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Chicago Closes, Rebuilds Red Line South System

The Chicago Transit Authority closed a section of the Red Line South
By closing a section of its Red Line South for five months, the Chicago Transit Authority will save time and money in its effort to rebuild more than 10 mi of tracks, including those beneath the crossover south of the Cermak-Chinatown station. Courtesy of CTA

The Chicago Transit Authority has closed 10.2 mi of its Red Line rapid rail transit system for the next five months so that the tracks can be completely rebuilt.

June 4, 2013—The Chicago Transit Authority (CTA), which operates one of the largest public transportation systems in the nation, began work two weeks ago to completely rebuild a portion of its aging backbone: the Red Line South rapid rail transit line. The eight-route CTA rail system sees more than 3 million riders weekly, with the Red Line carrying, on average, 1.3 million of those riders. The $425-million rebuild of the line, also called the Dan Ryan Branch of the Red Line, will offer a faster, smoother, and generally improved travel experience to riders once work is complete, according to the CTA. The complete closure of the branch will allow construction to progress in a fraction of the time and for significantly less money than the project would have taken with weekend-only work.

The CTA is rebuilding the track that extends between the Cermak-Chinatown station to the 95th/Dan Ryan station, along the Dan Ryan Expressway, according to Stephen Mayberry, a CTA spokesman, who wrote in response to questions posed by Civil Engineering online. The work includes the complete replacement of the track beds;the ties, rail, third rail, ballast, and drainage systems are all being ripped out and rebuilt. As part of the project, eight of the nine stations—originally designed by global architecture and engineering design firm Skidmore, Owings & Merrill—will also be improved. Many of the improvements will be cosmetic, such as new canopies, paint, lighting, benches, and bike racks, he said. New elevators will be built at three stations—Garfield, 63rd, and 87th—to make the line fully accessible for people with disabilities.

“The biggest challenge presented by the project isn’t in design, but construction,” said Carole Morey, the CTA’s vice president for infrastructure, who wrote in response to questions posed by Civil Engineering online. “The challenge lies in the logistics involved in completely reconstructing the track and drainage systems for an alignment which runs through the middle of one of the busiest expressways in the United States.”

The difficulties introduced by the line’s placement led to the CTA’s decision to close the line completely for five months rather than opting for weekend-only work for the four years it would have otherwise taken. This decision saved the authority $75 million in construction costs.

According to American Public Transportation Association, the CTA is the first transit agency to completely shut down such a large stretch of track and rebuild a railroad from the dirt up, Mayberry said. It is one of the largest construction projects in the authority’s history.

The project is long overdue: The line was originally completed in 1969 and has exceeded its expected service life, according to the CTA website. “Currently, 40 percent of the Dan Ryan Branch requires slow zones for safe operation, which means longer commutes and less reliability for Red Line riders,” Mayberry said. In some areas, this meant that trains had to travel at 15 mph along tracks originally designed for 55 mph speeds. The problem would have risen each year, slowing commute times—and increasing the rider frustration—if the CTA hadn’t decided on an entire replacement of the track infrastructure.

“By completely replacing everything in the track bed, the CTA is eliminating all slow zones along the south Red Line,” Mayberry noted. This is expected to slice 20 minutes off commutes along the line once work is completed and full service is restored.

The project is part of Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s $7-billion “Building a New Chicago” infrastructure renewal program, which was announced in 2012. The funding has been made available by the $1 billion in federal, state, and local funding that Emanuel and Governor Pat Quinn announced would be allocated for work on the Red and Purple lines in late 2011, according to the CTA.

The authority has expanded alternate transportation service along the Red Line South corridor during the closure, adding free and discounted bus and shuttle services, and rerouted some Red Line trains to an elevated track typically used by the Green Line.

The ninth station along the line, the 95th Street Terminal, is not being upgraded as part of the current project. It will receive its own $240-million upgrade next year, according to the CTA.


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