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Chicago Trolley ending its service Tuesday

Tour operator is part of Coach USA, which also is trimming some airport shuttle service.

A trolley from the Chicago Trolley & Double Decker Co. pulls away after making a stop outside the Art Institute on Michigan Ave. Monday, Dec. 30, 2019.
Chicago Trolley & Double Decker Co., which provides tours of the city’s downtown and popular tourist sites, said it is ending operations with the new year.
Rich Hein/Sun-Times

Chicago Trolley & Double Decker Co., which provides tours of the city’s downtown and popular tourist sites, said it is ending operations with the new year.

The company posted a notice on its website that it will cease operating after Tuesday. It said persons with tour tickets for 2020 can call 773-648-5000 during business hours to arrange for refunds.

On its website, Chicago Trolley calls itself the “largest tourism transportation company in the Midwest.” It said it has 40 trolleys, 27 open-top double-decker buses and eight motorcoaches.

Restaurants, museums and other attractions used the tours to promote themselves. Representatives of the mayor’s office and the Choose Chicago tourism agency could not be reached for comment. A CTA spokesperson said the transit agency doesn’t plan to get into the trolley or bus tour business.

Navy Pier’s free trolley is separate from Chicago Trolley tours and operates only during the summer.

Chicago Trolley vehicles were used by the Chicago Cubs and Blackhawks for their championship parades. The company said it employs more than 150 tour guides and drivers.

Employees received notice of the closure a couple weeks ago, said Paul Barile, an actor and writer who said he’s worked for Chicago Trolley since 2004. The company often hired entertainers who could schedule their work around other gigs, while using the tours to improve their skills with an audience.

“This has made a massive difference in my life,” Barile said. “I’m a better professional and a better person because of it.’’

He said the shutdown will be hard for some employees who have little work to fall back on. Employees got six weeks’ severance, said Barile, who has founded his own venture, The Accidental Tour Guide, marketed for seniors, church groups and others.

Barile said about two-thirds of the tour guides were usually laid off in December for the slow winter months and rehired in March. He said no other tour operator has anything close to Chicago Trolley’s fleet.

“We’ve had a couple of different companies come in to look at the trolleys. This will leave a big void in the business,” he said.

He said he saw little evidence of any business trouble, but a private equity firm bought Chicago Trolley’s parent company earlier this year. “They didn’t seem to know what to do with us,” Barile said.

Another trolley tour guide, who did not want his name used, said he wasn’t surprised by the company’s decision.

“I’ll miss the customers. I’ll miss sharing what I’ve learned and love about the city with people from all over the world,” he said. The guide said he learned about three weeks ago that he would be out of a job.

Gail Fricker, who was visiting from Ontario, Canada, said she’ll miss the trolley’s intimacy.

“It’s really sad it’s not going to carry on,” Fricker said Monday. “You’re not on a tour with lots of other people. It’s nice and small and personal.”

Chicago Trolley is operated by Coach USA, which also owns the Megabus intercity service. Megabus is unaffected by the trolley shutdown.

Coach USA, based in Paramus, N.J., also has said after Tuesday it will no longer operate a bus shuttle service from South Bend and Northwest Indiana to the Chicago airports. However, it said Megabus will serve the University of Notre Dame and the Chicago airports on weekends and during school breaks.

Coach USA issued a statement confirming the shutdowns but did not provide details. Los Angeles-based Variant Equity bought the company in April in a deal it valued at $271.4 million.

The La Porte County Herald-Argus obtained a company letter to employees that blamed the shutdowns on financial challenges. The paper quoted an employee who said declining ridership, rising expenses and a union organizing drive may all have been factors in the decision to close.

However, Barile said the only union organizing drive he knew about was voted down several years ago.

Barile said his favorite memory from his years with the company is the annual tours with Chicago Public Schools fourth graders who had just finished studying Chicago history.

“You’d have 30 9-year-old kids on the bus who were proud to show what they knew and glad to be out of school. We’d tell our stories and we’d just have a blast,” Barile said.

Chicago Trolley & Double Decker Co. tour guide Paul Barile with a class of schoolchildren.
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