Terror Train

Aaron Renn was working in Deerfield, but he and his coworkers wanted to be reassigned to the city. The traffic jams, the accidents, the sheer monotony of driving made commuting to the suburbs an enormous hassle. How much easier things would be, Renn thought, if he could work in Chicago. After all, the city has public transportation.

In late 1997 Renn’s dreams were fulfilled, as he was transferred to a computer programmer’s job at his company’s downtown office. He started taking the el to work every day. But it didn’t take him long to realize what Chicago Transit Authority riders have known for at least a decade: the CTA sucks.

“Every transportation system has occasional problems,” he says. “If you’re on the highway and a semi jackknifes, you’ll be stuck for an hour and there’s nothing you can do about it. But on the CTA it happens so regularly. Every time you get on a train something happens. Just these little problems. It could be a malfunctioning door, or a fare-card machine, or your train could go 30 miles an hour for no reason when it could be going 50 miles an hour. There’s always something.”

By January of 1998 Renn had started publishing the “Weekly Breakdown,” a Web newsletter that chronicles his frustrating life as a CTA passenger (www.urbanophile.com/breakdown). He intended to describe, as he writes on-line, “the sort of ‘death of a thousand cuts’ experience that is making riders flee the system in droves.” His format was set early on and it hasn’t varied. The first section is a summary of CTA-related news from the week, and the second is his unofficial journal of CTA mishaps. It’s written from the perspective of a bemused outsider.

The mishaps range from the ordinary to the unbelievable, like the event described in “Weekly Breakdown” volume one, number 27, in which a Red Line train car careened from Fullerton to Belmont with open doors and “several people holding on as tight as possible for fear that they might lose their balance and be tossed from the train.”

Renn has developed regular readers who now send in tales of their own. One woman wrote about how her southbound Red Line train stopped near 35th Street to rescue passengers in two stranded northbound cars by stretching a “board” to them, “like the one seen in Speed.” Another wrote about how she’d had $40 on her fare card, only to have it spit out by a turnstile that told her the card contained 40 cents. When she complained, she said, the platform supervisor asked, “Who do you think you are, bothering me?”

Renn’s moment of grandest purpose came with “Weekly Breakdown” volume one, number 51, which chronicled the CTA’s collapse after the January blizzard. The newsletter ordinarily is two pages, but the blizzard edition ran six. The “Weekly Breakdown” was finally forced to get political as Renn described the chaos that reigned after hundreds of el cars were put out of service by snow. He slammed CTA president Frank Kruesi for whining and waffling. And he took on a bigger target.

“The real leadership vacuum at the CTA really starts with Mayor Daley,” he wrote. “Public transit is probably his lowest priority among all major city services. He has been very upfront in saying that he thinks mass transit has ‘lost its constituency.’ If Kruesi were gone, Daley would most likely yet again appoint a political crony with no real knowledge of transit and without the management skills to improve the agency….Until Daley himself makes transit a priority, the CTA will simply continue to deteriorate.”

Of late, the “Weekly Breakdown” has claimed a mole inside the CTA, a bus driver writing in to describe how the system really works. In a recent issue the driver told of a memo to garage supervisors from CTA management forbidding overtime. This forced the supervisors to hold buses in the garage during rush hour. The driver offered a paragraph that could serve as the newsletter’s thesis statement: “It is a constant source of amazement to me how the CTA concocts all this propaganda about on-time, clean service and how they are service orientated, and yet they turn around and sacrifice that service to save a few bucks. They spend $100,000 to design a new website, several hundred thousand to hire an outside firm to determine which service to cut, and an unknown amount of money to stage a contest with fancy prizes. They spend gobs of money making fancy system maps and brochures, conducting studies concerning changing bus route numbers (which Mayor Daley pulled the plug on, thank God) and other wasteful expenditures. And yet, they turn around and do stupid things like holding buses in the garages to save money, while the whole time crying about how they have no money. Well, CTA has money. CTA management just doesn’t want to spend it on the most important product that this company sells–service.”

Renn says that the “Weekly Breakdown” takes him only a couple of hours a week to produce, and that he’ll never run out of material as long as the CTA remains under its current management. But now he’s moved out of the city to Evanston, in part so he can ride a different form of transportation.

“I actually prefer the Metra these days,” he says. “I usually ride it to work now. Metra is cheaper. It’s more comfortable. It’s closer to a lot of the office space on Wacker Drive. And if you’ve had a long day at work you can drink a beer on the way home. Try doing that on the CTA.”

–Neal Pollack

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jim Newberry.