CTA revs up its bus cleaning

Quality of appearance improving as agency looks to schedule deep cleaning more often

George Cavelle, the CTA¿s director of bus maintenance, talks about what it takes each night to clean up the agency¿s buses. (Anthony Souffle, Chicago Tribune)

Hey, Chicagoans, you really know how to trash the CTA.

It's after 10 p.m., and more than 250 buses are parked at the CTA's Kedzie Avenue garage, awaiting some TLC following a long day of OMG at the hands of simply too many slovenly riders who were inconsiderate of the passengers who would board after them.

The first order of business before buses are refueled and run through the wash rack each night is to sweep out mounds of debris: an amalgam that includes food scraps, plastic bottles, newspapers, an occasional hypodermic syringe, splotch of blood or human waste (liquid and sometimes solid, naturally).

Surfaces including windows, grab railings and seats get a nightly wipe-down, and graffiti is removed, while floors are washed on an as-needed basis until their scheduled deep-cleaning, officials said.

The dirty little job of restoring the transit agency's 1,868 buses to respectable condition before the morning rush falls on crews called bus servicers who are assigned to seven CTA bus garages across the city.

"Oh, man, the buses go out good, and they come back terrible, just terrible, terrible," said Kamilah Kitchen, 32, who has worked as a bus servicer for eight months after learning about the opening at a CTA job fair.

This year's total annual budget for bus servicing is $20 million, officials said. Getting rid of the two G's — graffiti and gum — chews up a sizable amount of the budget, officials said.

The bus servicing job recently became more challenging because the CTA set the bar higher for daily cleaning and general deep cleaning. Under the new criteria, buses are cleaned more thoroughly and more often.

The CTA keeps a monthly score card on bus cleanliness. Initially, scores plummeted to a 41 percent average performance — a failing grade — after the more stringent criteria were implemented last summer, CTA records show. Scores have since more than doubled.

"The first thing I wanted to do when I moved from rail to bus last summer was to attack the clean," said George Cavelle, CTA director of bus maintenance and the agency's former head of the rail car appearance department.

"It's very personal for me. My wife rides the system," Cavelle said. "I say to my guys, 'What kind of environment do you want your family to ride the trains and buses?'"

Your Getting Around reporter spent some time Thursday night with bus servicers who do daily cleaning and those who do deep cleaning, which was monthly and now is being done on each bus every 23 days, officials said. The goal is to reduce the time between general cleanings to 14 days, officials said.

On CTA trains, the target for deep-cleaning rail cars is every 19 days, CTA spokeswoman Tammy Chase said.

Some quick observations about the operations at Kedzie: First, considering the competing smells of diesel fumes and cleaning agents, plus what seems like an endless line of buses waiting to be cleaned, it's not a job I could get my head around night after night. Second, the buses do leave the bus barn clean.

The 205 full-time bus servicers I observed worked extremely hard, employing determination, elbow grease and pride, to earn the $12.88 to $29.46 an hour wage, which is based on experience. Sixty-two part-time bus service apprentices, who are hired through the city's ex-offender program, are paid $9.50 an hour.

"Sometimes it's easy; sometimes it's rough. You have to be strong mentally to concentrate on what you are doing," bus servicer Andres Bulley said, moving quickly from washing a bus ceiling to wielding a putty knife to remove wads of dried gum from crevices under seats.

Bulley, who deep-cleans two buses per shift, said he has gained a new perspective that he carries into everyday life.

"I don't even litter no more," he said.

Asked what items discarded on buses have surprised her the most, Kitchen was quick to respond with a list.

"Underclothes, bras, panties. Needles. Bloody pants. Feces. Throw-up. Everything. Just awful," the 32-year-old Chicagoan said. "I've seen some things in eight months. But it's OK. The managers and co-workers here are pretty cool."