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CTA celebrates reopening of Forest Park Branch tracks, but service interruptions are still planned for remaining work

Recent track and platform work along the Forest Park Branch. Image: CTA


This post is sponsored by Boulevard Bikes.

Last Friday, Streetsblog published a guest op-ed by Commuters Take Action's Brandon McFadden titled, "From bad to worse: Unpacking the CTA’s latest schedule changes effective October 8th." It was based on updates of the General Transit Feed Specification published by the CTA earlier last week. As the advocacy group previously predicted, once again the new rail schedules involve service reductions.

In a statement released a few hours after our article, the transit agency acknowledged the bad news. But it added that "we will add back rail service to [spring 2023] scheduled service" in mid-November. That will be after a train-turnaround area just west of the Blue Line Forest Park Branch's UIC-Halsted station, called the "Morgan Middle" (1000 W.) is rebuilt. This area is used to “short-turn” runs so more service can be concentrated in high-ridership areas. The agency says when this happens, it will benefit multiple rail routes.

Blue Line service restored

And there was some good news for the CTA early Sunday morning as the Forest Park Branch track fully reopened as planned, just in time for the Chicago Marathon. That means the Blue Line is now making all stops from O'Hare Airport to Forest Park, with no need for shuttle buses due to previous station closures on the Near West Side. It's the first time the line has served all stations since late July.

So the $268 million project to upgrade the Forest Park branch between the LaSalle (130 W.) and Illinois Medical District (1900 W.) stations, dubbed Phase 1 of the larger Forest Park Blue Line Branch Rebuild, is mostly complete. It has involved replacing 15,000 feet of track and rebuilding the Racine (1200 W.) station (which isn't finished yet.)

CTA video marking the reopening of the full Forest Park Branch.

Ongoing signal, train-turnaround, and traction power work

But in Sunday's news release, the CTA said that although trains will cover the entire Blue Line route, signal work is still being finished. "As such, trains will run temporarily at a reduced speed between LaSalle and IMD and then gradually increase up to the posted speed." They added that full speeds are expected by the end of the year.

The CTA also said more impacts to Blue service are expected over the next two years as the last parts of Phase 1 are finished, including the new Racine stop and the Morgan Street substation. "During this time, service impacts can include weekend line-cuts, single track operations and/or back rides."  

The CTA added that while the rebuilding of Morgan Middle continues, the agency will continue to short-turn a few trains at rush hours near LaSalle, as was done during track reconstruction. However, most Blue Line trains will still have to go to the end of the line in Forest Park. "Those longer trips require more workers to account for the additional distance and time meaning fewer available to operate more Blue Line trains." But, again, the CTA says things will improve when the Morgan Middle is rebuilt in the middle of next month.

The CTA said workers are still upgrading the Blue Line's traction power system, which will make service more reliable. This includes rebuilding the Morgan substation and other work on power system components in the area, including multiple components at the Hermitage (1730 W.) Substation.

Rendering of the new Racine station's main entrance. Image: CTA

Planned upgrades to Racine station

The agency also provided an update on the Racine station reconstruction. The Loomis (1400 W.) auxiliary entrance to the stop reopened on Sunday, but the main Racine station was previously demolished for the rebuild to make it wheelchair accessible. It will be only the fifth out of the 11 Forest Park Branch stations to meet that standard.

According to the CTA, the rebuilt main station will get a new elevator, a longer platform, and new stairs replacing the ramp the used to lead from the Racine Avenue station to the trains. The main station is slated to reopen in late 2024, with the Loomis entrance then closing for reconstruction until 2025.

Commuters Take Action responds

The advocacy group's cofounder Fabio Göttlicher rode on the newly opened tracks on Sunday and tweeted a thread about his experience. He noticed some glitches with the system, such as unpredictable service, outdated info signs, and his train skipping the Clark/Lake station despite "no sign of unusual activity" at the station. But he did appreciate the new rails that appeared to be welded, and pleasant views of the Loop as he passed the under-construction Racine stop.

A tweet from Göttlicher's thread.

"[Commuters Take Action's] biggest concern is the even bigger reduction in blue line service that Brandon McFadden outlined in his [Streetsblog op-ed] last week," Göttlicher told Streetsblog. "CTA's press release makes it sound like this is only temporary, but we're still a little wary... The fact that CTA only admitted that the Blue Line schedule reduction is meant to be temporary after the schedules went into effect, and made zero efforts to publicize this to riders, speaks to the agency's (lack of) dedication to informing riders about service levels."

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