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Northern attitude: Riding the Yellow Line to Skokie 7 weeks after the route was shut down by a crash

If a disaster of this severity happened on a Chicagoland expressway, there's no way that the road would stay closed for two days, let alone nearly two months.

Exiting a Skokie Swift train at Dempster Street this afternoon. Photo: John Greenfield

This post is sponsored by Boulevard Bikes.

On Thursday, the day after the CTA stated there was no timetable for reopening the Yellow Line, aka the Skokie Swift, resulting in a fierce backlash, the agency announced it was reopening the line today. That was certainly good news, seeing as how the restored service was happening seven weeks after a train run crashed into a snow removal machine on November 16 at the Howard station. 19 people were hospitalized after that collision, three of them critically injured, according to federal investigators

If a disaster of that severity happened on a Chicagoland expressway, there's no way that the road would stay closed two days, let alone nearly two months. But officials didn't seem to think it was absurd to keep a major commuter route out of service for that long, replaced by less-than-dependable shuttle buses.

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

The National Transportation Safety Board extensively investigated the causes of the crash and released a six-paragraph preliminary report on the collision on December 12. At that time the CTA announced several future safety precautions, notably lowering maximum Yellow Line speed from 55 to 35.

But even after the NTSB signed off on resuming Yellow Line service, the CTA seemed to drag its feet. I was suspicious that the transit agency was intentionally holding off on running Swift trains again because the agency is short on rail operators nowadays, and it's easier to use bus drivers for the shuttles.

The Skokie-Oakton stop. Photo: John Greenfield

While I know that sounds like a conspiracy theory, the grassroots transit advocacy group Commuters Take Action's transit data expert Brandon McFadden said that it wasn't a totally out-of-pocket notion. "Purple Line service has increased slightly, potentially because of the shift of resources in Howard yard. I think it’s worth investigating."

So I went ahead and asked CTA Media Relations about that yesterday morning. A spokesperson replied that afternoon around 4 p.m. "Rail operator staffing is not a factor in the closure. The Yellow Line will reopen once information gathering as part of the NTSB investigation is complete."

Howard station, which serves the Red, Yellow, and Purple lines, looking west on Howard this afternoon. Photo: John Greenfield

"We do not have an anticipated reopening date to share at this time, but will continue to share updates as we have them," the spokesperson added. Read their entire statement to me here. Less than two hours later the CTA announced today's reopening.

I celebrated the reboot today by catching the Yellow Line to the Dempster station and my favorite Skokie deli. (View a video of the short trip from the station on foot here.) The ride was completely normal. At early rush hour, around 4 p.m., the train was moderately crowded. I've ridden the Swift countless times before and didn't notice any difference in speed today, despite the lower limit.

The deli is a five-minute walk from the station. Image: Google Maps

On the way, I interviewed a couple of fellow passengers. One young woman who lives in Rogers Park was on her way to see a friend in Skokie she frequently visits. "The closure affected me particularly going home, because the Yellow Line shuttle would wait for about 15 to 20 minutes at the stop, while the train only waits about five for people to get on, so getting home was a little more challenging than normally."

Waiting for a Skokie Swift at Howard, with a security guard and dog.

A middle-aged man who lives near the Skokie-Oakton stop told me he usually takes the Skokie Swift to Howard, and then transfers to the Purple Line to head north to his job as a chef at Northwestern University in Evanston. He was on his way home. While the Yellow Line was out of commission, he had been taking the CTA's 97 Skokie bus, which services portions of Howard and Oakton street, but he said it added 15 or 20 minutes to his trip.

The Yellow Line ride to Dempster around 4 p.m. today. Photo: John Greenfield

After I picked up my noshes and waited for the train home, I spoke to a senior who lives in suburban Park Ridge and was on his way to pay bills on Howard Street. He normally takes Pace's 250 Dempster Street route to get from his home to the Yellow Line, and then rides the train to the city, so the 'L' closure affected his routine. "I know it was a bad crash, but they should have gotten the train going quicker than this, because people really depend on it."

The inbound train from Dempster. Photo: John Greenfield

In the wake of the Swift fiasco, it appears CTA president Dorval Carter Jr.'s future is something of a "Blank Space." Will he get fired by Chicago Mayor Brandon Johnson because of all the "Bad Blood" among transit customers, or will Carter be able to "Shake It Off" and remain in control of the agency?

(Sorry, I couldn't resist dropping a bunch of Taylor Swift song titles in this article about the Skokie Swift. But, hey, even Illinois Governor JB Pritzker recently posted a quip about the pop star.)

Returning home from Dempster around 5 p.m. today. Photo: John Greenfield

"Unfortunately, I think he’s pretty immune to replacement under this administration," said sustainable transportation advocate Molly Fleck. "Transit does not seem to be a priority for either the mayor or City Council."

On the bright side, the Active Transportation Alliance shared this good news this afternoon.

So now that the Swift drama seems to have come to a close, and it appears that the CTA is getting serious about ending its 'L' operator shortage, let's hope Chicago transit service will get back to normal soon. It's been years since the COVID-19 pandemic started winding down, so reliable public transportation is a scenario we should know "All Too Well" by now.

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