Workers replacing track on Milwaukee Ave Elevated Blue Line improvements

Blue Line O’Hare Branch challenges—and what we're doing

The Blue Line’s O’Hare Branch, which runs between O’Hare International Airport and downtown, is our second-busiest rail branch, carrying more than 86,400 riders on an average weekday.

The O’Hare branch has experienced an unprecedented ridership boom in recent years, as a number of neighborhoods along the branch have attracted more rush-period commuters. In fact, between 2006-2016, ridership increased by 5.4 million rides. The biggest growth has come during the morning rush, between 6:00 and 9:00 am:

  • Among all stations systemwide, five of the top 10 stations for growth in morning rush hour use are along the Blue Line O’Hare Branch, including all stations between Belmont and Damen.
  • The California and Logan Square stations saw the greatest ridership growth during the morning rush period of any ‘L’ stop between 2002 and 2017.

We've made every effort to keep pace with that demand, by providing the most frequent service possible during the morning rush hour. Despite our efforts, we know there is still room for improvement. Many of you've shared your feedback, and we want you to know that we hear you and understand the frustration you've expressed, and take your comments and concerns seriously.

We've taken steps to improve the service in the short term and continue to do so today, while looking at ways to improve further and work on long-term projects that'll let us add more trains and replace aging railcars with new ones, reducing the likelihood of the kind of delays that can lead to overcrowding.

We'd like to explain some of the challenges and what we’re doing to make your morning commute better, based on questions you’ve posed to us.

Why don’t you add more trains?

We have. Since 2012, we've added nine trips during both the morning and evening rush hours to better meet demand. During the morning rush, we have been running as many trains as the current power and signal system allows between O'Hare and downtown and recently added even more trains to the middle of the route, where the most severe crowding can occur to add even more capacity where it is most needed.

Why isn’t there enough power?

The O’Hare extension from Jefferson Park to O'Hare on the Blue Line opened nearly 34 years ago, in 1984, and was built with power and signals that would accommodate the projected growth at the time. Since then, this branch's corridor (particularly closer to downtown) has seen substantial residential and commercial development that has increased ridership demand.

Our trains require 600V electrical power to operate (known as traction power). We have our own electrical substations that convert regular alternating-current electricity from the power company to the specific direct-current power that's needed for our trains. The more trains that run, the more power is used and the substations, once with extra room for growth, are now at capacity on parts of the line.

What are you doing about it?

In 2013, we announced the Your New Blue project, the first comprehensive program to address capacity on the branch since it was extended in 1984. The $492M project includes multiple track, signal and station improvements between Grand and O’Hare that represent the biggest investment in the Blue Line in more than 30 years.

Last year, we began a $42.9M project to upgrade three electrical substations, including two that serve the O’Hare branch of the Blue Line. When work is complete in 2020, upgrades to these substations will help improve service reliability along portions of the Blue Line.

Also, in early February, we announced FastTracks, a comprehensive program of track repairs and maintenance designed to provide faster commutes and smoother rides for ‘L’ customers. Funded by the Mayor’s innovative ride-hailing fee, FastTracks includes a $25M project to add an electrical substation to provide more power to the O’Hare branch. The planning/engineering for that project will begin later this year, and construction will start next year.

These measures, along with signal upgrades planned along the O’Hare branch (between Jefferson Park and O’Hare) as part of the Your New Blue program and receipt of the new 7000-series rail cars, will allow us to add more trains during the busiest times.

What options do I have when there are crowding issues during rush periods?

During the peak of the morning rush period, between 8:00 and 9:00 am, Loop-bound Blue Line trains are generally nearing capacity by the time they reach Damen through Clark/Lake. Similarly at the peak of evening rush period, between 4:30 and 5:30 pm, O’Hare-bound trains are near capacity between Clark/Lake and Damen.

Unfortunately, even with us running as many trains as we can, the smallest delay in service during these times can result in a backlog of riders on platforms waiting for multiple trains to pass before being able to board.

If your schedule allows flexibility, options for a less crowded commute include:

  • Traveling the Blue Line a little earlier or later than the peak of the rush periods.
  • Plan ahead and identify alternate travel routes for your most frequent trips. CTA offers a grid bus network so riders have several options to travel from Point A to Point B.
    • For example, riders at or near the Division and Damen stations wanting to travel to the Loop can board an #X9 Ashland Express bus from the Ashland/Milwaukee/Division bus stops and exit at the Ashland/Lake station, which is served by both Green and Pink line trains. While your in-vehicle travel time may increase, the benefit of this alternative is the additional capacity.
  • Using CTA Bus and Train Trackers to make adjustments to your trip in real-time.

Why are the oldest railcars on the Blue Line? And why don’t you put newer cars there?

CTA’s 2600-series railcars are indeed the oldest in the fleet and make up much of the Blue Line's fleet. They were built in the 1980s,but received complete overhauls between 1999 and 2002.

There are two main reasons why these cars run on the Blue Line:

Generally speaking, each rail line uses just one series of railcars (though sometimes two). This enables the rail yards that serve each line to be equipped and staffed to operate, maintain and repair a particular series of rail car. Each rail car series has unique elements to its various systems that require specific training—and the personnel at each yard specialize in training specific to a specific series of rail car. We organize our fleet to try and streamline the kind of equipment each shop needs to maintain and the specialized tools and equipment needed to support them.

But also, as mentioned before, power is an issue. The newer 5000-series rail cars seen on the Green, Pink, Purple, Red and Yellow lines use more electrical power than older railcars (owing to their heavier weight and some differences in how their modern systems work that can require more power to be drawn). The current available power on the Blue Line O’Hare Branch is not sufficient to support 5000-series cars if they made up the entire Blue Line's fleet during rush.

We have begun running a small number of 5000-series cars on the Blue Line to provide additional capacity and reliability. (This change is made possible by operating these cars out of the yard used by the Pink Line, which is home to and has the equipment and staff to maintain this kind of car.)

We've also recently begun adding 3200-series railcars from the Orange and Brown Lines (the series that was delivered after the 2600-series) as these cars are operationally compatible with 2600s (trains can include both kinds of cars, without issue). These cars have recently been through an overhaul and, as a result, we believe adding some to the line will provide greater overall reliability. (We also expect the 2600-series being sent to the Orange and Brown Lines to perform better on the Brown and Orange Line routes.)

We're always studying plans to improve fleet distribution throughout our system.

The older 2600-series rail cars will be replaced by the next generation 7000-series rail cars, which are expected to begin arriving in 2020.