1.7 million people ride the CTA every day. Some of them, perhaps you are included, will inevitably complain about waiting too long for a bus or train, or that buses are bunched together. Maintaining a system that operates efficiently, and preparing for everything from a mechanical issue to a terrorist attack, is a 24/7 job. How is it all done? A few days ago, we got a rare look inside the CTA’s nerve center to find out.
It’s not easy keeping the nation’s second largest transit system under control. That’s 224 miles of high-voltage rail track and 1,700 buses. Every inch of rail and route is being monitored closely in a high-tech, 9,000 square-foot control center.
“The control center is the eyes and ears of the entire system, and pretty much what a customer experiences on a day-to-day basis originates or comes back to the control center,” said Araceli De La Cruz, the CTA’s Chief Safety and Security Officer. “This is the heart of the CTA.”
The control center is located apart from CTA headquarters in a secure location. It was built in 1995, largely with federal money. CTA officials asked us not to reveal the address.
“This is where we coordinate a lot of our service restoration, our emergency response, and just our day-to-day service that we provide,” said De La Cruz.
Control Center staff members work in three shifts to monitor breakdowns in the system. On the day we visited, there were relatively few problems, save for one minor incident. A Red Line train was stopped on the tracks because a CTA official on board had become sick after inhaling smoke fumes from the brakes.
It caused a ripple effect throughout the Red Line as the train sat and waited for emergency crews to take the injured supervisor away. One control center staffer ordered other trains on the route to halt their service. Another control center staffer alerted passengers to the situation.
“Attention northbound Red Line customers: we are currently standing north at Addison with a sick employee,” she spoke in an official voice into a phone receiver. “We do apologize for the delay and an update will follow.”
On the front wall of the control center, there are 42 large screen projectors. Six of them contain a map of the power grid for every section of train track on every line. When a more serious incident occurs; for instance, someone falling on the tracks or a derailment, the control center - with the flick of a switch – shuts off power to the track.
“It typically takes about less than 30 seconds, once they identify the location, make the call here to the control center, identify the section and then cut it out,” said Antonio McFadden, the head of the control center.
McFadden says he's on call 24 hours a day. Part of his duty is to prepare the system for special events and for inclement weather. In the event of a snowstorm, the control center will heat the rails and dispatch crews to make sure buses are properly equipped.
“Even though a storm, a front may arrive three, four days from now, we're setting up well in advance,” he said.
And how about those annoying wait times? McFadden's staff is in charge of keeping the buses and trains at proper distances from each other.
“If a route has a 10-minute headway, one operator is running 10 minutes behind schedule, the other operator is on time so you got two buses bunched together, you may have the operator run the express, move ahead, hold out behind for a few minutes so he can space out the street and have separation between the two buses running together,” said McFadden.
But the most striking aspect of the control center is the surveillance. Dozens of monitors feature live footage of people waiting on “L” platforms, streaming through turnstiles, and idling at bus stops.
If you think you're not being watched on the CTA, think again. Each station has 18-20 cameras, any one of which can be beamed back to the control center at any time. That's 3,600 surveillance cameras in all. Obviously, they can't all be monitored at once. But if an employee reports a pickpocket or turnstile jumper, you can bet the control center will be quick to tune it in.
“If an incident happens at a particular location, then we can retrieve the video and provide that to the police department to help them identify offenders, or to get a better understanding of what happened,” says De La Cruz.
A message to would-be thieves or anyone else that uses the CTA: you are being watched. The CTA says it’s all about maintaining a safer and more reliable transit system. And though control center officials know where all the passengers on buses and trains are, they would prefer you don't know exactly where they are.
And another note for CTA passengers: trains on most lines are supposed to run within 10-15 minutes of each other. If that's not the case, someone at the control center may be asleep at the switch.