Pres. Carter's Remarks to the CTA Board (Jan. 2024)

January 18, 2024

January 2024 board remarks as prepared for delivery

CTA President Dorval R. Carter, Jr.

January 18, 2024

Thank you, Mr. Chairman. Members of the Board, good morning.

Extreme Weather Response

I’d like to begin my remarks with a brief note about CTA’s response to our recent extreme weather conditions, both in terms of our operations and the work being done by our employees.

As you are aware, since last Friday, temperatures have not been above freezing—and they are not forecasted to return above 32 degrees until next Monday. This sustained cold, along with varying levels of snowfall, has required CTA to implement the cold-weather strategies for which we begin to prepare well before winter arrives.

In the past several days, we have deployed track snow removers, sleet fighter trains and special equipment that de-ices the third rail along rail tracks. We’ve also worked to ensure that rail station heat lamps are operational and, when necessary, repaired as quickly as possible, and that station platforms are shoveled and garage lots and turnarounds are plowed – just to name a few things that we do on the facilities side to prepare for and manage the inclement weather.

With regards to our fleet, we do winter weather prep work on our vehicles to prepare them for the winter, and when inclement weather arrives, we have teams in place to check systems, troubleshoot issues, and respond to vehicle defects. 

Like anyone whose car has ever gotten stuck in the snow or who experiences a burst pipe in their home or business, CTA is not immune from the challenges that we all face during extreme cold weather events. We are committed, however, to executing our time-tested approach to confronting these issues on behalf of our customers.

Of course, that can only happen if our team shows up every day, ready to serve…and the hard-working men and women of the CTA have shown up, every single day.

As part of their commitment to serving our customers:

  • Bus operators have opened and closed doors near their seats to allow customers to board and alight our vehicles;
  • Rail operators have assisted passengers in wheelchairs onto trains from platforms;
  • Station personnel have attended to matters at stations for which they cannot remain in their heated booths;
  • Rail Maintenance personnel have braved the elements to deal with issues with our trains;

Other employees who are generally less customer-facing, like those in the Infrastructure Department, will also be working outside, executing tasks that include:

  • Assessing and addressing track conditions;
  • Repairing rail that has been damaged by cold weather—something that very frequently occurs.
  • And making repairs at stations and facilities.

Regarding rail track conditions, I would like to highlight that, while our Rail Operations and Infrastructure staff are frequently in conversation about observed rail track defects, the effects of sustained, freezing cold temperatures include that rail can and often does crack, without warning. That was the case during Monday’s Orange Line derailment. No passengers were injured during the incident and the rail was repaired soon thereafter so that we could restore service.

Most important is that the safe resolution of the Orange Line incident and restoration of service… our day-to-day operations, maintenance work and repairs… and the many tasks and tremendous efforts required to serve our customers and to respond to extreme weather conditions are all made possible by our employees.

While thanks are due to each and every CTA employee who has worked in this cold weather, I especially want to recognize our Operations, Maintenance, and Infrastructure Departments, from frontline employees… to those who work on our tracks, yards, and maintenance facilities… to the supervisors and managers we rely on to make it all work, no matter the challenges we face.

I thank you and commend you for your hard work, diligence and commitment to serving our customers through incredibly difficult circumstances and harsh weather conditions.

I want to thank Don Bonds, our Chief Transit Officer, and Bill Mooney, our Chief Infrastructure Officer, for their continued outstanding leadership and round-the-clock commitment to directing their staff, monitoring conditions across our system, and keeping me apprised and looped in at all times. Their outstanding focus and dedication are big reasons why we are able to work through our toughest moments and continue serving our customers well despite the frigid temperatures.

Reopening of the Yellow Line

On Friday, January 5th, after thorough, comprehensive analysis and testing, we were able to restore service on the Yellow Line.

For nearly two months, we worked closely with the National Transportation Safety Board, or NTSB, providing full cooperation with their investigation into the November 16 incident on the Yellow Line. During that time, we also examined all aspects of Yellow Line operations, from tracks and signals to train operations and communications. As a result, we have implemented several interim safety enhancements, including reduced travel speeds, track cleaning and enhanced operations communications.

While the NTSB will issue their full report later this year, I want to be clear that these measures were implemented by CTA out of an abundance of caution and to further protect our customers and employees. The incident and the extended service interruption were very unfortunate, but we place safety above all other considerations and are very happy that our customers are again safely traveling on Yellow Line trains.

Customer surveys

Over the past year-and-a-half, CTA has conducted six customer satisfaction surveys to help CTA better understand and evaluate our customers’ thoughts, needs, and preferences.

Since we began the quarterly surveys in 2022, customers have told us that the most important areas influencing whether or not they would take CTA include service frequency, the accuracy of real-time arrival information for buses, and bus speed and reliability.

Over the course of these surveys, we have seen significant increases in customer satisfaction with regard to service frequency, reliability of bus service, and accuracy of bus tracker information. Accuracy of real-time arrival information for trains has also increased significantly.

We’ve worked closely with the Chicago Police Department and private security personnel to increase presence at rail stations and address survey respondents’ concerns about safety. This has resulted in customers’ satisfaction with personal security at train stations seeing the highest increase of all rail metrics. Personal security on the train, however, while improved, has seen smaller gains, and we will continue to work towards improvement of that important area.  

In summary, these quarterly surveys are immensely useful tools that answer important questions about customer habits and preferences. We will continue to advise the Board regarding survey results and the steps we take to ensure that we are responding to their thoughts and concerns.

New small business educational series

Along with the job opportunities we create for individuals, CTA began the year by reaching out to the small business community to solicit applications for our nine-week 2024 Small Business Educational Series. The program is an in-person, educational initiative that provides instruction on a host of topics related to how small businesses can compete to participate on CTA contracts. The series also includes basic business instruction on topics like pursuing contract opportunities, effective project management, and running payroll, among other topics.

The application window for this series closed on Thursday, January 11, and in the near future, participants will be paired with a mentor for a year-long Mentor-Protege relationship.

CTA is an acknowledged national public transit leader for Small and Disadvantaged Business Enterprise outreach and education and I am excited that, through our Diversity Programs Department, the CTA is making this excellent program available to yet another group of small businesses and entrepreneurs.

2023 ridership update

The January meeting to this body is traditionally a good opportunity to provide some final statistics from the year just past, given that the final numbers are now in.

In terms of ridership, we experienced significant post-pandemic improvement and saw very good trends that we hope will continue, year-over-year, in 2024.

  • In 2023, CTA provided more than 279 million rides—an increase of 36 million riders, or nearly 15 percent, compared to 2022.
  • Bus ridership grew last year by 15.5% and rail ridership increased by 13.4%.

Notably, today’s new normal in terms of our customers’ commuting patterns and continued work-from-home policies implemented by downtown businesses, have a direct impact on our ability to make bigger ridership gains, yet ridership is steadily increasing. For context, 2023's 279 million rides is a 10 percent increase over last year’s 243.5 million rides, but is equal to 61 percent of 2019's 455.7 million rides.

2023 hiring update/background about rail flagger hiring and promotion process

We now also have our final hiring numbers for 2023. The highlights include the following:

  • The total number of new hires in 2023 was 2,244; Among them 1,003 new bus operators.
  • And CTA ended 2023 with a total workforce of 10,477 employees—an increase of 726 employees over 2022’s year-end total of 9,751 employees.

As we look towards the rest of the coming year, I am pleased to advise the Board that we are launching two training cohorts of new rail operators during the month of January.  The first class started on January 2nd and the second is starting on January 29th. These classes will contribute towards our goals of training 200 rail operators this year.

I’d like to close with a brief discussion on rail flagger hiring and promotion—an issue that was recently discussed in a newspaper opinion piece.

CTA began 2023 with 128 rail flaggers. Over the following 12 months, we hired 159 flaggers to replace those who were completing training and being promoted to rail operators—nearly 90 last year—or leaving for other reasons.  We ended the year with 142 flaggers. 

Under CTA’s normal processes, rail operators must first serve as flaggers. They can then start rail operator training based on seniority, not after 12 months as was claimed in that op-ed.

As I’ve noted here before, serving as a rail flagger is the best path to becoming a rail operator. Flaggers are thoroughly trained on right-of-way safety, rail operations, and system communications. This training and experience in railroad operations are an important prerequisite for becoming a rail operator--a path that allows us to maintain the highest safety standards for both riders and employees.

I am aware that there is a very small group of individuals that calls for CTA to abandon this practice, but I want to be clear: CTA will not compromise safety for expediency. The extensive safety training and solid base of experience in the rail environment that our employees receive as rail flaggers are important precursors to going into service as rail operators.

In addition, contrary to the suggestions in the op-ed, CTA hires flaggers from both internal candidates and external applicants. Internal candidates are given priority for flagger vacancies, which is in line with our collective bargaining agreement with our union, which requires the positions to be offered to existing CTA rail employees first.

CTA supplements internal candidates with external ones.  CTA most recently took external applicants for the flagger position in October and November of last year and received over 800 applications.  Many of those successful applicants are now filling our flagger ranks as we sit here today.

The CTA appreciates a robust dialogue about transit service in our region and opportunities to improve our existing service, because that’s how we get better for our riders. But when that dialogue is based on incorrect conclusions drawn from incomplete information and misunderstanding of CTA's hiring and training process, the only group that suffers are our riders.

The data analysis in the commentary may have been well-intended, but unfortunately was incomplete and painted an inaccurate picture. While it attempted to use data to draw conclusions, it lacked an understanding of the context of the numbers, and led to an incorrect narrative that doesn’t support our collective goal of improving transit for our communities.

A moment ago, I mentioned our training goal of 200 operators—which we have also supported by increasing the number of rail instructors we have to help address the increased training demand. And when those flaggers become operators, we have a large pool of customer-service assistants ready to backfill vacant flagger spots.

Our goal is always to grow our numbers and improve our processes, which is an ongoing, evolving endeavor. I have no doubt that we will meet our target, in part because of hiring events like the Rail Flagger Career Fair we will hold at Malcolm X College next Friday, January 26, from 10 a.m. until 1 p.m., which is when we will again take external applications.

I want to encourage anyone interested in a rail flagger job opportunity to register for the fair at transitchicago.com/careers. These are good-paying jobs with great benefits and opportunities for advancement that are perfect for anyone looking to join the CTA family.

At this time, Mr. Chairman, I am happy to answer any questions.

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