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Not so Swift: Yellow Line restoration drags on after crash, as confusion reigns over shuttle bus service

Yellow ‘L’ line service remains suspended three weeks after a November 16 collision with a snowplow, and the shuttle service is unpredictable.

The inbound Yellow Line train and the “snow fighter” track-plowing train it collided with. Image: National Transportation Safety Board

Yellow ‘L’ line service between Skokie's Dempster station and Rogers Park's Howard stop remains suspended three weeks after a November 16 collision with a snowplow led to 19 people being hospitalized, including three with critical injuries, according to federal investigators. The federal government is still investigating the accident, and service won’t resume at least until the investigation is completed.

In the meantime, riders of the Yellow Line, aka the Skokie Swift, have been relying on the free shuttle service and CTA Route 97. But that hasn’t been without its issues. The shuttle runs about as frequently as the Yellow Line – which is to say, less frequently than most other lines. But because, unlike the regular ‘L’ and bus services, it doesn’t show up on the transit trackers, riders are never sure how long they have to wait. 

Yellow Line shuttle stop at the Howard terminal. Photo: Igor Studenkov

More importantly, there appears to be some confusion about whether the shuttle stops at the Yellow Line’s one intermediate stop, Skokie's Oakton-Skokie station. The CTA insists that the shuttle makes all Yellow Line stops, but from what I observed and what the Chicago Tribune reported last week, that isn’t true in practice. Some shuttles race past the Oakton-Skokie stop, and even some CTA staff members appear to be under the impression that the shuttle is a nonstop Dempster-Howard express.

The crash and the consequences

After the CTA bought five miles of the defunct Chicago North Shore and Milwaukee Railroad between Dempster and Howard in 1963, the CTA turned that corridor into an express rail service that was launched in April1964.

In 2012, the CTA rebuilt the Oakton Street station. But the trains still traveled most of the line without stopping, allowing them to travel faster than anywhere else in the system.

Last month, an inbound Yellow train approached the Howard ‘L’ terminal and a slammed into a "snow fighter" plowing train that happened to be on the track. Since then, the National Transportation Safety Board has been investigating what mechanical and system issues might be responsible for the collision.

According to the Chicago Tribune last week, the federal agency found that braking distance might have been an issue. NTSB Chair Jennifer Homendy told the paper the 5500-series train car system was designed to stop the train within 1,780 feet, but the train needed 2,745 feet to stop safely. 

According to the CTA statement released on November 29, the transit agency was doing its own investigation. "Safety is our No. 1 consideration," it stated. "The CTA is currently engaged in an extremely thorough review of all aspects of the Yellow Line, from signals to tracks to equipment, as well as testing trains to ensure safe operation. These activities require time to perform. Once this review is complete, service will resume."

Test train at Dempster-Skokie station. Photo: Igor Studenkov

This week a transit agency spokesperson told Streetsblog there were no updates as to when Yellow Line service would be restored. 

This isn't the first time Yellow Line was hobbled by a mishap. In 2015, construction at the O'Brien Water Reclamation Plant caused the nearby embankment wall to collapse, shutting down the line for almost six months while contractors worked to fix the damage. 

Yellow Line alternatives

Just like in 2015, CTA is running shuttles along the entire line, and suggesting that riders use the 97 Skokie bus. The route follows portions of Howard and Oakton street before proceeding north toward the Dempster-Skokie terminal and up to Old Orchard Mall. 

Riders board the Route 97 bus at the Howard terminal. Photo: Igor Studenkov

During rush hour, the CTA's 54A North Cicero/Skokie Blvd. bus, which runs between the Skokie Courthouse and the Six Corners section of Portage Park, links the Dempster and Oakton stations. Signs at the Oakton stop instruct riders to use the Route 54A stops closest to the station to catch the shuttle.

Actually catching a shuttle at the Oakton station is another matter. When I tried to catch the Howard-bound one on Thursday, November 30 a little after 5 p.m., I already saw nine people waiting, and some told me they had already waited for as long as ten minutes. A few minutes later, a shuttle bus driver sped right past the stop. It took another 20 minutes – during which one Route 54A bus operator stopped and another drove past – for another shuttle driver to show up and actually pick up passengers this time. 

I ran into a similar issue on Saturday, December 2, a little after noon. In fairness, this time the bus driver told me she was asked to fill in at the last minute, and readily admitted that this was her first time driving the shuttle, and she wasn’t entirely sure where she was going. Another passenger and I ended up helping her navigate the final leg of the journey.

What I observed weren’t isolated incidents. The passengers I talked to said that they’ve seen shuttle drivers skip the Oakton station sometimes. Some passengers didn’t realize the bus was supposed to stop at Oakton to begin with. And last week's Tribune article mentioned a shuttle driver skipping the station.

Yellow Line shuttles line up at Dempster park-n-ride. Igor Studenkov

Over the past week, I’ve seen CTA staff at both Howard and Dempster terminals, helping to direct passengers to the right buses. But I didn’t see anything like this at the Oakton station. I asked several employees whether the bus was supposed to stop at Oakton. Some said that the shuttles made all stops, while the others said that the shuttle was traveling non-stop, and suggested I take Route 97 instead.

The CTA spokesperson asserted that the shuttles were supposed to stop at all Yellow Line stations. As of today, the transit alert still states that the shuttles are "serving all affected stations."

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