September 30, 2013

Chicago Transit Authority enhances customer service with new initiatives

The Chicago Transit Authority (CTA), the host transit system for APTA’s 2013 Annual Meeting, has undertaken an impressive roster of initiatives including launching a new bus rapid transit system, introducing an open fare payment system and reconstruction of its Red Line South — a massive $425 million dollar initiative, as well as many others. CTA President Forrest Claypool weighed in on these projects and discussed their impact on the agency and its services.

METRO: How significant is the move to open fare payment for the CTA and for the public transit industry in general?

Claypool: Ventra is the one-card solution for transit riders across the region. CTA and Pace are the first transit agencies in North America to offer an open payment system. This means our customers can use a contactless Ventra Card, or even their personal bank cards, to pay for train and bus rides, the same way they pay for other daily purchases. The open, account-based system offers modern amenities and conveniences, such as personal account management. Ventra also makes it easy to access and pay for transit whether by phone, online, adding cash at vending machines, or checking balances on your tablet or smartphone. Ventra also provides balance protection, a benefit not previously available to everyone on CTA and Pace.

What types of impacts do you foresee for the system now that Ventra is in place?
Ultimately, the customer experience will be enhanced, which has been at the heart of every improvement made in the last two years here at CTA. With Ventra, a quick ‘tap’ of a fare reader lets customers board with ease. In addition, this change actually saves the CTA $5 million every year for the next 10 years.

The Ventra open fare payment system allows contactless personal bank cards to be used to pay for fares at turnstiles and on buses.

The Ventra open fare payment system allows contactless personal bank cards to be used to pay for fares at turnstiles and on buses.
How will it change access to Pace bus services?
Ventra now allows for seamless travel between the CTA and Pace Suburban Bus Service. Multiple fare cards and stored value can be loaded onto a Ventra Card or personal bank card, and the system will intuitively know which fare to charge. Ventra makes taking public transportation easy; the easier it is, the more likely people are to use it for the first time or continue taking public transportation.

The Red Line reconstruction project is a massive undertaking. How challenging was it to transition riders to other options? How were you able to do this successfully?
According to American Public Transportation Association (APTA), the CTA is the first transit agency to completely shut down such a large stretch of track (10.2 miles) and rebuild a railroad from the dirt up in such a short time period of just five months — rather than make South Side residents endure a substandard railroad and wait four years for a new railroad by doing the work on weekends. That decision saved the agency $75 million, which is being reinvested in stations along that line, and residents will get a brand new railroad that will reduce daily round-trip commutes by 20 minutes.

To help customers inconvenienced by the temporary Red Line South branch shutdown — an estimated 80,000 people each weekday — the CTA undertook a major alternative service effort to provide customers with plenty of service alternatives that are being widely used by our customers.

The multiple, convenient options included re-routing Red Line trains onto nearby elevated Green Line tracks parallel to the Red Line; free rail entry at the Garfield elevated station on the South Side that served as a hub for free shuttle buses that picked up passengers at shuttered Red Line station locations; added significant additional bus service on routes in the project area and provided 50-cent fare discounts on dozens of routes on the South Side. The brand new shuttle buses were obtained from CTA piggybacking on a contract belonging to King County Metro, Seattle’s public transit agency, to purchase the 100 low-floor, fully-accessible articulated buses the authority decided it did not need because of changing business conditions.

With just weeks to go until the line reopens for customers, the project is on-time and on-budget.[PAGEBREAK]

CTA launched its first BRT service with the Jeffery Jump pilot in April. It is pursuing more BRT initiatives downtown.

CTA launched its first BRT service with the Jeffery Jump pilot in April. It is pursuing more BRT initiatives downtown.

What condition was the line in before the reconstruction? How will the upgraded line impact service?
The Red Line South reconstruction project is a $425 million dollar initiative to rebuild the tracks along the south Red Line, from Cermak-Chinatown to 95th/Dan Ryan — a project that will provide faster, more comfortable and more reliable service for Red Line riders.  

The Red Line South was 44 years old. It opened two months after Neil Armstrong walked on the moon. The entire railroad had deteriorated – rails, ties, ballast and drainage systems all needed to be replaced. Nearly half of the 10.2-mile line was under slow zones, with trains traveling as slow as 15 mph instead of 55 mph.

From just north of the Cermak-Chinatown station to the 95th Street station, crews are replacing everything in the track bed: ties, rail, third rail, ballast (the stone material that holds the ties in place) and drainage systems. Some stations are also receiving improvements, ranging from new canopies, paint and lighting upgrades to new benches and bike racks.

Additionally, the stations at Garfield, 63rd and 87th are getting new elevators, making all stations on the South Side Red Line accessible.  
This project will provide faster commutes, a smoother ride, improved stations and accessibility and a better passenger experience — shaving up to 20 minutes off a daily round-trip commute.

The work is part of Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s Building a New Chicago program, which is updating infrastructure that's critical to the city — and includes improvements that will help ensure that CTA continues to serve customers as effectively as possible.  

The CTA launched its first BRT service in April with the Jeffery Jump service. What prompted the agency to develop this service?
The CTA is always looking at its service as well as ways to improve it. We’ve known that many already busy routes can be improved. Bus rapid transit (BRT) is the most efficient and cost-effective way to improve bus service. Jeffery Boulevard is a pilot BRT project with dedicated lanes during peak periods; transit signal prioritization extending the green light for buses; queue jumps, which give buses the head start ahead of vehicles; train and bus tracker screens inside the buses that are uniquely identified as Jump Buses, as well as bus station enhancements.

These combined improvements have proven successful so far and CTA is continuing plans in cooperation with the Chicago Department of Transportation with pursuits of other BRT initiatives downtown and along a 16-mile stretch of Ashland Avenue, linking people to jobs and communities on CTA’s busiest north-south bus route.

The Red Line South reconstruction project is a $425 million initiative to rebuild the tracks along the south Red Line, from Cermak-Chinatown to 95th/Dan Ryan to provide faster, more reliable service.

The Red Line South reconstruction project is a $425 million initiative to rebuild the tracks along the south Red Line, from Cermak-Chinatown to 95th/Dan Ryan to provide faster, more reliable service.
How do you think this BRT service will change your ridership in terms of how people view public transportation?
BRT is a holistic plan, which considers everyone who shares the roadway: buses, vehicles, bikes and pedestrians. By redesigning the street to accommodate all modes of transportation, we can provide faster, more efficient service. Bus speeds are predicted to increase on Ashland Avenue by up to 83%.  Downtown, CTA and CDOT are making space for all commuters and providing fast, east-west connections through the Loop. This improved service has the potential to shift people toward public transportation once they have fast and reliable service.

CTA currently has hybrid-electric vehicles in the fleet. What are your long-range plans for diversifying your fleet with regard to alternative propulsion systems?
Under Mayor Emanuel’s transit modernization plan, the CTA has launched a major effort to upgrade its entire bus and rail fleet. This includes a bus modernization program announced to overhaul more than 1,000 buses currently in CTA’s fleet that are at the “mid-life” stage to make them like new. The work includes rebuilding engines, transmissions, suspensions, heating and air-conditioning systems; exterior repair and repainting. The rest of CTA’s fleet will be brand new under its plan to purchase as many as 550 new buses, all of which will provide a modern, reliable and comfortable bus fleet to CTA customers that is more environmentally friendly.

The CTA is making good progress on its plan to replace the oldest railcars in its fleet, a plan that is expected to reduce the average age of CTA’s fleet to less than 10 years by 2022. The CTA has already taken delivery of more than 300 of its newest generation of railcars, the 5000 series, to replace its aging cars, and will have all 714 of the 5000 series by the end of 2015 — replacing cars that are in 30-plus and in some cases more than 40 years old. In addition, the agency has begun the procurement process for its next generation of railcars, the 7000 series. The CTA will have the option to purchase up to 846 cars and start taking delivery of cars by as early as 2016, all of which will dramatically reduce the age of its fleet and increase reliability and comfort for customers.

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