As in many professions and industries, a special language and vocabulary evolves over the years. An argot forms - words and expressions that fit the job, verbal shortcuts that say what's needed in a precise lingo that might be alien to outsiders. The Chicago Transit Authority is no different, where a colorful patios has evolved from the men and women who have worked the city's streetcars, trolleys, buses and elevated trains. Below is a sampling, with those words in quotes being verbal slang that would not be found in any CTA® book or manual.

ADA: The Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990. This federal act requires many changes to ensure that people with disabilities have access to jobs, public accommodations, telecommunications, and public services, including public transit. Examples of these changes includes mandating that all new stations and rail lines be wheelchair accessible, and that alternative transportation be provided to customers unable to access the transit system.

add: cars to be coupled to a train.

AFC: The Automated Fare Collection system.

"air it out": to run with all end doors open, common on "flat door sixes" (see also).

allowable speed (cab signal): the maximum speed allowed by the ATC system. Failure to bring train speed to or below the allowable speed according to prescribed procedures results in a penalty brake application and stop.

anti-climber: the ridges on the front of an "L" car, above the coupler and just below floor level at the end sill, that prevents a car from riding up and into another car in case of a collision with another vehicle.

approach signal: a fixed signal used to govern the track leading to a home signal.

automatic block signals (ABS): a wayside block signal or ATC cab signal designed to protect from rear collisions. First installed in the State Street Subway in 1943, they consist of a three-aspect color-light signal, each fitted with a left-side mounted track trip to engage a spring-loaded carborne trip valve on any train attempting to pass a restrictive indication. They cause an emergency stop by venting the brake pipe to atmosphere. The wayside ABS signal lights are as follows:

Green- proceed
Amber- proceed, expecting to encounter stop at the next signal
Red- stop

automatic train control (ATC): wayside equipment detects the presence of trains or other speed-limiting conditions through track circuits powered by auto-frequency currents and send them through the rails commands which determine the maximum speed at which a following train may be safely operated. Equipment in the train cab compares this command with the actual speedometer reading and provides visible and audible displays to alert the motorman. If actual speed exceeds the recommended speed, the motorman must reduce speed within a short time or the equipment will engage in an emergency full stop. ATC is continuously in communication with trains, not just at a fixed point, as with ABS systems.

ballast: gravel or broken stone laid in a railroad bed to give stability to the tracks and ties, also serves to dampen the sound of the trains.

block runs: Runs that are scheduled between Monday and Friday. These runs consist of a ten-hour shift at straight pay. Overtime is not a factor.

"blue light": see FAQ #4.8.

"blue light special": a car having one or more blue lights. See "blue light".

B.O.: Bad Order car. A railcar that has a mechanical or electric defect that precludes its proper and correct operation. Often, bad order cars are taken out of service and laid up in a yard so that they can be inspected and repaired.

"breeze": to bypass a station on the rail system, or to bypass standing passengers at a bus stop. Typically, this type of operation is ordered by supervisory or Control personnel to allow an off-schedule run to make up lost time.

"the bugs": see "doodlebugs"

cab signal: a signal in the motorman's compartment with colored lights, a speedometer and other indicators. See also automatic train control.

catenary: A particular type of overhead system for the provision of traction power to transit vehicles, typical of interurban railways, modern light rail systems, or electrified main line railroads. As opposed to the "direct suspension" system in which the wire a rail car receives power from is attached directly to the overhead support (whether it be a crosswire, metal arm, bracket, or other support), a catenary system consists of a "messenger wire" suspended loosely between the overhead supports. The "contact wire" -- which is what the trolley pole or pantograph touches and supplies traction power to the car -- is then hung below the messenger wire, with short vertical drop wires connecting the two at a consistent height. Because only the contact wire needs to be taut and the messenger tends to be more slack, the messenger hangs a bit between supports, naturally forming what mathematicians call a "catenary" curve, thus giving this type of suspension its name. There are a few different types of catenary systems and the type the North Shore (and subquently the Yellow Line) used was called a "compound catenary" system, which used two messenger wires rather than just one.

"cattle guard": a device comprised of diagonal cut lumber used to discourage trespass on the right-of-way at grade crossings. They are commonly found on the grade sections of the Douglas, Ravenswood, Skokie and Evanston lines.

CER: Chicago Elevated Railways Collateral Trust

"cheater": (a.k.a. "dummy") A term used for the homemade brake handles used by yard motormen and shopmen. The term was also used on the North Shore Line.

"cheater key": a Cineston controller key that's had the nubs ground off on either face, so it's a lot easier to insert/remove. See also "slip key"

"the cherry": the red ball used to open the doors or stop a train in an emergency. They are located above the side doors of all cars and above the end doors on 2600- and 3200-series cars.

coach: a trailer or un-motorized car.

consist: the cars that make up a train.

crossover: switches arranged to provide a route from one track to another.

CRT: Chicago Rapid Transit Company

CSL: Chicago Surface Lines

CTA: Chicago Transit Authority

CTC: Centralized Traffic Control. This is a system of track control where a rail traffic controller remotely controls the signals and switches along the track. The O'Hare Extension, from Jefferson Park to O'Hare, originally had this as-built, but it has since been removed.

cut: cars to be uncoupled from a train.

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"deadheading": movement of a nonrevenue train from the end of the line to the yard (when the yard is located mid-line). Typical deadheading movements are from O'Hare station to the Rosemont Yard and from East 63rd-Cottage Grove to the Racine Yard. Operators deadhead from one terminal to another to end their run or because there are more crews than are needed. (see also "run lite")

"doodlebugs": affectionate slang term for the 5000-series cars, probably derived from the articulated cars' bug-like or caterpillar-like appearance. It also may have further origin on mainline railroads, where gas-electric diesels were also called "doodlebugs" or "puddlejumpers". See also "jitterbugs".

"drag" (eight car drag/ten car drag): a nonscheduled movement of trains to balance equipment. Often, though not always, it is an unusually long train of derelict cars being transferred, or run to a shop (out of service).

express: this term has multiple and somewhat flexible meanings:

  1. A scheduled run that makes only limited, specified station stops (as opposed to a "local", see also) to speed service for large numbers of passengers. These runs used to be common on the "L"TM before the CTA®, running on all four divisions (North Side, South Side, Lake, and Metropolitan). Under CTA® service, the Evanston Express was the only true scheduled express operation. (See the Operations section for more information on express operations.)
  2. Refers to a train that is scheduled to make all station stops, but is behind schedule and ordered by Control to skip multiple stops to make up lost time.
For more on this definition, see "run".

extra train: any train not in the schedule.

"flat door Six": the first 200 motor cars of the 6000-series delivered to CTA® from St. Louis Car Company had flat blinker style doors; the last 520 had curved doors that match the cars' curved sides.

follower: the train behind another train.

"fool catcher": a 3-foot square platform with a railing, adjacent to the elevated tracks and sometimes hanging over the street, that provides workers on the tracks an escape from an oncoming train.

gang plank: a wood plank -- one side smooth, one side textured, and painted white -- used to evacuate a train in certain situations, specifically when a train is outside of a station and there is another train along side the train being evacuated. The gang plank is stored in a bracket on the right side of the end door at the #2 (non-cab) end of all contemporary "L" cars. See FAQ #4.13 for more on this topic.

"give 'er nine": to use full power and attain maximum speed. The term is derived from the fact that the power pedals on "trackless trolleys" (trolley buses) had nine points of power.

"going around the horn": the large swing through the Howard Street rail yard taken by the northbound Howard-Dan Ryan "L"TM before it heads back south.

"going into the hole": entering the subway system from the "L"TM tracks via one the portals (some of these are located at Armitage/Sheffield, 13th/State, 18th/Clark, Halsted/Eisenhower and Evergreen/Milwaukee)

governing signal: the cab signal, the wayside signal, the hand, flag or lantern signal, which ever is restrictive.

headway: The time span between service vehicles (bus or rail) on specified routes. Sometimes called frequency.

home signal: the last signal to be passed approaching any point in an interlocking where conflicting or alternative routings of trains must be controlled. Signal identification for home signals included the letter "X".

interlocking: a group of switches, track trips and signals, with locks so arranged as to permit train movements without conflict; usually locked at track switches and crossings. The oldest are purely mechanical; newer interlockings are automated.

"the Island": an abbreviated name for Stony Island/Jackson Park station.

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"Jeff": Jefferson Park station, or anything to do with Jefferson Park.

"jitterbugs": a nickname for the 5000-series cars, whose long, articulated bodies gave them a caterpillar-like appearance.

"john seats": (aka "identra" coils) slang term for a Train Identification Coil. This was an electronic device carried by the lead car of each Congress and Douglas train for automatic operation over Loomis Junction (where the Congress and Douglas train diverged). As a train approached the junction, an electronic device (e.g. the coil) passed in front of a trackside electronic device which automatically set the proper switches for the train. Automatic selection for eastbound trains was on a first come, first served basis.

"knucklebuster" : Also sometimes called a "knucklecracker", this term referred to the C-36 controller used on some Northwestern Elevated 1100-1259 and 1260-1269 series cars, as well as the control trailers of the original Baldie 4000-series order (cars 4001-4066). The design of the C-36 controller was such that, when mounted on the inside dash of a cramped cab, the motorman didn't have a lot of clearance for his hand when operating it. Also the variety (type C-36C or 36-C) used by the "L" was generally awkward to operate, especially if wound it up fast.

"lay up": bringing a train into the yard and parking it.

leader: the train ahead of another train.

livery: a car's paint scheme or the manner in which equipment is painted (for instance, the car's particular colors and design and layout of various stripes, logos, and graphics).

local: a scheduled train that stops at all stations on a route.

"Lower Yard": common reference to the annex material yard at 63rd & Calumet. There was also a lower yard at Wilson at one time. "Lower" refers to the yard being on the ground rather than elevated, but is typically only used when there is an adjacent elevated yard as well to differentiate the two.

"the Met": (Metropolitan West Side Elevated) Collective term for the Milwaukee/Congress/Douglas division (old timer's term).

MU: Multiple Unit. Electrical and pneumatic connections between cars that allow the operation of more than one unit from a single cab. Electric cars operated in multiple are controlled by one person in the lead car, and their operation of the master controller in the lead car controls the motors in all cars of the train. Multiple unit control was invented by Frank Julian Sprague and was first prototyped on Chicago's South Side Elevated in 1897. The term "MU" can be used as both a noun ("This is an MU car.") or a verb ("This train is being MUed.").

"open it up": to run as fast as the equipment will go

operating employee (Trainman): the term "operating employee" includes any employee working as a flagman, conductor, motorman, towerman, switchman, yard foreman, RTO, platform man, or collector.

"over the top": A slang term for when a train that is normally scheduled to operate via the subway is rerouted via the Loop Elevated, usually because the subway has been closed for maintenance or an emergency. The term refers to the Loop route being above the subway route.

Owl Service: Service that is provided continuously between midnight and 5am. Owl Service is provided only on routes that run 24-hour service. Although the phrase "Owl Service" for late night/early morning service is not unique to Chicago (San Francisco MUNI also uses the term, for instance), it is one of several terms that is often associated with Chicago transit.

PCC: President's Conference Commission. A type of all-electric traction that was developed by leading streetcar companies in the 1930s in a last-ditch effort to save the streetcar industry through modernization and standardization. PCC technology was first applied to the "L"TM in the 5000-series cars, but was given its largest application in the 770 6000- and 1-50 series cars, 570 of which were actually made from recycled PCC streetcars.

peak: Rush hour time periods, typically defined as 6:00am through 9:00am and 3:00pm through 6:00pm, Monday through Friday.

permitted speed: the permitted speed is the maximum speed at which a train may be operated at any point and is the lowest of the following:

platform time: The period of time in which a transit vehicle is in operation. Platform time contains time that buses are in revenue service and time required to support revenue service, for example time from a garage to the beginning of a route.

"porter": rail janitor with extra assigned duties, such as collecting signboards or trainphones.

"pull my poles": to be passed by another vehicle. The term harks back to the days of the trackless trolley, which was connected by poles to overhead electrical wire. When the driver of a streetcar wanted to pass one in front of him, he would signal to the other driver, who would yell "pull my poles!" The other driver would get out, grab a rope pulling the poles off the wire, and pass the first trolley.

"put out": an elevated train ordered to leave the yard and go into service.

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"railfan's seat": the single seat at the front of the car on the left of the motorman's cab, so called because railfans like sitting there to look out the front window. This seat was eliminated in the 3200-series cars, which were delivered with full-width cabs, and is also eliminated in the rehabbed 2600-series cars upon their redelivery. In all other currently operating cars (2200s, 2400s, unrehabbed 2600s), the seat originally remained but was blocked by a yellow cloth tape, making the front of the car dedicated crew space. However, these cars have all had full-width cabs installed by the CTA®, removing the railfan seats in these cars as well. However, the seat behind still offers a view out the front window, through the back window of the full-width cab. Still, these are not considered true railfan seats.

"the Rave": an abbreviated term for the Ravenswood Branch.

"Ravenston": originally, a run that unofficially began at Kimball Yard and at the Merchandise Mart, magically turned into an Evanston Express. Currently, due to increased demand at southern Brown Line stations but insufficient room at Kimball Yard to store additional cars, "Ravenston" trains now are Purple Line equipment dispatched from Howard Yard that operate as Brown Line trains once they reach Belmont southbound.

reduced speed: fifteen (15) miles per hour or less.

regular train: a train authorized by schedule.

repeater signal: a wayside signal which duplicates the aspects of a regular signal, and which is usually located on the left side of the track near the regular signal, so that its aspects can be seen earlier. The repeater signal number plate bears the letters "REP".

restricted speed: six (6) miles per hour or less.

reverse movement signal: a signal which governs movements against the normal direction of traffic.

rigid switch: a track switch which must be lined for either facing or trailing move. Such switch stands are painted black.

"road train": a train in regular revenue passenger service.

rolling stock: the equipment available for transportation, such as automotive vehicles or railroad cars, owned by a particular company or carrier.

route selector: a lever or pushbutton which, when activated, establishes a route.

RTO: rapid transit operator.

"run": a term referring a late train running express between stations to make up time. For example, at Washington/State, the crew on train 612 (using old CTA® run numbers, see also) is given a "run" to Fullerton station. The train 'runs' to Fullerton nonstop. The jargon is to avoid use of the word "express", as it was widely used to identify these operations up until the '90s. However, many Rail Controllers use the terms "run" and "express" interchangeably. And sometimes, they don't say anything. For instance, commonly on the Blue Line, if you a train leaves O'Hare six minutes late, the Controller might say "Control to [run]101, I want you to go from Rosemont to Jeff." or they might say "Operator 210, announce an Express run, Jeff to Logan, you have an immediate follower". (see also "Jeff" and "follower")

"run lite": a scheduled train that runs out-of-service to balance equipment. For instance, on the Green Line the first run of the day to report, run 601, runs lite from Racine Yard to Cottage Grove-East 63rd to begin revenue service because the motorman must get his train from the yard. Similarly, at the end of the day, the last two crews must run lite from Cottage Grove to Racine Yard and lay-up their train at Racine because Cottage Grove isn't a "terminal". (see also "drag")

run number: a three-digit number that designates the collection of trips which forms the day's work for an operator. A run will usually include several round trips in a 24 hour period. The run number is displayed in the run number box, a group of three small roller curtain signs in a box in the front cab window. It designates a scheduled trip between terminals and are assigned in 100-number blocks based on the terminal where the operator reports. The current system of run numbers are as follows:

0-99s Green Line, Harlem terminal
100s Blue Line, O'Hare terminal
200s Blue Line, Forest Park terminal
300s Blue Line, 54/Cermak terminal
400s Brown Line, Kimball terminal
500s Purple and Yellow Lines, Howard terminal
600s Green Line, Ashland/63 terminal
700s Orange Line, Midway terminal
800s Red Line, Howard terminal
900s Red Line, 95th terminal
For more information on run numbers, click here.
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"scrub": A left over, short piece of work that didn't fit into a regular trick of 8 hours. A scrub shift may, but is not necessarily, include work at more than one location. For instance, back in the era of ticket agents, manning the #3 agent's booth at Chicago & State was a scrub because it was only needed in the afternoon rush hour. It worked for 4 hours only in the PM and reported and turned in to the #1 agent booth.

shoofly: a temporary track to bypass an obstacle. On main line railroads, these are sometimes constructed around a derailment or damaged section of track. They are not common on the "L", but were built for instance during the Dan Ryan rehabilitation project in 2004 to allow trains to run around interlockings and sections of track that were being replaced. Sometimes also called "runaround tracks".

"sidewinder": a term for the Westinghouse 11 controllers used on all Metropolitan Elevated control trailer cars. The W-11 controller was mounted against the front dash and the motorman had to push the operating handle sideways to operate it. Also referred to as "elevator controllers".

signal: any device conveying information affecting movement of a train. These may include cab signals and wayside signals, both electronic and semaphores.

signal aspect: the position, form or color of a signal.

signal indication: the information conveyed by a signal aspect.

signal number plate: a plate containing the letters and numbers distinctive for each signal, attached to that signal or signal board.

"sinker": any railcar without a working motor; either a trailer or a disabled motorcar.

"slip key": a Cineston key issued to shop personnel that is designed to be removed from the controller when motor car is in operation.

Slow Zone: Sections of track where trains must reduce speed in order to safely operate rail service. For more on Slow Zones, see FAQ #3.14.

spacing boards: diamond-shaped pieces of wood usually spaced about 600 feet apart and mounted on short posts adjacent to the tracks. In the days before electronic signaling, they served as a warning to the motorman to slow down if he couldn't see them because of an obstacle or inclement weather.

"spam cans": a nickname for the 6000-series cars. Some claimed that the name simply originated from the shape of the cars. However, many also link the name to, in addition to the shape, their lightweight metal construction and apparently weak structural fortitude in a collision. This latter source may have originated with the November 1956 collision at Wilson station where car 6288 hit a standing North Shore Line interurban train of heavier construction and the 6000-series car's front end was completely crushed.

spring-and-return switch: a track switch which does not have to be lined for a training move but will spring to the desired route, if necessary, to allow the wheels to trail through its points, and then will return to the original position. Such switch stands are identified by a sign reading "SR" and are painted blue.

spring-and-stay switch: a track switch which does not have to be lined for a training move but will spring to the desired route, if necessary, to allow the wheels to trail through its points, and then will stay in the new position. Such switch stands are painted yellow.

SPTO: Part-time STO personnel that are restricted to weekend work, at a lower pay rate, and who do not receive fringe benefits from the CTA®.

station employee: the term "station employee" includes any employee working as a clerk, ticket agent, or foot collector.

stinger: stingers, also known as "hand jumpers", are two four-foot long wooden handles, each having an eight-inch long metal contact rod attached and connected by a heavy-duty electrical cable. They are used when an "L"TM train gets stranded in a spot where none of the third rail shoes are touching the third rail and thus the train has no power to move. This is most common with short trains (two cars) on curves, switches or at grade crossings, but it happens elsewhere on occasion. (See FAQ question 3.3 for more information on stingers.)

STO: The portion of labor that represents Scheduled Transit Operations. This classification includes bus operators, rail operators, and customer assistants.

stub terminal: a terminal station whose tracks simply dead-end at the platform, with no yard or additional trackage beyond. In the days before the Loop, all "L"TM lines ended in stub terminals; in later years, they were used to handle overflow traffic. They were Old Congress [South Side], Wells Terminal [Metropolitan], Market Terminal [Lake] and North Water Street [Northwestern].

stub track: a train track that leads into a dead-end spur.

"sweat box": non-air conditioned rail cars or buses.

"swinging load": a full load of passengers. The term comes from the days when "L"TM trains and buses had overhead straps for standing passengers to grip; a vehicles with a "swinging load" was packed with riders.

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tamping: a process by which more ballast (see also) is added to the rail bed. The new ballast will not do any good unless it is placed next to and under the wood or concrete ties that support the steel rails. Most railroads, like the CTA®, have a machine called a "Ballast Tamper" to help them perform this work quickly. This machine pulls the existing railroad track out of the dirt and "tampers" fresh ballast rock underneath and around the ties preventing the track structure from sinking into the ground. They can also use a machine called a "Ballast Regulator" to evenly distribute the ballast along the rail corridor. The process is necessary because, over time, the ballast sinks into the ground, allowing the smaller particles of dirt and silt to come up to the surface, creating an unstable bed for the railroad.

team track: a rail siding for general usage by freight shippers where freight cars can be spotted so they can be loaded or unloaded by an industry or shipper. They are named for the teams of horses that once pulled the wagons to move the freight to and from the trains.

"throw it into the big hole": an order from a motorman to come to an emergency stop.

time-controlled signal: a signal displaying a restrictive aspect, which may change to a less restrictive aspect only when a train approaches at or below the permitted speed.

time release: a device to delay the movement of a switch or switch lock to assure that possible conflicting train movements are accommodated, and then to operate the switch or switch lock.

timing device: a mechanism installed in an electric circuit to delay the functioning of the circuit.

Top Operator Rate: The top hourly rate paid to Bus Operators and Rail Operators, based on employee seniority within the job, as specified by the union contract.

track circuit: a length of track which forms a path for an electrical current used to detect the presence of a train. See also automatic train control.

track trip: a device in the track which is raised to stop a train if it should pass a signal indicating "stop". See also "automatic block signals".

track trip manual release: a wayside lever used to lower the track trip.

"trim a cab": to open a cab to passengers when not in use, but locking the controls inside. This was only possible on the 6000-, 2000- and 2200-series cars. All subsequent series (and the 2200s, after their rehab) made the motorman's cab dedicated crew space.

tripper service (or a "tripper"): a revenue train operation that is not part of a full run. A full run (as in, when a train is operating as Run 908 or such) consists of several trips. For instance, run 514 (a PM Evanston Express run) starts at about 2pm, ends around 10pm or so, and includes two Loop round trips and three or so shuttle round-trips. All those trips (we will define a "trip" as being from one point to another) are part of a single run. A "tripper" will often operate in rush hour or another heavy-traffic time, when extra trains are needed between certain places for a relatively short period of time. A couple extra trips might be added to get people downtown, then those trains are taken out of service. They didn't complete a full run (of several trips), so they operated in "tripper service".

"washout": a manual signal for a train to stop because of oncoming traffic or danger. The signal is given by a lantern or flashlight waved horizontally across the track. An old railroad term, it was used to warn trains of washed-out bridges.

wayside signal: any signal of fixed location outside the train along side the track.

"wrap it up": to go fast, at top speed




- Davis, Irwin
- Gash, Sean
- Keegan, Anne. "Chicago Speak." Chicago Tribune. 24 February 1995.
- Krambles, George and Arthur Peterson, CTA at 45, Oak Park, IL: George Krambles Scholarship Fund, 1993.
- Chicago Transit Authority Rail System Rule Book, issued March 17, 1985.
- Vince "The Wolfman" Dawson, CTA
® Badge #7699.
- Various CTA
® sources