Sweet Home Chicago

According to the latest APTA numbers, the Chicago Transit Authority (CTA) is the second-largest public transportation agency (in unlinked passenger trips) in the United States surpassed only by the behemoth that is MTA New York. So how does one tackle an agency this large? I figured the best way to do that was to break it down into manageable bites.

The host of this year’s APTA Rail Conference, this seemed like the perfect opportunity to speak with CTA’s newly appointed vice president of rail operations, Romayne Brown. With such a high-level position, I expected Brown to have had experience at a half dozen agencies as she gained industry experience. Instead, I was pleasantly surprised to find she’d always called Chicago home.

“I’ve been with the CTA since 1978. I grew up on the South Side of Chicago.

“The train used to run behind in the alley. So as a child you could look up and you could always see a train come by,” Brown says. Seeing the local trains inspired in her an interest in public transportation.

Seeing an ad that CTA needed employees, Brown applied, and in a moment that would change her life, she was turned away.

“I originally applied as a bus operator. And they told me I didn’t drive enough. I didn’t drive long distance enough. So that was kind of confusing,” Brown says.

Deciding to ask someone about the letter, Brown went down to the CTA merchandise mart and ran into Ed Mitchell, the vice president of administration for CTA at the time. Mitchell looked over the letter and sent Brown to a CTA training center where they were hiring trainmen and the rest they say is history.

“[He said] are you familiar with our L system and I said not really, but I’m a quick study,” Brown says.

Hired as a trainman, Brown worked through all the classifications of the position, including conductor, operator, switchman, and she also worked in the control tower and as a rail clerk. Wherever she went she enjoyed the work and excelled in her position.

“I started in the lower [end] of the rank and file and then I just started progressively moving up,” Brown says.

“I would see CTA would post for things, I would apply, interview and test. And then I would be accepted and go into that field.

“I would stay there, and then I would look around and start moving up as well,” Brown says.

Her most recent promotion was to director of rail operations last March and just this April she became vice president of rail operations when the agency switched from a vice president over all transit operations to a triumvirate of vice presidents, including bus operations, rail operations and maintenance systems for bus and rail. Of course, her new position hasn’t kept her far from the trains she loved as a kid.

Keeping on Track
Despite being the person in charge of CTA’s extensive rail system, Romayne Brown still finds time to get out and onto the tracks to make sure both customers and employees are happy.

“I get out a lot,” she says. “Part of my job duties, of course, is to ride the system. I’m a regular rider of the system, as well as I get out and view what’s going on on the system because I like to see what our customers are experiencing. What are our employees doing? What are our managers doing? What are our supervisors doing?”

Brown explained to me that while she’s still in an office, it’s still a field position, one that definitely gives her a chance to sneak out that most of us don’t have.

“It’s nice because I get a good chance to get out from the paperwork and get out and actually meet and talk to people and socialize,” Brown says she uses the opportunity to get ideas from employees, talk with supervisors and interface with customers.

It’s Not the Years …
As the oldest elevated rail system in the United States and home to one of its oldest systems in general, Chicago is fraught with challenges, which Brown says inspire creative ways to keep the system running.

“We try to adjust,” admits Brown.

“We take the newer employees and we try to spend as much time as possible with them to get them encouraged to, as I did, come up through the system and see where they can end up at.

“So it is challenging. Our infrastructure is an old infrastructure. We’re doing a lot of rebuilding.”

Brown explained to me that CTA has $6.8 billion (yes, billion) in unmet capital needs just to get its infrastructure up to a state of good repair and keep everything going. Of that, $5.3 billion would be spent on rail enhancements — if they had the money.

“[It’s] no different than any other large agency or any other large company in the system. Now we’re struggling to keep up with the technology and times to provide the best service we can to our customers,” Brown says.

The unmet $6.8 billion in capital needs wouldn’t even modernize the entire system or meet the system’s current ridership demands, which Brown says is on a constant upward demand level. In fact, CTA has had ridership growth in 10 of the last 11 years.

“It does not meet our current ridership demand,” Brown admits.

“It would get us to a point that our customers would not be as inconvenienced in some of the areas where our slow zones are limiting the speed in which we can travel.

“So that would remove a lot of the slow zones that were put in due to the deterioration of the track ties and things on the right of way that our customers are feeling the strain of underneath the slow zone.”

Operating Shortage
Faced with “doomsday” cuts as little as a year ago, the CTA is still in the situation facing numerous other U.S. transit authorities — increasing ridership without the operating funds needed to serve them.

When asked if CTA’s rail side was at an operating shortage, Brown’s answer was simple, “Yes we are.”

“The operating side of our business is below our budget as well as what we would like to see it at. As I said earlier we surely would say that the money would not … if we got the money it would be justifiable money. We would find a need for, and not say that we were doing something over and above that was not needed.

“So we’re pretty much underfunded in every area of our budget.”

As Wanda Taylor, CTA medial relations manager explained to me, despite recovering more than a 50 percent farebox recovery, CTA is faced with a deficit in large part due to its reliance on taxes for its funding.

“The challenge as you mention for the operations side has been largely because of the fact that the sales tax revenue and the real estate transfer tax revenue has not been at a level that was anticipated primarily because of the economy nationwide. So that funding is totally dependent on the economy. And when it’s lower than expected then you end up having the budget deficits on the operations side,” Taylor says.

Taylor told me that CTA halved its $155 million budget deficit with cost-cutting measures, but even with some additional funding the agency needs to look for ways to make up the difference without cutting service, which she says is the very, very last resort.

“That is not something that is getting any type of serious consideration at this point,” Taylor says.

“We are just continuously looking for other ways, different things that you can do whether it’s early retirement for some people. You are going to lose some folks just due to attrition. You know the system’s old, but you also have employees who’ve been here for a very long time so there are a lot of them who are reaching that retirement phase of their lives. You have that. Not filling vacancies right now. A hiring freeze so to speak. Just not filling vacancies. That saves money, too.”

Both Brown and Taylor agree that creatively filling the budget deficit shouldn’t include cutting service or anything else that is going to impact customers.

“We’re looking at actually trying to increase service to provide better service,” Brown says.

“[It’s] always a struggle. You know when you don’t have money but you see a need it’s a struggle on how to balance the two acts,” says Brown.

And balancing those acts is a high wire act that Brown feels the agency does well.

“We’re a tight rope kind of walking organization but we do well and again our customers see that. They do see that we are a caring organization. We have a tremendous staff and support that just believes in transit and believes in CTA.”

Creative Challenges
Every agency is faced with challenges particular to its location, economic and/or political situation. CTA is no different. Brown says the amount of unfunded dollars facing the agency has stunted its ability to increase its technology side quickly.

“We’re trying to take those dollars and spend them wisely in the areas where we will get the most bang for our buck,” says Brown who uses the example of having to halt one train to allow another to proceed while other agencies are now able to move multiple trains in different directions at the same time without interrupting service.

“We have great ideas we’d like to see implemented if dollars were available to get them done,” Brown admits.

One of CTA’s particular challenges is its elevated structure, the famous ‘L’ that services much of Chicago, and in particular loops the downtown area and is the oldest part of the system.

“[All of our lines in the Loop] run on the elevated structure, which is challenging to keep our employees trained and abreast of our safety rules and regulations. And ensuring that they are following those safety rules and regulations where they are putting the lines out for the different routes to take,” Brown says.

“Again our elevated line being the oldest we would like to see a lot of modernization with our stations with our track structures.

“We did do some work last year on the elevated, but of course there is more to do. It’s money. It’s all about the dollar. So with those dollars we could do a lot for Chicago.”

With these challenges, I asked Brown how CTA managed to keep up with ridership demand — a demand that has increased 10 out of the last 11 years — and she said it’s all about being creative and making sure the unfunded buck stops internally with them, not the customer.

“We are always looking to upgrade our system to meet customer demand and our ridership being 1.7 million people we have done, with the assistance of all the departments, we’ve done a tremendous job in maintaining our systems so none of that impact is felt by our customers,” Brown says.

“We have been challenged with a lot of things lately with the economy that has just not favorably worked out for us. So with those challenges and the assistance of the departments that support me it’s just a very challenging so our 1.7 million riders don’t feel that impact to their daily ride.”

Brown says the agency has been banging the drum for transit, encouraging people to take it as often as they can. Last summer its efforts were boosted by the skyrocketing gas prices, which in turn gave way to the economic downturn. The resultant ridership growth has continued, which has its own problems.

Brown says CTA had to be creative when that growth impact hit, “We took out a lot of the slow zones on the Blue Line. Once those slow zones were removed because of the track renewal work that we were able to do up there, the Blue Line ridership went up tremendously.

“Then we took out some things on the Brown Line. All of the stations on the Brown Line now are eight-car trains. Impacting that ridership was increasing from a six-car to an eight-car. That ridership was increased. So we have seen an increase in ridership and we’re hoping for that to continue to grow.”

The system currently has the capacity to handle this growth CTA’s Wanda Taylor explained to me. And as she states it, with an agency like CTA, there is always room — and a need — for more.

“Certainly new cars, new buses all of those things are needed. They’re needed partly because of the increase in ridership but primarily because of the age of our fleet whether it be bus or rail,” Taylor explains.

“That’s the thing. Regardless of when the economy improves and the sales tax increases and we actually get the revenue that we are anticipating from those sales, that is operating mind you.

“That’s not money that would be used to expand the system or to purchase the buses or to purchase the trains or remove slow zones. So you always have to get that capital funding whether it be from the state or from the federal [government] or a combination of the two. You’re always going to have that need for the capital funds whether it’s to make improvements on the existing system or extend the rail lines, as we are looking for now,” Taylor says.

The challenge facing CTA currently Taylor explains is that — as with many other agencies — it isn’t getting the operating revenue it anticipated and it doesn’t have the capital funding at the same time. This funding drought is where the need to be creative with how you spend the funds you have comes in.

On the capital side due to the system’s age, Taylor says, “there are a ton of things that you can do with the money but since you don’t actually have the whole $6.8 billion then you identify, well what’s the priority. I got X number of dollars right now. Which projects can I do with that that’s going to make the improvement for the customers? So that’s where the big challenge comes in too.”

Particularly challenging for CTA has been the procurement of new rail cars. As all agencies are familiar with, new vehicles means new training for everyone from managers to mechanics and everyone in between, which with a funding crunch can prove expensive. I asked Brown what new vehicle training for them entailed and if it would be difficult considering the circumstances the agencies is operating under.

“All of our operators, front-line operators, supervisors and managers were required to attend training for the function of the new vehicles before they can operate them in a service capacity. So all of the operators go through some extensive training to make sure they understand the equipment. How to troubleshoot the equipment. The correct operation of the equipment. And what the equipment will help them do better in their jobs,” Brown says.

“A lot of it is automated so a lot of the information the operator will be able to communicate better to control and also there will be a feed into the control center. So yeah we will be doing a lot of training on the new vehicles before they arrive and once they arrive.

“Giving again a lot of the unfunded things that we [have] and the prioritizing of things, sometimes it becomes challenging to ensure that we have enough bodies to meet the demand that we are faced with. And with us looking at creative ways of saving money that’s not going to be an impact to our customer, we are also looking at the vacancies and can we afford to fill those vacancies now. Can we afford to increase staffing in a training department or program in the development department?

“So it’s not difficult as much as it becomes challenging to [do] with all the other things we do within the training of our operators to ensure that we’re giving them the correct information at the time they need so they can apply it.”

Customer Impact
Brown says CTA is always looking at ways to be creative and how that impacts the customer. In fact, this positive customer impact is something she feels every agency can learn from.
“We would like to get to a place where our customers get on a train, get on a bus and they’re not even thinking about they’re on a train or a bus,” says Brown.

“They’re getting from Point A to Point B whether they are traveling to work, school or out for leisure time. That they’re on our train. They’re on our system and they don’t have to think about it. That a train is going to be there. A bus is going to be there.

“So we look at a lot of creative things to say is this a good thing for our customers and if so, let’s implement it so the customer feels that impact.”

Future Investment
Romayne Brown is the definition of homegrown talent. Coming into the Chicago Transit Authority at an entry-level position, she worked her way up over the course of three decades to the No. 1 position on its rail side. It’s this sort of success story that she feels other agencies could learn from and implement in their systems.

“Organizations have to look at their employees,” Brown says.

“They have to look at employees and say that we have employees within our company that we should be mentoring and grooming and bringing them up through the rank and file with the knowledge that we’ve already invested in that employee so why let that knowledge walk out the door when we can utilize that knowledge here.

“So I think if I was to say anything, look at what you have. Invest in your future. Mentor them. And ensure that they understand the business side of the organization.”

I asked Brown if CTA had a mentor program and she admitted that it did not, but she says that doesn’t mean new employees are left on their own.

“What we do have [are] initiative programs where we try to shadow our least experienced employees with some of our more seasoned employees,” Brown says.

“And definitely those that can leave our employment at anytime because of retirement have knowledge that we need to tap into. We encourage our younger employees to get with one of the senior guys and learn what he knows.

“Sit with them, understand the system and learn what he knows because it’s going to be a positive impact on your career as you go forward.”

Home Sweet Home
Romayne Brown is proud of her system. And she likes the direction it is headed in, “CTA, like most organizations, we’re struggling, but we have a good workforce here. We have a positive president who just came on board that is looking to do great things with CTA. He brought a new administrative staff. They are looking at this not just from a business side, but from a side for the customer.”

I asked her if this direction has helped them prepare for this year’s APTA Rail Conference and with a smile and a laugh she proudly proclaimed, “We’re always prepared.

“You never will catch the CTA unprepared. We’re always prepared. Our only hindrance with anything we do is funding, so we would like to put on all the bells and whistles, but sometimes we have to hold back on what we do.”