CTA celebrates 25 years of color-coding Chicago’s rail lines

February 21, 2018

Anniversary marks historic change to make Chicago rail travel easier

The Chicago Transit Authority (CTA) today marked the 25th anniversary of when CTA converted the names of its rail lines to a color-coded system – a move that made the CTA rail system easier to navigate.

On February 21, 1993, the Chicago Transit Authority unveiled new designations that used color-coded train signs and maps, rather than names or streets, for the various routes across the city. The new routes coincided with the reconfiguration or expansion of several rail routes that was the baseline for the present-day rail service in Chicago.

The goal of naming rail lines by color was to make the rail system more user-friendly, particularly for new or occasional riders, out-of-town visitors and commuters who speak English as a second language.

“The designation of CTA lines by a color-coded system was a major step in creating the modern CTA rail system that exists today,” said CTA President Dorval R. Carter, Jr. “The easier-to-navigate system moves millions of people every year, and we continue to invest in improvements that enhance the commuting experience with track upgrades, new and upgraded stations, updated technology, and new trains and buses.”

The CTA began the phase-in of the rail system’s new color-coded system by changing maps and signs on trains to color-coded ones. This helped the public get oriented to the new system.

Today, the color-coded system is second nature to Chicagoans and forms the second-largest city rail system in the country.

More historical information on the CTA is available at: transitchicago.com/about/facts.aspx

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Fun facts about CTA’s color-coded rail system

  • The Red Line stretches most of the north-south length of the city, has the highest ridership of any ‘L’ line and operates 24/7/365. The Red Line was created in 1993 when the Howard Line linked with the Dan Ryan Line via the State Street Subway and a new connector track between 13th/State and 18th/Clark. When the three smaller routes linked together to form this main line, it made sense to designate it red because red  stands out on maps and also had marked the previous north-south route on transit maps that dated back to the early 1970s. Interesting fact: The Red Line is the only train route in the country that links two major league ballparks - Wrigley Field (home of the Cubs) at Addison and the White Sox’s ballpark at Sox-35th. Riders do not need to switch to another line to go from one ballpark to the other, making Chicago home to a true “Crosstown Classic.”.

  • Since the 1993 realignment of the rail lines, the Green Line has consisted of the city's two oldest lines: the Lake Street and South Side lines. The South Side elevated represents the oldest section of the ‘L’ in the city, with the original portion between Congress Street and Pershing (39th Street, at the time) completed in 1892. The next year, the line was extended to serve the World’s Colombian Exposition of 1893. Green was chosen to designate this major west-south line because a green line marked the service on maps that date to the 1970s.

  • The Blue Line is a west-northwest route linking Forest Park to O’Hare Airport, operates 24 hours a day and is the second-busiest rail line. The line was named blue in 1993 because a blue line designated portions of this major route on maps dating back to the early 1970s.

  • The Brown Line service - as it operates today - was created on August 1, 1949, when the CTA reorganized all of its North and South Side ‘L’ operations. Originally, the route was known as the “Ravenswood Line.” It was shown as black, and then purple, on maps in the1970s. In the mid-1980s, maps used brown to designate the Ravenswood Service. Some Chicagoans suggested that brown was chosen to represent this former Ravenswood Line because “wood” is “brown,” though that may be more urban myth than actual truth. Today, the Brown Line is the third-busiest line in the CTA rail system, with 19 stations on the North Side, plus nine stations in the Loop.

  • On Halloween, 1993, the CTA created the Orange (Midway) Line - the first new ‘L’ line in a decade - to operate between the Loop and Midway Airport. Why orange for this route? Before 1993, it was the Skokie line that was shown in orange on maps. But, CTA chose to take orange for the new, major Midway route when it opened in 1993. In its place, the Skokie route received a yellow designation.

  • The CTA inaugurated thePink Line on June 25, 2006 by rerouting service from 54/Cermak to the Loop via the Cermak (Douglas) branchPaulina Connector, and Lake branch.  Years ago, when the decision was made to split this route off of the old Douglas Park Branch, several designations were considered for this line, including Silver or Gray. But, the route officially became the Pink Line in 2006 after a young student’s essay won a “Name the Line” contest. The Pink Line became the first new ‘L’ route since the Orange Line opened in 1993.

  • The Purple Line is the four-mile line in Evanston and Wilmette, which is extended to the Loop during weekday rush periods. This rail line was shown in tan on transit maps of the 1970s. But, in the mid-1980s, and possibly as a nod to the school colors of Evanston’s Northwestern University, the color was switched to purple on maps. Interesting fact: The future Purple Line pulled off a feat on April 1, 1912, that turned out to be no April Fool’s joke! Under cover of night, a construction crew closed Laurel Avenue in Wilmette and constructed a half-car long platform and short spur track, just south of Linden and east of 4th street. Wilmette awoke to find itself with rapid transit to Chicago. Despite the public’s initial hesitation to use the new rail line, the service became popular. The platform was lengthened later that year, plus a second track and temporary rail yard were added.

  • The Yellow Line -- also known as the "Skokie Swift" -- is an unusual CTA operation. For close to 50 years, the nearly five-mile line was the only nonstop shuttle service on the CTA rail system, more closely resembling a light rail operation than rapid transit. It also has the distinction of being the only line that CTA ran, then abandoned, then resumed. Why is it yellow? It was more about printing than preference. Without a black border, yellow is a difficult color to show on maps and signs. But, yellow also was the only popular color not in use by other lines. Thus, CTA chose to represent its shortest route in yellow, limiting the potential for color-registration issues during printing, in case the black outline did not line up with the yellow line.


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