The “L” or “El” Getting around Chicago on public transportation


The  “L” or “El”  –  In other big cities around the world, the core public train systems are known as subways, underground, metra rails, etc, with neat icon symbols marking their entrances.


Not so in Chicago. The main trains in the city are known as the CTA and are for the most part built on elevated tracks, hence the “L.” Finding the stations can be challenging – most are up long stairways, but some are underground.  The train routes are assigned a color, but be aware the trains can change color in route, especially in the Loop, such as jumping on a brown train which changes to orange at a later stop.  An announcement is usually made, so you need to  listen to them so you can get off and catch the route you want. (FYI – the Loop is the main business district in Chicago.)

cta steps

Knowing the color of your route is critical. To get to the right platform, you usually have to climb steps, know what color your route is and which end stop your heading towards – or to the Loop, which is exactly what it says, the train will loop around and go back with the end stop changing to its new destination.  Entrances are marked with the color of the line and end stop. For L platforms, the color/stop are on the stairs or on a sign overheard. For underground stops – it’s not as clear. You really need to know the color of your route like the Clybourn station shown below for the red line – and again don’t expect a nice CTA icon!

Last – do not confuse CTA “L” trains with Metra Trains. The CTA trains run every 8- 20 minutes, whereas the Metra trains going into the city from the suburbs, run on very set schedules. Metra trains are much nicer, so if you have a choice, such as getting to Chicago from Evanston – take the Metra. A big negative with public transportation in Chicago is that the only place to switch trains – regardless if it’s Metra or CTA is around the Loop. If you are trying to go from a west suburb to a north suburb – you have to go all the way into the city. If you want the blue line to O’hare – again into the Loop make the switch and then out. Most cities have more transfer stations – but not Chicago.

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