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:
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.
'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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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 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.
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:
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.