CTA ‘ghost buses’ hamper commuters amid cold weather, COVID-19

An electric notice at the CTA Blue Line’s Washington station says service might be delayed due to pandemic-related staffing shortages. (Raphael Hipos/MEDILL)

By Raphael Hipos
Medill Reports

Eric Allix Rogers, who lives in South Shore, had to travel to Cook County Court in Markham on Jan. 24 for jury duty. Rogers had to be in the suburbs by 9 a.m., so he left his house by 6:50 a.m. He attempted to ride a No. 6 bus to the 63rd Street Metra station, but no buses ever arrived.

“I have taken the bus enough in the last few months to know that buses are frequently not showing up as expected,” Rogers said. “Unfortunately, I waited for about 15 minutes while the bus tracker was telling me that the next bus that I needed was six minutes away the entire time, but the bus never came.”

Rogers spent his time waiting for what is commonly known as a “ghost bus,” buses that show up in online trackers but never actually arrive at stops along their routes.

Since the bus never came, Rogers ended up riding a Divvy bike in the frigid cold and snow to the 63rd Street Metra station, where he took a train to Blue Island. From there, he took a Pace bus to the courthouse, though the bus was 30 minutes late. Rogers eventually arrived at the courthouse by 9:30 a.m., but he found that his entire trip there had been for naught.

“I walked in, and this is a whole other issue, but I was literally immediately dismissed because they already had enough people,” Rogers said. “So, the entire trip was pointless.”

Taylor Wood, 35, experienced something similar while trying to get home with her 4-year-old daughter. She waited for more than 40 minutes at the CTA Brown Line’s Southport station for a train, but none ever came.

“None of the trackers were working,” Wood said. “I checked the ones in the station, then I checked the official Ventra app. And then I checked Transit Stop, and then I texted 41411. So that’s like four trackers.”

Wood, who has lived in Chicago since 2012, said ghost trains have always been a thing, but the current state of delays “is worse than it’s ever been.”

During a meeting between members of the City Council’s budget committee and officials from the CTA on Jan. 25, city aldermen asked the CTA to explain why delays are so prevalent along its routes lately – and in the freezing cold. The meeting resulted in committee approval of an additional $26.1 million in tax revenue to the CTA.

The full City Council approved the increase in funding during their Jan. 26 meeting. Most of the aldermen present voted in favor of the ordinance, with only Ald. Raymond Lopez (15th) voting against it.

“It seems like almost every single day the Blue Line is delayed,” Ald. Carlos Ramirez-Rosa (35th) said. “I myself was on the platform last week, and the train was delayed for a very long time. People were late to work.”

Sam Smith, the CTA’s vice president of legislative affairs, said he would look into what was causing these delays.

The CTA has maintained that pandemic-related staffing shortages are to blame. It says that workers have had to take sick days after catching COVID-19, and that it is also facing a workforce shortage.

Since Jan. 9, the CTA has been displaying notices on train stations saying wait times will be longer than usual.

Commuters wait to board a train at the CTA Blue Line’s Washington station. (Raphael Hipos/MEDILL)

The CTA says on its website that it is actively recruiting individuals to replenish the ranks of its workers. On Jan. 26, the CTA tweeted an advertisement for a virtual career fair, where the agency was looking to hire bus operators and customer service assistants.

Keith Hill, the president of Amalgamated Transit Union Local 241, which represents bus operators, acknowledged staffing shortages are one of the main reasons behind the recent delays.

“They could do a better job of protecting us,” Hill said. He added that aside from concerns about COVID-19, CTA drivers also must contend with the rising instances of violence that occur in trains and buses.

“It’s a mental strain, it’s a physical strain on us. We’re putting up with a lot more than normal,” he said.

P.S. Sriraj, the director of the Urban Transportation Center at the University of Illinois at Chicago, said he believes the current delays will soon get better as the omicron variant begins to taper off. However, he said what was more concerning was the possibility of the CTA having to reduce service in the future if ridership levels do not return to pre-pandemic levels.

“If ridership levels are not back to what it was back in 2019 and before, then we are looking at a situation where not just the CTA, all transit agencies will have to look into reducing service,” he said.

With regard to the ongoing shortage in staffing, Sriraj said the issue is not something that can be solved simply by going out and hiring more workers.

The CTA “cannot just hire ad hoc for two days here and three days there,” he said. “Because these are highly skilled positions, you need to have proper training and experience.” He added that the unionized nature of the CTA’s employees forces the agency to work within the limitations of the union’s contract negotiations.

“I think it’s just frustrating,” Wood said. “I think the bus drivers especially have been subjected to a lot of abuse. I don’t think it’s their fault.”

After his experience with the CTA buses on Jan. 24, Rogers said he won’t be taking the bus anytime soon.

“What is just completely vexing is to sit there outside and watch a bus tell you that it’s now 10 minutes away and then five minutes away, and then the next time you look it says 20 minutes away, and no bus ever comes,” he said.

“I think there’s just probably a real lack of employees right now, but I do feel like that the trackers have gotten so much worse since I moved here,” Wood said. “It’s crazy. If the trackers reflected reality, I think half of the complaints would go away.”

Raphael Hipos is a graduate student at Medill, where he specializes in social justice. You can follow him at @RLHipos