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CTA website offers why 'things go wrong'

Agency's Q&A explaining delays misses the mark

Jon Hilkevitch

Getting Around

January 28, 2013

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The CTA is going all out on defense in the hope it makes up for inconsistent offense.

Newly posted on its website and promoted via social media, the transit agency offers reasons for some service delays.

Frankly, the overall tone borders on being condescending toward CTA customers, who probably are less interested in hearing excuses about the causes of poor service than they are in seeing tangible improvements in their commutes.

Titled, "When things go wrong,'' the CTA narrative is part mea culpa. But mostly, "as the saying goes: Stuff happens,'' it says. "There are countless reasons why service can be disrupted or delayed. In many cases, the disruption/delay is entirely out of CTA's control.''

Isn't that reassuring, and about as illuminating as a subway tunnel?

"It is not our intention to be flip,'' CTA spokeswoman Tammy Chase said. She asserted that the average rider is much less interested than a transportation reporter would be about specific details of a complex transit system. "We are just trying to explain to people why the train isn't moving,'' she said.

The page — transitchicago.com/news_initiatives/whenthingsgowrong.aspx — begins by reciting the number of rides provided (more than 1.7 million) and miles traveled (323,322) on CTA trains and buses each weekday. It compares the total to "almost a full trip to the moon and back.''

But riders aren't asking the CTA to take them to the Sea of Tranquility. They would just like the agency to keep trains running around the Loop elevated structure with fewer "Houston, we've had a problem'' scenarios like the signaling breakdowns that occurred downtown this month.

By the way, the CTA's mileage comparison with a round-trip lunar trek is off the mark too, with the average one-way distance from Earth to the moon being 238,855 miles, according to NASA.

In a Q&A format, the CTA queries itself about mysteries of the universe that include, "Why did my bus go down the street slowly and/or purposely miss a green light?''

"We know how frustrating this is, but it's a necessary evil,'' the CTA replies.

"In the event that all the stars and the planets align in such a way that traffic is way lighter than normal, plus no events delay the bus, buses can get ahead of schedule because we do schedule in enough wiggle room to account for variability. We refer to being ahead of schedule as 'running hot,'" the website says.

In such cases CTA instructs bus drivers to slow down their runs to prevent large gaps in service, or buses from bunching together on other parts of routes, according to the explanation.

That's fair, to a point. But your Getting Around reporter, who rides the CTA five days a week, as well as other regular riders all too often observe situations involving inattentive drivers or drivers with bad attitudes, both of which may account for snail-like progress from block to block.

Such lackadaisical behavior manifests itself in different forms, including drivers who sometimes fail to stop for customers waiting at bus stops, or who abruptly stomp on the brakes late because they didn't notice the red traffic signal ahead in proper time.

It's interesting to note that when I board a bus and see the "line instructor" patch on the driver's uniform, the quality of the service is usually several notches above what the average trip provides. It has nothing to do with whether my bus is running "hot" or "cold."

Other issues addressed on the website include why Red Line trains sometimes are rerouted to the elevated tracks instead of into the State Street subway tunnel; why trains break down; why trains often stop for signal clearance, or run express and skip stations; and why buses are delayed.

The CTA's brief responses are on the website. Getting Around encourages the transit agency's customers to ask their own questions.

The latest available CTA performance results, using the transit agency's own data from January through November of last year, probably provides the most accurate, unvarnished picture of shortfalls in service quality.

For example, the agency's internal performance metrics show that the CTA missed its target for controlling rail delays by more than 10 percent in every month except April.

In nine of the 11 months, the average daily percent of the CTA rail fleet unavailable for service, mostly because of mechanical problems, also exceeded the goal by more than 10 percent, and the target was missed by a smaller margin in the two other months, records show.

Scores related to the CTA standard to send clean buses onto the streets met or exceeded the target in only three months of 2012.

Long intervals between buses, creating unacceptable gaps in service, also were recorded as missing performance goals in seven of the 11 months.

Meanwhile, track slow zones continue to delay customers on most of the rail lines, according to the latest slow zone map.

Slow zones exert the most severe overall impact on the Purple Line and Evanston Express to the Loop, where a total of 32 percent of the track is under slow-zone orders because of deteriorated infrastructure, CTA records show.

Next are the Brown Line, 22 percent slow zones; Red Line, 21 percent; Green Line, 16 percent; Blue Line, 11 percent; Pink Line, 8 percent; Loop elevated, 3 percent; and 0 percent on both the Yellow and Orange lines.

It's not pretty, overall. But with more than half of CTA customers paying higher fares this year because of increases in pass prices, riders aren't asking the CTA to break it to them gently "when things go wrong."

Contact Getting Around at jhilkevitch@tribune.com or c/o the Chicago Tribune, 435 N. Michigan Ave., Chicago, IL 60611; on Twitter @jhilkevitch; and at facebook.com/jhilkevitch. Read recent columns at chicagotribune.com/gettingaround.