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Some lessons to be learned on employee, customer communications during service outages

Following is an open letter to CTA President Frank Kruesi and Board Chair Carole Brown.

Dear Frank and Carole:

A week ago, a CTA work train derailed at around 3 am Monday. The derailment put two tracks out of service for the busy morning rush hour, effectively cutting CTA's capacity by 50%.

The Purple Line Express to the Loop was shut down all morning; the Brown Line was stopped and/or slowed most of the rush hour.  The Red Line was packed with Evanston Express riders. Early in the day shuttles took riders from Addison to Fullerton.

This situation called for excellent communication between the CTA and passengers. To be sure, there was some, but not enough.

Actually, great communication with passengers -- at least those signed up to receive CTA Tattler's wireless alerts -- started at 4:39 am when the CTA sent its first of five alerts. That first alert warned: "No Brown Line trains between Southport and Fullerton. Bus shuttle between stations. Shuttle train Fullerton to Loop."

Great start. Unfortunately, comments to my post about the derailment indicate that train station customer assistants had less information about the problems that day than those signed up to get the wireless alerts.

That's just wrong, because there are about 400 enrollees, and probably tens of thousands of riders that morning whose commute was negatively impacted by the derailment.

Don't get me wrong. It's great that the CTA has participated so actively and willingly in our alert system. The challenge is how to get that same information to customer service assistants.

For instance, at about 8:15 am, our motorman announced that we'd be bypassing Addison southbound, because no trains were stopping there. But as we passed by Addison, there were at least 50 passengers on the southbound platform looking wistfully as our train passed them by 15 feet away on the outer track.

Our motorman knew southbound trains weren't stopping at Addison. Why didn't the Addison customer service assistant? That's outrageous.
Here's what one commenter said on ctatattler.com: "Why can't the CTA get on the ball as far as communication goes? WHY WHY WHY??? Piggybacking on the wireless alerts is nice, but why can't the in-station people open their mouths and speak to customers!?!? Carole, are you there?"

Another noted: "All-in-all, I think a lot of the employees on the ground were getting bad info from HQ. I know what you mean about station employees not talking, but today, where I was, they were communicating. They just didn't have the right information. They needed better info (not to mention response) from the top down."

Please read more comments here.

I know the CTA is trying to get better information to customers now in test mode via our wireless alerts, in anticipation of offering its own email alerts. But this past Monday's experience shows you need to improve communications with your own employees as well, so they can better serve customers.

I implore you to do so, and ask you to reply via email to me so I can post your response.

Thank you.


Excellent letter. I'm so glad I was on vacation last Monday and missed all the excitement.

You're too kind! But you also really highlight the extent of the problem - capacity cut by 50% (wow, didn't know that!) and employees don't know what's going on hours later. Any chance Frank and Carole will read it?

I'm still confused why the purple line was cut......If trains could run on the outer track then why was the purple line affected. I'd think keeping that line open would take some pressure off the red line. Maybe I'm the stupid one and CTA is the genius.

Cmama, I believe the Purple was cut because adding another line to the outside tracks would just delay all trains even more.

The "wireless alert" set-up is not the answer. I tried it for a month and ended up paying over $8.00 in charges from Verizon to learn nothing. One idiot posted about 7 messages asking what the bus schedule was for the stop he was waiting at.

Hi Gonzos. I certainly agree that the wireless alerts system is not THE answer. But it is ONE way to get information to those who want to use it.

You're right that during the initial "shake-out period" of the alerts system, there was "spam" of the type you mention. I think that has dropped dramatically in the last few weeks. In fact, it's the CTA itself sharing most of the information on outages and service problems right now.

A reminder to those using the system: If you don't want to receive alerts for a day, or a weekend, or whatever, simply send ".off" to the list (without quote marks). Then send ".on" to receive alerts again.

I'm such a Luddite I don't even have a cell phone. I just check the website before I leave to see if I need to know anything. It's not perfect either, but it's more information than I had before.

"I'm such a Luddite I don't even have a cell phone. I just check the website before I leave to see if I need to know anything."

Cheryl, You can't be TOO much of a luddite! You're on the web!

Oh, I don't own a computer at home either. I sit in front of one for large parts of my day at work, I don't want to sit in front of one at home, too.

Also? No cable.

No cable, computer or telephone landline at home. I'd consider getting a computer if my condo building got wifi or whatever it's called. I didn't get a cell until last summer, and only (a) to give SBC the big kiss off and (b) because it's gotten very difficult to maintain a social life without one.

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