Construction sending Chicago to ‘L’ and back

Photo by Antonio Perez/Chicago Tribune

Today’s Wisch List newspaper column from The Daily Journal (Kankakee, Ill.) and The Times (Ottawa, Ill.)


By Dave Wischnowsky

When Chicago’s iconic rapid transit system – colloquially known as the “L” – was first unveiled to the public in June 1892, a reporter for the Chicago Tribune noted how useful the train system was to all citizens of the city by observing how its riders ranged from members of “the lunch pail crowd” to passengers “resembling gentlemen.”

Well, come rush hour on Monday morning, it’s unlikely that anyone on a train bound for downtown will resemble a gentleman – or a gentle lady, for that matter – when disgruntled Chicago commuters begin their descent into “L.”

On Friday night, the first phase of the Chicago Transit Authority’s Wells Street bridge closure project began. It won’t end until before the morning rush on March 11, which means that for more than nine days, riders – including myself – will be subjected to Brown and Purple Line shutdowns north of the Chicago River while the Chicago Department of Transportation overhauls the Wells Street bridge at the Merchandise Mart and the CTA replaces tracks nearby.

On an average weekday, 113,611 riders – or, basically, the population of Springfield – take the Brown Line to and from downtown, while an additional 45,036 jump on the Purple Line. Despite the closures, those commuters still need to get to work and many will be forced to spill over into various buses as well as the busy Red Line, which already transports 268,580 riders each day.

The masses will make for a major mess. And once March 11 arrives, Chicago commuters won’t be able to relax for long: a similar nine-day closure is set for late April into early May.
But here in the calm before the storm, I thought I’d take the opportunity today to share with you some things you might not know about Chicago’s famous “L.”

The Second City

With eight lines and 224.1 miles of tracks, the “L” is the second largest rapid transit system in total track mileage in the United States trailing only the New York City Subway, which boasts a whopping 34 lines and 842 miles of tracks.

Chicago’s “L” is also the third busiest rail mass transit system in the U.S. after New York’s Subway and the Metro in Washington, D.C.

Is it the ‘L’ or the ‘El’?

Technically, Chicago’s elevated train system is called the “L.” That’s the official nickname that the CTA uses on its own signage and materials. But that doesn’t mean everyone refers to it as such.

The magazine Time Out Chicago, for example, calls the train system the “El” and once explained its thought process on the subject in a response to a reader letter. “El” was chosen stylistically because Time Out believed it was easier for people originally from outside Chicago to decipher. The Chicago Tribune, meanwhile, lists the name as “L” in its style guide.

Crunching numbers

On an average weekday, 788,415 people ride the “L.” On an average Saturday, 519,959 do. And on an average Sunday, 377,308 are on board. In sum, 231.1 million people rode the rails in 2012. There are no statistics on how many of them showered beforehand.
With numbers like that, though, it’s no wonder that Chicago Tribune readers in 2005 voted the “L” as one of the “Seven Wonders of Chicago” behind the lakefront and Wrigley Field, but ahead of Willis Tower, the Water Tower, the University of Chicago and the Museum of Science and Industry.

Cooler heads

In 1964, the first air-conditioned “L” cars were introduced. And on Monday morning, considering how packed the trains will be, the CTA may need to turn the A/C on just to get everyone to chill out.

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