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CTA responds to post on communications problems during outages

A week ago, I posted an open letter I sent to the CTA chairwoman and president about "Some lessons to be learned on employee, customer communications during service outages." On Saturday, I received a reply from Terry Levin, the CTA's vice president for customer service. It follows:

Dear Mr. O'Neil:

I am writing in response to your open letter to CTA Chairman Carole Brown and President Frank Kruesi about customer communications and announcements.

Just speaking for myself, I can assure you that your concern is being taken very seriously. In fact, President Kruesi made direct and forceful reference to your letter and the comments on your Web site at last week's meeting of his top staff.

The basic feeling at the CTA on this issue is the same as I've seen reflected those posts and in the communications we have received directly from our customers: that the announcements have improved in recent weeks as both Ms. Brown and Mr. Kruesi have made it a top priority, but also that there is still significant room for improvement. You can be assured that everyone here is working on those improvements.

One of the challenges the CTA faces in making announcements is that it can often take some time for us to determine if a delay will be relatively brief or not. One example is when a customer falls ill on a train and paramedics need to be summoned, which happens regularly (but happily not frequently). The response time of the ambulance cannot be predicted in advance and we do not know until the emergency crew arrives if they will immediately remove the stricken person from the train or will decide they must begin medical treatment on the spot, prior to moving the victim. The latter means a significantly longer delay.

It is a similar situation when there is a mechanical problem on a train. Nine times out of 10, it is a minor glitch that the train operator can fix within a couple of minutes. It is only when those efforts fail that we know a situation exists where the delay could be longer and, by that time, it obviously is already in progress.

Another example, very recent, is a situation yesterday (Friday) when a person was on the tracks of the Blue Line's Cermak branch at California. This type of emergency happens all too often on the rail system and requires that we turn off the power until we know no one risks electrocution. In the vast majority of cases, the situation is resolved in very short order when the person is arrested or has run away--too short a time for most people to change their travel plans or for us to need a bus shuttle around the closed section of tracks. Friday, however, developed into a stand-off that lasted much longer than usual and required a major response. It did, however, take time to evolve into that situation.

All of these examples are designed only to describe how it sometimes is not possible to estimate the nature or duration of a delay until we are some minutes into it. None of these examples are meant to imply that there is any reason we cannot make meaningful announcements to keep our customers as informed as possible.

I have not encountered anyone at the CTA--from the very top to the rank-and-file workers--who is satisfied with the current situation and does not believe it can and should be improved. You can be very confident that strong efforts are under way to implement significantly better announcements when rail service is interrupted.

One thing that would be enormously helpful to us would be if your readers let us know about any specific situations in the future where they are not satisfied with the announcements. For those on the trains, it would advance our efforts greatly if they took note of the run number or car number so that we could pinpoint the exact train where the announcements were not satisfactory.

At a rail station, the badge number of any CTA employee would be very helpful. Part of the initiative to improve announcements must be to identify any employee who is not performing his or her duty as instructed. Knowing the exact time of day also would allow us to understand what was known and not known at that moment about the cause of a delay.

In the meantime, we appreciate you voicing your concern, which we very much share.

Terry Levin
Vice President
Customer Service


OK ... Levin totally dodges the question here, which is why in this particular instance there was poor communication, especially at the Addison stop (of all stops). And how, exactly, are we supposed to report badge numbers of CTA workers who *aren't* doing something we don't even know they're supposed to be doing (i.e., communicating to us about major system delays).

Hmm, I wound up stuck on the el for an hour and a half because nobody at my stop informed me about the delays. Why don't I go back in time to find out the badge number of the CTA worker on duty?

This may be a failure on the part of individual personnel, but it's primarily a system failure. There should be regular announcements at CTA stations about commute times. There also should be digital displays with estimated commute times to various popular stops.

It's only when armed with this kind of information that people can meaningfully decide whether to take the CTA versus some alternate means of transportation.

Almost certainly in a control center somewhere they have a map showing the location of every train. Here's an example of what I mean: http://www.nextbus.com/predictor/publicMap.shtml?a=portland-sc&r=streetcar.

Of course a map of even a single CTA El line would be more complex than that, but if something like that were available on monitors at rail stations, people could see problems themselves. A delayed train would cause a larger than normal gap, and a back-up behind it. (The version that CTA uses in their control center probably even turns delayed trains yellow and red on the map.)

Many major transit systems even do this with their bus routes.

Here's another example of real-time information available to the public: http://www.trimet.org/arrivals/index.htm. Buses on detours can cause some odd results for stops that are being bypassed, and it's not as good (IMO) as a map showing the current locations of all the buses or trains on a route, but it is real-time information.

There is so much that the CTA could do that other transit agencies already do. In Portland, real-time information isn't just available on the web. You can get real-time arrival information for any bus stop with an ordinary telephone call to an automated system.

Want to know about bus detours in Portland? http://www.trimet.org/detours/. Some of the info can be cryptic because the page is updated along with the alerts sent out to the affected bus drivers. Often you can find out about major police and fire events just by watching the updates for the bus drivers and tranist riders.

Yes, the CTA is bigger than Portland's TriMet, but TriMet isn't small potatoes. They have over 630 buses operating on 93 routes, and 105 light rail vehicles on four routes (with two more in various stages of planning.) Portland ranks 29th in population, but 13th in transit ridership. While you might write that off to Portland's "green" reputation, I think if you look at the history of mass transit in Portland the great success better tracks the availablity of information being available to riders than the rise of the green-ness.

While TriMet may be the best example of a transit agency keeping their customers informed, there are many other systems doing a better job than the CTA.

So what's the hold up? Money? That's just an excuse. I suspect that the real problem is that key personell believe that information is power, and they don't want to give away their power. Heaven forbid that the public could see how much bus bunching is going on all over the city at any given time.

It's time for the excuses to stop, and the action to start. Obstructionists in the system need to be removed, and information about the real-time operations need to be available to the customers. They should follow the lead of Portland, and the other cities where real efforts are made to empower their customer with the information they need to make their choices.

Warren very aptly mentions other cities' systems and how they communicate about problems. That's one of my main gripes about how the CTA is managed: apparently without any attempt to look at best practices elsewhere. Why try to come up with entirely locally baked solutions to everything, when very good solutions may be in place in another city that would be easily transferable? Besides communication, another example of this is the enforcement of the no-eating policy, which seems oh, so impossible here but is being done routinely in Washington, D.C., and elsewhere.

I hope they really are paying attention to what we're saying. Because I'm not turning in the badge numbers of CTA workers for not passing on information that they don't have.

When I took a tour of some CTA facilities with a non-profit group I was working for, we were told that the CTA was working on implementing a GPS system that would allow buses to be tracked more effectively in order to help keep them on time. When I asked whether this system would eventually evolve into a customer facing system that would give customers the ability to find out how far a bus was from a particular location, I was told it was a possibility.

Almost six years later, PACE has a similar system and the CTA offers nothing but the same old excuses for why service is so abyssmal.

When it comes down to it, you have to think that either the management isn't competent or that they really just don't care. Or both.

They pay lip service to being concerned with service, but except for streamlining fare collection and federally funded capital projects, what has really been accomplished by CTA over the last 15 years that involved improving day to day operational effectiveness?

The workforce is, by and large, as inefficient, surly and unmotivated as ever. Customers are presented with, for the most part, the same poorly maintained facilities. Buses still travel in packs, trains still disappear and customers still have no information to manage their commutes.

Given Kruesi's brilliant strategy to alienate the state congress with his us against them campaign during the last year, I almost wonder if the long term goal isn't to provide such lackluster service that momentum will finally build to mandate privatizing the system, allowing Kruesi and friends to bathe their friends in even more contracts.

I'm not not a rocket scientist, but if they can have that GPS location thing to announce on the bus what street is coming up, why can't bus storage facilites figure out where a bus in on a route? What happened to the simple walkie-talkie?

I'm surprised that you received a response personalized to this degree from Terry Levin. Maybe the Internet (you and the responders to Ask Carole) have had some effect in making the CTA a little more responsive.

I had written to CTA Customer Service during the Auto Show about how one could not get on a 127 bus, because they were packed, and suggested that they should use articulateds on the late morning runs. I received a completely canned response from T.L. that CTA had only received one half of the buses (not true, as by then it had received about 200 of 226) and they were being "equitably assigned" to different neighborhoods (irrelevant to the Auto Show crush) and that the supervisor would monitor the line (apparently a stock response that was also used on Ask Carole).

I want to send a letter to the CTA chairman. What address do I use???

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