June 2011

Chicago Railcar Testing Reaches the Home Stretch

by Janna Starcic, Executive Editor

Photos courtesy CTA

Photos courtesy CTA
The Chicago Transit Authority (CTA) operates the nation's second largest public transportation system — a regional transit system that serves the city of Chicago and 40 neighboring communities. The system provides 1.7 million rides on an average weekday, accounting for more than 80 percent of all transit trips taken in the six-county Chicago metropolitan region.

Presently, CTA's buses make over 25,000 trips, daily, and serve nearly 12,000 bus stops throughout the region, while the heavy rail service, known as the "L" system, has eight rapid transit routes and consists of 144 stations over approximately 242.2 miles of track.

Like many rail fleets in the U.S., the CTA's railcars have aged considerably, with the oldest cars reaching 32 to 41 years in service. The transit system aims to change that with the addition of new 5000 Series railcars, manufactured by Bombardier Transportation, which are outfitted with a number of customer amenities in addition to added safety features and technologies that will enhance operations and maintenance and provide a smoother, more comfortable ride. The 2006 contract calls for the manufacture and purchase of 406 new railcars, at a total cost of $603.6 million, with additional options that could bring the total purchase to 706 cars.

The CTA began testing 10 prototypes of the 5000 Series railcars in April 2010. Testing is currently being conducted on the Purple Line.

METRO Magazine Executive Editor Janna Starcic asked CTA's GM, Public Affairs, Sheila Gregory to discuss how the transit system is faring during the slow economy and how the new railcars will enhance service, as well as discuss CTA President Richard Rodriguez's initiatives. [At press time, it was announced that Mayor-elect Rahm Emanuel tapped Forrest Claypool to take the helm at CTA. A start date for the incoming president had not been determined, according to Gregory.]

METRO: How has CTA been impacted by shrinking budgets and the slow economy?

CTA: CTA's public funding is particularly sensitive to economic conditions. Sales tax and real estate transfer tax, which makes up the agency's public funding, have been lower than forecast and have resulted in CTA having to make some hard choices, including reducing service last year and laying off employees.

Capital funding has also been difficult to secure, as the state of Illinois no longer has a dedicated capital funding program to support major infrastructure improvements and agencies are competing hard for federal funding.

The Chicago Transit Authority, just like other transit agencies and businesses, has had to do more with less.

More than 90 percent of CTA's labor force is union and accounts for the majority of costs as contracts dictate pay increases despite the budget situation. Non-union employees have not had a pay increase for five years and have had to take furlough days and unpaid holidays in 2010 and 2011.

What are some current challenges facing the CTA and how are they being met?

One of the challenges is to make capital improvements to an infrastructure that, in some areas, is 100 years old. CTA aggressively applies for available state and federal funding.

The agency also continues to look for ways to make improvements that cost very little, but can have a positive impact on customers; for example, testing a train tracking system that provides estimated arrival times for the next train. Through this system, customers can reduce their wait time, which leads to a more pleasant travel experience.

In addition, gas prices continue to rise globally, and fuel is one of CTA's major expenditures. CTA actively manages fuel costs through hedging mechanisms. Fuel hedging allows CTA to lock in per-gallon diesel fuel prices. By doing so, CTA has saved an estimated $6.7 million in 2010.


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