By Jon Hilkevitch
Tribune transportation reporter
Date of Publication: April 22, 2002
Source: Chicago Tribune
Each weekend, work crews race the clock, tearing down the rusted, century-old structure holding up the elevated tracks on the CTA's Douglas branch, then rebuilding the line a couple of feet at a time to get the tracks reopened before the Monday rush.
It's risky business. If a major problem were to occur in reassembling what had been taken apart, Monday morning's rail commuters who depend on the Douglas would be riding to work, school and shopping in shuttle buses.
"We make sure we have a time cushion, because we'd have a serious situation if the trains weren't running right during the Monday morning rush hours," CTA President Frank Kruesi said. "So far, knock on wood, the contractors have been finishing early."
The CTA's $482 million reconstruction of the Douglas branch of the Blue Line is an engineering feat and a first for the CTA: reconstructing an entire rail line in 45-hour increments on the weekends while keeping the trains running during the week.
"That's three-eighths-inch thick steel the demolition crews are slicing through like butter," said Glenn Zika, CTA vice president of rail engineering, pointing on a recent Saturday to the flames of plasma torches super-heated to 2,000 degrees by blending in liquid oxygen piped in from nearby storage tanks.
After the shower of orange sparks settled on the ground in the alley behind 21st Place and Karlov Avenue on the Southwest Side, a thin gap was visible where the torches cleanly severed connecting girders.
Hours later, the creaky "L" tracks extending over Karlov were history, leaving dropoffs where the wooden railroad ties abruptly ended on either side of the street.
The work to replace the old structure could have been done in about half the time and cost by completely shutting down the Douglas line during the project. But the CTA learned the hard way during the Green Line reconstruction project about eight years ago that many riders forced to find other transportation won't come back when the work is done.
Pace may pick up
As weekend No. 4 of heavy lifting in the four-year project wrapped up late Sunday, the score was nine rail spans replaced, 341 to go.
"We want the contractors to go faster than the two spans [of elevated track structure] they are replacing each weekend. But it's early in the project, and they've got a lot to learn," Zika said, adding that crews were expected to replace three, 50-foot spans on Saturday and Sunday and maybe four spans on future weekends.
The project's contractors, Kiewit Construction Co. of Omaha and Delgado Erectors Inc. of south suburban Lansing, are highly motivated to work fast. CTA officials said the firms face damages of $5,000 for the first half-hour, up to $70,000 if more than two hours late in completing the weekend work.
"It gets real steep because $70,000 is what it would cost to bring in drivers on overtime and start putting a shuttle-bus service together on a Sunday," Zika said.
Each weekend's activities revolve around a 45-hour work cycle, including preparatory work, Zika said.
Starting at 3 a.m. each Saturday, when the 600 volts of electricity powering the trains are turned off to allow crews to begin work, a small section of the 5 1/2-mile elevated portion of the Douglas branch is taken down and replaced with shiny steel expected to last at least another 100 years.
The CTA requires the contractors to complete the work by midnight each Sunday. There were several hours to spare in the first three weeks, although the workload was kept light.
Once the structure is put back together with galvanized steel, the CTA runs an empty train over the new construction to make sure the track is safe and that all the signals are working.
Service on the Douglas branch, which ends shortly after midnight on Fridays, resumes at 4 a.m. Mondays.
In addition to CTA officials and managers from the Kiewit-Delgado joint venture pacing back and forth in the work zone trouble-shooting potential problems, there is no shortage of resident experts on the scene willing to offer critiques.
"The crews are progressively getting better, more efficient, since they started a few weekends ago doing only one span of track," said Walter Pyles Jr., 46, who has a front-row view of the work from the back yard of his house in the 4000 block of West 21st Place.
"Our family has been Douglas riders all our lives and we're looking forward to better service," Pyles said.
The old structure being replaced was built between 1896 and 1912 by the Metropolitan West Side Elevated Railroad Co. The section currently being worked on was constructed in 1906, Zika said.
When full service on the Douglas trains is restored in 2004, the 15-mile-an-hour slow zones that were required on about half of the dilapidated system will disappear and nearby residents will be exposed to less noise, said Zaid Baradi, a CTA project manager.
Longer sections of rail will mean fewer joints in the steel, translating into less clickety-clacking when train wheels cross the joints, he said.
Six new elevated stations will be built between Damen Avenue and 54th Avenue in Cicero.
Night service requested
A top priority for the communities along the Douglas branch--from Pilsen to Heart of Chicago, Little Village, Lawndale and the Town of Cicero--is the resumption of late night and weekend service, which the CTA eliminated almost five years ago during budget cuts.
Kruesi said it made no sense to expand the hours until the CTA could provide a train ride that people would want to take.
Kruesi has resisted pressure from transit activists seeking a promise that service hours will be extended immediately once the construction is completed, saying only that the CTA will keep the trains running longer if riders support the line. Current ridership is fewer than 10,000 customers a day, CTA officials said.
The CTA made what it acknowledged was a major mistake in the mid-1990s by closing the Green Line during reconstruction.
Thousands of riders permanently abandoned the it amid the two-year shutdown, and it took the transit agency almost five years to recover a 40 percent loss in ridership.