IL: Gripes About Dirty Rail Cars Rise as Mercury Drops

Jan. 30--A cultural anthropologist would have a field day studying the behavior of Chicagoans by sifting through the miscellany that CTA riders leave behind on rail cars and buses.

This winter, especially.

As the mercury has plummeted, riders have taken to social media and email about dirty rail cars, which on the CTA's busiest lines have generated an uptick in complaints since late December.

There are overlapping arguments about the causes. The CTA points to an influx of homeless riders seeking shelter from the cold as well as the snow and salt pellet stains that riders track aboard. The union for CTA's rail workers points to staffing changes that it says hurt workers' ability to keep things clean.

Riders are more to the point.

"The trains are very dirty now," CTA rider Rae Bolender said in a recent email. The CTA should "get someone that can clean. New York's subways are cleaner."

Jennifer Beightley recently complained about the smell in a tweet to the CTA, asking, "Why are the trains so dirty???"

The transit agency follows a regular cleaning regimen. It's aware that most riders are discretionary, meaning they have vehicles and might abandon the system if using public transit becomes too much of a hassle.

All trains are clean when they leave the rail yards in the morning, agency officials said. Trains along the system's busiest lines, the Red and Blue, can take up to 90 minutes to travel from one end of their routes to the other, picking up thousands of passengers and passing through some of the most diverse socioeconomic strata in the United States.

Cleaning crews assigned to the platforms at the end of each route pick up trash and, if necessary, mop up spills between the end of each run and the start of another, CTA officials said, adding that a special cleaning is ordered if hazardous waste is found.

More thorough cleanings are done overnight and during "deep cleans," which occur every 16 days on average, according to the transit agency. In a general cleaning, for example, workers sweep and mop the floors; clean seats, windows and stainless steel surfaces; and remove graffiti, officials said.

The subzero weather this month, however, has complicated matters.

"The colder the temperatures, the higher the number of homeless who are using the trains as shelter. And a CTA rail car is simply not equipped to accommodate habitation," CTA spokesman Brian Steele said.

The influx of homeless riders on CTA buses is not as persistent, transit officials said. Bus routes tend to be shorter, and it's easier for authorities to identify them.

But when it comes to trains, transit officials are in a delicate position: They want to avoid the appearance of overpolicing the homeless for "loitering" on CTA property, while also keeping the trains as an attractive and reasonably clean transportation option for the approximately 785,000 daily commuters.

Trains on the 24-hour Red and Blue lines, which run from Howard to 95th streets and from O'Hare International Airport to Forest Park, respectively, attract the highest number of homeless riders, transit officials said.

Some homeless people, many of whom receive CTA fare cards for free from social service agencies, view riding trains hour after hour as one of their few options to stay warm in weather like this, social service agencies and the CTA said.

The trains also provide a degree of safety, as the crime rate on the CTA system is lower than in many Chicago neighborhoods, police statistics show.

Advocates for the homeless also point out that having fewer rules to follow aboard public transit versus in a shelter or other program can give their clients little incentive to change their routines.

"We work with people who are really the sickest folks and the most disenfranchised, and they really stay put," said Nicole Richardson, associate director of Thresholds, which works with the CTA to help homeless riders. "It really is rare when we can coax people into shelters, and we haven't seen a huge migration for our folks to seek new shelter."

As the weather has gotten colder, the CTA has increased its outreach efforts with Thresholds, which sends social workers aboard trains to try steering the homeless toward its housing and health care services.

Richardson said the average commuter who encounters a person living on the streets likely doesn't understand that attempts have probably been made to offer help.

"By nature of mental illness, the engagement process can take a long time," she said. "Sometimes it takes numerous contacts. Other times people are ready for help. It depends on what their tolerance level is. We try to respect the person's desires and needs."

She said anyone who needs help, or who sees someone in need, can contact Thresholds toll-free at 877-374-9922.

Other observers see another reason for the spike in dirtier CTA rail cars.

The chief of the CTA rail workers union points to the recent elimination of an overnight cleaning program that gave dozens of felons a second-chance opportunity to gain work experience. Its elimination, he said, poses a health hazard to passengers.

"Trains are downright disgusting and filthy," said Robert Kelly, president of the Amalgamated Transit Union Local 308.

Car cleaners in the apprentice program worked overnight. The CTA initially reassigned daytime crews who serviced trains between rush periods to work the overnight shift instead, Steele said. It temporarily left no cleaning crews working during the day.

But the CTA recently remedied that staffing gap by hiring 20 new car servicers to do quick cleanings at rail terminals and in some cases at stations midroute during daytime hours, he said.

The 65 workers in the apprentice program were subsequently transferred to the bus division to clean buses, CTA officials recently announced.

Whatever the cause of dirty rail cars, complaints to the CTA about them have risen recently. Emails and phone calls about dirty cars increased from four in December on the Blue Line to 20 this month, through Tuesday, officials said.

On the Red Line, complaints increased from 22 to 27 over the same period. Complaints about dirty trains on the six other CTA rail lines ranged from none to four each month, Steele said.

The CTA operates about 2,200 train trips each weekday.

jhilkevitch@tribune.com

Twitter @jhilkevitch

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