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Red Line rehab will end slow zones, cut 10 minutes from 95th-to-Roosevelt ride

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Updated: June 16, 2013 6:46AM

CTA Red Line rider Corey Junkins stared over the edge of the 47th Street platform Tuesday at wooden railroad ties with gaping, one-inch-wide cracks running their entire lengths.

“Those cracks have been there a long time,’’ said Junkins, 53, a regular rider on the notoriously slow Red Line. “They have been there so long, I thought they were supposed to be there.’’

But cracked wooden ties are just one reason CTA officials say the Red Line South — from 95th to Cermak — has more feet of slow zones than any other CTA L branch and needs the $425 million reconstruction that starts May 19.

More than 45 percent of Red Line South tracks carry trains that can travel only 15 to 35 mph, instead of the 55 mph maximum an ideal, straight track can bear. Its slowest track — requiring trains to putt-putt along at only 15 mph — is 2 1/2 times longer than any other branch.

After more than 40 years, Red Line South is “tired and worn out,’’ CTA spokeswoman Tammy Chase said. “It needs to be ripped out and rebuilt all the way down to the dirt.’’

Looking down from the platform of the 47th Street Red Line station, riders can see some of the reasons why:

◆ Cracked wood ties, some with openings so large that gravel the diameter of a quarter is lodged inside them.

◆ Spikes that are supposed to fasten wooden ties into the trackbed lying loose on the tracks, sitting partially popped up out of their sockets — or just missing altogether.

◆ Harder to detect but still there: wheel burns on the metal rails from years of trains rolling over them. Some Red Line South steel rails even have cracks and breaks, Chase said.

Perhaps most important, she said, is the omnipresence of worn and sunken “ballast,’’ or gravel. Two layers of ballast serve as the track’s foundation, drainage system and shock absorber by undergirding and hugging steel rails and wooden ties.

“The ballast, the drainage system, is critical to the longevity of the project,’’ which should be 40 years, Chase said. “The rails and ties matter too, of course, but it’s what’s underneath that’s so critical.’’

In fact, Chase said, the CTA is using the best ballast possible. A sturdier granite ballast from North Carolina will replace the current limestone one, she said.

Junkins and other riders may not know exactly why the Red Line south has been slow, but they do know it’s slow.

When he was a teenager, Junkins said, the Red Line South seemed faster. But now, slow zones pepper his ride from 95th all the way to Cermak. The worst part, he says, is around Cermak, where the longest and slowest zone on the branch kicks in for 3,362 feet.

“You’re trying to get somewhere and you’re standing up, the train is crowded, and then you have slow zones,’’ Junkins said. “It’s horrendous.’’

By the time construction ends Oct. 19, the typical 30- to 33-minute Red Line South ride from 95th to Roosevelt will be 10 minutes shorter, Chase said.

And it will be far smoother, she said, without the bumps that can almost pop commuters out of their seats.

Junkins can’t wait.

“I’ve been on trains in other cities — Atlanta and Seattle — and the trains run smooth. The delays are limited,” Junkins said. “Hopefully when this reconstruction is finished, things will be better. This is long overdue.’’

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