CTA plans to fix its own 'strangler'


By Gary Washburn

Date of Publication: August 5, 2002
Source: Chicago Tribune
Column: Getting Around


There is a mass transit equivalent of the Hillside Strangler traffic bottleneck, and CTA riders on the Red, Brown and Purple/Evanston Express rail lines travel through it in slow-motion each day. Like the Strangler, this rail choke-point is going to get a remake.

The tie-ups occur at Clark Junction. It is the busiest CTA rail crossing on a 24-hour basis, serving 876 trains each weekday.

The Clark Junction merge point has been around for more than 100 years, just north of the Belmont Avenue station where the Brown Line tracks branch off from the mainline elevated structure that serves the Red and Purple Lines. Trains creep along at 15 m.p.h.--and frequently stop completely--to allow other trains to clear the crossing.

Permanently etched in the minds of many annoyed CTA riders as their trains screech to a halt at the approach to Clark Junction is this automated announcement, preceded by two automated toots of a train whistle: "Your attention, please. We are waiting for signals ahead. We expect to be moving shortly."

Those days may be coming to an end. The CTA is redesigning the rail intersection, adding crossings and making other improvements to allow trains to operate faster and with less spacing between trains, said Adam Rahbee, the transit agency's manager of transportation rail operations.

"The tracks are very old, requiring trains to go through the crossing slower than they did in the recent past because of the deterioration," Rahbee said.

The work to improve the efficiency of the junction is scheduled to begin next spring and continue through 2004, said CTA spokeswoman Sheila Gregory. The Brown Line project, which will allow the CTA to run eight-car trains on the busy route, is expected to start sometime during the process. Its start depends on federal funding and a resolution to long-running disputes with nearby residents who don't want larger "L" stations hanging over their back yards.

The current signal capacity at Clark Junction allows trains on any track to operate 2 minutes apart. CTA schedules are based on the 2-minute headway between trains during rush hours.

"All it takes is a passenger holding a door open for a friend, delaying the train's departure, and you end up with two trains arriving at the junction at the same time," said Robert Bell, a veteran tower man who directs train traffic from atop the CTA's Clark Tower, north of Belmont.

Bell is responsible for not only routing the trains to ensure they are on the right tracks but to decide--by speeding along the largest number of riders--which train gets priority when a traffic jam occurs.

Bell is essentially a traffic cop, and the control panel he operates sends signals that safely escort CTA train operators into Clark Junction and out of it. Some of the track circuits are only 200-feet apart and as far away from Clark Tower as the Addison Street station, often requiring Bell to peer through binoculars he keeps next to the control board.

Bell won't be out of a job when Clark Junction is modernized, because CTA officials say the crossing is too complex to automate.

"There's too much going on here to trust it to a computer," Rahbee said. "This requires a human to make good decisions about which train to put through next."


"Timber!" is the word on North Avenue

Roadwork is set to begin Monday on sections of North Avenue in Chicago and three DuPage County suburbs, according to the Illinois Department of Transportation. In the city, a patching and resurfacing project gets under way on a 3 1/2-mile stretch of North Avenue, from Cicero to Damen Avenues. Traffic will be funneled into one lane in each direction, and on-street parking will be restricted until work is completed by Oct. 31.

Next year, North Avenue will be rebuilt in Lombard, Villa Park and Addison. A third lane will be added in each direction to help ease congestion. In preparation for the road widening, crews on Monday will begin cutting down trees and laying temporary pavement on North Avenue between Illinois Highway 53 and Villa Avenue.


New transit links to DuPage under study

Before the first shovel of dirt was turned a few years ago, state road officials realized reconfiguration of the Hillside Strangler traffic choke-point in the western suburbs wouldn't be enough to ease congestion on the Eisenhower Expressway. Officials now acknowledge that even the proposed expansion of the Eisenhower (Interstate Highway 290) to four traffic lanes in both directions from Mannheim Road to Cicero Avenue, while helpful, won't provide enough capacity.

What's missing is a major enhancement of the transit component on the Eisenhower corridor that would lure more commuters who travel from the western suburbs to downtown Chicago and O'Hare International Airport out of their cars.

IDOT asked the Regional Transportation Authority last week to launch a study that could lead to rail and express bus service stretching from the Eisenhower to the East-West Tollway (Interstate Highway 88). One idea is to extend the Forest Park branch of the CTA Blue Line from the Eisenhower to I-88, ending at a major transit transfer station at Illinois Highway 83. The rail service could be linked to express buses operating on their own dedicated lanes along the toll road and the Eisenhower. Cars carrying at least two people might also be permitted to use the proposed high-occupancy vehicle (HOV) lanes.