CTA has repeatedly suspended service on the Green Line, one sign of ongoing staff shortages

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Janice Thompson typically takes the Green Line to and from her job downtown, but recently she found her routine disrupted: Service on the Cottage Grove branch of the train line was suspended, and she had to catch a shuttle bus to finish her commute.

That meant a longer trip and getting home from work later.

“It just moves things back,” Thompson, 58, said. “I have a routine. I get home, I do what I have to do to prepare for the day.”

Service on the two-stop Cottage Grove branch that runs through Woodlawn has been repeatedly suspended this year, and at least eight of the outages were related to staffing, according to service alerts and CTA data obtained through an open records request. Riders have been left to rely on shuttles, or find other ways around the city. In some cases, they said they have instead weighed paying for ride-shares, finding a carpool, or transferring between multiple buses and trains to bypass the outage.

Janice Thompson, at the CTA Green Line station at 63rd Street and Cottage Grove Avenue on Aug. 4, 2022, typically takes the Green Line to and from her job downtown. But service on the Cottage Grove branch of the train line has been disrupted often. (Terrence Antonio James / Chicago Tribune)

The suspensions are one stark sign of the staffing issues that have upended bus and train service. Unreliable service is among the the challenges encountered by riders looking to return to public transit after leaving in the early days of the pandemic, and has disrupted the routines and commutes of those who have continued to rely on transit to get to work, appointments, family and social gatherings.

The CTA has pointed to bus and rail operator shortages as one reason for unreliable service across the system. In May, the CTA had about 1,000 fewer union positions than in 2019, a CTA spokesman has previously said, though recent hires have brought the number of vacancies down.

The majority of open positions are for bus operators. The CTA has hired more than 400 bus operators since the start of 2021, records show, and last week the agency said 80 full-time drivers had finished training and were entering service. The transit agency is still short about 675 bus operators compared with 2019, spokeswoman Catherine Hosinski said.

It’s less clear how many train operators positions have been filled. The CTA said it does not directly hire for rail operators, but rather those looking to become operators must work their way through other positions. By deadline Monday, the agency had not provided the number of rail operator positions filled.

A competitive job market and high employee attrition are among the factors contributing to employee shortages, the CTA said Monday. CTA President Dorval Carter has previously highlighted the high stress of operating a bus or train, which was exacerbated during the pandemic.

People walk past a CTA Green Line train at the station at 63rd Street and Cottage Grove Avenue in Chicago on Aug. 8, 2022. (Terrence Antonio James / Chicago Tribune)

On the Green Line, employees have had more long-term absences than on other lines, Hosinski said. The Cottage Grove branch has fewer riders than other parts of the system. The neighboring branch on the south end of the Green Line, Ashland/63rd, connects with some of CTA’s busiest bus routes along Ashland Avenue, she said.

When employees take unplanned absences, the CTA has sometimes temporarily suspended rail service to Cottage Grove.

It’s unclear how long each of the Green Line service suspensions lasted. Many were near holidays or on weekends. Shuttle buses or in some cases an occasional shuttle train were provided to replace regular service, alerts indicate.

“This is a bigger deal than an occasional canceled bus, or a bigger deal than an occasional gap in service,” said Joseph Schwieterman, director of DePaul University’s Chaddick Institute for Metropolitan Development. “People come to a station with the expectation they can get where they need to go, or they can catch a train without thinking about outages.”

Schwieterman acknowledged finding workers can be difficult, especially because many vacancies such as those for operators are skilled positions, and employee attrition contributes to challenges. But in a city with “persistent unemployment,” staffing should not be responsible for repeated service outages, he said.

A Green Line train at 61st Street and Calumet Avenue in Chicago after leaving the station at 63rd Street and Cottage Grove Avenue on Aug. 8, 2022. (Terrence Antonio James / Chicago Tribune)

Should service suspensions remain necessary, planned outages are easier to manage for riders, who depend on predictability, he said.

Robin Rufus rides the Cottage Grove branch of the Green Line weekly, and said she has had to reschedule appointments when trains doesn’t run. Stopped service at night can be scary, making riders feel like targets for crime, she said.

If the service outages continue, she might consider leaving the neighborhood for one where transit service is better, she said.

“We have to reschedule appointments that we miss or we’re late for,” she said. “And, people having financial difficulties, they can’t afford to keep going back and forth and having issues with transportation. That’s something we don’t need a problem with, because we have all these other issues.”

sfreishtat@chicagotribune.com

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August 9, 2022 at 05:28AM

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