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A History Of Transit Neglect In Chicago: Is The Problem Internal Or External?

October 15, 2007

Can you think of a more unsexy topic than “urban infrastructure?” Well, in Chicago and Illinois in general, the topic has been hotter than a [insert your favorite, sexy pop culture music icon here—i.e. Madonna circa 1985] music video for last two months or so.

Did you know that Chicago’s transit system is the second largest in the United States? Would you believe that it absolutely has to be first in the categories of underfunding, mismanagement, and general neglect by public authorities?

Just under a month ago the Chicago Tribune ran an exclusive story on the recent history of mass transit in Chicago. Due to a perceived funding crisis, the Chicago Transit Authority (CTA) was the particular object of the piece. But mass transit in Chicago also includes the Regional Transit Authority (RTA), an organization that manages a great deal of commuter train and bus traffic in the suburbs. See this map below of just the CTA’s responsibility:

Although co-authored by Jon Hilkevitch and Monique Garcia, four other Tribune reporters contributed to the September 16 report. Here are some excerpts interspersed with commentary:

– “Chicago Transit Authority foreman Elios Gil was losing sleep at night worrying about the almost 18 miles of dilapidated track assigned to his inspectors and repair crew. His track gang, which at one point dwindled to just eight people, couldn’t keep up with the wear and tear of trains constantly pounding on the almost 60-year-old tracks.”

TL: Actually, I would’ve guessed that some of the track is much older than 60.

– ” ‘Usually, we don’t have enough equipment to take care of our maintenance,’ Gil told National Transportation Safety Board investigators slightly more than a month after the July 11, 2006, Blue Line derailment and fire that sent about 1,000 terrified passengers fleeing the dimly lit subway tunnel with rings of black soot around their mouths and nostrils.”

TL: This was a big story in Chicago. Rail traffic was snarled for several days. It was the straw that broke the camel’s back with regard to the present crisis.

– “[Gil’s] account was one of dozens in an NTSB investigation file obtained by the Tribune. Thousand of pages containing documents and transcribed interviews with CTA workers tell the hidden story of why track inspections were hit or miss, repairs were backlogged and managers either failed to correct dangerously deteriorated track conditions or claimed they were unaware of them.”

TL: My only question is this: How had CTA become so dysfunctional that we needed an NTSB investigation of a disaster to tell us something that’s obvious to Chicagoans who ride the CTA with ~any~ regularity?

– “The workers told of a system that at its best met 50-year-old standards and at its worst left workers unnerved, imagining scenarios like the smoky fire in the muddy subway tunnel last year — or worse.”

TL: With endorsements like this, it’s no wonder that terrorists never bothered with Chicago’s transit system: The CTA was it’s own worst enemy.

– “Since the derailment, inspections have been stepped up and thousands of feet of track have been designated slow zones, evidence of an aging and decrepit transit system. Even though the slow zones will allow trains to keep running, the steel tracks just inches below passengers’ feet remain in dire need of repair.”
– “The Blue Line accident probably would not have occurred if the problems between the Clark/Lake and Grand/Milwaukee stations in downtown Chicago had been red-flagged and the area designated a train slow zone, records revealed.”

TL: Note–Being unable to fix things (whether the problem is internal or external), the temporary solution for CTA’s problems is slow down the trains to about half speed. This has been ongoing since early September. Almost the entire branch of the Red Line on the North Side is currently a continuous slow zone.

“The core issue, investigators found, was not funding troubles, but a gross lack of management and oversight by the CTA and its parent agency, the Regional Transportation Authority. Investigators were unable to determine what had become of thousands of inspection and maintenance reports, raising questions about whether they were done at all or were either lost or destroyed.”

TL: Here the Tribune reporters make their stand. The CTA’s problem isn’t money, but management problems. But I ask: Can’t the lack of funding cause management problems? Could it be a two-way street?

– “It is a disturbing picture of the nation’s second-largest transit system, which each day carries half a million passengers a total of 225,000 miles over its eight lines.”

TL: This is astounding. I had no idea that Chicago’s was the second-largest system in the U.S.

– “CTA inspectors said that some foremen ignored verbal warnings and paperwork about unsafe track, prompting some rail inspectors to write their findings on subway walls in chalk as evidence that the weak links on the line had not been simply overlooked. Some of the dates scribbled on the walls went back as far as 1996, track inspector Brian Hill said Thursday in an interview with the Tribune. ‘Because they never would come [fix] the problem, to cover ourselves [we’d write on the walls,]’ said Hill, who was among five employees fired after the Blue Line derailment. ‘You know what CTA means, right? Cover Thine You-Know-What.'”

TL: This is amazing. In this age of Blackberries, Trios, cell phones, e-mail, and paperwork in general, an inspector had to “chalk” his concerns on the CTA’s grubby underground walls. It’s Neanderthal communications in the twenty-first century.

– “During the investigation, thousands of documents detailing the condition of the tracks could not be found, raising questions about whether the inspections were completed and whether managers were alerted to the growing problems and took action. More than 80 percent of the records for Blue Line inspections done between May 2006 and the accident the following July were never found, investigators said. Those records, which were stored in boxes in rail yard trailers and not reviewed by higher-level managers, should have detailed thousands of rotting wooden railroad ties, rusted bolts and worn rail. The missing files, which inspectors and maintenance workers said they completed, were a mystery to frustrated employees who said they did all they could to report potentially dangerous conditions.

TL: What amazes me is that the Tribune‘s reporters didn’t directly raise the question of foul play. Hmm, couldn’t it be possible that the same CYA attitude expressed above found expression in the destruction of records?

– “Gil told the NTSB it disgusted him to see millions of dollars being spent for station upgrades when the tracks were a mess. ‘The train doesn’t run on the station,’ Gil said. He pleaded with the safety board to help him.

TL: This is a great point. I haven’t yet seen an answer in recent articles about neglect and the CTA.

– “Darrell Nelson, a 31-year CTA veteran, was transferred from supervising track work on the Brown Line to the Blue Line less than six months before the derailment. He voiced frustration at the inexperience of inspectors and track workers, but he dutifully reported up the command chain all issues brought before him, he said.”
– “Nelson, 52, said he walked into a backlog of Blue Line projects and wasn’t made fully aware by his predecessor or the inspectors who worked for him that problems were so serious and widespread. He thought the track structure in that area of the subway was fine.”

TL: It’s amazing how irresponsibility on the part of just a few can be hidden, or covered up, for long stretches.

– ” ‘If the men don’t bring anything to me, how am I supposed to know?’ he
said in an interview with the Tribune. ‘Why in the hell would I come to work knowing I have a year and seven months until retirement and not do what I am supposed to do knowing that any negligence would impair safety?’ “

TL: Good point. When self-interest is on one’s side, it’s hard to doubt the story.

– “Working at the track level is no easy feat, especially in the dark, dank belly of the subway lines. Two-man crews, paired up for safety, must do their work as trains rumble by every seven to 10 minutes. They trudge through mud and muck, often equipped with little more than a flashlight, safety goggles and a vest. Instead of calibrated instruments, they use rudimentary inspection tools, and they are given
a wooden ruler or a stick with markings to measure the width, or gauge, of the tracks.”

TL: Again, Neanderthal technology for a twenty-first century problem. There’s more.

– “Many track-walkers carry a collapsible carpenter’s ruler that unfolds to 56 1/2 inches — the proper width of the track. In the cave-like subway tunnels, where light bulbs are either burnt out or covered in grime, the workers hold one end of the ruler against one rail and stretch it to the other. A mistake of an inch or even less could cause train wheels to jump the track.”

TL: Makes you want to come to Chicago and rely on the train, doesn’t it?!

– “Repairmen also described to investigators the challenge of eyeballing faulty parts among the thousands of screw spikes, fastening clips and steel plates holding together miles of rails — the very foundation of public transit in Chicago. They said it’s difficult to spot a cracked spike if it is wedged in a plate or to see a rotted and split tie sitting in standing water. ‘Hitting every washer, every bolt, every spike, you would be down there all day and not complete your work. The problem was that a lot of the new guys didn’t know what to look for,’ he said.”

TL: So, are inspectors not being paid enough to make this a lifetime job, or is the CTA being merely mismanaged? Nothing keeps retention up like a solid salary.

– “Although inspectors are required to check their corridor of track twice per week, that happened rarely, if ever, for a variety of reasons. Inspectors say that to do the job right, there isn’t enough time to cover all the tracks in the five hours allotted per day.”

TL: So, not enough inspectors are around to do the work. Is it because not enough are being hired due to a lack of funds, or is it that inspectors are not reporting their failure to meet qork quotas?

– “Inspections were often cut short to fix problems discovered. Inspectors also complained that they had to learn on the job because training consisted of a one-day class. ‘One day, one class a year. It wasn’t enough, especially when you’ve
got lives at stake,’ said Blue Line inspector Bruce McFall, also fired
after the derailment.”

TL: But, based on what was being looked for, as outlined above, the issue was not training but lighting, equipment, time, and staff issues. This points to mismanaged funds or personnel, not training.

– “Track inspector Bryant Martin spent more than three years on the job and was never issued the CTA’s Track Maintenance Standards Manual, he told NTSB investigators. The manual is considered the go-to guide to trouble-shoot problems, but Martin learned while he worked.”

TL: Then again, if you can’t get your one reminder on your one-day training, I can see why, in the future, it’d be difficult to remember everything for which you are responsible.

– “In the wake of the NTSB report, CTA President Ron Huberman [right] said changes are coming but will take time. Track work must be fitted in between rush periods and between trains coming through the subways and elevated corridors every few minutes. The NTSB stopped short of saying commuters should keep off CTA trains. But spokesman Peter Knudson said, ‘We believe the CTA system could be significantly safer. While we are encouraged that the CTA has taken some steps, the work is not done until they address our safety recommendations in totality.’ “

TL: Based on information above, it actually seems like the CTA should not be running. Or that it should be closed down for a month of extensive inspection and repair. Amazing.

Enter history—and the political blame game.

– “CTA Board Chairwoman Carole Brown directed much of the blame at the agency’s previous administration, which was headed by mayoral confidant Frank Kruesi [right] from 1997 until this spring. Other board members agreed that Huberman’s leadership bears no resemblance to the way Kruesi ran the CTA. ‘Six months ago, we would have been told we didn’t have any problems,’ CTA board vice-chairwoman Susan Leonis said.”

TL: Huberman does seem to be doing a fine job of crisis management, but were Kruesi’s problems those of management or money? The article argues for the former, but doesn’t adequately address the latter. It seems to me that the article was written based on the assumption that money is not a problem.

– “Mayor Richard Daley staunchly stood by Kruesi during tough times, including service cuts and fare hikes. But the failings that were so explicitly outlined in the NTSB probe prompted Daley to criticize the supervision of track maintenance as ‘a disgrace. You talk about the safety of people riding public transportation.’ “

TL: Typical. Throw your former employee under the bus after an accident (Blue Line, 2006) with political implications. Could it be that Mayor Daley himself didn’t care enough about CTA while overseeing this recent, twenty-year period of massive growth in the city? Did Daley underestimate the needs of mass transit and infrastructure in favor of sexy projects like Millenium Park? It seems so.

– “Kruesi, known for his style of micro-management, labeled the systemic problems with rail inspections and maintenance that occurred under his watch as ‘indefensible.’ ‘I’m the first person to acknowledge that the NTSB investigation uncovered things that needed to be fixed,’ Kruesi said. ‘It should have come to my attention.’ “

TL: This is a stand-up thing to say. That’s not indicative of mismanagement. You want your leaders to acknowledge mistakes and look for solutions when possible.

– “Former CTA inspector Hill noted bitterly that some of the conditions workers had complained about for years have been corrected since he was fired. ‘I saw on the TV the other day how bright it looked down there [in the subway],” Hill said. ‘One of the guys I used to work with, he said, ‘Man, it looks like Times Square down there.'”


For more on the CTA’s current conditions and recent history, check out CTA Tattler. It’s a weblog began by a regular rider who simply wanted to record her/his observations. The site has expanded into a forum for complaints and news about the CTA in general.

Finally, here’s website that chronicles the history of Chicago’s “L,” or El, elevated train lines. The site has great pictures and a nice narrative. I can’t vouch for its complete accuracy on either count (with apologies to the site’s owner, Graham Garfield, and contributors), but it should be a great starting point for a Chicago-loving historian somewhere. – TL


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