Why ghost buses, trains are still haunting commuters

Commuters Take Action, a coalition of riders bitter about poor CTA service, say complaints of no-show buses and trains have remained the same since CTA unveiled its “Meeting the Moment” plan two months ago.

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It’s been two months since CTA President Dorval Carter Jr., speaking to the City Club of Chicago, vowed to fix the reliability issues plaguing one of the nation’s largest transit systems.

But the problem continues to fester, forcing commuters to miss appointments, arrive late to work or get stuck in the rain, as they wait for a bus or train that appears to be arriving soon — but then vanishes from the CTA’s online tracker.

And while the agency said it would correct that snafu, which commuters have dubbed “ghost” buses or trains, some say it isn’t resolving it quickly enough.

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“We commend the CTA for trying to fix the problem, but they have not come remotely close to actually fixing the issue,” said Micah Fiedler, of the group Commuters Take Action.

“The fact is, the amount of ghost trains and complaints of ghost buses have remained the same since that plan was announced.”

Fiedler is an organizer with the commuters group, a coalition of riders fed up with inaccuracies and inconsistencies in CTA bus and train schedules. Launched nearly five months ago, the group has fielded thousands of complaints from bus riders and has tracked how many trains run — or don’t — on the Blue Line.

The plan Carter announced, called “Meeting the Moment,” aims to highlight CTA efforts to fix reliability issues. But Fiedler said crowdsourced rider complaints have remained steady since that announcement; about 2,500 complaints about buses have been reported to the group since CTA’s plan was released.

“Our goal is to hold CTA responsible” and force the agency to update its transit tracker app so that it will accurately show where buses and trains are on their route, Fiedler said. “People rely on public transit to get them to work, to doctor’s appointments and other important things. It is upsetting to be waiting for a bus and to be ghosted twice.”

CTA spokesman Brian Steele said service has been improved with temporary changes to some rail schedules, which should mean more reliable tracker information.

But those changes won’t be permanent.

Steele said CTA tracker takes information from the official schedule and combines it with real-time tracking. The phenomenon of “ghost” buses or trains occurs when no actual bus is running, so the tracker uses data only from the official schedule.

That schedule data can’t just be deleted because it is needed as a backup when real-time data isn’t available — such as when a bus’ GPS system isn’t working.

A group of students wait for a CTA bus at a stop on North Western Avenue near West Lawrence Avenue on the North Side on Wednesday afternoon, Oct. 5, 2022.

A group of students wait for a CTA bus at a stop on North Western Avenue near West Lawrence Avenue on the North Side earlier this month. | Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times

Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times

Nor can the CTA make those schedule adjustments permanent immediately, Steele said. Instead, the agency and its union agree on permanent changes about twice a year. For now, Steele said, the agency continues to rely on an old schedule, from a time when staffing levels were higher.

Bus and rail operators are represented by different unions: Amalgamated Transit Union Local 241 for bus drivers, and ATU Local 308 for rail operators. Each must agree on changes to the permanent schedules.

Steele said CTA officials are scheduled to meet with Local 308 at the end of the month to update the rail schedule. After that, the train tracker should be more accurate.

As for buses, the agency hasn’t said when it might agree on a new schedule with Local 241.

Fiedler said trains on the Blue Line are not running according to the posted schedule. The group tracks the Blue Line daily and last week, for example, found only 61% of scheduled Blue Line trains were running.

People wait for a CTA bus at a stop on North Western Avenue near West Devon Avenue on the North Side on Wednesday, Oct. 5, 2022.

People wait for a CTA bus at a stop on North Western Avenue near West Devon Avenue on the North Side on Wednesday.

Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times

“We’ve been addressing these service problems for some time now,” Steele said. “The core of the issue is workforce, and it bears repeating we are facing the same challenges every industry is facing, and this issue is acutely affecting the transportation industry.”

Fiedler said their group recognizes the staffing shortages, and they support CTA bus and train operators. Better working conditions, Fiedler said, would help retain employees and improve service.

“But if service remains [at] about 70% of scheduled trains, or as low as 35% on weekends, then there is nothing that CTA can do to stop people from complaining that they are still getting ghosted,” he said. “CTA needs to be more transparent about everything, and it doesn’t seem like they are doing that — I mean, Carter won’t even show his face in front of City Council, and I think that says a lot.”

It had just stopped raining Thursday when Rob Powell got to the bus stop at the Jefferson Park Blue Line station. The 61-year-old Rogers Park resident, a dock worker, said the CTA has been his sole transportation for decades.

He visits the Northwest Side a few times a week, he said, and service in that area seems far more inconsistent lately.

“For some reason when I come over here the buses are always late or just don’t show up,” Powell said with a smile. “I hope CTA can fix this and fix it soon, but either way I’m going to stay happy.”

Rob Powell, 61, regularly takes CTA to work and home says he’s been ghosted by buses and trains.

Rob Powell, 61, regularly takes CTA to work and home and says he’s been ghosted by buses and trains before.

Manny Ramos/Sun-Times

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