Workers replacing track on Milwaukee Ave Elevated Blue Line improvements

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

Did you know that the Blue Line is CTA’s second-busiest rail line behind the Red Line? What’s more, the Blue Line’s O’Hare Branch, which runs between O’Hare International Airport and downtown, is CTA’s 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 grown and developed. In fact, between 2006-2016, ridership increased by 5.4 million rides, the second-highest of any rail branch. The biggest growth has come during the morning rush hour, between 6:00 and 9:00 am:

  • Among all stations systemwide, five of the top 10 stations with the biggest increase in morning rush hour use are along the Blue Line O’Hare Branch, including all stations between Belmont and Damen.
  • The California/Milwaukee 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 realize there is still room for improvement. Many of you have shared your feedback, and we want you to know that we hear you. We understand the frustration many of you have expressed, and we take your comments and concerns seriously.

We have already taken steps to improve the service, and are looking at ways to improve further. We wanted to take a moment 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 are running as many trains as the current power and signal system allows.

Why don’t you add even more?

The current power and signal systems are at capacity—they can’t handle more trains.

Why isn’t there enough power?

The O’Hare branch of the Blue Line opened nearly 34 years ago, in 1984, and was built to accommodate the projected growth at the time. Since then, that corridor has seen substantial residential and commercial development that has increased ridership demand.

CTA trains require 600V electrical power to operate (known as traction power). We have our own electrical substations that convert regular alternating-current electricity to the direct-current power needed to run trains. The more trains that run, the more power is used. Simply put, our substations don’t have capacity to provide additional power that would allow us add more trains than we’re already running.

So 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 opened 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 the smallest delay in service during these times can result in riders 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. 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. The Blue Line’s Forest Park and Rosemont yards have the equipment, tools and personnel designed for 2600-series rail cars.
  • 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 advanced, computerized systems). The current available power on the Blue Line O’Hare Branch is not sufficient to run the high number of trains required in the morning and evening rush hours.

We're always studying plans to improve fleet distribution throughout its system. The 2600-series rail cars will be replaced by the next generation 7000-series rail cars, which are expected to begin arriving in 2020.

System status snapshot
‘L’ route status
Red Line
Normal Service
Brown Line
Normal Service
Green Line
Normal Service
Orange Line
Normal Service
Pink Line
Normal Service
Purple Line
Normal Service
Yellow Line
Normal Service
Bus routes w/alerts
Elevator alerts