New Year’s peeve: Why was CTA service ridiculously bad on the big night?

Photo: John Greenfield
Photo: John Greenfield

One of Chicago’s transit traditions is free CTA service on New Year’s Eve, this year from 10 p.m. to 4 a.m., with the cost covered by sponsor Miller Lite. In addition to being a nice perk for revelers, it’s a commonsense way to help keep drunk drivers off the road. But what good is offering free service if riders have to wait an eternity for their bus or train?

Due to pandemic-related CTA staffing shortages in recent years, Chicagoans have gotten used to unpredictable service, often with longer-than-normal gaps between runs. The CTA has promised it’s working to solve the problem through new financial incentives to help retain employees and attract new hires, and it has held more than a dozen job fairs this year. For example, the agency’s goal was to hire 450 bus operators by the end of 2022, and succeeded in filling at least 390 of those vacancies, which wasn’t too far off the mark.

But many folks on Twitter reported experiencing particularly long waits for service on NYE and New Year’s Day, in some cases disrupting their holiday plans. That was particularly disappointing because a CTA bulletin had promised relatively short headways. Here are some of the tweets I saw on this subject.

The grassroots advocacy group Commuters Take Action confirmed that the long waits weren’t just in partygoers’ imaginations. Analyzing CTA data, they found that on December 31, only 44 percent of scheduled Blue Line runs actually materialized. On New Year’s Day that number dropped to 43 percent. That’s significantly lower than in the previous  five days: December 27 (67 percent), December 28 (70 percent), December 29 (69 percent), December 30 (60 percent.)

Group cofounder data analyst Fabio Göttlicher noted that things were particularly bad on the Blue Line in the wee hours of the first day of 2023. From 3 a.m. to 4 a.m., zero outbound trains stopped at the O’Hare branch’s California stations. The same was true for inbound trains between 4 a.m. and 5 a.m. Obviously, if you were trying to catch the Blue Line in those directions during those times, you were completely marooned.

To the CTA’s credit, when I asked what the heck was the problem on New Year’s Eve, I got a fairly prompt response from a spokesperson. “A higher-than-usual number of unplanned absences [compared to recent months] prevented CTA from providing all the service we had hoped, leading to some longer-than-scheduled intervals between trains on some lines, including the Red and Blue Lines. CTA worked to provide as much service as possible on both trains and buses.”

The spokesperson pointed to the nationwide shortage of transit operators, and touted the CTA’s retention and recruitment initiatives. “Those efforts are helping address service issues: our most recent scorecard for ‘Meeting the Moment’ [the agency’s COVID recovery plan] shows that CTA is providing 85 percent of bus service and just under 80 percent of rail service. While those numbers show improvement from earlier in 2022, we recognize that there is still much more work to do, which is why we’ll continue and expand our comprehensive efforts in 2023.”

If it’s true that lots of bus and train operators simply didn’t make it to work on New Year’s Eve, possibly for legitimate reasons like sudden illness or a family emergency, the agency was dealt a tough hand that night. But that’s cold comfort for people who were stuck on platforms waiting for trains that took forever to arrive – if they showed up at all.

One’s things for sure: The worst New Year’s Eve CTA stories collected by the popular CTA Fails Twitter account this year should be a pretty wild read.

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