If you ever want to watch a perpetual train-wreck (sometimes literally) of mismanagement in action, come visit Chicago and ride the L trains. The Chicago Transit Authority (CTA), which runs the L as well as bus system, is vilified citywide for its inability to ever run a train on time, the extreme tendency of its buses to travel in packs, blowing money on pretty platforms instead of more trains, and having a serious excess of people standing around in over-sized, day-glow orange CTA vests not doing anything.
Tangent: If you’re a public transit company and you’re dressing your people up like walking caution cones to make them highly-visible so they don’t get hit by trains wouldn’t you also tell them to at least look busy so they’re not highly-visible when they’re doing absolutely nothing in front of all of us sales- and property-tax payers who are footing their salaries?
For the record, I really do know people who live a block from an L station and work a block from an L station who drive to work anyway simply because they hate the CTA that much.
So, some of the CTA’s problem is honest and utter incompetence, but some of it is also perception. Traffic really can wreak havoc on the spacing of buses, sometimes you do have to have a couple extra hands simply at-the-ready to deal with unexpected problems, and when they mayor has a friend with a platform-lighting company that sells over-priced vintage lamps what else is a city transit company supposed to do?
What occurred odd to me this morning (as I stood on a shinny new platform amidst vintage lighting waiting twenty-five minutes for a train) is that the CTA doesn’t appear to even try to deal with the perception problem — especially when they can.
I take the purple line to the office any day that I cannot absolutely avoid it (which, unfortunately for me, is about every day). When I started taking the purple line I checked the train schedule and always arrived at the station two to three minutes before the train was supposed to arrive. The trains were scheduled to hit the station in fifteen minute intervals. Sometimes I’d catch a train on time, sometimes I would wait about five minutes, and sometimes I would have to wait more than twenty.
After losing several hours off my life standing on windswept train platforms, I resolved to write a blog post blasting the CTA for its utter inability to run trains against its own posted schedule. So I synchronized my watch with USNO time and started to keep a log of how long I had to wait for a train and how off-schedule each train ran. What surprised me was how quickly a pattern emerged from the log. The trains nearly always arrived plus or minus five minutes of their scheduled time. The key is that the trains were just as likely to be five minutes early as they were to be five minutes late. I adjusted my schedule to arrive at the station five to six minutes before the scheduled time and for the last five months I have on only rare occasion had to wait more than ten minutes for a train. While I still feel personally violated for the amount my money the CTA embezzles or wastes, at least I am spending much less time on train platforms thinking about it.
But here’s the odd thing, and it actually shocks me that the CTA has yet come to this realization on their own with all the analysis on usage patterns that they claim to do. The CTA could drastically improve their perceived performance without actually doing anything (at least on the purple line) were they to simply change the posted scheduled for each train to five minutes earlier than the current schedule (but still run the trains on the current schedule). Basically, they should tell riders to arrive five minutes early. Without changing anything else that they are doing, the CTA could cut in half the typical wait range for a purple line train. That is, riders would typically only have to wait up to ten minutes for a train instead of the current twenty (remember that the trains typically run at fifteen minute intervals and if the first one ran ahead of schedule there does seem to be some wicked constant that causes the next one to run behind schedule).
Cutting wait times by fifty percent would be a huge perceived surge in competence on the part of the CTA, regardless of the fact that they would need to do nothing to actually improve performance. Now that’s the kind of easy win that I’d like to be able to line up for my project team.