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Useful Notes / Chicago L

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Chicago's metro rail system.note  Radiating from downtown, it stretches through most of the city of Chicago into some of the nearby suburbs, and carries about 600,000 riders on an average weekday. The system, along with Chicago's buses, is managed by the Chicago Transit Authority. The system's most well-known feature is "The Loop" in downtown Chicago, a square of elevated tracks over Wabash Avenue, Lake Street, Wells Avenue and Van Buren Street where most of the lines converge—indeed, "the Loop" is a common synonym for the heart of Downtown. The northwest corner of the Loop is one of the busiest rail junctions in the world, with trains from (currently) 4-5 of the 8 lines traveling in different directions at this intersection.


The system started as four separate elevated lines built in the 1890's to connect different sections of the city with downtown. The developers of these lines (except for the Lake Street line) sought to mitigate the obtrusiveness of elevated railroads by building them in alleys between city streets instead of directly over them. One of the builders of these lines, Charles Tyson Yerkes, decided to bring them together into the modern loop by extending the downtown endpoints until in 1897 they met in the square that exists today. These early lines gradually expanded over time, with several branches and extensions added. However, the lines had trouble making money, and the various railroad companies were merged together to form a single company in 1924. This company also experienced financial troubles after some time, and in 1947 the city took it over and established the CTA. Over the next ten years, the CTA closed several lesser branch lines (including one that served the city's notorious stockyards), sped up service by eliminating many lightly-used intermediate stations, and replaced the ancient wooden rolling stock. Financial issues have continued since, however, with the CTA regularly experiencing budget problems. Despite this, several expansions have been constructed over time, and the system's ridership in the past few decades has actually been increasing.


Although it is called the 'L', it is perhaps the only rapid transit system in the world that includes elevated lines, subways, freeway running, and ground-level lines complete with grade crossings (just please don't touch the third rail, thank you).

The CTA is currently in the process of transitioning from its long-established magnetic strip farecards to a new contactless payment system named Ventra. Controversial since its announcement due to the increase in fare for single-ride tickets and 5 dollar fee for issuing a new reloadable cardnote , a system adapted from ones that exist elsewhere around the world and in the US (e.g. the Washington Metro and the PATCO). The technical issues that plagued it following its initial rollout in summer of 2013 that truly caused it to become the bane of Chicago commuters' existences. The problems forced the CTA to delay the phase-out of the old farecard readers indefinitely. Once the bugs are sorted out however, it should make traveling throughout the metro area more convenient as it is planned to be adopted by suburban commuter rail system Metra by the end of 2014. This will be the first time the two rail systems, as well as the suburban Pace bus network, will all share a common payment system.


The L lines are all named for colors. They formerly had geographically descriptive names, but the color scheme was adopted in 1993 to make the lines easier to remember and add consistency (and also not confuse out-of-towners), but the old names are still used informally from time to time.

Current lines in the system are:

Red Line: The most used line, known by old-timers as the "Howard-Dan Ryan Line" or the "North-South Line." From north to south, it begins on an elevated line from the city's northern boundary before descending into the State Street Subway south of Fullerton (around a couple miles north of downtown). The line follows the subway through downtown before re-emerging aboveground at Cermak-Chinatown into the middle of the Dan Ryan Expressway, which it follows to 95th Street. There are plans to extend this further to close to the southern city limits, but funding is not available for this project yet. The northern section of the line was the main line of the Northwestern Elevated (which opened a few years after the west side of the Loop was built to directly connect with it, due to many delays in construction), and it remained completely elevated until the subway opened in 1943. The Dan Ryan, southern section was built in the late 1960's, and was originally connected to the west and loop section of what is now the Green Line, while the northern route went through the subway and connected to what is now the southern Green Line, but these were switched in the early 1990's to better match the number of riders between sections. The Dan Ryan section was closed for several months, in a somewhat controversial move, for large scale track repairs. If you are a baseball fan, this is the line to know - both Wrigley Field (Addison) and Guaranteed Rate Field (Sox-35th) are easily reached from this line, and it's generally believed that any (at this point, given the records of the Cubs and the Sox, highly theoretical) World Series between these teams would be termed the "Red Line Series."

Blue Line: The second most used line, also known as the Congress-O'Hare Line or the West-Northwest Line. This line begins in an underground station beneath the parking garage at O'Hare International Airport, travels in the middle of the Kennedy Expressway through several of Chicago's northwest sections, before a short subway that connects to a section of the old 1890s Metropolitan Elevated. After this elevated section, it enters a longer subway under Milwaukee Avenue, enters downtown under Lake Street (with the only direct transfer station between the Loop and the subway), turns parallel to the Red Line on Dearborn Street, and leaves downtown heading west under Congress Street, where it emerges into the middle of the Eisenhower Expressway, which it follows to the end of the line at Desplaines Avenue in Forest Park.note  This line was originally built in 1897 by the Metropolitan West Side Elevated as a single line connecting to the southwestern corner of the Loop and fanning out into four elevated branches to serve the western neighborhoods. Of the four elevated branches, the "Humboldt Park" branch was discontinued in 1952, the "Garfield Park" branch was replaced when the Congress (now Eisenhower) Expressway was built (the elevated line was in the way of the planned highway), the "Logan Square" branch was connected to the newly opened Dearborn Street Subway in 1951, and the "Douglas Park" branch (now the Pink Line) was shortened and reconnected to the new Congress line. In 1970, the line was extended northwest from Logan Square up the Kennedy Expressway to Jefferson Park, and in 1984 the extension to O'Hare was opened. It and the Red Line are the only two lines on the system that operate 24 hours a day. The Blue Line also is the only route on the 'L' to not share tracks with any other route on the system.

Brown Line: Formerly the "Ravenswood Line." This line was started as a branch off the northern section of what is now the Red Line, which zigzags to the northwest somewhat. It travels to its start point at Kimball Avenue to meet the Red Line at a couple of transfer stops, then follows an elevated route to the loop, and goes around the loop back to its starting point. The routing has changed little since 1949 (before which it was through-routed with various South Side branches and used the State Street Subway once it opened), although expansion for some platforms due to greatly increased ridership were done in the early 2000's.

Green Line: Consisting of a merger of the Lake Street and South Side Elevated lines. This line, from west to south, follows an elevated track from the suburb of Oak Park directly over Lake Street (one of the few major streets in Chicago not laid out along a straight line) to the Loop, follows the north and east sides of the loop, and then travels almost directly south with one jog over. For the last couple of stops, the line splits, one section (part of the former Jackson Park branch) going a few blocks east, another section (formerly the Englewood branch) going west for some distance. These two sections were the oldest elevated lines built (and were the only elevated lines in Chicago to use steam locomotives), but were not merged into one line until 1993. (As mentioned in the Red Line, the Lake Street section was originally paired with the Dan Ryan, while the Jackson Park and Englewood Lines were run through the State Street Subway to the North Side Main Line. These were switched to balance the ridership on both branches.) For two and a half years starting in 1994, the Green Line was shut down for repairs, a very controversial move.

Orange Line: AKA the Midway Line or the Southwest Line. The most recently built line, finished in 1993. From the loop this line travels southwest to Midway Airport. It easily could have been another "middle of a highway" line (the Stevenson Expressway was built with this in mind), but was instead built alongside various freight rail tracks. There have been repeated proposals to extend the line south from Midway to the Ford City Mall, but nothing definitive has been done about it.

Pink Line: The newest line. It was formed by stringing together the Douglas Branch and Paulina Connector, both of which were originally built as part of the Metropolitan West Side system. Formerly a part of the Blue Line that branched southwest from the Eisenhower section, this line was instead connected to the Green Line at Ashland Avenue and sent around the Loop in 2006, to help make scheduling easier. (The line had operated this way for a few years in the 1950s.) The Paulina Connector, formerly a service track connecting the Blue Line to the rest of the system, currently has no passenger stations on it.

Purple Line: AKA the Evanston Shuttle or Evanston Express. Runs from the northern end of the Red Line through the northern suburbs of Evanston and Wilmette to its northern terminus at Linden Avenue. During rush hours, the line follows the Red Line route express to where it meets the Brown Line, than follows the Brown Line route to the Loop, which it circles before going north again. The Wilmette station was originally built in a shady manner; people around the stop's location opposed the building of the extra stop, so construction crews quickly built tracks and platforms in the middle of the night, before later court orders declared the move legal. The choice of color for the line was made for Northwestern University, which four of its stops are two blocks west of.note 

Yellow Line: Formerly the "Skokie Swift." Runs from the northern end west, then north into another one of Chicago's suburbs. This line was built in the 1920s as an express bypass for the interurban line to Milwaukee, which lasted until 1963; the city system operated a lightly-used local service between the suburb of Skokie and Howard Street Station between 1925 and 1948. The CTA reinitiated service on the 4.7-mile section between Howard Street and Dempster Street in 1964, with no intermediate stations, as an experimental project in suburban transit under the Department of Housing and Urban Development. The experimental operation became permanent, though until 2004 the line used a unique overhead catenary system instead of third rail. One intermediate station at Oakton Street in Skokie was reopened in 2012.

Unlike many other train systems, very little of the "L" is composed of subway. In fact, the only sections of subway that do exist are the downtown portions of the Red and Blue Lines, a short stretch of the Blue Line that moves trains from the Kennedy Expressway to an elevated segment parallel to Milwaukee Avenue, and the Blue Line's terminus at O'Hare. As the name suggests, many of the lines are elevated. Three large sections of 'L' (a large portion of the Blue Line, and the Red Line south of the Loop) run in the middle of highways, with stations connected to overpasses or with walkways over or under the highways. The CTA was the first to do this on any kind of scale, and the idea has since been taken up elsewhere. Expressways have some advantages as routes for elevated lines, since (1) they tend to already be elevated (meaning the pylons are already there) and thus (2) they are already grade-separated (meaning the trains can get their own rights-of-way), and furthermore (3) the government tends to already own the expressways, so getting the rights to build on the land isn't an issue, and (4) the expressways are already noisy and busy, so one common complaint people raise against building a line near them is simply not applicable. This comes at a trade-off of somewhat higher maintenance cost over subway, but that's true of all elevated tracks and not just those on elevated expressways.

Though the system's ridership has generally been increasing over the past few years, and several expansion plans exist, it still experiences financial/funding difficulties, and maintenance difficulties, with large sections of track considered "slow zone" (some of these maintenance difficulties are likely due to the elevated and highway sections of track, which is a rougher environment for the structure than a subway or ground level line would experience). Several large structure repair projects have been done over the past few decades, including shutting down the Green Line for 2 years in the 1990's, and the Dan Ryan section of the Red Line in 2013 (these projects proved controversial, partly for obvious reasons related to loss of transit for long periods of time, and partly because these lines serve very poor neighborhoods, already experiencing a range of other problems).

In addition to extensions to the Red, Yellow, and Orange Lines, a "Circle Line" or "Outer Loop" has been proposed and is in planning stages. The line, which would run in a circle would share the same tracks as the Red Line from the near north side, through downtown, and then splitting off after coming back above ground to merge with the Orange Line. It would then run southwest along the Orange Line before splitting off and turning north at Ashland Avenue, eventually running alongside the Pink Line and continuing north past the Green Line until meeting up with the Red Line once again. The route would allow a greater amount of north-south traffic to bypass the Loop and provide more links to a number of Metra lines without having to connect downtown. As the bulk of the route will run alongside existing lines, only the sections between the Orange and Pink Lines on the southwest side and Green and Red Lines on the north side will require new track to be built. The restoration of previously unused track along Paulina Street that the Pink Line now runs on was considered to be the first phase of the project.

Appearances in media

  • The Fugitive: The US Marshals figures out where Kimble is when they hear a PA announcement from an L train in a traced phone call. A later fight scene also takes place on a train (that stops at the non-existent Balbo station.)
  • Good Times: In the opening credits video montage, the 6000 series "L" cars shown running are a treat for rail enthusiasts. This is also an Unintentional Period Piece, as these cars were retired in 1992.
  • Some Like It Hot: A phone call is made downstairs from an "L" station.
  • Spider-Man 2: Spider-Man and Doctor Octopus's Traintop Battle takes place on a train of now-retired 2200 series cars dressed up in NYCS logos.
  • The band Chicago was originally named "Chicago Transit Authority" before the CTA claimed a trademark issue and made them change it.
  • Wilco's song "Far, Far Away" (off Being There) has the lyrics "I long to hold you in my arms and sway/Kiss and ride on the CTA," the CTA being the 'L' (or a CTA bus, but probably the 'L'). Wilco is of course from Chicago; the song is about missing a significant other in a far away city (so it's probably about lead singer Jeff Tweedy on the road wanting to go home to Chicago and his wife).
  • The song "Jackson Park Express" by Weird Al is quite possibly about the CTA #6 bus.
  • ER: The L station near the hospital frequently appears in establishing shots, and is often used for scenes showing the characters meeting on their way to or from work. The character Dennis Gant dies under a train at the station, probably by suicide, although the actual death is not shown.
  • Supernatural: Blink and you'll miss it, but Death the horseman is introduced under the 'L'.
  • Hitman: Absolution has Agent 47 escape from a police lockdown after a successful kill via the 'L' and a bunch of grumbling passengers.

This is Western. Doors open on the left at Western. This is an Orange Line train to Midway.

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