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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 rectangle 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.

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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 the Chicago Rapid Transit company in 1924. The CRT 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.

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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 completed a transition from its long-established magnetic strip farecards to a new contactless payment system named Ventra in 2014. Controversial since its announcement due to the increase in fare for single-ride tickets and $5 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 2013 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. However, the bugs were sorted out in a few months, making traveling throughout the metro area more convenient since the suburban commuter rail system Metra also adopted that system by the end of 2014. This marked the first time the two rail systems, as well as the suburban Pace bus network, all shared a common payment system. The next year, Ventra became the first transit payment system in the US to roll out a mobile app. The app allows users to add funds and passes to their accounts, buy and use mobile tickets, and see real-time arrival information for all participating systems. The app currently has one weakness—while passes can be loaded onto the app, a physical card is still required to actually use them. That is set to change in late 2020 with the next major update to the Ventra app, but only for iPhone users (Android users are left out for now).

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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 core line of the system, also known as the Howard-Dan Ryan Line or the North-South Line. From north to south, it begins at Howard Street on the border between Chicago and Evanston, runs along the North Side Main Line, before descending into the State Street Subway at Armitage Avenue (around a couple miles north of downtown). The line follows the subway through downtown before re-emerging aboveground south of Roosevelt Road. After stopping at Cermak Road in Chinatown, the line enters the median 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.
Before 1993, the southern legs of what are now the Red and Green Line were the reverse of what they are today. The Dan Ryan line was paired with the Lake Street Elevated and was thus known as Lake-Dan Ryan or West/South Line, while trains from the State Street Subway went to the South Side Elevated and traveled to 58th Street, where they split into the Englewood Branch ("A" Stop trains) and Jackson Park Branch ("B" Stop trains). These were switched in 1993 to more evenly balance out ridership as well as accommodate the addition of the Orange Line.note  If you are a baseball fan, this is the line to know - both Wrigley Field (Addison Street) 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," in the same vein as New York City's "Subway Series" of 2000.

Blue Line: The longest line on the system and the second most used line, also known as the Congress-O'Hare Line, the Congress-Milwaukee 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 the Northwest Side, 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 Parkway, 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. This line was originally built in 1897 by the Metropolitan West Side Elevated as a single line running from a terminal in the southwestern corner of downtown 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 ran essentially where the Congress (now Eisenhower) Expressway was built (the elevated line was directly replaced by the tracks in the Expressway's mediannote ), the Logan Square branch was connected to the newly opened Dearborn Street Subway in 1951 (it previously had to swing all the way down to the junction with the Garfield Park branch), and the Douglas Park branch 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. Blue Line service originally was split between the Congress and Douglas branches until 2006, when the Pink Line was introduced to directly tie the Douglas branch to the Loop, at which point Douglas-O'Hare service was curtailed to rush hours only, and ultimately discontinued in April 2008. The Blue Line 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. Its only track connection to the rest of the system is a ramp from the Douglas Line to the Congress Line at Loomis Avenue, near where the Metropolitan's former convergence point of Marshfield Junction was located.

Brown Line: Also known as the Ravenswood. 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 from its start point at Kimball Avenue to meet the Red Line at Belmont Avenue. After a couple of transfer stops, the Red Line descends to the State Street Subway while the Brown Line follows an elevated route to the loop using tracks formerly shared with North Shore interurban trains, enters the Loop at Lake and Wells, then runs around the Outer Loop before returning to Kimball. 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, known as the Lake-Englewood/Jackson Park Line or the West-South Line. 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 plus accommodate the new Orange Line.) For two and a half years starting in 1994, the Green Line was shut down for repairs, a very controversial move. The Jackson Park Branch used to travel much further east along 63rd Street to Stony Island Avenue, but was torn down as a result of deferred maintenance and the propaganda of a late reverend who thought the 'L' would be a blight on the community.

Orange Line: AKA the Midway Line or the Southwest Line. The newest line to have been built from scratch, opened in October 1993. This line runs from the Inner Loop 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. The modern construction is evident in how every station on the route is wheelchair accessible and all but Ashland Avenue have park-and-ride lots. 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, reactivating a routing that had been used from 1953 to 1958, when the Douglas Branch was routed into the Loop via the Lake Street Elevated while the Congress Line was under construction to replace the Garfield Park Branch. From 1958 to 2006, the Douglas Branch served as a branch of the Blue Line that branched southwest from the Eisenhower section. In 2006, the former Paulina Connector was rebuilt, and the Douglas Branch connected to the Green Line at Ashland Avenue and sent around the Loop in 2006, to help make scheduling easier and increase Blue Line frequencies on the Congress Line. The Paulina Connector, which hadn't seen any service from 1958 to 2006 outside of nonrevenue moves connecting the Blue Line to the rest of the system, currently has no passenger stations on it, although proposals have been floated to rebuild a former station that used to exist at Madison Street to provide service to United Center.

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 runs express along the North Side Main Line from Howard Street to Belmont Avenue, to where it meets the Brown Line, than follows the Brown Line route to the Loop, where it runs around the Inner Loop 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: Also known as the Skokie Swift. Runs from Howard Street west to Dempster Street in Skokie. The line is the only line that CTA ran, then abandoned, then resumed operation on. It began operations in the 1920s when the Chicago, North Shore & Milwaukee Railroad needed a line to relieve their route along the shores of Lake Michigan. The Skokie Valley route left the existing 'L' system at Howard Street, headed west for approximately four miles before turning north, running up the Skokie Valley. The bypass rejoined the North Shore Line's main line (thereafter largely known the the Shore Line Route) at South Upton Junction in Lake Bluff. The interurban's fast Chicago-Milwaukee trains saved up to twenty minutes by avoiding the congested Shore Line communities via the largely unoccupied Skokie Valley. The 'L' operated local service along this route from Howard Street to Dempster Street in Skokie from 1925 until 1948 when the CTA discontinued service. The line remained in use by the North Shore Line until it was abandoned in 1963. At that point, the CTA stepped back in and reactivated 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 to determine the feasibility of luring suburbanites to use rapid transit. The experimental operation became permanent due to unexpected success. From the 1970s until 2004, the Yellow Line west of the Skokie Shops was unique for being the only section of the 'L' to use overhead catenary instead of third rail, a relic from the North Shore Line days. The overhead wire required regular maintenance and inspection and occasionally broke during the winter due to freeze-thaw cycles. The conversion of this section to third rail in 2004 allowed trains from other routes to be used interchangeably on the Swift, making it easier to swap out a broken car or to add service. (Before this, the line had to use special cars outfitted with pantographs) The line gained weekend service in early 2008. In 2012, the line's unique status as a nonstop shuttle was ended when a new station was built at Oakton Street in Skokie, restoring a former station that operated there during the North Shore Line days. There have been calls to reopen other abandoned stations along the route, though none have gotten past the discussion stage.

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

Film

  • 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.)
  • 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 1986 action-comedy Running Scared has a car-chase take place on there.

Live-Action TV

  • 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.
  • 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 in what is likely a suicide, although the actual death is not shown onscreen.
  • Supernatural: Blink and you'll miss it, but Death the horseman is introduced under the 'L'.

Music

  • 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.
  • The intro to "Injection" by Rise Against samples the Purple Line stop announcement for the Noyes stop, in their hometown of Evanston.
    This is Noyes. note 

Video Games

  • Hitman: Absolution has Agent 47 escape from a police lockdown after a successful kill via the 'L' amid a crowd of grumbling passengers.
  • The Chicago 'L' is one of the transit maps available in Mini Metro, added to the game in an update at the end of 2020.

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