CTA’s grime-fighting campaign is overdue, riders say

The agency’s efforts include more janitors and more power-washing to boost public confidence in public transit.

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A train arrives at the CTA Blue Line Clark and Lake Staton in the Loop on Sunday. The CTA has launched a “Goodbye, Grime” campaign to highlight $6.5 million in repairs and improvements to its rail stations. The agency is cleaning trains, buses and stations in an effort to boost ridership.

Anthony Vazquez/Sun-Times

In its new campaign aimed at busting grime, the Chicago Transit Authority hopes to reach riders like Adèle-Marie Buis.

Buis regularly rides the L. To her, the Brown Line appears consistently clean and its train cars clean, but the Red Line seems perpetually unmaintained.

She went to the agency’s website to see whether she could find details about its daily cleaning regimen but didn’t find the answers she sought.

“I think understanding the riders’ cleanliness concerns and addressing them directly would go a long way,” Buis said.

The CTA has announced a new “Goodbye, Grime” campaign to highlight $6.5 million in repairs and improvements planned for L stops. Cleaner transit stations and fleets are part of a bigger effort to boost sagging ridership and public confidence in the agency, which has taken its lumps this year.

In a November WBEZ survey of regular CTA riders, complaints about cleanliness and sanitation ranked third among commuters’ concerns, after inadequate reliability and safety.

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A trash bin at the CTA Red Line Monroe station in the Loop on Sunday.

Anthony Vazquez/Sun-Times

The “Goodbye, Grime” plan promises to power wash 145 rail stations once a month, upgrade 28 stations and complete a regular exterior wash of the rail fleet.

The agency also says it increased janitorial staffing. In an interview, CTA spokesman Brian Steele said the agency added 50 rail janitors to its 2023 budget, bringing the total to 246 janitor positions, with only six left to fill. Each janitor is assigned to maintain two, and in some cases, three, stations daily.

Steele said the CTA is doing its best to make sure it provides the cleanest vehicles possible. He said “rail cars and stations have daily cleanings as well as regular deep cleans,” including power washing.

He estimated about five stations are power washed each night, as long as weather conditions aren’t freezing.

According to the agency, more than 1,400 rail cars and 1,800 buses service thousands of people daily. Riders are going to come in contact with “debris” — that’s the CTA word for trash — it’s just inevitable, Steele said.

“When you get on a train or bus at the beginning of a trip, you’re getting in a rail car that’s in good shape. During the course of that journey, people are bound to get on and leave their debris like a spilled cup of Coke, for example,” said Steele. “One of the big challenges is we can’t stop a train in the middle of a trip for cleaning.”

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People board a Blue Line train heading to O’Hare Airport at the CTA Blue Line Clark and Lake station in the Loop.

Anthony Vazquez/Sun-Times

Janitors are scattered among stations where they can hop on quickly during the trains’ 20-to-25-second stop at a station, a practice the agency calls “berthing.” The goal is to offer a “quick mop-up” of spills. Otherwise, it’s up to the train or bus operator to remove trash and clean up smaller spills at the end of a trip.

The COVID-19 pandemic created an overwhelming public interest in how transit agencies address sanitation and cleanliness. Many agencies, including the CTA, rushed to assure riders they had detailed COVID-19 sanitation procedures.

Some have continued to use sanitation as a way to persuade riders to return. In New York, the Metropolitan Transit Authority recently announced a massive operation to hire 800 full-time employees to clean stations and trains.

In Chicago, Steele said many of the practices and standards set during the height of the pandemic are still happening. For example, CTA still disinfects frequently touched surfaces.

Still, the agency did not produce a scorecard or document that outlines how it tracks when cleanings are done, the level of detail and frequency. Instead, the agency provided a copy of an internal document for Rail Station Janitor Sweep/Clean Procedure. The document outlines procedures for handling issues like excess water around elevators and escalators, graffiti removal, pigeon droppings and sanitization of surfaces.

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Piles of trash sit next to a broken escalator at the CTA Red Line Monroe Station in the Loop. The agency says it has increased janitorial staff. Each janitor is assigned to maintain two or three stations daily.

Anthony Vazquez/Sun-Times

For some riders, there still seems to be a disconnect between what the agency is saying and what they experience.

“If they clean and inspect every day, then why are there trains with caked-on dirt and graffiti and just look worn out and beat up?” asked Tierra Jones, a Green Line rider. “I don’t believe they’re consistent at all.”

Nhi Duong, a college student, hasn’t noticed improvement.

“Especially on the Red Line, the cleanliness is not up to par,” Duong said.

Steele said the agency offers riders multiple ways to voice concerns about all facets of operation, including cleanliness and maintenance. Riders are encouraged to voice concerns to CTA operators in person, online using a feedback form or via email at feedback@transitchicago.com.

Samantha Callender is a digital reporting fellow for WBEZ.

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