CHICAGO — CTA trains are often running with significant delays and gaps on the weekends, data shows.
The CTA has struggled with delays or gaps in service throughout the pandemic — but the issue is worse on weekends, with some commuters saying they’ve spent more than 25 minutes waiting for a train on Saturdays and Sundays. CTA employees said the agency is particularly short-staffed on weekends, leading to more delays, piled-up platforms after shows and at busy stops and larger intervals between trains.
Software engineer Fabio Göttlicher, who has studied train intervals at the California Blue Line station since December, said the CTA is only providing 35-50 percent of the service it promises to there on weekends, compared to 55-65 percent on the weekdays.
The CTA has a “consistency problem” and continues to highball its service goals and promises, leading to poor scheduling and “trains that run in bunches and then extended gaps in service,” said Brandon McFadden, a cybersecurity analyst and coder who has also used publicly available data to track CTA train arrivals systemwide since June.
The average time between trains systemwide is about 10 minutes on weekdays, and that grows to 15 minutes on weekends, McFadden said. Trains running 9 p.m.-5 a.m. on weekends run closer to 23 minutes apart, McFadden said.
But these averages have major outliers, and there can be “occasional gaps” of 30-50 minutes on platforms on Saturday afternoons, Göttlicher said.
The CTA is working on making its service more reliable and filling in its workforce holes, and last month the agency released a plan to meet those targets, a spokesperson said.
Long Waits For Weekend Rides
Chicagoans said they trust CTA trains to get them to and from 9-to-5 work, but they often have to budget extra time when taking the system on weekends.
Annabelle Goldin, of Logan Square, said she waited more than 40 minutes to transfer from the Red to the Blue Line at the Lake/State stop during a weekend. Lily Fast, of Logan Square, said she’s waited up to 25 minutes for the Blue Line on the weekends.
“I don’t trust them all the time, because you don’t know when a delay can hit, especially on the weekends,” Fast said. “It could say two minutes away and then change on you.”
The CTA’s problems — delayed trains and ghost buses, violent crimes and issues with people smoking on and dirtying trains — have become part of political campaigns as officials prepare for February’s election.
Mayoral candidate Kam Buckner said he was ghosted by a bus Saturday on Chicago Avenue near the Conservatory-Central Park stop, and he waited nearly 30 minutes for the next one to come. Buckner attended a protest Wednesday morning in front of CTA headquarters where residents discussed how the CTA’s issues are affecting them.
McFadden said his data shows train schedules do not reliably match results — and the CTA must do a better job giving passengers a clear picture of how long their commutes will take.
“Promise a service you can run, or hire more people to run the service you’re promising,” McFadden said.
CTA Working On Reliable Service
Last month, the CTA announced a plan, Meeting the Moment, designed to, in part, “align scheduled service with currently available workforce,” spokesperson Maddie Kilgannon said in an email. The plan focuses on providing “reliable and consistent service,” among other priorities.
Under the plan, the agency will focus on recruiting and “investing in” employees to “ensure CTA is a first choice of travel,” according to the CTA website.
The CTA has been hit with “staffing issues due to illness, a very competitive job market that has shrunk our workforce pipeline, and the so-called Great Resignation,” Kilgannon said. The agency has taken “aggressive steps” to recruit workers and is hiring at a faster rate than pre-pandemic, the spokesperson said.
“It’s a good start, though there is more to be done,” Kilgannon said. “The challenges with service vary from day to day, weekend to weekend. Some days and weekends, there are comparatively few unexpected staff absences, and service levels are high. Other times, when call-offs are higher, service levels can be impacted.”
Some CTA workers said the staff shortage is a key cause of the agency’s issues.
A repairman and a train operator, who asked to remain anonymous to protect their jobs, said staff is already tight, and it gets even worse on weekends, when more people call out of work.
Before the pandemic, the CTA had “show-ups:” train operators who waited at terminals to fill in for absent employees or step in if service was running slow, the train operator said. But show-ups are rare on weekdays and nonexistent on weekends, he said.
The thinner weekend staff can lead to issues like service gaps snowballing when passengers halt service or trains break down, said the train operator, who works on the Orange Line.
“Weekdays on the Orange Line, I feel the service is reliable. But weekends are hit or miss,” the train operator said. “My trains are still packed. We have fewer workers and less trains coming. … For us, it becomes a ‘tough-it-out’ kind of thing.”
Train operators must first be trained in other roles — like customer assistance and flagging — and can switch back to them for certain shifts, the train operator said. But now, operators expect to run trains every day they work, he said.
Workers are being stretched and could use “a mental health day once a month, not even to stay at home, but just a day off the train and in the booth,” the operator said.
At one point, the train operator was injured and unable to complete a Sunday morning shift — and there “was not another coworker around to help,” he said.
“I like driving trains, but it is difficult. You lose focus for any two seconds, and any number of things can happen. That wears you down mentally,” the operator said. “We already have a big responsibility, but now you’re actually on your own.”
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