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Getting Around Chicago: A Look Back at More Than 120 Years on the 'L'

In 2017, Chicago celebrated 125 years of its “L” trains. The first elevated trains began operating in the city in 1892, although the Chicago Transit Authority (CTA) didn’t actually form and start running the show until 1947. Let’s take a look back at how Chicagoans have been getting around the city for more than a century — and a look what is happening today.

The First L Trains 

Courtesy of Chicago L

The first L line was the built on the South Side of the city for the World’s Fair of 1893. Soon, more lines grew from that one and today much of the original lines still exist as a part of the Green Line, according to the CTA.

The first trains were powered by coal and steam, but by 1898 the L system had its first electric train cars. The CTA has preserved a number of its historical cars in its Heritage Fleet. The fleet includes two train cars from 1923, two train cars from 1950, and an eight-car train with cars that were made from 1976 to 1978. 

The CTA also released a video showing what L stations looked like in the 1950s compared to today as a part of the 125th-anniversary celebration.

The Eight CTA Lines

The L system grew from one line to eight. Here is a brief look at the history of each line.

The Red Line

The CTA Red Line as it operates today was created in 1993. The 21.8-mile line has three branches: the Dan Ryan branch, the Howard branch, and the State Street Subway. This line has the highest ridership in the L system.

The Blue Line

In 1958, the Blue Line was formed by combining and rerouting a number of existing lines. Today, the line stretches 26.93 miles and has three different branches: the O’Hare branch, the Forest Park branch, and Milwaukee-Dearborn Subway. The Blue Line is the second busiest ‘L’ line.

The Brown Line

The modern Brown Line has been running since 1949. This line runs for a total of 11.3 miles along three branches: the Ravenswood branch, the North Side Main Line, and the Loop Elevated. 

The Green Line

Though the Green Line contains remnants of the original L lines, its modern iteration wasn’t formed until 1993. The Green Line runs for 20.7 miles through a total of four branches: the Lake branch, South Side Elevated, the Englewood branch, and the Jackson Park branch.

The Orange Line

The Orange Line was built from the ground up, rather than incorporating older lines, in 1993. The line runs for a total of 13 miles through the Midway branch and the South Side Elevated, as well as the Loop Elevated.

The Purple Line

The Purple Line has been in operation since the early 1900s when it was known as the Evanston Route. Today, the 16.2-mile line runs through the Evanston branch, the North Side Main Line, and the Loop Elevated.

The Pink Line

The Pink Line was created in 2006, making it the newest CTA route. The 6.6-mile Pink Line runs on three branches: the Cermak branch, the Lake branch, and the Paulina Connector. 

The Yellow Line

The Yellow Line has been operating since 1964, but it didn’t receive its current name until 1993. The Yellow Line runs for 4.7 miles and has just three stations, connecting Chicago to Skokie.

The Modern L System

Photo by bclinesmith / CC BY-SA

Today, the L system includes approximately 1,500 train cars that give about 750,000 commuters a ride every weekday, according to the CTA. While the CTA has evolved into a comprehensive rapid transit system, it is still undergoing changes.

One of the CTA’s biggest changes in recent years was its transition from Chicago Cards to the Ventra system for fare payment. Launched in 2013, the new payment system got off to a bit of a bumpy start with customer service issues. By October 2013, the Chicago Tribune reported one in three CTA rides was paid for through the Ventra system. The transition to the Ventra system was complete by the next year.

The CTA is also undergoing major overhauls of several of its stations and lines. One of the biggest ongoing developments is the Red and Purple Line modernization project. As a part of the project, the CTA plans to revitalize areas in Edgewater, Lakeview, and Uptown. The plan also includes the Belmont “flyover,” a bypass track at the Belmont Brown Line stop.

An artists rendering of the Cottage GRove Green Line Station / CTA

In 2016, the CTA also announced a major overhaul of the Cottage Grove Green Line station in Woodlawn, the future site of the Barack Obama Presidential Center. The CTA also intends to spend $50 million on redeveloping the Garfield Boulevard Green Line station

Other significant projects include a $30.8 million investment in the Blue Line’s Belmont and Jefferson Park stops and a $203 million update of the Wilson Red Line station slated for completion this year. 

In addition to investments in the infrastructure of the L system, the CTA is also turning its eye to transit-oriented developments (TODs). For example, the CTA hopes to turn land it owns in Logan Square into a mixed-use development.

In some of the latest CTA news, the transit organization approved fare hikes for this year. The base fare for riding the L increased 25 cents, while a 30-day unlimited pass went up $5. The CTA cited state budgetary cuts and a need for funding to improve customer experience.

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