Thousands of weekday commuters will board the CTA Red Line on the Dan Ryan branch Monday for the first time in five months after a massive rebuild that will also deliver something its riders haven't experienced in decades: no slow zones.
Trains along the south leg of the Red Line will operate at regular speeds of up to 55 mph along the whole 10-mile stretch for the first time since shortly after its 1969 debut — without the bumpy, jerky ride that even longtime riders could not ignore.
"The train glides," said Yvonne Marshall, 19, a student at Kennedy-King College, who rode the train Sunday, the day it went back into service. "You don't need to hold on (to the grab bars) like you used to do."
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Almost half of the branch was mired in slow zones before work began to rip out the old tracks and replace them with a rail bed that can accommodate up to 70 mph trains, if the CTA ever decides to operate such service.
After 154 days of construction to modernize the entire track and signal systems from south of Roosevelt Road to 95th Street as well as upgrade eight of the nine stations, service was restored at 4 a.m. Sunday.
Alternative service that included free shuttle buses and cost the CTA about $13 million to provide ceased Sunday, and some riders were sad to see it go, CTA President Forrest Claypool acknowledged.
"Riders regularly asked that we keep the bus shuttles because they were faster than the old Red Line service," Claypool said Sunday at the 95th Street terminal. "But I have good news for those customers. If you think the shuttles were fast, wait till you see the new Red Line."
Starting Monday during rush periods on the CTA's busiest rail route, Red Line trains will once again operate six minutes apart from 95th to Howard Street on the Far North Side, the CTA said. Off-peak service is scheduled every 71/2 to 10 minutes, and on 15-minute intervals during overnight hours.
CTA officials said they are eager to lure back the 10 percent of the roughly 80,000 weekday Red Line riders who abandoned the transit agency in favor of taking Metra, driving or making fewer trips during the five months that the south branch was shut down for the track project, from May 19 through Oct. 19.
"The first few weekday commutes may see a slight dip in ridership, but we expect the numbers to resume fairly quickly to normal or near-normal levels as riders become reacquainted with their old routines," CTA spokesman Brian Steele said.
The $425 million Dan Ryan branch project was completed on time and on budget, CTA officials said. It was the first total track replacement since the south branch opened, and by doing the work in five months instead of weekend-only closures spread out over four years, the transit agency saved $75 million that it used for station improvements.
About 65,000 railroad ties and 195,000 tons of ballast were replaced along the corridor.
Worn jointed sections of rail that produced bumps each time wheels rolled across the joints were replaced by continuous welded rail, which provides a softer and more comfortable ride, said Chris Bushell, the CTA's chief infrastructure officer, who stopped shaving May 19 and vowed to keep his new beard going until the project's completion.
"I'm cleanshaven, but no commitment for how long," Bushell told your Getting Around reporter via email Sunday.
But more stressful than unkempt facial hair was the late fee that the contractor faced. Kiewit Infrastructure Corp. would've been fined $675,000 a day if it had failed to complete work in time for Sunday's planned resumption of service.
Helping improve the ride are 170 new 5000 Series rail cars, representing 44 percent of the 384 cars assigned to the Red Line, the CTA said. The 214 of the old 2600 Series cars on the Red Line will be replaced by 5000 Series cars sometime next year, officials said. The 2600 Series was built from 1981 to 1987.
Another major highlight of the south branch project was the installation of elevators at the Garfield, 63rd and 87th street stations, making all stops on the south branch fully accessible.
"It's a great day for Chicago," veteran CTA rail instructor John Zupko said. "The CTA has put the 'rapid' back into rapid transit."
Many riders who rode the south branch on opening day Sunday agreed, though some said they will miss the free shuttle bus service between closed Red Line stations and the Green Line, as well as the free boardings offered at the Garfield station on the Green Line.
"The shutdown was a big inconvenience to suffer through, and I am very happy to have the Red Line back," Pat Samuels, a lifelong South Side resident who relies on the CTA and Pace, said at the 95th Street terminal Sunday.