By Jon Hilkevitch
TRIBUNE STAFF WRITER
Column: Getting Around
Date of Publication: October 4, 1999
Source: Chicago Tribune
The handy-dandy machines that provide free rail transfers to riders at the Chicago Transit Authority's busy Lake Street elevated and subway stations downtown will soon go the way of the CTA fare token, although the switch won't necessarily mean an end to the free ride for savvy rail-to-rail passengers.
That is, so long as you get around by using a CTA transit card.
Those riders who will lose out on one of the best commuting deals in the Chicago area--no-charge transfers between the Red Line subway and the four elevated rail lines located at Lake and State Streets--will be the folks who continue paying their fares with cash.
The elimination later this month of the transfer machines--which at the push of a button vend free transfers to the thousands of riders connecting each day between the Red Line subway and the Orange, Green, Purple and Brown elevated lines--is being done to encourage greater use of the CTA transit card, according to the CTA.
The move will also make it more difficult for fare-cheaters to practice their craft.
It may seem complicated at first, but here's how the new system will work, starting in a week or so, once the CTA makes the needed computer software changes to the transit card-reading equipment at the turnstiles:
Riders making connections between the Red Line and one of the four "L" lines will be required to dip their transit card into the slot at the turnstile of the line to which they are transferring, although no money will be deducted from the card because the turnstile readers will recognize that the card had been used on another train.
In line with the existing policy, CTA bus riders who transfer to the elevated or subway at State-Lake will continue to need either a paper transfer card, to pay the 30-cent transfer fee in cash or to have the fee subtracted from their transit card, unless a transfer fee was already paid on a previous ride within the two-hour transfer limit.
"There is a down-side for cash-paying, rail-to-rail customers, who will now be required to pay for a transfer," said CTA spokeswoman Noelle Gaffney.
Gaffney said the move is being made in part because of abuses by people who regularly obtain free transfers from the machines at Lake Street without having transferred from another train. Unlike the Washington and Jackson subway stations, where riders who have paid fares can connect without additional charge between the Red and Blue Lines via a pedestrian tunnel, the situation at Lake is ripe for abuse because the Red Line subway doesn't feed directly onto the platforms serving the "L" lines; a short street-level walk is required.
"We do need to cut out the cheating that's occurring at the free-transfer machines, since it's only fair to the vast majority of our customers who don't cheat. But it is also a matter of making the most use of the automated fare-collection system," Gaffney said.
Metra riders react
Last week's column ("It might be time to cut some slack for Metra") generated a surprisingly low 18 responses from readers, although the comments provided further evidence of overall satisfaction with a commuter rail system that some riders perceive is good but should strive to become better. A few representative excerpts follow:
"I agree with you 110 percent," wrote Metra/Union Pacific North Line rider Jeanette from Wilmette. "I am very grateful to be sitting in the comfort of a clean, moving commuter train while others have chosen to sit in expressway traffic. For commuters inconvenienced by occasional rail-work delays in the morning, simply look at the train schedule and leave a few minutes earlier. Nothing in life is perfect."
"As a longtime rider from the western suburbs on the Metra/Milwaukee District West Line," wrote David, "I think Metra does a pretty good job as far as on-time arrival is concerned. Where Metra falls down during delays is in getting information to the passengers, both on board the trains and waiting on the platforms."
"The Metra/Burlington Northern Santa Fe Line is becoming an aggravation," according to reader Lauren. "Minutes may not seem like much to you, but most employers would like to see their employees show up at 9 a.m., not 9:15 or 9:25."
"The on-time performance of the Burlington line has been nothing short of deplorable this summer. I know my experience is anecdotal," said Mark of Western Springs. " . . . However, I found your references (to events outside the railroad's control) as being the worst form of disingenuousness on your part."
"I applaud your story on the data supporting Metra's service record. I am a social scientist who has to use data to understand the `real world' and often find that well-organized facts provide a much better basis for social policy than selective anecdotes," said Andrew of Wheaton. "I suspect that many of the complaints you field belie the cumulative facts that Metra would present if only it had a decent statistician with an ounce of public relations savvy."
Ed, a former railroad employee who said he read last week's column while arriving downtown eight seconds early on the Metra/Union Pacific West Line from Geneva, isn't impressed. Ed wrote: "When I went to work for the railroads in Chicago, the Rock Island, Santa Fe, Burlington, Milwaukee Road and the North Western, all had their headquarters here. Most of the railroad officials, from the president on down, rode the trains to work. The pressure to run the trains on time was extreme and, if nothing else, these presidents did not appreciate a ribbing from their contemporaries for having a poorly run operation. Today, the impetus to really care is gone."
Loop lighting update
The installation of new streetlights will begin Monday night on Dearborn Street between Congress Parkway and Wacker Drive and continue until mid-December. Three lanes of traffic will be kept open on Dearborn, which is one-way northbound, but parking will be, for the most part, prohibited. Next year, the section of Dearborn will be resurfaced and new sidewalks will be built.
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