The 'L' in the CTA era

June 7, 2012

Chicago’s first subway opened in 1943. The project was funded by the city, with help from the feds. Chicago Rapid Transit, the private company that operated the trains, was on its last legs.

Government control of mass transit came in 1947, when the new Chicago Transit Authority bought out CRT. The agency then set out to modernize the system.

Dozens of little-used stations were closed. Money-losing branch lines were abandoned. Modern "L" cars were put into service, using components from scrapped surface streetcars.

In 1951 the long-delayed Dearborn-Lake-Milwaukee subway was completed. At the time CTA also had plans for a short downtown subway under Jackson Boulevard, the first step in replacing the Loop "L." This project never got off the drawing board.

CTA did pioneer the use of expressway medians for rapid transit lines. In 1958 trains began running on the Congress (Eisenhower) Expressway. The Dan Ryan line followed in 1969, and the Kennedy line in 1970. Though CTA intended to extend Kennedy service all the way to O’Hare Airport, that was not accomplished until 1983.

CTA had discontinued its ground-level Niles Center "L" line to Skokie in 1948. Then came the postwar suburban boom. The old line was reborn as the Skokie Swift in 1964, and did quite well.

The one part of the city that had never gotten "L" service was the Southwest Side. In the 1940s the city had floated plans for a subway under Archer Avenue to Midway Airport. Later, when the Stevenson Expressway opened, there was talk about putting an "L" line on its median. The current Orange Line to Midway finally opened in 1993.

In recent decades CTA has also done some major cost-cutting. Train conductors were phased out. The introduction of fare cards meant that station agents were also eliminated. Service schedules were slashed—which led to greater headway between trains, and the end of “A” and “B” expresses.

As the system approached its 100th birthday, many of the older "L" structures were deteriorating. The Lake Street and Douglas Park lines underwent major rebuilding. The historic line to Jackson Park was cut back to a new terminal at Cottage Grove.

So here we are after 120 years. We now use colors instead of names for the "L" lines, and some outer neighborhoods are still without service. Yet after decades of decline, ridership has been going up. And each day the trains move thousands of people, and do put a dent in traffic congestion. What would Chicago be without the "L"?

It would be Los Angeles—with snow.