Chicago 1998

In October 1998, I spent two days in Chicago to visit some relatives. . . and ended up riding a lot of transit. Here's how my trip went

Oct 8:

I arrived at O'Hare Airport early in the morning. The relative I was staying with lives in one of the converted lofts downtown, so I was to ride the CTA Blue Line and a CTA bus to get there. . .

It was about a 15-minute walk from my airline terminal to the CTA station in the airport. At the station, I bought one of the new transit cards (I probably should have bought a two or three day pass then, in retrospect), put about $3 on it, then boarded the train. The car I was in was about 1/3 full when it left the airport, by the time it arrived Downtown, it had several people standing.

I ride the LA Metrolink and Metro Rail systems every workday, so I was comparing it to the CTA as we rode along. The CTA tracks are primarily bolted rail, so the ride is noticeably bumpier and noisier, particularly in the subway sections. There are also quite a few wooden platforms, with signs warning of dire fire danger if one smokes cigarettes on them.

Ridership in general seemed to be reasonably ethnically diverse, although consisting mostly of younger student-types and a few senior citizens. I figured, all of the office "suits" must prefer Metra. . .

We arrived Downtown on time, and I made my way to State St to catch my bus (I could either use the #29 or the #62, southbound). Two surprises since the last time I was in Chicago (1986): State St. was no longer a bus-only street, and some of the old CTA bus stop signs had been replaced by "arty-looking" black on green signs that were not too obvious. But I eventually was able to board a #29 and continue to my destination. The transit card I had bought for the train ride also worked well on the buses, no problems.

This CTA bus, and most of them for that matter, was configured with a single row of seats on one side, presumably to accomodate heavy standing loads. Most of the buses seemed to be acceptably clean, but with varying levels of the annoying "window scratch grafitti" that seems to have infected just about every major city transit operator. I found them preferable to LACMTA buses, for the most part. . .

Later that day, I and another relative, went downtown for sight-seeing purposes. Using the CTA trains, and a couple of buses, we visited State St, the Merchandise Mart, and Michigan Avenue. While at the Mart, I went up to the CTA offices on the 7th floor to get some schedules. There was a nice rack full of CTA schedules, but a few routes were missing. All in all, we had a good time.

Oct 9:

The next day, I rode downtown, this time to the RTA offices on Madison/ Wells. On my way there, I got a good look, and some pictures of the elevated structures. Steel, and wood, and if you look up you could see the trains pass overhead. Imagine such a thing on Wilshire Blvd. in LA! Ridiculous! At the RTA office, they had schedules for all of the CTA, PACE and Metra lines (but I couldn't find any South Shore Interurban schedules). There were also a few people complaining that their transit cards had quit working, by the way. I grabbed all the schedules I could, then found a place to have breakfast/lunch . . .

While munching, I looked at the big RTA suburban map. How about a wild excursion, since I had (almost) the entire day to myself? Hmm... How does Kenosha sound? Or Orland Park? Naah, the schedule doesn't seem to work.. .How about Joliet? I can ride the new Orange Line and Pace #831 to get there, then ride Metra back!

So, I fiddled around Downtown and the Loop a bit, then caught the Orange Line south. This is CTA's newest rapid transit line, and the most "modern" (concrete structure instead of steel). It did seem to travel somewhat faster than the "legacy" lines, but the ride quality was slightly more "bumpy" compared to LACMTA or BART. Once past 35th/Archer, the area became more suburban and downright scenic in parts. We finally arrived at Midway Airport. (It's currently under construction, and the walkway between the station and the airport terminals was closed. Instead, small shuttle buses operated every 15-minutes between the station and the airport, reminding me, once again of LA operations. . .:-)

The #831 to Joliet wasn't due for about an hour, so I decided to kill some time by trying to go to the Ford City Mall. There are at least six different routes (CTA #54B, Pace #379,382,383,384 or 385) that run between Midway and Ford City, and they all seemed to have several people waiting for them. (Wasn't there a rumor about extending the Orange Line south along Cicero, into Ford City?) I boarded the next appropriate bus (a #382, I think).

What was scheduled to be a nine-minute ride turned out more like 15 minutes or so, due to road construction. By the time I got to Ford City, I figured I'd better get back up to Midway, so I simply hopped on the bus going back up.

PACE mostly uses Orions, but they do have other makes and models as well. They also accept the CTA transfer card (although not all of the reduced fare cards, for some reason).

Back at Midway, I waited about 15-minutes for the #831. It eventually arrived, and about 6 other passengers got on with me. (Later, about three more would board, including one prison visitor). #831 only runs a few times a day, and takes about 1 hour and 10 minutes between Midway and Joliet. I noticed that once outside the City of Chicago, just about all of the "towns" along this route (Summit, Justice, Willow Springs, etc.) are *extremely* rural. There were a few newer "suburban-style" developments, a large forest preserve, an oil refinery, and of course, the state prison along this route, but most of the scenery consists of small houses and fields (not heavy agricultural, though).

Joliet itself turned out to be a bit of a letdown--many vacant storefronts, downtown. The Metra station (which also serves Amtrak) was a nicely restored building, but also kind of bleak (few passengers, ticket offices closed for the day, as well as the small cafe inside the station). A few bums hanging around, asking for change added to the desolate ambience, but I made my way to the platform to wait for the Metra train.

The Metra finally arrived, about 20 or so passengers got off, and I, along with about 10 other passengers boarded. We left shortly after. The Metra commuter rail cars are double deck "gallery" cars, like San Francisco's Caltrain. Since most of the station ticket offices are closed after the morning rush, most midday passengers simply pay cash to the conductors. (A few had passes)

The first few stations consisted of (usually) a small station building, a parking lot, and a platform. I noticed that this particular train stopped on the track (it was a double tracked line) farthest away from the station building--odd. This was the pattern from Joliet all the way up to Vermont St (where the conductor finally got around to selling me a ticket).

Between Vermont St (Blue Island) and Brainerd stations, there were several small stations, about a half-mile apart.There were few if any station buildings or parking lots; just platforms and on-street parking. The operation seemed almost like a big streetcar, (I bet in some places the tracks were actually in the street, although I really couldn't tell while riding) as the 10-car train slowly moved through the residential neighborhood, boarding and alighting passengers at these small stations. We finally made it to Downtown Chicago (La Salle Station)

Oct 10:

The next day, I decided to take a ride to Evanston on the Red and Purple Lines. (This was later in the evening, starting at about 6 p.m.) After walking around State St. for a while, I boarded the Red Line Subway going north. (This particular train seemed less clean, with soda cans and such. Also, near the end of the line, we were panhandled) There was a forced transfer at Howard to the Purple Line, to continue to Evanston. I got off at Davis St. and walked around a bit.

The Davis St. Metra station is within walking distance from the CTA station, although one does have to climb a long flight of stairs to reach the Metra platform. And, as it was getting dark, it didn't feel too comfortable either (there is a station building, but it was closed). A Metra train was due back to Chicago at 8 p.m., but I decided not to wait that long. . .Davis St west of the stations was rather quiet, but there was more going on east of the stations, particularly on Sherman Avenue. (It still seemed too quiet for a university town on a Saturday night, though). After about a half hour, I made my way back to the CTA station. The trip back filled up along the way with young kids heading into Downtown, presumably for "entertainment" . ..

Oct 11:

Sunday morning, time to get back to the airport. I took bus #62, then the Red Line at Roosevelt Station, and finally the Blue Line to O'Hare. The tunnel between the Red and Blue Line downtown was rather desolate at this time of day, but I made my way through ok. On the way to O'Hare, CTA track crews were working on the track in several places. I even caught a glimpse of an old CTA "fishbowl" bus, still in its green and tan paint scheme, now relegated to "work bus" duties.

All in all, I had a great time in Chicago, and using its transit systems. A few points:

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