take a nostalgic step aboard vintage trains and buses.  It was an opportunity to contemplate the vital role the agency has played in Chicago over the past three-quarters of a century.

A "green limousine" bus parked in the plaza. Photo: Eric Allix Rogers
A "green limousine" bus parked in the plaza. Photo: Eric Allix Rogers

Public response was strong. Under clear, cool skies, a long line of transit enthusiasts already stretched across Daley Plaza by 9:30 a.m., eager to claim limited-edition posters and collectible tickets for the first special train excursions of the morning as soon as they became available. By 10 a.m., when the Heritage Fleet trains and buses began running, most tickets and posters had been claimed. However, anyone who stopped by the plaza between then and 2 p.m. could still learn about the event and climb aboard a 1969 bus parked on the plaza for photo ops. But the real excitement had by then shifted to nearby bus and train stations.

An orange and brown 4000-series car. Photo: Eric Allix Rogers
An orange and brown 4000-series car. Photo: Eric Allix Rogers

The Clark/Lake ‘L’ station was the starting point for the vintage train runs. Participants paid regular fares to enter (the tickets given out at Daley Plaza were simply to prevent overcrowding on the first three runs) and packed the platform, lining up to snap photos as Heritage Fleet trains, crewed by CTA volunteers in vintage uniforms, rolled in. The orange and brown 4000-series cars, in service 1923-1973, were the oldest vehicles operated during the event. Circling the Loop in these cars, with their elegant glass lights, wood trim, and operable windows, took riders back many decades in time.

The interior of a 4000-series train. Photo: Eric Allix Rogers
The interior of a 4000-series train. Photo: Eric Allix Rogers

The 6000-series cars, in service 1959-1992, represented a major step forward in CTA rail car design, looking noticeably more modern as riders circled the loop in a pair of cars in an upbeat, metallic “Spirit of Chicago” livery. 2400-series cars, their bold Bicentennial-inspired livery hinting at their 1976 origins, circled the Loop tracks in the opposite direction, their interiors offering a brightly fluorescent-lit experience still familiar to many riders - since the last of the series was only retired in 2014. After the initial runs, crowds fell to manageable levels, and all three trains continued around the Loop for several hours, allowing passengers to board and alight at select stations and enjoy seeing these vintage cars in action.

Meanwhile, across Washington from Daley Plaza, vintage buses offered rides around downtown, no tickets or fares required. These two 1960s “green limousines” cut quite the anachronistic figure when stopping at the contemporary Loop Link station, and drew plenty of curious stares and double-takes from passersby as they traveled the streets of the Loop. As the buses navigated traffic, riders could enjoy breezes coming through the open windows and take in the variety of reproduced vintage ads found aboard all Heritage Fleet vehicles, promoting long-forgotten products, major Chicago events of the past, and more.

The interior of a "green limousine" bus. Photo: Eric Allix Rogers
The interior of a "green limousine" bus. Photo: Eric Allix Rogers

Even though railfans might have predominated among event attendees, there were those for whom the buses were the main draw. An older couple, both retired from CTA, spoke with a local tour guide about how the husband had, early in his career, driven one of the buses here when it was brand new. Another man had arranged to meet his father at the event with a very specific purpose: to recreate a photo, taken 25 years earlier at a celebration of CTA’s 50th anniversary, of the man in the driver’s seat of one of the vintage buses.

Thanks to the CTA’s staff for volunteering their time and efforts to throw a 75th birthday party – not for themselves, but for all of us who value transit and appreciate its long history in Chicago.

View more photos from the 75th anniversary celebration here.

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