Frustrated and confused passengers on the Red Line consult a CTA worker.
The scene from a Red Line station in December: After an unauthorized person on the tracks prompted the agency to halt trains for roughly 20 minutes and then empty cars, frustrated passengers ask for updates. Michael Gerstein for WBEZ

Smoking, dirty trains, delays: Here’s how CTA answered riders’ most-pressing questions

We took your questions to the people in charge.

The scene from a Red Line station in December: After an unauthorized person on the tracks prompted the agency to halt trains for roughly 20 minutes and then empty cars, frustrated passengers ask for updates. Michael Gerstein for WBEZ
Frustrated and confused passengers on the Red Line consult a CTA worker.
The scene from a Red Line station in December: After an unauthorized person on the tracks prompted the agency to halt trains for roughly 20 minutes and then empty cars, frustrated passengers ask for updates. Michael Gerstein for WBEZ

Smoking, dirty trains, delays: Here’s how CTA answered riders’ most-pressing questions

We took your questions to the people in charge.

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Everyone knows the Chicago Transit Authority faces unprecedented challenges. In a recent survey, WBEZ heard firsthand from nearly 2,000 riders just how frustrating things have gotten: from feces on trains to smoke so bad that one rider told us it triggered an asthma attack. (Read more about the survey here).

Riders also had questions for the people in charge. Why has smoking become so common? Why are bus and train trackers consistently inaccurate? And, do the folks at the top even ride CTA themselves?

In a wide-ranging conversation, Brian Steele, CTA’s vice president of communications and marketing, tackled your questions about how the agency is combating crime, the plan to recruit new employees, and even how often trains and stations are cleaned. (WBEZ’s multiple requests to speak with CTA President Dorval Carter were denied).

CTA's Brian Steele in 2017.
CTA’s Brian Steele in 2017. Rich Hein / Chicago Sun-Times

Steele was one of the architects of the agency’s improvement plan that rolled out last August, dubbed “Meeting the Moment.” In the interview, Steele wouldn’t say how far along CTA is in completing that plan, repeatedly stressing that workforce issues are the agency’s top challenge and resolving those issues will take time. Steele said CTA hired nearly 450 bus operators in 2022 but the agency also lost staffers to retirement and resignations and is currently short more than 500 bus operators and about 100 train operators.

“This is an issue that took a long time to show itself. And unfortunately, it’s not an issue that we will solve in a week, in a month, in a couple months,” he said.

Below are the rider questions we asked Steele, along with his responses. The interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

WBEZ: A lot of survey takers want to know: Do you use CTA to get to work?

Steele: Yes, I will be honest, I take two of the three service boards in Chicago. I’m a very, very infrequent Pace rider, but I take CTA and Metra. Prior to coming to [work at] CTA, I was a daily CTA commuter for 12 years and the service was absolutely critically valuable to me.

Why is it so hard to accurately track how many buses and trains are actually running? This rider says: I totally understand the shortage of trains and buses due to staffing shortages, but I don’t understand why the missing train is still on the schedule.

Our trackers — bus and train tracker — use a combination of both real-time and schedule-based data. Now the real-time information is accurate — it’s based on GPS, it’s based on track signals and it’s indicated by the little radio waves that you’ll see [on the bus and train trackers]. (Editor’s note: CTA uses two icons on station signage to indicate how information is being tracked. Radio waves signal real-time data and an icon of a clock signals when the tracker is based on scheduling information and not GPS).

CTA bus and train trackers
On CTA’s bus and train trackers, the radio waves symbol means the arrival time is based on real-time data, while the clock indicates the tracker is using schedule-based information. CTA

Now when we don’t have the real-time information available, such as when a train is sitting at a terminal ready to go out on its run, then we use scheduled information. It’s actually schedule-based information, as well as historical travel time information. So basically, the mix of those two, real-time and travel information, fuels our trackers.

So it’s pretty simple: When our schedules are off, the tracker information will be off.

Now why does the schedule become off? It’s because of the workforce issues that we experience.

Let’s say we have a handful of operators call off on Wednesday morning. That means we have to scramble to find operators to fill the runs of those operators. Sometimes we’re able to, but sometimes we are not able to because we simply don’t have the workforce numbers that we used to. In that case, the schedules are going to be off.

If a train or bus is not coming, why might it still appear on the schedule?

Let me give an example that’s easy to understand on the rail side. The real-time train information does not become available until the train leaves the terminal. So say I’m a train at O’Hare inbound downtown, there’s not going to be any real-time information until it actually leaves the terminal. So the train tracker system, because people waiting at the next station — Rosemont or Cumberland or so on down the line — they’re gonna want some estimate of when that train will be there. That’s when the system defaults to the schedule and historical travel time data.

Austin stop, Blue Line – one of the westernmost stations from The Loop.
Riders say they often face long wait times, with trains and buses not showing up when the trackers say they will. CTA says it’s a staffing issue. Michael Gerstein for WBEZ

Explain the technology used to track trains and buses. How much is based on real-time tracking, like Uber, and how much is based on set schedules?

I don’t know the actual breakdown percentage wise; I can say that the system attempts to use real-time information whenever it is available. If you have a bus traveling along a city street, and a GPS is properly pinging — it generally pings every 30 seconds or so — let’s say that bus has to be rerouted because there’s been a traffic accident. So the bus has to go off of the 79th Street route and go a couple streets over to reroute, the GPS is not going to understand what’s going on with that bus because it’s gone off its route. So then the system will default to some of the schedule information and that will again impact the accuracy of the trackers. So real-time information is used as often as it’s available.

A rider in a red mask waits for the train doors to open at the Illinois Medical District Station on the Blue Line, headed east.
A rider in a red mask waits for the train doors to open at the Illinois Medical District Station on the Blue Line, headed east. Michael Gerstein for WBEZ

You said staffing problems are responsible for many of the delays. Several riders asked what concrete steps the agency is taking to hire more drivers/conductors?

This agency has undertaken unprecedented efforts to recruit, hire and retain employees. Among the things that we’re doing is job fairs. We’ve also tried to streamline that hiring process, so instead of coming to the job fair and just getting a flier, we can actually start some initial steps of the recruitment process where we take down your information. We start doing some additional checks, we connect people with the free commercial driver’s license classes that we have at Olive-Harvey College, etc.

We also, in fall of 2022, announced a number of financial incentives to recruit and retain employees. We now offer a $1,000 hiring bonus. We’ve increased the starting rates, the salary rates, for a large class of employees.

This next question comes from a CTA staffer who took our survey. They wanted to know how you’re working to retain employees and address mental and physical health?

The CTA absolutely values its employees. It’s part of what drove the incentives that we announced last fall. And again, those are hiring incentives. They’re retention incentives. Our frontline field employees receive a retention incentive payment. After every six months that you’re on the job, you will get a financial payment based on the number of hours that you worked, and that will continue for the next two years.

We offer professional advancement opportunities, training opportunities [and] we also host things like seminars on dealing with stress, handling financial issues, day-to-day things that are more than just about being a 9-5 employee.

A CTA conductor explains to passengers that they can’t get back on the train after an unauthorized person on the tracks delayed commuters.
A CTA conductor explains to passengers that they can’t get back on the train after an unauthorized person on the tracks delayed commuters. Michael Gerstein for WBEZ

We heard from many riders frustrated about smoking on trains. Why has it become so common and what is being done to address it?

I wish we could say what was driving the increase in smoking, primarily on trains. I don’t know the answer to that. I do know what we’re doing about it. The CTA last year expanded the number of contracted security guards that we use, primarily on the rail system but also on buses. Then last fall, we reintroduced K-9 units. Both of those entities are focused on our “rules of conduct,” which are basically the rules that govern being a CTA rider. So we really had a much stronger focus on enforcement.

The Chicago Police Department has absolutely stepped up its enforcement of smoking violations. I don’t have the number in front of me, but it’s well over 1,000, maybe even 2,000 citations that they’ve issued just in recent months.

Ridership is down — that means that rail cars especially, and some buses, just aren’t as crowded as they used to be. So maybe it’s the case where some people feel just a little bit more emboldened to do things that they wouldn’t normally do when the train or bus is more crowded.

A man smokes on the train.
Survey respondents told WBEZ again and again about how fed up they are with smoking on trains. CTA says its response is issuing more citations. Michael Gerstein for WBEZ

What are you doing about crime on trains?

A lot. The CTA has had a 40-year partnership with the Chicago Police Department. Many people may not know that the Chicago Police Department has a whole unit dedicated solely to the CTA. It’s called the public transportation section and it’s uniformed and undercover officers that patrol stations, buses and trains — they ride trains as well. Police officers are deployed on CTA’s system 24/7.

One of the advantages of using the Chicago Police Department is not only do we get this dedicated unit for transit, but we also get the resources of the entire Chicago Police Department.

We augment Chicago Police with our contract security guards and our K-9 units. They are an extra set of eyes and ears. They can help address small issues before they become large issues. I do think it’s important to point out that security guards in K-9 units are not a substitute for police. They have always been intended as a complement to those officers. (In a recent board meeting, CTA’s Chief Planning Officer Michael Connelly said the agency increased its budget for private security from $15 million in 2019 to $41 million for 2023).

One of the things we’ve heard from customers is they want more of a presence, on trains, in stations and on buses. Security guards and K-9 units help provide that presence.

This rider wants to know: Why don’t I see more security on the train? I only see security on the platform looking at their phones.

It would be impossible for us to have an individual on every single train every single time of day. That’s why we strategically deploy our resources. It’s why we focus on the Red and Blue lines with high ridership. It’s why we focus on times of day that traditionally have seen sometimes larger instances of crime, like evening hours. So I assure you that those resources are out there.

CTA reintroduced K-9 security units last fall.
CTA reintroduced K-9 security units last fall. The agency said the added security is meant to help enforce the rules of conduct. Michael Gerstein for WBEZ

How much does the CTA oversee the private security guards?

We manage private security on a daily basis. We basically tell them where to go, when to go there, where we think we need more resources, where we might need fewer resources. Let’s say we have a station location that has seen a slight uptick in pickpocket incidents, for example. Then we will make sure not only that Chicago Police has resources there, but also that the contract security guard has resources there.

We believe that deploying to the busiest rail lines is definitely the most effective deployment of those resources right now.

We heard a lot about dirty trains and buses. A rider asked: How do customers/taxpayers see a dashboard about cleaning schedules and maintenance? It took six months to fix the escalator at Clark & Division, and it’s still disgustingly dirty.

Let me answer the second part of that first. CTA’s escalators are custom designed, built and installed. And the transit environment is the most challenging environment for any type of escalator. Number one, it’s exposed to the elements and they see such a high level of usage. Another thing a lot of our escalators … are literally a half century or older. Escalators are really complex pieces of machinery that we work to keep running all the time. So we work to fix those as quickly as possible, but sometimes, unfortunately, it does take much longer than we’d like.

Related to cleaning [schedules], I don’t think that we publish it, primarily because every train and every bus before they go out of service is cleaned. It’s not something we measure, because we know that it’s happening.

How often do you *actually* clean train stations and train cars?

Vehicles get a daily cleaning before they go out of service, they get nighttime cleanings and they get what we call deep cleanings every couple of weeks — generally between two and four weeks, where we go in and kind of like spring cleaning. We scrub everything and get into all the nooks and crannies.

One of the big challenges that we have related to cleanliness is when a vehicle leaves for service for the day, it’s clean. They might not be completely spick and span but it’s been cleaned up, it’s been mopped, it’s been wiped down, all the garbage has been picked up. But as the day goes on, litter and debris gets introduced … so by the time it gets to the end of the line, oftentimes, unfortunately, there’s garbage there.

Urine underneath empty seats. Many WBEZ survey respondents complained of unclean train cars.
Urine underneath empty seats. Many WBEZ survey respondents complained of unclean train cars. Michael Gerstein for WBEZ

How often are the stations being cleaned?

Stations are cleaned every day. Not only do they receive those daily cleans and those kind of as-needed, as incidents occur, but stations also receive power washing. That’s almost always done in the overnight hours because in many instances it requires us shutting off the power to the electrified rail.

One rider asked: Why do I receive nothing but boilerplate responses from CTA when I ask questions? I either receive a boilerplate response or no follow up when I reach out to their customer service department.

Like most customer service units, we receive a huge amount of customer inquiries. And we have a comparatively small customer service staff. We have people answering phone calls, we have people responding to emails, like any other customer service entity, both in the public and private sector. A lot of the requests and questions that we get are questions that we see a lot.

So like any customer service entity, we have some standard language that we use.

Commuters exiting the Austin stop on the Blue Line.
Commuters exiting the Austin stop on the Blue Line. Many regular CTA riders told WBEZ that they rely on the service — and value it as part of the fabric of the city — but they also feel like it has diminished in recent years. Michael Gerstein for WBEZ

What (specifically) do you want the CTA to look like in 10, 15, 20 years, in terms of service, expansion, coverage and reputation?

The CTA has been providing public transit as a governmental entity for 75 years. We plan to be around for the next 75 years. And for the 75 years after that, and for the 75 years after that, there is no question that public transit is absolutely critical to any dense urban area.

There are no amount of vehicles, no amount of hubs, no amount of ride hailing, no amount of shuttle buses that can carry the number of people that we do as efficiently as effectively and frankly, as affordably as public transit. CTA has been a part of the fabric of Chicago for 75 years, and we will continue that role because it’s an absolutely vital role.

Courtney Kueppers is a digital producer/reporter at WBEZ. Follow her @cmkueppers. WBEZ’s Claudia Morell contributed.