David Wilson, via flickr and Creative Commons license
A Red line train passes the site of today's switch failure in this 2002 photo.
Today’s mechanical failure on the North Side El is a reminder that the rail system we rely on every day is aging and in need of serious investment. The incident, which was originally reported as a derailment, involved a Brown line train that became stuck while passing through a track switch at Clark junction, just north of the Belmont station. Although there were no injuries, rail service was interrupted for several hours on the Red, Brown, and Purple lines, creating chaos for commuters. My usual 25-minute train ride to work became an hour-long ordeal of fighting through a confused mob to catch a slow bus to the Loop. Many who did not know which bus line to take (or how to find out) were forced to compete for taxis. Reportedly, the CTA ran shuttle buses along the affected parts of the Red and Brown lines, although the CTA employee who turned me away from the Belmont station entrance didn’t mention this replacement service.
This almost-derailment highlights the difficulty of maintaining a rail system that is getting very long in the tooth. Although the switch that failed today was upgraded as part of the Brown Line rehabilitation project several years ago, the elevated structure that it sits on has been in service since 1907. The CTA constantly patches and mends this dilapidated structure to keep it in working order, but it knows it’s fighting a losing battle. Unstable and deteriorating structures force trains to proceed slowly over many miles of what would otherwise be 55 mph track. The entire structure will need to be replaced soon, and the CTA recently outlined several options in a project scoping report. These options range from an in-place overhaul of the current structure (extending its life expectancy by a mere 20 years) to a complete teardown and rebuild, or putting the lines underground in a subway.
Before construction could begin on any of these options, the CTA must complete preliminary engineering and conduct an environmental review process, but it lacks the funding to do so. Lately, federal transportation funding has been a lot like the North Side El: limping along with the help of piecemeal, temporary fixes. James Corless, director of Transportation for America, recently spoke at an MPC-CMAP roundtable about the need for completely new transportation funding legislation that could fund this and many other necessary transportation projects around Chicago. Without it, our transportation infrastructure—such as this El line that over 100,000 people rely on every weekday—will only continue to degrade.