CTA’s percent of fulfilled runs got even worse last month. What should be done?

A southbound Red Line train arrives at the Roosevelt stop yesterday. Photo: John Greenfield
A southbound Red Line train arrives at the Roosevelt stop yesterday. Photo: John Greenfield

It’s been a busy week for Chicago livable streets news. Now that things have quieted down a bit, let’s catch up with what’s going on with efforts to improve CTA reliability as Chicago recovers from the COVID-19 pandemic.

January Meeting the Moment scorecard

Last Friday the transit agency released its monthly “Meeting the Moment” scorecard for January, stating that in a news release that “CTA continues to make progress on ‘MTM’ action plan.” The statement argued that December was “a challenging month due to workforce issues,” but asserted that “improvements continue in both service and hiring efforts.”

The agency reported that long waits between trains have been improving, with instances of customers having to wait twice and triple the scheduled headways falling in December for the fourth straight month. According to the scorecard:

  • Triple headways down to an average of 15 each weekday, down from 29
  • Double headways down to an average of 101 each weekday, down from 158

The CTA said the percentage of scheduled bus and train runs in December 2022 that actually materialized were a little better than in December 2021:

  • Bus Service Delivered: 82.2 percent in December 2021, compared to 83.4 percent in December 2022
  • Rail Service Delivered: 71.2 percent in December 2021, compared to 75.4 percent in December 2022

However, disappointingly, the December 2022 percentage of fulfilled bus and train runs was actually worse compared to November 2022:

  • Rail service delivered was 75.4 percent, down from 79.5 percent in November
  • Bus service delivered was 83.4 percent, down from to 85 percent in November
  • Big gaps in service on buses were 12.9 percent, up from 11.3 percent in November

The agency partly blamed the December service slump on the December 22-23 polar vortex, with subzero temperatures and a snowstorm, which is somewhat understandable.

Waiting for the #22 Clark bus next to Graceland Cemetery on December 23. Photo: John Greenfield
Waiting for the bus next to Graceland Cemetery in subzero temperatures on December 23. Photo: John Greenfield

However, CTA service was particularly awful on New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day, when the weather wasn’t especially challenging. The grassroots transit advocacy group Commuter Take Action, which tracks Blue Line service, found that only about 44 percent of scheduled service was delivered those days. That was particularly frustrating for New Year’s revelers, because the agency actually promised increased service on the big night, in conjunction with a free ride program intended to help keep drunk drivers off the roads.

The transit agency said this also contributed to the overall December service slump, blaming the NYE debacle on “higher-than-normal employee call offs on a few days during the holidays.” It’s not clear how many of those absences were for legitimate reasons like unexpected illness or family emergencies. More on that in a bit.

In other bad news, while the CTA says the Orange, Green, Brown, and Pink lines are fulfilling about 90 percent of weekday scheduled service, less than 70 percent of scheduled runs on the 24-hour Red and Blue lines are materializing. That jibes with Commuters Take Action’s recent reports.

The CTA promised that it’s on the case, aggressively recruiting new people to drive trains and buses. About 70 rail operators and 450 bus drivers were hired last year, but the system still needs roughly 100 more train drivers and 500 bus operators.

Graph of CTA bus and train ridership from the latest Meeting the Moment scorecard.
Graph of CTA bus and train ridership from the latest Meeting the Moment scorecard.

In a bit of good news, the transit agency said ridership was just under 21 million in November, up about 11 percent from that month in 2021. The increase was particularly marked downtown, which was up by 21 percent.

CTA president weighs in on the New Year’s Eve fiasco

As reported by Block Club’s Noah Asimow, at last Friday’s CTA board meeting, directors asked agency president Dorval Carter Jr. about the New Year’s fugazi. “Unfortunately, sometimes we fall short. There is no question in my mind that New Year’s Eve was one of those times.” He promised to work with the transit unions to come up with new incentives to get workers to show up for their shifts, but said disciplining employees would be of limited use. “I can’t fire employees. We don’t have enough employees as it is.”

Of course, there’s more than a little irony here, because Carter has been notorious for failing to show up for City Council hearings on poor transit service. In November, Mayor Lori Lightfoot, who appoints the CTA president, announced Carter would start attending quarterly meetings with alderpersons.

The presidents of Amalgamated Transit Unit Local 308 and Local 241, which represent CTA operators, didn’t immediately reply to Block Club’s request for comments. They were also unresponsive to Streetsblog’s calls and emails about the New Year’s Eve absences.

Transit advocates respond

However, advocacy groups were willing to discuss recent CTA performance and staffing issues. Susan Hurley from Chicago Jobs With Justice, which advocates for CTA workers’ rights, among other labor issues, noted that it was foolish for the agency to promise increased service on New Year’s Eve. “I don’t know where they were expecting the extra workers to come from.”

Hurley was somewhat sympathetic to the CTA’s efforts to recruit new workers. “They say they’re going to fill in the [staffing] gaps, so I guess that’s going to take a minute. They’re on the right track, but maybe they should have started earlier.” She added that improving working conditions, like allowing operators to start at full-time, would make it easier to find new hires.

“While we applaud CTA’s efforts to improve service and increase transparency, the agency will continue to fail riders until it publishes accurate schedules and hires enough operators to run that scheduled service,” said the Active Transportation Alliance’s director of planning and technical assistance David Powe. “If the agency wants to hire and retain additional operators, it needs to offer more competitive compensation, better benefits, and safer working conditions. Chicago deserves a transit agency that is honest with its riders, and operators deserve a role that provides them with a comfortable and safe middle class lifestyle.”

Attacks on CTA workers became more common during COVID. This year the starting hourly rate for bus and train drivers is rising to just under $30 an hour.

Exiting the Division Blue Line station yesterday. Photo: John Greenfield
Exiting the Division Blue Line station yesterday. Photo: John Greenfield

Commuters Take Action cofounder Fabio Göttlicher noted that the CTA highlighted the modest improvement in the percentage of delivered scheduled service between December 2021 and December 2022. “However, they fail to mention that this slight uptick is only achieved due to cuts in scheduled service [via rail “optimization” done last fall to make scheduled service better align with available labor], not because the number of trains dispatched has increased. It speaks of CTA’s incompetence when their carefully crafted ‘optimized’ (read ‘cut’) schedules are only followed to 70 percent on the Red and Blue lines.”

Göttlicher also argued that the numbers the CTA released on hiring aren’t providing the full picture. “CTA tells us how many bus operators they’ve hired in 2022, but fails to mention how many have left to give us a net gain/loss metric. Given the lack of substantial improvements in bus and train service, the overall attrition numbers are likely alarming.”

“To avoid more operator departures and another disastrous New Year’s Eve service, we’d encourage president Carter to look inside his organization,” Göttlicher added. “Why are employees leaving and calling in sick en masse? Perhaps it’s because of deteriorating working conditions and poor treatment by management – a factor that Carter didn’t seem to consider in his board meeting update.”

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