CTA officials, riders prepare for Red Line work

Tribune reporter

Marie Drake was already displeased Sunday morning when she boarded a free shuttle bus near the 63rd Street Red Line station. The Chicago Transit Authority, she said, hadn’t done enough to explain the five-month shutdown of the Red Line’s Dan Ryan branch that had started just hours earlier.

Drake’s frustration grew when she asked her bus driver whether the shuttles would operate overnight.

“It’s new to me, too,” the driver said. “Ask a supervisor.”

“They should have got you better information,” Drake told him. “Customers are very upset, and I know I’m one of them.”

Drake was far from alone in expressing frustration, but others complimented the CTA as Red Line trains began diverting to Green Line tracks south of the Roosevelt station. The comparatively sparse crowd of Sunday riders, many heading to work or church, offered a test run for the CTA before tens of thousands more passengers plot out a new commute to the office on Monday, the first weekday that the Dan Ryan branch will be closed.

Construction crews are tearing out and rebuilding the well-worn tracks on the Red Line’s South Side route and improving eight of the route’s nine stations. The ninth station, at 95th Street, is set for a complete overhaul and expansion starting in 2014. Riders are promised a smoother, faster ride toward downtown when the work is finished.

In the meantime, though, customers like Kris Golden must navigate a new network of shuttle buses, revised service maps and potential delays. Golden and his 10-year-old son, Sky, were traveling Sunday from their home on the Far South Side to Sky’s basketball game in Schaumburg. The express shuttle from 95th to Garfield worked well, Golden said.

“We were a little bit taken off course,” he said, “but we got here quicker than we normally did if we took the Red Line.”

Golden, a barber who often uses the Red Line to make house calls, said he will have to plot out new routes with trains rerouted until autumn.

“It’s going to take some getting used to,” he said. “But it seems like they’re trying to solve it.”

At the Garfield Green Line station, there were sometimes more CTA workers on hand to offer directions than passengers. One employee hopped on a bus to 95th just to experience what customers were seeing. He was impressed with the 12-minute run down the expressway.
Two lanes of southbound traffic were blocked on parts of the Dan Ryan on Sunday as crews loaded construction equipment onto the tracks. Workers were visible at several shuttered stations unpacking gear, walking along the tracks and using saws on the rails. All lanes on the Dan Ryan should be open again by the Monday rush period, CTA spokesman Brian Steele said.

Outside the Garfield Green Line station, CTA President Forrest Claypool and board Chairman Terry Peterson expressed confidence that the agency had prepared well for the closures, though they encouraged commuters to budget plenty of extra time as they figure out their new route.

“The track literally has to be torn down to the dirt and rebuilt,” Claypool said in a morning news conference. He described the project as a “once-in-a-generation” effort, not a “small, temporary patch.”

The sheer scope of the reconstruction made a complete shutdown the most practical solution, Steele said. Unlike past Red Line work on the North Side that focused on station rehabilitation, he said, this effort involves a total reconstruction of the railroad.

That explanation hasn’t resonated with every customer. Demicio Campbell, on his way home Sunday morning, boarded a shuttle bus at the Garfield Green Line stop. Campbell called the shutdown “bogus” and said he suspects the demographics of the heavily black South Side ridership influenced the decision to close the line for so long, a theory CTA officials dispute.

Others had a better experience. Ralph Greenwood, who said he rides the CTA every day and helps other disabled people understand the transit system, set out at 4:30 a.m. to familiarize himself with the changes.

“The CTA was highly helpful,” he said. “I was blessed.”

Drake, the disgruntled shuttle bus rider, wasn’t feeling so blessed. A hospital cook, Drake said she needed to know whether the shuttles stopped running overnight. She asked the driver twice and discussed the issue with other customers, but hadn’t received a definitive answer by the time she got off at 79th Street.

Her driver wasn’t the only one unversed in the nighttime hours. Another customer asked a driver the same question at the 95th Street Station, but a supervisor had to answer.

Steele said the drivers should have known about the overnight route. Shuttles will run 24 hours with some service changes between 1 a.m. and 4 a.m. During those times, instead of offering both express and local routes, shuttle buses will stop at every Red Line station between 95th and 63rd streets before dropping riders at the Garfield Green Line Station.

For now, Claypool is encouraging riders to use redlinesouth.com to consider potential routes and to ask CTA employees for help. The payoff, he said, will be worth the temporary hassle.

“With that inconvenience,” he said Sunday, “comes a promise that five months from today you will enjoy a brand new Red Line south.”

Metra officials plan to be at the Gresham Station, 820 W. 87th St.,  Monday morning to remind commuters that Metra is an alternative to the CTA. Metra platforms on the Rock Island and the Metra Electric lines will be staffed with additional people to help new riders.


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