Commuting on the South Side changed fundamentally Monday. Yet at the same time, nothing changed.
CTA Red Line trains were absent from the median of the Dan Ryan Expressway for the first weekday since the south branch opened almost 44 years ago, except for a short disruption during the blizzard of 1979 and a two-day strike later that year, transit officials said.
But as a five-month, $425 million track replacement project began this week on the Red Line south, making transit connections to get to work or school on time and, above all, staying safe remain constant concerns for riders. To that end, the number of Chicago police officers and CTA employees wearing orange vests seemed to rival at times the number of commuters boarding and exiting free shuttle buses or waiting on rail platforms.
Still, some riders stressed out.
For Ed Houston it was about punching in not a minute later than 9 a.m.
"I got a boss, woo, man, he said you better be here on time,'' Houston, 48, a painter, said as he transferred from a rerouted Red Line train that he boarded at Ashland/63rd on the Green Line to a Green Line train at Garfield. His final destination was Oak Park.
"I've been late to work a couple of times because of the CTA," Houston said. "My boss, he said this (Red Line project) is not an exception. So I got to be there. I need my job.''
"But it's good today. Everything is running all right for the first day,'' added Houston, who said he left home a half-hour earlier than usual, just in case.
Other riders thought long and hard about their safety as they traveled unfamiliar routes.
Christopher Harris, a regular rider on the Red Line, said he was taking his first trip on the Green Line on Monday morning when he saw a thief rip an iPhone out of the hands of a seated passenger as the train stopped at the 51st Street station. The doors opened, and the thief bolted out of the train, pursued by the victim, who was later identified by police as a CTA employee. A Tribune reporter witnessed the theft and gave a description of it to police.
The thief entered the car through the emergency door from the adjacent car, Harris said.
"I saw him pull his shirt over his head, so I kept my cellphone hidden in my pocket because I knew he was up to something,'' said Harris, 41, who had just completed his shift at a rental car agency. "Seeing that shook me. I'm going to forget about taking the Green Line and catch the State Street bus the next time.''
Whether caused by fears about crime on trains or other reasons, the No. 29 State Street bus experienced higher-than-expected ridership Monday morning, CTA spokeswoman Tammy Chase said.
"We have added additional buses for tonight's rush and will have additional bus trips for morning and evening rush periods going forward,'' Chase said.
Overall, the first day went well, marked by no major problems with bus or train service, Chase said.
CTA facilities will also have enhanced police presence throughout the project, authorities said. The improvements include installation of real-time cameras at closed Red Line rail stations south of 63rd Street that are serving as shuttle bus stops for service to Garfield on the Green Line, officials said.
CTA officials on hand at the Garfield station Monday morning included the transit agency's president, board chairman, the heads of rail and bus operations, the safety and security chiefs, plus a few dozen customer assistants.
At times they seemed to compete against one another to help commuters, regardless of whether help was requested or needed.
Throughout the Red Line reconstruction, the Garfield station will serve as a transit hub for rerouted Red Line trains and shuttle buses traveling between nine closed Red Line stations. A shuttle bus turnaround has been built on a vacant lot next to the station.
"This is perhaps the most comprehensive alternative service program we've ever created," CTA spokeswoman Catherine Hosinski said. "We'll gradually throttle back.''
But CTA President Forrest Claypool insisted that although the high staffing levels and frequent recirculating of partially full shuttle buses from the closed Red Line stations may be overkill, there are no plans to scale back.
"We want to err throughout the project on the side of extra service," Claypool said.
As she waited for a Green Line train on the elevated platform of the Garfield station, rider Kay Wulf of Chicago's Hyde Park neighborhood said the crowd seemed to be only a little larger than usual.
"I thought it would be packed here today, and I was afraid I would have to change my plans and take the Metra (Electric Line) if it gets too crazy. But this is not bad,'' said Wulf, 49, an interior designer who works in the West Loop.
Claypool said Monday's alternate service plan "went smoothly and most customers had a fairly smooth time navigating the changes.''
Ridership numbers would not be available until Tuesday, officials said. On an average weekday, 80,000 rides are taken on the Dan Ryan branch of the Red Line.
One rider exiting a shuttle bus told Claypool that her trip from 95th Street to Garfield via the Dan Ryan took less time than when she rode the Red Line.
"It shows you how slow the old Red Line was,'' Claypool responded.
The CTA is assigning extra customer assistants at the closed Red Line stations during the first few weeks of the project because "we know there will be some glitches along the way,'' Claypool said.
Despite the CTA's informational outreach campaign and extensive media coverage about the Red Line shutdown that began at 2 a.m. Sunday, lifelong South Sider Beecham Collins was perplexed Monday by plywood boards that blocked the path to escalators leading to the 95th Street rail platform. A police officer clued him in.
"When I saw the station boarded up, I thought they were trying to shut down, period,'' Collins said.