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The Future of the ‘L’ | Sidetracks | Chicago by 'L'

Renovations at the Wilson Red and Purple Line station were completed in 2017. Photo: Brendan Brown

The Future of the ‘L’

Almost every regular CTA rider has some ideas to improve the system: There should be a bigger loop farther out to facilitate connections between trains. We need another train line, or two, or three. A high-speed, express train that runs on electric skates through a tunnel to O’Hare would be amazing! (Oh, wait…) But what does the CTA itself have planned? What’s in the pipeline (or subway tunnel) for the future of the CTA?

Concept 'Circle Line' proposal

A very early proposal showed the concept for what a “Circle Line” might look like. Image: Courtesy of Graham Garfield /

Many commuters have suggested that connections between the train lines should be easier. And nearly twenty years ago, the CTA did in fact consider adding another loop connecting all the train lines. The Circle Line would have allowed trains to run north and south near Ashland Avenue from the Orange Line up to the O’Hare branch of the Blue Line, connecting from there to the North/Clybourn station. A new Orange Line station at Wentworth-Chinatown would have connected the Orange Line to the Red Line.

One part of the plan was completed when the Pink Line was created in 2006 and began using an old segment of track running up to the Lake Street branch of the Green Line. The rest – a connection between what is now the Pink Line and the Orange Line, a subway under Ashland that then cut over to North/Clybourn, and several new stations and station redesigns – never happened.

The CTA has instead focused its energy on a slightly less ambitious but still large-scale plan that it calls “Red Ahead,” a modernization and expansion of the Red and Purple Lines. Red Ahead includes the reconstruction of the Wilson station (completed in 2017) and overhaul of the 95th/Dan Ryan station (completed in 2019), various track improvements and station renovations, the Red and Purple Modernization Program, and an extension of the Red Line to 130th Street.

The Red Line is the busiest transit route in Chicago (and second only to New York City in the US, according to Streetsblog Chicago). When combined with the Purple Line, more than 240,000 riders enter stations along the 26-mile, north-south rail line on an average weekday, or more than 40 percent of the total stations entries, according to the CTA. As such, it’s essential that the Red and Purple lines run at peak efficiency.

Hence the Red and Purple Modernization Program, on which construction work began in 2019. The CTA calls it “the largest capital investment in CTA history.” In addition to rebuilding the almost century-old Red and Purple Line tracks north of Belmont, the project will also upgrade the Lawrence, Argyle, Berwyn, and Bryn Mawr stations, doubling their widths and adding elevators.

Concept of Brown Line flyover at Clark Junction

Part of the Red and Purple Modernization Program includes a bypass structure that would send Brown Line trains over Red and Purple Line tracks. Image: Courtesy of the Chicago Transit Authority

Proposed extension of Red Line

One proposal extends the Red Line to 130th Street. Image: Courtesy of the Chicago Transit Authority

One of the more ambitious parts of the Red and Purple Modernization Program is the Red-Purple Bypass Project. Currently, the Brown Line splits from the Red and Purple Lines just north of the Belmont Station, and northbound trains must cross all four tracks used by the other two lines. This prevents the CTA from running any more Red Line trains during rush hour, given that they must wait for the Brown Line trains to cross their path. The bypass, on which construction began in fall of 2019, will send Brown Line trains over the Red and Purple Line tracks on another elevated line, allowing the CTA to run more trains per hour and speed up the time Red and Purple Line trains take at the intersection.

Despite occasional calls for new lines, the only entirely new addition of track the CTA currently has planned is a 5.3-mile extension of the Red Line to 130th Street. Under the proposed plan, the Red Line would continue along I-57 after leaving the 95th Street/Dan Ryan station, then follow alongside an existing Union Pacific Railroad track corridor to 119th Street, where it would go its own way and continue to 130th Street. Four new stations would be added – 103rd Street, 111th Street, Michigan Avenue, and 130th Street –with a new train yard at 120th Street. The earliest that construction might begin on the extension would be in 2022, with service anticipated to start in 2026.

Beyond Red Ahead, the CTA is also upgrading the O’Hare branch of the Blue Line in a project it calls “Your New Blue.” This includes rehabilitations of stations, including the noteworthy, new Belmont station entrance and bus station that opened in 2019, as well as improvements of track and the modernization of signals.

In addition to those more comprehensive projects, the CTA is also in the process of constructing a new Green Line station at Damen that would add another stop in the long gap between the Ashland and California stops. The station is currently expected to be completed in 2021.

None of these projects may be as bold as a new train line, but they are still ambitious in their own right, and––most importantly­­––they could make everyone’s commute a bit faster and easier.