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.