Chicago "L"

The 'L' (variously, and sometimes, styled "L", El, EL, or L) is a rapid transit system that serves the city of Chicago in the United States. It is operated by the Chicago Transit Authority (CTA), and is the third busiest rail mass transit system in the United States, behind New York City's New York City Subway, and Washington, D.C.'s Metrorail. It also is one of the few mass-transit systems offering 24 hour service in the U.S. The oldest section of the 'L' dates from 1892 making it the second oldest rapid transit system in the Americas after New York (where the oldest operating elevated sections date to the 1880s). It has been credited with helping create the densely built-up downtown that is one of Chicago's distinguishing features.


The 'L' consists of a network of eight rapid transit lines totaling . of it is elevated, of it is surface, and of it is underground on over of double-track rail line with 144 stations. This network is laid out in a spoke-hub distribution paradigm, which focuses transit toward a central loop. Inter-suburban travel requires indirect commute to the loop and transfer to another line. These lines primarily serve the city proper, but also reach eight close-in suburbs; service to more distant suburbs is provided by the Metra and South Shore Line (NICTD) commuter rail systems. Although the 'L' gained its nickname because large parts of the system are elevated, the Red and Blue lines traverse the downtown area in subways, and also have long sections in the medians of expressways that lead into and out of Chicago. Chicago pioneered the use of the expressway median for rail lines in the 1950s. There are also open-cut and/or grade-level portions (with street crossings) on some parts of the system.

It is one of the few rapid transit systems in North America to provide 24-hour service, though only on the two busiest lines. On average 658,524 people ride the 'L' each weekday, 419,258 each Saturday, and 315,240 each Sunday. Annual ridership for 2006 was 195.2 million, the highest since 1993.

Noisy and at times slow and/or overwhelmingly crowded, the 'L' has nonetheless become one of the symbols of the city it serves. In a 2005 poll, Chicago Tribune readers voted it one of the "seven wonders of Chicago, behind the lakefront and Wrigley Field but ahead of Sears Tower, the Water Tower, the University of Chicago, and the Museum of Science and Industry.


See also: List of stations on the 'L'

Chicago's rapid transit system currently consists of eight principal routes. Since 1993 'L' lines have been identified by color, although older route names survive to some extent in CTA publications and popular usage to distinguish branches of longer lines:

Red Line

 Red Line, consisting of the Howard, State Street Subway and Dan Ryan branches
The Red Line is the busiest 'L' route, serving an average of 230,434 passengers each weekday. It includes 34 stations on its route, traveling from Howard Street terminal on the city's northern border with Evanston, through downtown Chicago via the State Street subway, then down the Dan Ryan Expressway median to 95th Street on the Far South Side. Despite its length, the Red Line stops five miles short of the city's southern border. Extension plans are currently being considered. The Red Line is one of two 'L' lines operating 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.

Blue Line

 Blue Line, consisting of the O'Hare, Milwaukee-Dearborn Subway, and Congress branches.
The Blue Line extends from O'Hare International Airport through the Loop via the Milwaukee-Dearborn-Congress subway to the West Side. Most Blue Line trains travel to Des Plaines Avenue in Forest Park via the Eisenhower Expressway median. The route from O'Hare to Des Plaines Avenue is long. The combined number of stations is 33. Until 1970, the northern section of the Blue Line terminated at Logan Square, during which time it was called the Milwaukee route after Milwaukee Avenue which ran parallel to it; in that year service was extended to Jefferson Park via the Kennedy Expressway median, and in 1984 to O'Hare. The Blue Line is the CTA's second busiest, with 128,343 weekday boardings. It operates 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.

Brown Line

 Brown Line, or Ravenswood Line
The Brown Line follows an route, with 19 stations between Kimball Avenue in Albany Park and the Loop in downtown Chicago. The Brown Line has an average weekday ridership of 66,000.

Green Line

 Green Line, consisting of the Lake Street and Englewood-Jackson Park branches
A completely elevated route utilizing the system's oldest segments (dating back to 1892), the Green Line extends with 29 stops between Forest Park and Oak Park (Harlem/Lake), through Chicago's Loop, to the South Side. South of the Garfield station the line branches, with trains alternately heading to Ashland/63rd in Englewood and Cottage Grove/63rd in Woodlawn. The East 63rd branch formerly extended to Jackson Park, but the portion east of Cottage Grove, which ran above 63rd Street, was demolished in stages in the 1980s and 1990s due to structural problems and then not replaced due to community demands. The average number of weekday boardings is 39,685.

Orange Line

 Orange Line or Midway Line
The long Orange Line was constructed in the early 1990s on existing railroad embankments and new concrete and steel elevated structure. It runs from Chicago Midway International Airport on the Southwest Side to the Loop in downtown Chicago. Average weekday ridership is 30,111.

Pink Line

 Pink Line consisting of Douglas Branch and Paulina Connector
The Pink Line is an trial rerouting of former Blue Line Douglas Park branch trains from Cicero (54/Cermak) via the previously non-revenue Paulina Connector and the Green Line on Lake Street to the Loop. Its average weekday ridership is 13,461.

Purple Line

 Purple Line, consisting of Evanston Shuttle and Evanston Express
The Purple Line is a branch serving north suburban Evanston and Wilmette with express service to the Loop during rush hour. The local service operates from the Wilmette terminal at Linden Avenue through Evanston to the Howard Street terminal where it connects with the Red and Yellow lines. The rush hour express service continues from Howard to the Loop, running nonstop on the four-track line used by the Red Line to Belmont station, then serving all Brown Line stops to the Loop. Average weekday ridership is 9,956, although this does not count boardings from Belmont south, which are included in Red and Brown line statistics. The stops from Belmont to Chicago Avenue were added in the 1990s to relieve crowding on the Red and Brown lines.

Yellow Line

 Yellow Line, or Skokie Swift
The Yellow Line is a nonstop shuttle that runs from the Howard Street terminal to Dempster Street terminal in suburban Skokie. The Yellow Line is the only 'L' route that does not provide direct service to the Loop. This line was originally part of the North Shore Line's commuter rail service, and was acquired by the CTA in the 1960's. The line is also unique in the sense that it travels on the only CTA-owned right-of-way to feature grade-crossings. Also, it was unusual in that it was the only line that used overhead catenary for a portion of the way, but this practice was discontinued in 2004. There are currently plans to construct an infill station at Oakton Street to serve downtown Skokie. Upon completion (expected in 2008 or 2009), this will signal the end of over 40 years of the Skokie Swift operating as a non-stop shuttle. At present, its average weekday ridership is 2,651.


The first 'L'—the Chicago and South Side Rapid Transit Railroad—began revenue service on June 6 1892, when a small steam locomotive pulling four wooden coaches with 30 passengers left the 39th Street station of the and arrived at Congress Street 14 minutes later over tracks still used today by the Green Line. Over the next year service was extended to 63rd Street and Stony Island Avenue, then the entrance to the World's Columbian Exposition in Jackson Park.

Later in 1893 trains began running on the Lake Street Elevated Railroad and in 1895 on the Metropolitan West Side Elevated, which had lines to Douglas Park, Garfield Park (since replaced), Humboldt Park (since demolished), and Logan Square. The Metropolitan was the United States' first non-exhibition rapid transit system powered by electric traction motors, a technology whose practicality had been previously demonstrated on the "intramural railway" at the world's fair. Two years later the South Side 'L' introduced multiple-unit control, in which several or all the cars in a train are motorized and under the control of the operator, not just the lead unit. Electrification and MU control remain standard features of most of the world's rapid transit systems.

A drawback of early 'L' service was that none of the lines entered the central business district. Instead trains dropped passengers at stub terminals on the periphery due to a state law requiring approval by neighboring property owners for tracks built over public streets, something not easily obtained downtown. This obstacle was overcome by the legendary traction magnate Charles Tyson Yerkes, who went on to play a pivotal role in the development of the London Underground and was immortalized by Theodore Dreiser as the ruthless schemer Frank Cowperwood in The Titan (1914) and other novels. Yerkes, who controlled much of the city's streetcar system, obtained the necessary signatures through cash and guile—at one point he secured a franchise to build a mile-long 'L' over Van Buren Street from Wabash Avenue to Halsted Street, extracting the requisite majority from the pliable owners on the western half of the route, then building tracks chiefly over the eastern half, where property owners had opposed him. The Union Loop opened in 1897, greatly increasing the rapid transit system's convenience but at the cost of noisy, obstructed streets, a fact of life in downtown Chicago to this day. Operation on the Yerkes-owned Northwestern Elevated, which built the North Side 'L' lines, began three years later, essentially completing the elevated infrastructure in the urban core although extensions and branches continued to be constructed in outlying areas through the 1920s.

Rarely profitable, the 'L' lines after 1911 came under the control of Samuel Insull, president of the Chicago Edison electric utility (now Commonwealth Edison), whose interest stemmed initially from the fact that the trains were the city's largest consumer of electricity. Insull instituted many improvements, including free transfers and through routing, although he did not formally combine the original firms into the Chicago Rapid Transit Company until 1924. He also bought three other Chicago electrified railroads, the North Shore, Aurora and Elgin, and South Shore interurban lines, and ran the trains of the first two into downtown Chicago via the 'L' tracks. This period of relative prosperity ended when Insull's empire collapsed in 1932, but later in the decade the city with the help of the federal government accumulated sufficient funds to begin construction of two subway lines to supplement and, some hoped, permit eventual replacement of the Loop elevated.

The State Street subway was completed in 1943; the Dearborn subway, work on which was suspended during World War II, opened in 1951. The subways were constructed with a secondary purpose of serving as bomb shelters, the closely spaced support columns are evidence of this (a plan to replace the entire elevated system with subways was also proposed with this intent as well). The subways bypassed a number of tight curves and circuitous routings on the original elevated lines (Milwaukee trains, for example, originated on Chicago's northwest side but entered the Loop at the southwest corner), speeding service for many riders.

By the 1940s the financial condition of the 'L,' and of Chicago mass transit in general, had become too precarious to permit continued private operation, and the necessary steps were taken to enable public takeover. In 1947 the Chicago Transit Authority acquired the assets of the Chicago Rapid Transit Company and the Chicago Surface Lines, operator of the city's streetcars. Over the next few years the CTA modernized the 'L,' replacing antiquated wooden cars with new steel ones and closing lightly used branch lines and stations, many of which had been spaced only a quarter mile apart.

Shortly after its takeover of the 'L', the CTA introduced an express service known as the A/B skip-stop service. Under this service, trains were designated as either "A" or "B" trains, and stations were alternately designated as "A" or "B", with heavily-used stations designated as "AB". "A" trains would only stop at "A" or "AB" stations, and "B" trains would only stop at "B" or "AB" stations. Station signage carried the station's skip-stop letter and was also color-coded by skip-stop type; "A" stations had red signage, "B" stations had green signage, and "AB" stations had blue signage. The system was designed to speed up lines by having trains skip stations with fewer passengers while still allowing for frequent service at the heavily-used "AB" stations. The CTA first implemented A/B skip-stop service on the Lake Street Line (now part of the Green Line) in 1948, and the service proved effective as travel times were cut by a third. By the 1950s, the service was being used throughout the system. All lines used the A/B skip-stop service between the 1950s and the 1990s with the exception of the Evanston and Skokie lines, which were too short to justify skip-stop service. Also, the Congress and Douglas branches of what later became the Blue Line were designated as "A" and "B" respectively, as were the Englewood ("A") and Jackson Park ("B") branches of what later became the Green Line, so individual stops were not skipped while trains were serving those branches. As time went by, the time periods in which skip-stop service was used were gradually decreased, as the waits at "A" and "B" stations became increasingly long during non-peak service. By the 1990s, use of the A/B skip-stop system was only justified during rush hour due to decreasing ridership and resultant service reductions. In 1993, the CTA began the elimination of skip-stop service when it switched the southern branches of the Red and Green Lines; after this point, Green Line trains stopped at all stations, and Red Line trains stopped at all stations south of Harrison. The elimination of A/B skip-stop service continued with the opening of the all-stop Orange Line and the conversion of the Brown Line to all-stop service. On April 28, 1995, the A/B skip-stop system was completely eliminated with the transfer of the O'Hare branch of the Blue Line and the Howard branch of the Red Line to all-stop service. The removal of skip-stop service greatly increased ridership at former "A" and "B" stations, but it did result in an increase in travel time on some parts of the system.

The first air-conditioned cars were introduced in 1964 and the last pre-World War II cars retired in 1973. New lines were built in expressway medians, the Congress branch replacing the Garfield Park 'L' in 1958 and the Dan Ryan branch opening in 1969, followed by the first Kennedy Expressway extension in 1970.

The 'L' today

'L' ridership has increased steadily in recent years after catastrophic losses in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Ridership had been remarkably stable for nearly 40 years after the CTA takeover despite declining mass transit usage nationwide, with an average of 594,000 riders boarding each weekday in 1960 and 577,000 in 1985. Thereafter, however, ridership dropped sharply, bottoming out at 418,000 in 1992, when the Loop Flood forced the CTA to suspend operation for several weeks in the State and Dearborn subways, used by the most heavily traveled lines.

Overall traffic volume has since recovered, although growth has not been uniformly distributed, with usage of North Side lines generally up, often dramatically so, while that of West and South Side lines is flat or declining. Ridership on the Brown Line, for instance, has increased 83% since 1979, necessitating the station reconstruction project currently underway to accommodate longer trains.

Annual traffic on the Howard branch of the Red Line, which reached 35 million in 2005, is approaching the 1927 prewar peak of 38.5 million. The section of the Blue Line between the Loop and Logan Square, which serves once-neglected but now bustling neighborhoods such as Wicker Park, Bucktown, and Palmer Square, has seen a 54% increase in weekday riders since 1992. On the other hand, weekday ridership on the South Side portion of the Green Line, which closed for two years for reconstruction starting in 1994, was 50,400 in 1978 but only 13,000 in 2006. Boardings at the 95/Dan Ryan stop on the Red Line, though still the system's busiest at 14,100 riders per weekday, are a little over half the peak volume in the 1980s. In 1976, three North Side 'L' branches - what were then known as the Howard, Milwaukee, and Ravenswood lines − accounted for 42% of non-downtown boardings. Today (with the help of the Blue Line extension to O'Hare), they account for 58%.

The North Side (which has historically been the highest density area of the city) skew no doubt reflects the Chicago building boom of the past decade, which has focused primarily on North Side neighborhoods and downtown. It may ease somewhat in the wake of the current high level of residential construction along the south lakefront. For example, ridership at the linked Roosevelt stops on the Green, Orange, and Red Lines, which serve the burgeoning South Loop neighborhood, has tripled since 1992, with an average of 8,000 boardings per weekday. Patronage at the Cermak-Chinatown stop on the Red Line (4,000 weekday boardings) is at the highest level since the station opened in 1969. The 2003 Chicago Central Area Plan has proposed construction of a Green Line station at Cermak, midway between Chinatown and the McCormick Place convention center, in expectation of continued growth in the vicinity.

Iconic of Chicago though it may be, the 'L' is not the city's predominant form of mass transit. As of mid-2006 it accounted for just 36% of the CTA's 1.48 million weekday riders, the remainder traveling on the agency's extensive bus network. The rail system's rider share has increased over time, however. In 1926, the year of peak prewar rail usage, the 'L' carried 229 million passengers – seemingly a formidable number, but less than 20% of the 1.16 billion Chicago transit patrons that year, most of whom rode streetcars. The shift to rail has continued in recent times. Since its low point in 1992 (due to the Chicago Flood that closed subway tunnels in the downtown area), weekday 'L' ridership has increased about 25%, while bus ridership has decreased by roughly a sixth.

Rolling stock

The Chicago Transit Authority owns 1190 train cars, permanently coupled into 595 married pairs. Cars are assigned to different lines, and each line contains at most three different series of train cars. The oldest cars in the 'L', the 2200 series, were built in 1969, and the newest, the 3200 series, were built in 1992. The newest series of train cars, the 5000 series, are expected to begin service sometime in 2010. All cars on the system utilize 600 volt direct current power delivered through a third rail.

Renovation and expansion plans

Keeping a century-old rail system in good repair has proven to be a daunting task. Some of the oldest sections of the 'L' have required wholesale reconstruction at great expense, with accompanying service disruptions and ridership losses that have yet to be recouped. In 1994 the CTA closed the Green Line for a two-year rebuilding program that ultimately cost $406 million, arguing that a shutdown would save time and money. Ten years after reopening the line has not regained the low level of ridership it had in 1992, with 13 of the 23 non-downtown stations serving fewer than 1,500 riders per weekday. The CTA kept trains running during the $482 million rehabilitation of the Douglas branch of the Blue Line (now the Pink Line), but ridership dropped substantially during the 40-month project, which was completed in 2005. Traffic remains low (although climbing) today, with six of the 11 stations boarding fewer than 1,000 passengers per weekday.

More difficulties lie ahead. As of August 2006, 18% of 'L' trackage lay in "slow zones," in which trains must operate at reduced speed due to deteriorated track, structure, or other problems. The line in worst condition is the busiest, the Red Line, with 36% in slow zones, including nearly half of the State Street subway. Trains on the Blue Line, the second busiest route, must operate at reduced speed for 25% of the line's length. Work to repair the blue line's tracks began July 2007 and is expected to complete by December 2008.

Red & Brown Line renovations

Two major rehabilitation projects are currently underway – a $283 million renovation of the Dan Ryan branch of the Red Line, including station renewal, trackwork and other system upgrades; and a $530 million rehabilitation and capacity-expansion program for the Brown Line, which has been largely untouched since the first decade of the twentieth century. The Brown Line Capacity Expansion plan will extend station platform lengths to support 8-car trains and make all stations fully accessible. Work on the Brown Line project began on February 20, 2006 and is ahead of schedule and right is now scheduled to be completed at the end of 2008, after originally being scheduled to be done in 2009.

Pink Line

The CTA inaugurated a new route without building any new tracks or stations when Pink Line service began on June 25, 2006. The Pink Line travels from the 54/Cermak terminal in Cicero via the Douglas branch to the Polk-Medical Center station in Chicago. At this point, instead of joining the Congress (Forest Park) branch of the Blue Line, Pink Line trains proceed via the Paulina Street Connector to the Lake Street branch of the Green Line and then clockwise around the Loop elevated via Lake-Wabash-Van Buren-Wells. The routing isn't really new, since Douglas trains followed the same path between April 4, 1954 and June 22, 1958 after the old West Side 'L' line to which the Douglas branch had connected was demolished to make way for the Eisenhower Expressway. (The demolished line, known as the Garfield Park 'L', was eventually replaced by the Congress line, which runs down the expressway median.) The new route, which serves 22 stations, offers more frequent service for riders on both the Congress and Douglas branches. O'Hare trains are no longer evenly split between the Forest Park and 54/Cermak terminals; instead, O'Hare trains terminate in Forest Park, while Pink Line trains can be scheduled independently - rush hour trains run every 7½ minutes rather than every 10-15 minutes under the old routing.

Circle Line (proposed)

The most ambitious proposed project is the Circle Line, a new 'L' route that would form a large circle around the Loop and would directly connect the CTA to nearly all Metra rail lines in ways currently impossible in the downtown area, given the distance between the western Metra stations and the Loop elevated rail. Aside from making Metra-CTA transfers more feasible, intra-CTA transfers would become more numerous, and allowing transfers outside of the downtown area would significantly decrease travel times throughout the system.

The Circle Line project is currently undergoing a federally mandated Alternatives Analysis Study, which has technically not yet ruled out the possibility of implementing the Circle Line as a bus rapid transit system, rather than a rail addition.

In September 2006, as part of this Alternatives Analysis Study, the CTA narrowed the possible train routes to two, referred to as Ashland and Ashland-Ogden, both of which rely largely on existing track. The two are quite similar, differing only in the northwest section of the circle. Both would begin at the current Clark/Division Red Line stop, following the State Street subway south to the Roosevelt stop, then transferring to the Orange Line's rails. Both would follow the Orange Line to its Ashland stop, with a new station at Ashland that would connect with Metra's Heritage Line. They would then both depart along new elevated rail to connect with the Douglas Branch of the Pink and Blue Lines, with a new stop created at Cermak. Both would follow the Pink Line north, with a new station connecting the Circle Line to Metra's Burlington Northern Santa Fe Line. They would continue to the Green Line's Ashland stop via the Paulina Connector, with new stations at Roosevelt Road and the United Center. After they reach the Green Line, the two plans diverge.

Ashland would follow Ashland Avenue north to North Avenue, with a new stop at Chicago, a connection to the Division stop of the Blue Line's O'Hare Branch, and a new stop at North Avenue with a connection to the Clybourn stop on Metra's Union Pacific-North and Union Pacific-Northwest Lines. After the North Avenue stop, the Circle Line would proceed to the North/Clybourn Red Line subway stop and follow the Red Line to Clark and Division, with a new connection to the Brown and Purple Lines at Division/Orleans.

Ashland-Ogden would follow Ashland Avenue north to Grand Avenue, then follow Grand to Ogden Avenue. It would follow Ogden Avenue Northeast, connecting with the Chicago stop of the Blue Line's O'Hare Branch. It would continue along Ogden to Division, then connect to the Red Line subway at Division and Orleans, with a new station there connecting those lines to the Brown and Purple Lines.

Current plans call for both of these proposed final legs to run entirely underground.

If one looks at past plans for the Circle Line, the CTA has already completed what was earlier referred to as Phase I, which involved renovating the Paulina Connector for use in the new Pink Line (formerly the Blue Line Cermak Branch).

Other Expansion

Other possible future expansions, identified in the "Destination 2020" Regional Transportation Plan, include:

  • New express service to O'Hare and Midway airports from a downtown terminal on State Street. A business plan prepared for the CTA calls for a private firm to manage the venture with service starting in 2008. The project has been criticized as a boondoggle. The custom-equipped, premium-fare trains would offer nonstop service at faster speeds than the current Blue and Orange Lines. Although the trains would not run on dedicated rails (construction of such tracks could cost more than $1.5 billion), several short sections of passing track build at stations would allow the express trains to pass Blue and Orange trains while they sit at those stations. The CTA has already pledged $130 million and the city of Chicago $42 million toward the cost of the downtown station. In comments posted to her blog in 2006, CTA chair Carole Brown said, "I would support premium rail service only if it brought significant new operating dollars, capital funding, or other efficiencies to CTA … The most compelling reason to proceed with the project is the opportunity to connect the Blue and Red subway tunnels," which are one block apart downtown. In the meantime, CTA announced that due to cost overruns, it would only complete the shell of the Block 37 station; its president said "it would not make sense to completely build out the station or create the final tunnel connections until a partner is selected because final layout, technology and finishes are dependent on an operating plan.
  • Yellow Line extension to Westfield Shoppingtown Old Orchard with possible intermediate stations.
  • Orange Line extension to its originally-planned terminus at Ford City Shopping Center. The destination signs on Orange Line trains already indicate this as a possible endpoint.
  • Red Line extension from 95th Street to either Pullman or 130th Street in Riverdale. "CTA has clearly demonstrated its commitment to building an extension of the Red Line to 130th Street and has been advancing the project," a CTA spokesperson said in 2006. This project is currently undergoing an Alternatives Analysis as required by the Federal New Starts process. At present, the possible alignments for the extension have been narrowed to Halsted Street, Michigan Ave., and the Union Pacific Railroad.
  • Mid-City Transitway running around, rather than through the Chicago Loop. The line would follow the Cicero Avenue/Belt Line corridor (former Crosstown Expressway alignment) between the O'Hare branch of the Blue Line at Montrose and the Dan Ryan branch of the Red Line at 87th Street. It would not necessarily be an 'L' line; a busway and other options are being considered.

Numerous plans have been advanced over the years to reorganize downtown Chicago rapid transit service, originally with the intention of replacing the Loop elevated, which was long seen as a blight. That goal has been largely abandoned, but there have been continued calls to improve transit within the city's greatly enlarged core. At present the 'L' does not provide direct service between the Metra commuter rail terminals in the West Loop and Michigan Avenue, the principal shopping district, nor does it offer convenient access to popular downtown destinations such as Navy Pier, Soldier Field, and McCormick Place. Plans for the Central Area Circulator, a $700 million downtown light rail system meant to remedy these failings, were shelved for lack of funding in 1995. An underground line running along the lakeshore would connect Chicago's major tourist destinations, but this plan has not been widely discussed. Recognizing the difficulty of implementing an all-rail solution, the Chicago Central Area Plan advocated a mix of rail and bus improvements, the centerpiece of which was the West Loop Transportation Center, a multi-level subway to be constructed under Clinton Street from Congress to Lake streets. The top level would be a pedestrian mezzanine, buses would operate in the second level, rapid transit trains in the third level, and commuter and intercity trains in the bottom level. The rapid transit level would connect to the existing Blue Line subway at its north and south ends, making possible the "Blue Line loop," envisioned as an underground counterpart to the Loop elevated. Among other advantages the West Loop Transportation Center would provide a direct link between the 'L' and the city's two busiest commuter rail terminals, Ogilvie Transportation Center and Union Station. The plan also proposed transitways along Carroll Avenue, a former rail right-of-way north of the main branch of the Chicago River, and under Monroe Street in the Loop, which earlier transit schemes had proposed as rail routes. The Carroll Avenue route would provide faster bus service between the commuter stations and the rapidly redeveloping Near North Side, with possible rail service later.

Getting around on the 'L'

Prior to color coding, CTA rail line names were based on neighborhood or town served (Ravenswood, Englewood, Evanston, Skokie Swift), endpoint (Howard, Jackson Park, Midway, O'Hare), parallel streets (Congress, Lake), or even a city park the line traveled past (Douglas). As part of the effort to make the 'L' easier to navigate, train signs now indicate the destination terminal:

  • Blue Line trains display "Forest Park" signs when traveling southeast/west, "O'Hare" when traveling east/northwest. Some southeast/west trains display "UIC" and end their runs at UIC-Halsted instead of going to the end of the line, while some east/northwest trains display "Jefferson Park" or "Rosemont" and terminate at these stations instead.
  • Brown Line trains display "Loop" signs inbound, "Kimball" outbound. Late-night Brown Line shuttle service terminates at Belmont southbound; these trains display "Belmont."
  • Green Line trains display "Harlem" when north/westbound, "Ashland/63" or "Cottage Grove" when east/southbound. One should note that the "Cottage Grove" reading is still relatively new and that the majority of CTA signage does not reflect this. Station signs reading "East 63rd" are equivalent to "Cottage Grove" on train signs.
  • Orange Line trains display "Loop" inbound, "Midway" outbound.
  • Pink Line trains display "Loop" inbound, "54/Cermak" outbound.
  • Purple Line local shuttles display "Howard" southbound, "Linden" northbound. Rush-hour Purple Line Express trains display "Loop" inbound, "Linden" outbound.
  • Red Line trains display "Howard" northbound, "95/Dan Ryan" southbound. Some southbound trains display "Roosevelt" during the overnight hours and cease service there, rather than making the complete 95/Dan Ryan run.
  • Yellow Line trains display "Howard" inbound, "Skokie" outbound.

These changes do not eliminate all potential confusion, however. Visitors to the city should be aware that, since 'L' stations typically are named after the principal intersecting street, and Chicago streets tend to be long and straight, many stations on different lines have the same name. For example, there are four stations named Pulaski, five named Kedzie, and five named Western — two of which are on the Blue Line. It should also be noted that none of the three stations named Chicago lie in the Chicago Loop, as one might suppose; rather, the stations take their names from Chicago Avenue, which lies six city blocks (3/4 mile) north of the northern boundary of the Loop.

The Loop

Brown, Green, Orange, Pink, and Purple Line Express trains serve downtown Chicago via the Loop elevated. The Loop's nine stations average 64,800 weekday boardings.

The Orange Line and the Pink Line run clockwise, the Brown Line and Purple Line run counter-clockwise and the Green Line is the Loop's only through service; the other four lines circle the Loop and return to their starting points. The Loop forms a rectangle roughly 0.4 miles (650 m long) east-to-west and 0.6 miles (960 m) long north-to-south.

While many believe that the city's central business district was named after this section of the "L," the term actually predates the "L" and refers to a now-retired circular routing of streetcars through downtown, which followed the same basic route as the present day elevated tracks.

Making connections

The 'L' serves both Chicago airports but does not connect directly to any of the commuter rail, intercity rail, or intercity bus stations in or near the Loop. Metra, Amtrak, and Greyhound stations, and their locations relative to 'L' stops are:

Clinton (Green, Pink Lines) station and 3 blocks west of the Washington/Wells (Loop Brown, Orange, Purple, Pink Lines) station.

Outlying transfer points between 'L' trains and Metra:

Outlying transfer points between 'L' trains and Greyhound Lines bus service:

'L' or El?

The Chicago rapid-transit system is officially nicknamed the 'L.' This name for the CTA rail system applies to the whole system, as well as its elevated, subway, at-grade and open-cut segments. The CTA claims that 'L' is a trademark, but it is not a registered trademark. The use of the nickname dates to the earliest days of the system—the first line, the Chicago and South Side Rapid Transit Railroad is referred to by the nickname "Alley L" in publications from 1893, less than a year after the line opened.

In discussing various stylings of "Loop" and "L" in Destination Loop: The Story of Rapid Transit Railroading in and around Chicago (1982), author Brian J. Cudahy quotes a passage from The Neon Wilderness (1949) by Chicago author Nelson Algren: "beneath the curved steel of the El, beneath the endless ties." Cudahy then comments, "Note that in the quotation above ... it says 'El' to mean "elevated rapid transit railroad.' We trust that this usage can be ascribed to a publisher's editor in New York or some other east coast city; in Chicago the same expression is routinely rendered 'L.' "

While this is broadly true, it is not hard to find exceptions, such as the magazine Time Out Chicago, which refers to the system as the El and once responded to a letter on the subject by explaining that it chose "El" stylistically because it would be easier for people originally from outside of Chicago to decipher. However, Time Out, whose London, England-based publishing company started the Chicago edition in 2005, has a highly idiosyncratic style common throughout its worldwide publications, which also includes such practices as designating locations with often-obscure side-street names instead of the local custom of Chicago grid system street numbers.

As used by the CTA, the name is rendered as the capital letter "L", in quotation marks. "L" (with double quotation marks) was often used by CTA predecessors such as the Chicago Rapid Transit Company; however, the CTA uses single quotation marks (') on some printed materials and signs rather than double, and it seems safe to say there is no firm policy other than use of quotation marks of some kind. The term subway in Chicago usage is limited to sections of the 'L' that are underground and is not applied to the system as a whole, and Chicagoans typically refer to the 'L' even when they mean the below-ground parts.

Security breach

In 2002, 25-year-old Joseph Konopka, better known by his self-given nickname "Dr. Chaos", was arrested by Chicago Police after he was caught hoarding potassium cyanide and sodium cyanide in an unused Chicago Transit Authority storeroom in the Chicago L Blue Line subway. Konopka had picked the original locks on several doors in the tunnels, then changed the locks so that he could access the unused rooms freely. Konopka had briefly associated with a Chicago-area urban exploration group in order to obtain information on how to access the large network of unused tunnels and abandoned rooms on Chicago's transit system as well as to lure juveniles to help him.

See also


  • Cudahy, Brian J. (1982). Destination Loop: The Story of Rapid Transit Railroading in and around Chicago. Brattleboro, VT: S. Greene Press.
  • Borzo, Greg (2007). The Chicago "L". Chicago: Arcadia Publishing.
  • Franch, John (2006). Robber Baron: The Life of Charles Tyson Yerkes. Urbana: University of Illinois Press.

References and notes

External links

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