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Stories Behind CTA ‘L’ Lines’ Strange Curves, Dips and Twists

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RC Jones lives in Chicago’s Ravenswood neighborhood and commutes every day on the Brown Line. His route stair-steps from the Northwest Side to the Loop. His question for Curious City involves that stair-stepping part.

“What determines the route of CTA ‘L’ train lines? Some of them seem to zigzag for no apparent reason,” Jones asks. “If you’re not sitting down and holding on, you could definitely fall over with all the turns back and forth. If you’re reading a newspaper, or texting, you’re gonna eat it.”

Even if you don’t have first-hand experience with “eating it” on an 'L' train, the official system map confirms what RC’s talking about. Yes, nearly every train line has some mighty twists, turns and jogs.

Nice, straight lines would make more sense, right? Together, CTA trains travel the distance from here to the moon every day, so it seems a shorter route would save a lot of time, and generally be a more efficient experience. But, it doesn’t work out that way.

The history behind the rail system might have produced a less-than-ideal plotting but it sure does make for a few good stories. Here’s a short list of the system’s most notorious (and interesting) kinks and then some background on why the system has any curves at all.

It’s all about location, location, location

To RC’s point, it may seem there is no rhyme or reason to the train routes. But Graham Garfield, general manager of customer information for CTA and a transit historian, says there’s one general principle that accounts for some of the routes’ kinks: The train lines follow the path of least financial resistance.

The original elevated trains were built by private companies, and they had two options in planning routes. First, they could build over public streets, as you see in the Loop. But that required serious political connections, heavy-duty bribery, or both. For less nefarious operations, there was another option: build exclusively on private land. But that made it difficult to keep the line straight.

“A straight line would have been a very expensive line, because you would have had to buy up far more property since you’re hitting the property lines at an angle,” Garfield says. A train going diagonally through a block would need to buy almost all the lots on that block — better to just bend the lines through the alleys, where the real estate is cheaper.

The infamous “Sheridan curve” is a perfect example. It’s at the Red Line’s Sheridan stop and involves two harsh, nearly 90-degree corners. Why? To connect two different north-south routes, planners jumped from one inexpensive alley space to another instead of ponying up for whole lots that would have allowed a gentler curve.

Oddly, the decision to build lines in alleys is the principle reason some lines are so straight. The elevated portion of the Blue Line, for example, runs straight because the Metropolitan West Side Elevated bought alley space right next to Milwaukee Avenue. That alley just happened to go exactly the direction they needed it.

Sometimes it’s about buying new property, other times it’s about property already acquired by hundred-year-old freight lines.

That’s how the Purple Line came to be, along with the upper reaches of the Red Line; the transit company bought a stretch of freight railroad track that ran from Wilson Avenue through Wilmette and started running passenger cars on it.

Have you ever noticed that the curves north of Sheridan are much gentler and more sweeping? That’s because they were designed for coal cars, not passenger trains.

Not-so-dearly departed kinks

For all the kinks CTA riders ride over right now, it could be worse. All four of the original 'L' companies had branches at the outer ends to pull in riders from a larger territory.

There’s only one instance of this today, at the southern reaches of the Green Line. When it hits 63rd Street, it splits off in two directions: west towards Ashland, and east toward Cottage Grove. That’s because the Green Line 63rd St. branch was built to ferry passengers to and from the World’s Columbian Exposition, held in Jackson Park in 1893. The line was trimmed back to finish at 63rd in the 1980s, thanks to falling ridership and mounting repair costs.

And that wasn’t the only one. What we now know as the Green Line used to have feeder routes to Jackson Park, Englewood, Normal Park, and Kenwood, plus a loop that went around the Stockyards. The Metropolitan, now the Blue Line, fanned out into Douglas Park, Congress, Humboldt Park, and Logan Square. Even the Lake Street 'L', now the western Green Line, had ground-level branches for a few years in Oak Park.

Transit systems can be built in straighter lines. Look at the Washington, D.C., Metro; most of its lines are underground and plenty straight, with frequent intersections that permit transfers. But it’s also one of the most expensive infrastructure projects in American history. It took longer to build and cost more than the Hoover Dam.

The Chicago area may have gotten a less ideal system, but we got one we could afford.

The CTA does try to remedy these kinks when it can. They smoothed out some sharp curves on the Green Line at Harrison and Wabash in the early 2000s, but that’s not cheap. Garfield says that’s partly because of the way the city has evolved.

“Just as a vine grows on a building or on a tree and just forms itself around the metaphorically immovable force, so does urban development sort of wrap itself around the train,” he says.

So those kinks in your morning commute? They probably aren’t going anywhere. But at least now you’ve got some history to think about on your way to work.

About our questioner

RC Jones sees his normal commute on the Brown Line with fresh eyes.

RC Jones is an advertising copywriter who lives in Ravenswood. You may be familiar with some of his work; he’s the twisted mind behind Slightly Insulting Chicago Posters (http://slightlyinsultingchicagoposters.tumblr.com/).

RC is happy to know that there’s a reason behind his kinked-up commute, and it’s not just train operators trying to make sure he always arrives at work with a little coffee spilled on his shirt. “I can give the Brown Line more credit now that I know its twists and turns are not completely arbitrary,” he says.

He plans on passing on this knowledge. “I can’t wait to ride the train with my 7-year-old and tell him all about these,” he says. “Man, he’s gonna be so bored with these. ‘Please, no more train facts, dad!’”

Correction: An earlier version of this story suggested that a political deal involving U.S. President Ronald Reagan resulted in federal funds being found for construction of the CTA Orange Line. Those funds (as well as state dollars) had already been lined up; the deal involved a waiver of a federal requirement that Chicago set aside money for cost overruns.

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