How bad weather adversely affects your commute, and how CTA prepares for it
Last month was the 10th-coldest on record with an average temperature of 15.9 degrees. And today we woke up to below-zero wind chills.
Certainly the frigid temperatures adversely affect both bus and rail travel on the CTA. In one stretch of seven work days last month, the Red Line train I boarded at Morse had to run express to Wilson five of those days from either Loyola or Granville due to weather-related delays either on my train or one behind me.
Of course, I wasn't happy about being late nor about the crowded conditions those delays cause. But can I really blame the CTA? Certainly not for the cold. But do they do enough to prepare for the weather, to keep the fleet running to withstand the cold? So I asked them these questions. Below is the unedited response. And yes, it's definitely a response from the PR folks.
The CTA needs to continue to do aggressive preventive maintenance to keep all vehicles in tip-top shape in all weather. And we need to show a little more patience.
In response for your question on cold weather, we checked with the Operations staff. Obviously, both buses and trains have mechanical components that can be impacted by severe cold. In addition, the rail system also has components that are subject to the elements such as tracks and switches.
Among the more common problems buses face during extreme cold are engines failing to start or difficulty maneuvering in traffic due to icy or extreme snowy conditions. On the rail side, switches not working properly due to icy buildup; or trains not able to reach speed due to build up of ice on the rails are some problems that occur in extreme conditions.
CTA prepares for the winter and summer months well in advance in order to perform preventative maintenance to help combat potential problems.
CTA has an annual winter preparedness plans that includes checks of the bus and rail fleet to make sure they are ready to operate in winter conditions. For example, sleet scrapers and snowplow blades are installed on rail car. For buses, there are a series of steps to make sure buses are ready for winter, such as checking heaters, engine thermostats and batteries and making sure windows, roof hatches and doors close securely.
CTA's rail fleet is parked outside all year round – blowing and drifting snow, combined with sub-zero temperatures have the potential to affect the fleet in a number of ways. The same goes for the CTA bus fleet, approximately 30% of which is housed outdoors.
The most common equipment problems have to do with the build-up of snow and/or ice on the truck's undercarriage, or on various mechanical elements of the train such as the couplers.
Switch and rail heaters perform well given either heavy snow or extreme cold – but when the two are combined it is more challenging to keep it operating smoothly so rail maintenance staff is assigned to the switches and signals around the clock to keep equipment operating.
The sub-zero temperatures can cause the same mechanical problems as with other vehicles, especially affecting the oil in the door tracks and the motors. The oil thickens and causes the doors to open and close more slowly. This is especially true in the early morning when the train is coming out of the yard. As the doors operate more, the oil loosens up and the doors will operate more quickly.
In cold and snowy conditions, equipment problems encountered by CTA buses can be similar to those of cars. After a heavy snowfall, buses that are stored outside are subject to the same challenges of moving from a snowed-in parking spot.
In extreme cold temperatures, starting up buses can be difficult. Diesel fuel properties are different than those of fuel that is used in cars. Typically, diesel fuel does not function as well in extreme cold conditions. To help keep CTA buses running during colder temperatures, buses are equipped with engine pre-heaters that allow motors to start up easily and bus interiors to warm up more quickly. Buses stored at outdoor facilities need not idle all the time, due to the pre-heaters. Engines are started in the morning and are allowed to run up to 30 minutes in order to ensure proper operation.
The newly-arriving New Flyer articulated hybrids feature a plug-in feature that allows the batteries on the bus to remain charged when the bus is not in use. Power is drawn from the batteries to operate the auxiliary heater and circulate warm coolant through the engine block during overnight storage during cold weather. This eliminates the need to idle buses for startup.