An Old Idea for Better ‘L’ Service

Sometimes you take things for granted. In 1965, when I first visited New York, I learned just how fast Chicago ‘L’ service was.

I was on my senior class trip.  A few of us decided to check out Coney Island.  We boarded a subway train on Sixth Avenue and away we went.

The train barreled through swiftly under the streets of Manhattan.  We crossed the East River and emerged on an elevated line in Brooklyn.  Then we crept along.  There seemed to be a station every two or three blocks, and our train dutifully stopped at each of them.  At some of the stations, there wasn’t a prospective passenger to be seen.  I don’t know how long it took us to get to Coney Island.  It seemed like two hours.

North-South Route, skip-stop map (1961)

North-South Route, skip-stop map (1961)–CLICK TO ENLARGE!

That’s when I appreciated my hometown’s “A” and “B” train system.  Here’s how it worked—

Those CTA stations with fewer passengers were designated as either “A” or “B” stations, while the busier stations were “A-B”.  Trains running on a line alternated between “A” trains and “B” trains.  An “A” train would stop at “A” stations and “A-B” stations, and run through the “B” stations without stopping.  A “B” train would stop at the “B” and “A-B” stations, and skip the “A” stations.

"A" train at Spaulding on Ravenswood (Brown) Line

“A” train at Spaulding on Ravenswood (Brown) Line

CTA first adopted this skip-stop plan on the Lake Street line in 1948.  It worked so well that it was soon put into place on all of the main rapid transit lines.

There was also a color-code, so you could readily identify your train at a distance.  Lines that operated through a subway had red signs for “A” trains, green signs for “B” trains.  On lines that didn’t use a subway, the signs on “A” trains were yellow, while “B” trains had blue.

The lines with the heaviest traffic ran skip-stop service all day, while those with fewer passengers—like Ravenswood—had “A-B” service only in rush hours.  On weekends and at night, all trains made all stops.

“B” train at University on abandoned Jackson Park (Green) Line

You did have a problem if you boarded at an “A” station and wanted to get off at a “B”.  Then you had to change trains at an “A-B” stop.  But most riders simply accepted this as the price of swifter service.

The skip-stop system worked well for forty years.  Then declining ridership caused CTA to make schedule cuts.  With longer intervals between trains, some lines reverted to all-stop service.  In 1995 the last “A-B” trains were eliminated from the Howard line.

Twenty years have passed.  Rapid transit ridership is again strong.  We’d have to survey current business at all stations.  But isn’t it time for CTA to bring back the “A-B” skip-stop trains?



7 Responses to “An Old Idea for Better ‘L’ Service”

  1. 1 Teri December 7, 2015 at 3:35 pm

    Sadly because of technical issues and wide disparity in ridership it might not be possible on entire red line.

  2. 3 Garry December 8, 2015 at 12:47 pm

    There is also a major imbalance in stations on the Red Line. There are 11 stations south of the Loop & 19 stations north of the Loop, not including the three Loop stations. When the Dan Ryan Line opened in the late 1960s, they were all stops, while it was connected to the Lake St. Line. After it was connected to the Howard Line, it remained all stops while the Howard was A/B service until the conversion to all stops for the entire system.
    The North Side needs A/B service far more than the Ryan section due to stations that are so close together, often walking distance apart, while almost every Ryan station is a mile apart.

    The CTA has also returned to another idiotic idea for the Red Line.
    During those years of reduced ridership, as the morning rush ended, the 8 car trains were broken in half & turned into 4 car trains for the midday service.
    Well that idiocy has returned, as I’ve been stuck on these a couple of times.
    For at least the last 10 years, the Red Line has run 8 cars from the beginning of the morning rush until at least 8PM & often longer.
    No matter how short the headway for 4 car trains, they can’t carry the increased passenger load during midday.

    I really wish I could figure out where the CTA finds the morons who come up with asinine ideas like this & sideways seats, among other atrocities!
    CTA management really hates us passengers.
    CTA, third world transportation at first world prices!

    • 4 J.R. Schmidt December 9, 2015 at 12:40 pm


      I hear you! Ridership south of the Loop is much less than in the north. So from a purely practical standpoint, it would make sense for the Red Line trains to turn around in the subway at Roosevelt and go back north from there. The Dan Ryan Line could then run fewer trains, bringing them into the Loop via the elevated structure, as was done when the line opened in 1969.

      BTW, I have a 1987 CTA map that shows the Dan Ryan Line did have skip-stop when it was linked with Lake Street. Cermak-Chinatown (B), Sox-35th (A-B), 47th (A), Garfield (B), 63rd (A), then 69th, 79th, 87th, 95th (all A-B).

      The new, lengthwise seating arrangement is actually copied from the (former) IRT lines in NYC, and is supposed to increase capacity—by increasing standing room. As much as anything, that demonstrates what CTA thinks of its passengers.


      • 5 Garry December 10, 2015 at 6:30 pm

        It doesn’t increase standing room as the seated people have to put their legs & feet somewhere.
        So the idiots that run the CTA had white lines put on the floor to indicate where people’s legs should be behind & 90% don’t do that.
        In addition, the CTA buys cars that have “fishbelly” sides, to give the passengers increased shoulder room, when using conventional seats. That is totally negated by the lengthwise seats.
        The other reason not to use lengthwise seats is that the CTA uses cars that are much narrower than the cars in NYC.

        In fact, about 25% of the seats are unused even at the height of rush hour, because really wide people take up 2/3rds of the two seats, because once again, the morons at CTA decided to put stanchions between every two seats, except for a section in the middle of the cars where there are three seats.

        On top of that, CTA is now removing two seats at one car end of maybe 20 cars, so they can install deicing equipment there which will drip or spray a deicer on the third rail as the trains make their regular runs!
        But that’s an improvement over last year, when they totally blocked off access to about 8 seats in the deicing cars.

  3. 6 Andrew December 9, 2015 at 12:07 pm

    My wife and I have often discussed that we’d like to see the return of A & B stations, especially on the Blue Line. Better still (for us) would be for there to be “express” trains toward the Loop that would make all stops between O’Hare and Jeff Park, skip all stations until Logan Square, then skip all the other stations until Clark/Lake. A fantasy, I know, but not far off Richie Daley’s express train to O’Hare that was going to whisk tourists from downtown at the mothballed Block 37 superstation…

    • 7 J.R. Schmidt December 9, 2015 at 12:22 pm

      Concerning an express to O’Hare—I wonder if express ‘L’ trains could be run on the Metra-NW right-of-way (former CNW) as far as Bryn Mawr, with the express trains then continuing west down the Kennedy median on the existing ‘L’ tracks? The west end of the Lake Street ‘L’ was moved from surface level onto the CNW embankment in 1962, with the CNW tracks there reconfigured. Perhaps something similar could be done along the Metra-NW line.

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