Midway 'L' finally ready to roll

13 years later, CTA set to open Southwest Side line


Gary Washburn

Date of Publication: October 31, 1993
Source: Chicago Tribune


The Orange Line, the long-awaited rail link between downtown Chicago and Midway Airport, begins a three-day shakedown cruise Sunday that will give some straphangers their first glimpse of the Chicago Transit Authority's streamlined, high-tech future.

For starters, they'll find modern new trains that will be operated by a lone crewman, a controversial change in procedure. Then there are the stations, where exact fares are required, and the special emphasis on facilities for park-and-ride passengers.

During the three-day "test" period of initial service, riders will be asked to provide feedback on such things as signs and service "so we know what is right or wrong" and can make appropriate changes, said CTA President Robert Belcaster.

These pioneer passengers will be the beneficiaries of an introductory 25-cent fare.

The "official" opening, presumably with any bugs worked out, is scheduled for Wednesday.

The CTA thus hopes to avoid the possibility of a public relations embarrassment like the one that accompanied the realignment of four routes earlier this year.

Shortly after opening ceremonies, a signal problem in a South Side tunnel caused two trains on the newly configured Howard-Dan Ryan line to bump into each other.

Running for about 11 miles-9.2 miles on newly built track and elevated structure-the Orange Line will bring rail service to a Southwest Side corridor that for years has been served largely by buses that have plodded their way up and down congested Archer Avenue.

The trip from one end of the Orange Line (known in its pre-opening days variously as the Southwest Side Line and the Midway Line) to the other will take about 30 minutes, 15 to 20 minutes less than the bus travel time.

Each new car, manufactured by Morrison Knudsen Corp., has a motorman's cab that stretches across the entire front of the vehicle, contrasting with the usual CTA configuration, with a small cubicle in the right front corner.

Orange Line motormen will be able to walk to the left side of the car after pulling into a station for a view of the platform, and they will open and close doors. This will permit the CTA to eliminate the conductor's position, saving $16.99 in hourly wages on every train in operation.

Officials of the Amalgamated Transit Union, who recently challenged the crew cutting in a filing with the Illinois Local Labor Relations Board, contends it robs riders of the safety and security provided by a second pair of eyes and ears.

"There is a very real danger to the public, but the CTA wants to go ahead regardless of those safety concerns," asserted James Forte, president of union Local 308, which represents the agency's rail workers.

Each car is equipped with an intercom connected to the motorman's compartment, permitting riders with questions or problems to communicate. Transit authority officials contend the new approach is safe. Washington, Cleveland and Philadelphia are among cities where trains are operated by a single crewman, they point out.

It is believed the issue ultimately will be settled by an arbitrator, but union pickets are expected at Wednesday's opening ceremonies in any case.

Compared to other CTA rail cars, the new vehicles have better lighting and more powerful air conditioners, and they come equipped with small ''hopper" windows that can be opened to allow ventilation in case the air cooling system malfunctions.

Each car has a designated spot for disabled riders, and an interior configuration with single seats creates aisles wide enough for a wheelchair, not to mention luggage and an increased number of standers.

Mechanically, the microprocessor-equipped cars, purchased for $815,000 each, are among the most sophisticated on the market, said Leon Fields, the Orange Line's general manager. If there is a problem, you plug in a laptop computer and ask the train, 'What's wrong with you?' " Fields said.

This should help reduce time-consuming diagnostic procedures and, in some cases, keep trains in service that otherwise would have to be uncoupled, with problem cars moved into the shop for troubleshooting, he said.

Instead of a smooth surface, the cars' stainless steel exteriors have horizontal ribbing, a feature designed to discourage graffiti.

At stations, required use of exact change, passes and tokens will mean fewer ticket agents, and employees on duty will spend time answering questions and providing passenger assistance instead of handling money, officials said.

Parking is available at the Halsted, 35th-Archer, Western, Pulaski and Midway Airport stations at fees ranging from $1.50 to $1.75 for 12 hours. Park-and-ride facilities are uncommon on other CTA lines, built when it was rare to use a car rather than a bus to get to the train.

At bus stops outside most of the stations, lights will come on when a train is approaching, signaling bus drivers to wait for alighting passengers.

Meanwhile, lights and bells inside the stations will activate when a train is coming, a security feature that will allow passengers to know when to go to platforms for boarding.

Unlike most other CTA routes, the Orange Line will operate from 5 a.m. to midnight daily and from 7:30 a.m. to midnight Sundays and holidays. This lack of 24-hour service has drawn criticism from local leaders, but agency officials say operations will be expanded only if passenger demand warrants.

The new line opens after more than a decade in the planning and with some bumps-and a little back-scratching between a U.S. president and a Chicago congressman-along the way.

Construction, overseen by Chicago, went so smoothly at first that officials planned to open it in October 1992, a year earlier than originally scheduled.

But problems cropped up, most notably a testy dispute between the city and Union Switch & Signal Inc., the South Carolina company that installed the Orange Line's signal system.

Union Switch & Signal filed suit earlier this year seeking payment for expenses caused by what it said were contract changes and limited access to the construction site.

City officials countered that the company simply was dragging its feet on the work.

The brouhaha came to a head last June when Union workers removed critical computer chips from a signal control box at 18th and Clark Streets, only to reinstall them three weeks later after the city rattled some legal sabers of its own.

The $410 million line was announced in 1980 by then-Mayor Jane Byrne, who said she would use money that had been set aside for the defunct Crosstown Expressway to help pay for it. But obtaining federal transit funding remained a critical component of the financing plan.

U.S. Rep. William Lipinski (D-lil.), whose district includes the Southwest Side, received a call one day in 1986 from President Ronald Reagan, who thanked him for his vote to aid Nicaraguan Contras and ask if there was anything he could do for Lipinski.

'Have you ever heard of the Southwest Side rapid transit system?" the congressman replied.

A full funding agreement with the federal government was signed by Mayor Harold Washington later that year.